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Roman Catholics In The English Colonies

Roman Catholics In The English Colonies


The English colonies afforded, on the whole, but little encouragement to Roman Catholic immigration. The barrier which they raised was only less effective against Romanists than that which was set up against Protestants in the Spanish and French domains. Most of the colonies which provided otherwise for a general tolerance had in their charters or laws an excepting clause against the members of the Papal Church. Pennsylvania allowed a fair measure of tolerance in practice, though the pressure of the English government seems to have secured on her statute-book a discrimination against Roman Catholics. Rhode Island for a considerable interval had no law against the practice of the Roman Catholic religion, and the disabling clause which was included in her statutes at a later date, to meet probably some special exigency in English politics, is not known to have had any practical effect.

1 Arnold contends that the disabling clause was not adopted by any formal vote, but was interpolated by the committee employed in collecting the statutes, probably in the year 1699. He concedes, however, that in the subsequent action of the Rhode Island Legislature it received a species of recognition. (History of the State of Rhode Island, ii. 490-497.)
On the side of proscription, the acme of severity was realized by enactments of Massachusetts and New York in 1647 and 1700 respectively. In the one case it was ordered that any "Jesuit, or spiritual or ecclesiastical person ordained by the authority of the Pope of the See of Rome," should be required to leave the colony, and on his return, except by reason of shipwreck or in the character of an ambassador, should be hanged. In the other case it was decreed that Romish priests voluntarily entering the colony should he liable to hanging.
1 This law, it is said, was due rather to the urgency of the English Governor, Bellomont, than to the temper of the legislature. It is to be remembered, too, that New York at that time apprehended danger from her Roman Catholic neighbors in Canada. If the danger was not real, it was owing to the lack of adequate power in the field rather than to the purposes of the French government. No farther back than 1689, as Count Frontenac was about to resume the direction of affairs in Canada, Louis XIV. had set forth such particulars as the following, respecting the treatment of the colonists whom he was expecting to conquer: "If any Catholics were found in New York, they might be left undisturbed, provided that they take an oath of allegiance to the King. Officers and other persons who had the means of paying ransoms were to be thrown into prison. All lands in the colony, except those of Catholics swearing allegiance, were to be taken from their owners, and granted under a feudal tenure to French officers and soldiers. . . . Mechanics and other workmen might, at the discretion of the commending officer, be kept as prisoners to work at fortifications and do other labor. The rest of the English and Dutch inhabitants, men, women, and children, were to be carried out of the colony and dispersed in New England, Pennsylvania, or other pieces, in such manner that they could not combine in any attempt to recover their property and their country. And, that the conquest might be perfectly secure, the nearest settlements of New England were to be destroyed, and those more remote laid under contribution." (Parkman, Count Frontenac and New France, p. 189.)
In neither instance, so far as we are aware, did the intolerant legislation give rise to any martyrdom.
1 It is recorded that in the panic resulting from a supposed Negro plot in New York (1741), one who may have been a priest was hanged. But his execution, though in all probability a gross injustice, was based on alleged complicity with a scheme of murder and rapine.


In the preceding paragraph no account has been taken of Maryland, since its peculiar relation to Roman Catholic immigration requires a special consideration. The more important points concern three assumptions which until recently have been commonly entertained: (1) that a foremost interest with Lord Baltimore was to provide in Maryland a refuge for Roman Catholics; (2) that the colony of Maryland was in its first stages predominantly Roman Catholic; (3) that special honor is due to a Roman Catholic legislature for having passed the act of tolerance in 1649.


