Catholics During the American Revolution

Old Saint Mary’s, Philadelphia    Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Archdiocese Historical Research Center at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary,

The roots of Anti-Catholicism in the American colonies have its primary roots in the Protestant Reformation and in principle are grounded by the Act of Supremacy of King Henry VIII in 1534. However the landing of English settlers at Cape Henry and the subsequent foundation of the Jamestown settlement in April, 1607 provided the early colonists with the first precepts of religious establishment based on the Anglican Church of England.2 With this settlement the story of Anti-Catholic sentiments becomes part of the settler’s legislative and daily routines. Roman Catholicism is officially outlawed, but is in most instances tolerated in the newly formed Jamestown and the remainder of the British colonies. There were some exceptions when the colonial legislatures relaxed the prohibitions against Catholics, especially in the colonies of Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania.
The initial sentiments developed against Catholics were the influx of the Puritan sect in New England. Their relationship against Catholics in colonial America is perhaps best summarized as the apotheosis of Protestant prejudice against Catholicism.3 The Puritan government enacted an anti-priest law in May of 1647.
“…death for all and every Jesuit, seminary priest, missionary or other ecclesiastical person made or ordained by any authority, power or jurisdiction, derived, challenged or pretended, from the Pope or the See of Rome.”4
Georgia, the thirteenth colony was established by royal charter under George II allowed full religious freedom in the colony,” except papists,” the common term to describe Catholics during the period.5
Rhode Island, considered an exception regarding the ease of its religious toleration laws, regulated Catholics and their rights in the legal codes of the colony in 1719, and were not repealed until after 1783.6
2 Paul Rasor and Richard E.Bond From Jamestown to Jefferson (Charlottesville, Virginia: 2011) pps.2-3 Introductory remarks of the author.
3 Stanley Katz and John Murim, “The Ideology of English Colonization from Ireland to America,” Colonial America, Essays in Political and Social Development (New York: 1983) pps 47-68.
4 Sister Mary Augusta Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism in the Eighteenth Century (New York 1936)
5 Francis Curran S.J., Catholics in Colonial Law (Chicago:1963) p.54
Catholics During the American Revolution 5
Maryland was a colony that experimented with religious tolerance. When the colony was established there was a general acceptance of Christian believers. That policy was in effect until Maryland’s Religious Toleration Act was terminated in 1692. After this act’s conclusion, there were restrictions imposed on Catholic worship, the most severe penalty was that priests could be imprisoned for celebrating Mass. Catholics in the Maryland colony were also prohibited from any participation in public office, voting or even technically from owning land.7
Catholics in the colony of New York fared little better than other colonies. They were subjected to rumors of “papist plots,” that speculated colonists in New York were conspiring with French Canadians to overtake the English colony. In 1688, the royal Governor of New York issued orders for the immediate arrest of papists,” and abolished all civil liberties for Catholics.8 The 20thcentury Catholic Church historian, Father John Tracy Ellis stated that the restrictions on Catholics during this period were so severe, “that it is doubtful if any (Catholics) remained in New York.”9
Religious liberty did however receive a great degree of latitude in William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania. Catholics in this colony perhaps enjoyed the greatest freedoms in order that they might celebrate their faith from William Penn’s great avocation of the liberty of conscience and religious principles. Up until the 1689 Tolerance Act, Catholics were considered foreign powers, loyal to the Pope and were barred from public office. More restrictive legislation came in Pennsylvania after 1700.
However, Catholics were generally permitted to practice their faith clandestinely throughout the colony. In 1757 a census taken cites the number of Catholics in Pennsylvania at 1365. At the time the entire Colony had
6 Patrick Conley and Matthew Smith, Catholicism in Rhode Island, the Formative Era,(Providence:1976)pps.7-9
7 John Tracy Ellis, Catholics in Colonial America,(Baltimore,Dublin:1965)pps.315-359
8 Ibid.pps344-46,367
9 Ibid.,p.363
Catholics During the American Revolution

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Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that reflects on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at , . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
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