During Joseph Smith’s youth it is unlikely that he knew many or perhaps any, Catholics. The New England area was home to few Catholics in 1805, and they were an unappreciated minority. But during the first half of the 19th century, America began to experience a boom in Catholic population. This growth can be seen in the number of Catholic houses of worship following the war of 1812. Edwin Gaustad (Historical Atlas of Religion in America) provides some figures: in 1820 there were 124 such structures in the US, a comparatively tiny number even in church-poor America. By 1850, the number had grown to 1,221. Ten years later there were 2,550. From 1820-1860, this was nearly a 2000% increase in Catholic buildings, a doubling in the final decade. For comparison, Methodist houses of worship — the fastest growing Protestant denomination of the period — increased by about 600%. Congregational buildings increased by about 100%, representing the slowest growth rate among major Protestant groups (this is a little remarkable because the Congregational church was “established” in New England– i.e., had state support–for many years. The constitutional provision did not apply to the states). Immigrants were responsible for much of this growth and this was particularly true in terms of Irish immigration (in regard to Catholic growth).
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