In considering the first assumption it is not necessary to examine into the spirit and designs of George Calvert, or the first Lord Baltimore, since it was under his son Cecilius that the project of colonization was carried out. This being understood, the assumption cannot be admitted without large abatement. Had it been a leading object with Lord Baltimore to provide an asylum for Roman Catholics he would naturally have taken pains to fill up his colony with the adherents of his own faith. But it cannot be shown that he did this. Supposing that at the start he was not able to control the matter, it was certainly a voluntary act of his, when nine or ten years later he invited the Puritans of Massachusetts to settle in Maryland. Why extend such an invitation? Did he think that the Puritans were so kindly in their feelings toward Romanism that their presence in large numbers would give security in Maryland to those professing the Romish religion? No, Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, was a man of sober business instincts. The maintenance of his proprietary right and the development of his principality, so as to make it financially profitable, were his foremost objects. He was not in any emphatic sense a philanthropist; the invited Puritans were not in special need of his commiseration. Still less was he a religious zealot. Doubtless he wished to favor his co-religionists; but he would not do it at too great expense. He put a check upon the Jesuit missionaries, and informed them that they could not expect special rights and exemptions when he found that their course was prejudicing his relation with the home government. In the time of the Commonwealth he pushed his policy of worldly prudence so far as to ask consideration for his claims on the ground that Maryland had showed a less stubborn attachment to the cause of the Stuarts than the neighboring colony of Virginia, though he could not have forgotten that it was to the Stuarts that he owed his dignity and estates. In this there was certainly more of calculation than of magnanimity. On the whole, we see in the Proprietary of Maryland a man of poise and moderation, calculating, watchful of his own interest, tolerant it may be from conviction, but certainly knowing well that tolerance was for his material interest in filling up his colony, and scarcely less than a necessity in maintaining his proprietary standing. That a Roman Catholic courtier should hold, under a Protestant government, such a stretch of privilege was enough by itself to provoke scrutiny in an age of intense religious jealousies. Any rumor that he was using the privilege to the serious discomfiture of Protestants would speedily have brought a tempest about his ears. For Lord Baltimore to attempt to impose disabilities on Protestants in Maryland would have been about the same madness as for De Monts to persecute Roman Catholics at Port Royal. In fact, his charter obligated him not to give an exclusive right or even a preferred place to the Roman Catholic religion, since it stipulated that churches should be consecrated according to the ecclesiastical laws of England.


The second assumption seems to have flowed mainly from the fact that the Proprietary was a Roman Catholic, and that, besides the Jesuit missionaries whom he sent out, there were no clergymen in the colony during the early part of its history. As for these grounds of judgment, it is evident that the first must yield to any positive evidence. The second can also be shown to be intrinsically weak. Any one who remembers that Carolina was for years without any ministerial supply, though proprietors and colonists were both Protestants, will not think it remarkable that no Protestant ministers were introduced into Maryland, where the ruling head was a Roman Catholic. The lack of ministers might be sufficiently explained by the supposition that no adequate authority interested itself in the matter. This item, then, in no wise proves that Protestants were not from the first a large element in Maryland. That they were a majority is clearly indicated by several contemporary testimonies. The following three we think will be found entirely adequate to establish our conclusion: (1) Father White, one of the Jesuit missionaries who sailed with the colony, in his narrative of the voyage written near the end of 1634, says that the distribution of wine on a festival occasion was followed by sickness on the part of those who indulged too freely; and that "about twelve died, among whom were two Catholics." 1 Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, edited by Henry Foley, iii. 345. These statistics indicate that the Protestants on board ship were the more numerous, unless perchance they were less used to wine than their Romish brethren or partook more freely. (2) A list of twenty propositions of canon law, emanating probably from Father White, was submitted by the English Provincial to the Propaganda at Rome. In the explanatory communication which the Provincial sent with the propositions this statement occurs: "In a country like this, newly planted, and depending wholly upon England for subsistence, where there is not (nor can be until England is reunited to the Church) any ecclesiastical discipline established by laws of the province, or granted by the Prince, nor provincial synod held, nor spiritual courts created, nor the canon laws accepted, nor ordinary or other ecclesiastical persons admitted (as such), nor the Catholic religion publicly allowed; and whereas three parts of the people or four, at least, are heretics, I desire to be resolved" 1 Records of the English Province, iii. 362. [on the sub-joined list of questions). (3) Not long after the preceding communication, another was sent to the Propaganda, about the year 1642, by the Vice-Provincial of the Jesuits in England. Maryland at that time, during the temporary absence of the governor, Leonard Calvert, was under the charge of the Secretary Leugar, then a Roman Catholic, but having received his early education among Protestants. The Vice-Provincial, having recounted the main facts respecting the founding of the colony, and the sending out of the Jesuit missionaries for the conversion of heretics and natives, proceeds as follows: "The affair was surrounded with heavy and many difficulties, for in leading the colony to Maryland, by far the greater part were heretics, the country itself, a meridie Virginiœ ab aquilone, is esteemed likewise to be a New England, that is, two provinces full of English Calvinists and Puritans; so that not less, nay, perhaps greater dangers threaten our fathers in a foreign, than in their native land of England. Nor is the baron himself able to find support for the fathers, nor can they expect sustenance from heretics hostile to the faith, nor from Catholics for the most part poor, nor from savages, who live after the manner of wild beasts." 2 Ibid, iii. 363, 364. Evidently, if these Jesuit correspondents are to be counted trustworthy, it must be concluded that the colony in Maryland never was preponderantly Roman Catholic.


