Catholic Vs. Protestant Religions in Colonial Times

Protestant Pilgrims banned Catholics from the Plymouth Colony.
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America was hardly the land of the free for its early Catholic settlers. Several Protestant sects came to the New World seeking religious freedom, but they usually were not willing to extend that privilege to faiths other than their own. The English colonists' attitude toward Catholics ranged from toleration to absolute exclusion. This anti-Catholic sentiment prevailed in the British Colonies until after the American Revolution.

1 Protestants, Papists and Popery

The Protestant Reformation in Europe gave rise to suspicion of Roman Catholic practices and fear of the pope's power. "Papists" became a derogatory term for Catholics and "popery" was used to describe any religious practice resembling Catholicism. Anti-Catholic sentiments were particularly strong in England, which had broken with Rome in the 16th century, and British authorities enforced a policy of exclusion and suppression of English Catholics through the 17th and 18th centuries. Meanwhile as the colonists' sense of individuality and ideas of liberty developed in the 18th century, Catholicism, with its strict conformity and authoritarian structure under the pope, was disdained by Protestants who viewed the religion as one that enslaved its believers.

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2 The New England Colonies

Anti-Catholic sentiment landed in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies along with the first settlers. After all, the Puritans endeavored to "purify" the Anglican faith of its Catholic influences, and the Pilgrims of Plymouth sought complete separation from the Church of England. Catholics were banned from both colonies and in 1647, Massachusetts enacted a law threatening death to Catholic clergymen. Connecticut's mix of Puritans from Plymouth and Massachusetts also showed no tolerance to Catholics. Rhode Island, which was founded on religious tolerance, included civil restrictions on Catholics in its 1719 legal code.

3 The Middle Colonies

When England took control of New York from the Dutch in 1664, it agreed to continue the colony's religious tolerance of all faiths. This policy was abolished in 1688 by the Protestant and vehemently anti-Catholic lieutenant governor Jacob Leisler. The few Catholics in New Jersey were tolerated by the colony's various Protestant groups but were denied political rights until 1844. Maryland initially was chartered to a Catholic, but the colony's Catholic governance was eventually overthrown, first by Puritans and then by the Church of England. By 1692, Catholic worship in Maryland was severely restricted. Catholics fared better in Pennsylvania and Delaware under Quaker proprietor William Penn, who allowed them to worship freely, but adherence to English law effectively denied Catholics the right to hold office.

4 The Southern Colonies

The Anglican Church was the official church in the Virginia Colony. The colony eventually became home to other Protestant faiths, particularly evangelicals, but Catholic settlers and priests were proscribed as early as 1642. The few Catholics in the predominantly Anglican Carolina colonies worshiped in secret. In 1775, two Irish Catholic priests were tarred and feathered on suspicion of undermining the revolutionary cause. When the Georgia Colony was officially organized by the English in 1732, its charter guaranteed religious freedom to all Protestant religions but banned Catholics.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.