Immigration and Catholicism in the 1800s


The influx of millions of Irish and German Catholics altered notions of Catholicism formed by the presence of a small Catholic minority since the Colonial period.

Catholicism in America begins in the Colonial period. Maryland colony was founded as a haven for English Catholics. John Carroll, the first bishop and archbishop of the American Catholic Church was a cousin of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Until the 1830s, however, Catholics remained a very small minority within a Protestant-dominated society. This changed dramatically with Irish and German immigration and produced a virulent Protestant backlash that lasted throughout the century.

The Protestant View of Catholicism

Irish immigration patterns focused on the large urban centers of the Northeast in such cities as Boston and New York. At that time, Catholicism had been identified with the middle and southern states and the hierarchy of the church was tied to France. It was particularly unfortunate for immigrant Catholics that anti-Catholic feeling was strongest in New England where old Puritan fears were still strong.

Historian James Morone writes that common perceptions of Catholicism pointed to the notions that it was “bound to a foreign pope, bossed by a medieval clergy, and [was] blind to the Bible.” Catholicism was seen as authoritarian and incompatible with Democracy. Additionally, Catholicism was directly linked to the state-sponsored religions of Europe, the “Papal powers,” according to Page Smith.

Smith argues that “nothing tested the American system of constitutional government quite as severely as the immigrant Irish in the decades prior to the Civil War.” Further, it didn’t help matters that the American Catholic Church received financial support from European Catholic societies formed for the propagation of the faith.

Protestant Americans knew very little about Catholicism in general and tended to support stereotypes and rumors. In 1834, for example, a rumor circulated in Boston that nuns at an Ursuline convent in Charlestown were holding young women against their will. An angry mob descended on the convent and, though finding no women held by the nuns, burned the convent.

Catholic Views of Protestant America

Catholics frequently equated American Protestantism with the free market economic system that was helping to propel the first phase of industrialism prior to the Civil War. Mainline Protestant churches, while engaged in works of community charity, often failed to address the needs of the working classes and the indigent poor. Page Smith cites the prevalence of wealthy Protestant parishioners buying pews in their churches.

After the Civil War, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was divided over the “Americanization” of the church and the perpetuation of strict conservative practices. By 1899, the Pope issued an encyclical, Testem Benevolentia, which, in part, condemned the “doctrine of Americanism” as it related to changes in the church.

Political and Social Results of Anti-Catholicism

Nativist Americans strove to limit the role of Catholics in politics. In the mid-1850s, the “Know-Nothing” Party, strongest in the North, called for severe political limitations for Catholics. Although Catholics had held political offices in the past – Charles Carroll was the first United States Senator from Maryland and in 1836 Roger Taney, also from Maryland, was named Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, few Catholics aspired to high office during the 19th Century because of religious prejudices.

Catholic immigrants, notably the Irish, were seen as conformists unable to be fully assimilated into the American system. They built their own schools and colleges and settled in their own neighborhoods. This was different from German Catholic immigrants that tended to assimilate faster, but Germans also introduced mass beer consumption and Sunday recreation, two elements opposed by stalwart New England Congregationalists.

The influx of millions of Catholic immigrants in the 19th-Century added to the religious diversity of the United States despite fierce opposition and occasional violent actions. If, as James Morone writes, “patriotism and piety reinforced each other,” then the 20th Century would bring Catholicism into the mainstream of American Democracy and egalitarianism.


  1. Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made The American People (Little, Brown, and Company, 1973)
  2. James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (Yale University Press, 2003)
  3. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)