In the light of the foregoing conclusion, there is little occasion to deal specifically with the third assumption. Surely it would be a small consolation to a Roman Catholic to be able to prove that a majority in the assembly of 1649 were Roman Catholics. Finding indubitable evidence that the Protestants were then a large majority of the people, learning moreover, that an assembly held several years before contained a majority of Protestants,

1 This fact appears in the letter quoted above. Complaining of Secretary Leugar as narrowing the privileges of the Romish Church, the Vice-Provincial says: "The Secretary, having summoned the Assembly in Maryland, composed with few exceptions of heretics and presided over by himself, attempted to pass the following laws repugnant to the Catholic faith and ecclesiastical immunities that no virgin can inherit unless she be twenty-nine years of age; that no ecclesiastic shall be summoned in any cause, civil or criminal, before any other than a secular judge," etc. (p. 365).
as did also that of 1650, 2 E. D. Neill, Founders of Maryland, pp. 122, 123; W. T. Brantly, in Critical and Narrative History of America, vol. iii. "he must own that the act of tolerance passed in 1649 was clearly a safeguard for Roman Catholic worship and citizenship. No excessive credit, therefore, is due to Romish legislators for voting such an act, supposing its passage depended simply on them,-- a conclusion not wholly free from doubt.
3 It is known that the Governor and half of his council were Protestants. If the council sat as a separate house, it lay in the discretion of Protestants to accept or to reject the act. What proportion of the burgesses were Protestant is not fully determined.
On the other hand, the Protestant members of the Assembly cannot be praised very greatly, unless it be concluded that they were better and wiser than their successors, who in after times disfranchised the Roman Catholics in Maryland. Probably the pleasure of the Governor and the Proprietary was quite as influential with them as an intelligent love for tolerance, as respects the compass of the act of tolerance, it was drawn in very broad and generous terms for Trinitarian Christians; for Jews and Unitarians, on the contrary, it bespoke very scant charity, making them liable to capital punishment for any declaration of their special tenets.


The act of toleration was renewed in 1676. But the Revolution of 1689 brought an unhappy change to the Roman Catholic minority. Through a large part of the next century they were restricted in the public exercise of their religion and placed under political disabilities.


The Revolutionary War was an era of emancipation for Roman Catholics, though still at its close the statute-books in a few of the States did not concede to them the right to hold political offices. It has been estimated that they numbered in 1783 about sixteen thousand in Maryland, seven thousand in Pennsylvania, fifteen hundred in the other States, and about four thousand in the western territories on the Ohio and the Mississippi, which at this time were ceded by Great Britain. 1 De Courcey and Shea, History of the Catholic Church in the United States, pp. 53, 54.


The organization of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in this country dates from the year 1789, when the Pope authorized the erection of the episcopal see of Baltimore. The first bishop, John Carroll, belonged to a Maryland family which took an honored part in the struggle for nationality, and is justly remembered himself as a man of culture, discretion, and ability.

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