Early National Systems: Millennial Hopes, III (Catholics in America)

Catholics in America were Millennialists, not in name or official doctrine, but in other more fundamental ways. Should a visiting alien observe antebellum America’s religious practice, he/she/it would find rather interesting parallels among the practices of Protestant pre-millennialist sects, post-millennial socialism, and Roman Catholics. To be sure, Catholics were more staid, less free to experiment in some ways, but they didn’t shy from revival methodology, and centuries long Catholic practice could be seen in double exposure among various American Millennialist offshoots, including Shakers, Owenites, Albert Brisbane, and others.

Catholics, in long established tradition, officially stood for the second coming of Jesus as a spiritual event, not to be connected with some messianic thousand year paradise, anticipating in some paradoxical ways the rescue by Seventh Day Adventism of the Millerite movement. Roman Catholic doctrine found, via Augustine, for an entirely allegorical book of Revelation, and if the world were to end in fire, it would be an event outside the realm of biblical prophecy, the Parousia was over and done with. But that ignored a popular tradition of chiliasm among early Christians that extended well into the Reformation period. But theologically, Catholics lacked any sense of urgency common among pre-millennialists in America (including Mormons). Catholics did not champion any American Exceptionalism when it came to the Puritan tradition of America as some reincarnation of Israel and exemplars of divine favor to the world. Catholics had no truck with the American post-millennial interpretation of institutional and innovative progress. Partly this may be seen as response to Protestant identification of Roman Catholicism as the Whore of All The Earth, the Pope as cardsharp partner with Satan, and that its fall was an event that was a prelude to the thousand year utopia.

Liberalism and Protestantism combined to recoil at evident Catholic progress in the United States. Catholics were not idle in the role of mission work. Religious orders established schools and colleges, held public religious debates, and used what many Protestants saw as a seductive power of art, architecture and holy space to gain converts from low church America. While Catholic population grew mainly through immigration, conversion was not insignificant (58,000 during 1830-1860) and that success was not confined to the working class. Prominent figures in religion and other fields made the leap.

Protestants took up the challenge of high church worship to the extent that by 1850 many had begun to argue for prior forbidden imagery like the cross, and the incorporation of organ accompanied choirs in church in leu of minister and congregational chants, tunes, and hymns. Gothic architecture appeared in larger East Coast cities in Protestant cathedrals. They founded competing educational institutions. In another sense then, aside from any Catholic grass roots sympathies with a Jacksonian American vision, Catholic institutions served as catalysts for American improvement and to some degree, an unwilling convergence among Christians in America.

Catholics in the southern states enjoyed wider acceptance and cooperative help than in the north. Probably two forces were at work: much smaller immigrant loads and Catholic southerners’ support of slavery in ideology or at least silence. Pope Gregory’s 1839 encyclical on the moral hazards of slavery was unsettling, but John England, bishop of Charleston wrote to Van Buren’s secretary of state that Catholic theology justified the existence of slaves and that Catholics were not to be identified as abolitionists. Attitudes among Protestants were largely registered when England died in 1842. There was remarkably general lament. Church bells tolled, flags flew at half mast, newspapers editorialized.

Other Protestant responses to Catholic growth in America were frequently unpleasant and barbaric. The “Native American” movement of Samuel Morse (think: Morse Code) sought to draw lines of exclusion between Catholic America and “Real” Americans. In that period, Native American meant whites born in the United States, not American Indians. Morse and others were reacting to what they saw as a resurgence of imperial European influence in the robes of Jesuit priests who seemed to represent the features of monarchical countries America was destined to bring down in its export of democratic ways. Fears that Catholic immigration and growth was a deliberate attempt (a feeling partially justified by some European Catholic missionary fundraising banners) to subvert American institutions of freedom, flared up in violent attacks on Catholic properties and to some extent, persons in the 1830s and 40s.

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2 Responses to Early National Systems: Millennial Hopes, III (Catholics in America)

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I’m enjoying this , WVS. I must admit having little exposure to Catholic millennial hopes, as you say. I have bumped into a few little communitarian groups that have started wheels turning, but only very cursorily.

  2. WVS says:

    J., I’d be interested in learning of more Catholic groups that drifted toward a belief in a temporal second coming.

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