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July, 2019

History Professor Explores ‘Catholic Conspiracy’ in Early America

By Lisa Carroll

  Owen Stanwood, assistant professor of history, is working on a book on how anti-Catholicism shaped early American history.

In 1694, nine English settlers and slaves were slaughtered on a plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. When neighbors happened upon the carnage, county court records show their first instinct was not to blame Native Americans for the killings, but rather Catholics.

While a doctoral student at Northwestern University, Owen Stanwood was researching a project on enslaved Indians in colonial Virginia when he came across the record of the attack.

“When I first read this, I had no sense that anti-Catholicism was an important topic in early America,” says Stanwood, now an assistant professor of history at Catholic University. “I assumed that if early Americans were afraid of someone, they were afraid of Indians. That would seem so much more natural since it’s what we learn about American history. But here they were saying, No, the Catholics were worse than Indians.”

From this research came the idea for Stanwood’s upcoming book, tentatively titled “Popish Plots and Imperial Designs: The Making of British America, 1678-1700.” Since September, Stanwood has been aided in his research and writing of the book by a fellowship from the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. In May he’ll begin a two-month fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he’ll spend his time reading anti-Catholic rhetoric from 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century England. His book is currently scheduled to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2010.

In the book, Stanwood will attempt to explain how the people and colonies of early America unified because of the fear of Catholicism. “In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, people in the colonies, like Protestants everywhere, became extremely fearful of a massive popish plot against them,” Stanwood explains.

At this time, King Louis XIV of France was trying to expand the French empire and intermittent wars were breaking out between the French and English in North America as well as in Europe. Louis XIV tried to force French Protestants to convert to Catholicism and ordered the destruction of their churches. Some Protestants in both England and America feared the Catholic king intended to build a “Catholic universal monarchy,” according to the professor.

Protestants held many prominent leadership positions in the colonies and used the fear of a Catholic “takeover” to address divisions within the Protestant religion.

During the 17th century, English Protestants were split over fundamental ecclesiastical issues. One side advocated a church that looked like Catholicism in terms of ceremonies and church architecture, but with the king in the place of the pope. The other, more radical, side thought Protestants should shed all signs of their Catholic roots, including the church hierarchy of the bishops and the king. The first group accused the more radical churchmen of undermining royal government, which could ultimately threaten the Protestant cause. As a result, both sides accused the other of “acting Catholic,” says the professor.

Stanwood compares the anti-Catholic hysteria to the fear of communism during the Cold War. “‘Catholic’ was a word that had a lot of emotional resonance in that society,” he says.

“When I started doing this project, I thought the language was an example of prejudice against Catholics, but it wasn’t always the case. There was prejudice against Catholics but that seemed to be very separate from the language of anti-popery as used by Protestants against other Protestants.”

To prove that anti-Catholic sentiment did not always imply fighting against Catholics and Catholicism, Stanwood points out that Puritan minister Increase Mather worked with the Catholic King James II of England on religious toleration and reform in New England.

With the advent of what has been dubbed the Glorious Revolution — in which King James II was overthrown by the Protestant monarchs William and Mary in 1688 — came copycat rebellions in which some American colonists threw out their colonial governments and replaced them with leaders who adhered to the more radical type of Protestantism.

With the emergence of Catholic France as a growing threat to Protestantism and England’s power, the anti-Catholic rhetoric in the colonies shifted from a language of intra-Protestant confrontation to one of unity, according to the professor. Protestants who had bickered amongst themselves came together against the common French enemy. The colonies, which were previously isolated and fairly independent from outside authority, became more explicitly attached to the government of England.

“Colonists saw themselves not simply as English subjects but as partners in an international Protestant brotherhood, fighting against a resurgent Catholic enemy,” Stanwood writes in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of British Studies.

The threat from France and Catholicism “really galvanized the colonists and made them cognizant of the value of being part of the [English] empire,” he explains.

While still working on his current book, Stanwood already has ideas about what may come next. He would like to examine the intersection of trade and religion in the 17th and 18th centuries by conducting a biographical study of two Scottish brothers, one a merchant and one a minister.

By doing business with other countries, “merchants really pave the way for ministers to travel [to those countries] and create religious networks. And," he muses, "I wonder if merchants of that period saw what they were doing in religious terms as well.”


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