Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835-1860

By Crowther, Edward R. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835-1860


Crowther, Edward R., The Catholic Historical Review


Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835-1860. By W Jason Wallace. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 2010. Pp. xii, 200. $30.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-268-04421-3.)

Due to their increasing numbers, Catholics became threatening to the Protestant-dominated United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Animated by the Irish Potato Famine and the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, many European Catholics had fled to a largely unwelcoming United States, swelling the ranks of U.S. Catholics into a visible minority. W Jason Wallace's fine monograph- drawn from the antebellum religious press, books, and sermon literature- explores the significance of this infusion of Irish, German, and French Catholics in the cauldron of American Protestantism after the Second Great Awakening. Set against the backdrop of the sectional discord involving slavery and competing visions of nascent nationalism, this increasingly vocal Catholic presence helped shape the antebellum debate over God and country. For the New England Protestants, Catholics and slaveholders became the dreaded other- threats to a millennial vision of a righteous, free-labor, Constitutional Republic. In defending themselves against Protestant assaults, Catholic apologists appeared to support Southern Evangelicalism's understanding of the Bible and social relations. In reality, the Catholic defense constituted more of a critique of the loose, subjective theology of much of the "Benevolent Empire," rather than an affirmative defense of slavery.

Catalyzed by a belief that the self-evident principles of the Declaration of Independence found fullest expression in its view of constitutional government and that its reformed Calvinism constituted the purest soteriology, antebellum New England Protestantism imagined itself as the de facto national church. Although Catholicism represented an ecclesiastical threat, it was its alleged ties to papal hierarchy and European despotism that invited the ire of Protestant writers and preachers. Furthermore, Protestantism considered Catholicism a relic of the social, economic, and political order of the Middle Ages, rather than an expression of moral and material progress represented by the antebellum United States. …

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