Catholic/Muslim
The intention of the Know-Nothing Party was to curb the Catholic population—which required keeping the Irish, Polish, Italians, and half the Germans from emigrating. Image: New York Times.

Definitely not. The original American Dream didn’t include “Romish” or “Popish” adherents. In pre-colonial times, of course, a strong Catholic presence seemed likely. Of the three powers claiming New World territory, Spain was officially Catholic, with church and state operating in unison. Spanish regions such as Florida, Texas, the Southwest, and California were colonized by soldiers and missionized by priests almost seamlessly. France also exported Catholicism by means of Jesuit missionaries throughout the Louisiana Territory. 

However, the English presence in the Northeast assumed control of the American narrative in generations leading up to the Revolution. The Mayflower and subsequent ships brought all manner of Christian sects seeking freedom from the Catholic influence. Except for Maryland, the colonies were decidedly Protestant.

British law left its mark on the colonies. Public Mass was forbidden. So were Catholic schools. Catholics in Maryland were obliged to send their children to Europe for an education, since local schools were predominantly run by ministers whose biases were expressed in classroom worship and the curriculum. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington had to request special permission to permit Lafayette and his men access to priestly ministry. After independence was declared, only one Catholic signature was affixed to the document: Charles Carroll, whose brother John would become the first U.S. bishop.

Opposition didn’t disappear after the new country was launched. The Know-Nothing Party was a secret society established a half-century later. Adherents received their peculiar name for their refusal to admit any knowledge of their organization. Their intention was to curb the Catholic population—which required keeping the Irish, Polish, Italians, and half the Germans from emigrating. They lobbied for a 21-year ban on immigration. Members were responsible for church, rectory, and convent burnings, and published scandalous accusations against church leaders. They also launched a presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, in 1856. The Know-Nothing Party was replaced by the American Protective Association, which pledged to keep Catholics out of elected office, to curtail immigration, and to lengthen the period before naturalization. At its height, the APA had more than a million members and was influential until 1911.

Scriptures: Leviticus 33-34; Exodus 15:15; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Job 31:19-22; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Malachi 3:5; Matthew 25:31-46

Books: The American Catholic Experience – Jay P. Dolan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985)

American Catholicism – John Tracy Ellis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

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