Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A "Traiterous Religion": Indulgences and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Eighteenth-Century New England

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A "Traiterous Religion": Indulgences and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Eighteenth-Century New England

Article excerpt

Anti-Catholicism, or antipopery, was one of the broadest and deepest cultural biases in the early-modern English-speaking world. Eighteenth-century New England, in particular, evinced a strong concern with and opposition to imagined Catholic teaching regarding indulgences, believed by many Protestants of the period to mean license to commit sin in advance. This perception informed many aspects of anti-Catholic legislation, history, and literature prior to the American Revolution. These perceptions, inseparable from emerging tropes of the Protestant Reformation as they developed in early-modern England, also provide a key to understanding Protestant apprehensions and fears about unrestricted Catholic religious practice and participation in civic life during the colonial period and into the early republic.

Keywords: Anti-Catholicism; indulgences; popery; print culture

The religious milieu of the early-modern British Atlantic world was more notable for its ever-shifting complexity and divisiveness than anything else. However, one issue-opposition to Roman Catholicism-united the vast majority of the era's English-speaking Protestants. After King Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s, anti-Catholicism, or "antipopery," became the single banner under which English Protestants could rally.1 For these Protestants, Catholicism was not even a religion at all, but a form of spiritual and intellectual "slavery" that was the antithesis of their free, rational, and pure religion. Enlisted consistently over a long period often for quite different reasons, antipopery was expressed in an astonishingly diverse array of venues, from political, legal, historical, and theological publications to sermons, street performances, popular festivals, and even everyday material objects. Recent scholarship has emphasized that although antipopery was a form of bigotry and prejudice (interestingly, these very nouns were used as synonyms for Catholicism), it possessed an interior logic of its own.This logic was expressed through a rhetoric of antipopery that was, for early-modern Britons and their colonial American compatriots, a coherent "vocabulary," as Francis Cogliano has argued, which gave meaning to the world in which they lived.2

However, the fears and anxieties behind much British antipopish ideology have yet to be adequately explored and its language properly deconstructed, especially in its colonial American context. As Cogliano and others have rightly implied, cultural constructs such as antipopery cannot be dismissed due to a perceived lack of serious ide- ological content simply because they were prejudicial or bore little connection to reality in terms of the fears they expressed. With this in view, this article explores a range of anti-Catholic sermons, religious tracts, fiction, histories, and political polemics, especially as they invoke one of the most prominent concepts in the rhetoric of early- modern antipopery: Catholic belief in the doctrine of indulgences, which was intertwined with the idea that Catholics, in the phrase of the day, did not "keep faith with heretics." It is argued in this article that this idea and its role in early-modern British publications were deeply rooted in the collective English Protestant imagination's per- ception of Catholic belief and practice, inseparable from emerging historical tropes of the Protestant Reformation as they developed in the early-modern British Atlantic World, particularly in New England, which is the main focus of this study. In addition, the article also seeks to offer a more precise lens through which to make sense of the Protestant majority's fears about indulgences and Catholicism during the eighteenth century-especially in places further removed from the imperial center in London such as New England, where antipop- ery was an essential part of the cultural fabric since its Puritan and Separatist beginnings. Although screeds against indulgences were common in anti-Catholic literature along with warnings about the "delusions and dangers" regarding popish "priestcraft" (such as con- fession, relics, Eucharistie devotion, and holy water), fears about indul- gences occupy a particularly significant place. …

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