Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
Writing American Catholic History

Margaret M. McGuinness and James T. Fisher

Historians have—until recently—followed a rather standard chronology when recounting the story of Catholicism in the United States. The narrative began by retracing the trail of Franciscan missionaries in the sixteenth-century Southwest—which was blazed prior to the arrival of Anglo-Protestants along the Eastern Seaboard—and moved on to Jesuits in New France (Canada) early in the following century. These historical accounts drew on primary sources originally intended to record the Catholic encounter with Native American peoples and their environment, including the astounding reports filed by Jesuits in Canada to their religious superiors in France, which constitute some of the earliest works of American literature, anthropology, and theology and offer an alternative New World “creation narrative,” with the Upper Midwest and Mississippi Valley playing the role the Atlantic Coast colonies later fulfilled for British Protestants.1 The forcibly diminished French and Spanish presences within the future United States of America consigned their legacies to the shadow side of the new nation’s history, but Catholicism itself became a visible presence in the new nation, often serving as a live object of ambivalence among nineteenth-century Protestants.

By 1850 Catholicism was the largest religious denomination in the United States; so it remains to this day. American Protestant Christianity has always boasted a substantial aggregate majority of religious adherents, but Protestantism was broken into so many movements by the mid-nineteenth century that no single Protestant group equaled in size the nation’s Catholic populace. Roughly 12 percent of the U.S. total by 1850, Catholicism’s “market share” of the nation’s believers would double by 1900.

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