Roman Catholic Church

European Background and Non-English Settlement

European colonization began against the backdrop of medieval Christendom’s fragmentation. Inaugurated by Martin Luther’s promulgation of his Ninetyfive Theses in 1517, the Protestant Reformation challenged Roman Catholic theology, liturgy, piety, and ecclesiology across a wide front. From Protestants’ fundamental principles of solafideism (sinners are judged by their faith alone, not for any merit accruing to their deeds) and sola scriptura (the Bible is the only authority for salvation) derived two important corollaries: The priesthood is neither a superior order nor a requisite means for salvation, since individuals guided by Scripture have access to God without clerical mediation, and most Catholic ceremonial practice is false, because it lacks biblical sanction. Protestants themselves were divided on many issues, such as how much power to accord the laity in running the church and the state in overseeing it. Those known as Reformed Protestants (or Calvinists, after the leading theologian John Calvin) were more willing than were Lutherans to grant the male laity substantial authority in exercising discipline over their congregations and to assert the church’s independence from state control in all matters pertaining to theology and worship. Calvinists also declared that magistrates wield power by God’s authority and have an obligation to protect the true church, for which duties the people owe them full obedience except when they transgress divine law, in which case God ordains their overthrow. The Protestant Reformation galvanized the Roman Catholic Church to address the conditions that had precipitated schism. Although affirming traditional dogmas, the Catholic Church sought to improve the clergy’s education and heighten the importance of individual (as opposed to collective) devotions; it also launched a number of new clerical orders, most notably the Jesuits, dedicated to rolling back Protestantism.

European Religions, North America, 1750. The above map shows the various Christian (and Jewish) sects in the thirteen colonies in 1750. This diversity reveals one of the primary reasons the founders of the American republic decided against the establishment of a state religion. (Carto-Graphics) By 1600 the eve of Europe’s permanent settlement of North America the Catholic Church had stabilized its control over much of the Continent, while Protestants appeared more frequently the farther north and northwest one went. This latitudinal religious topography combined with a longitudinal economic and racial one colonizing was a western European activity and with a general theory concerning the relationship between religion and the state to shape the contest for the New World. Since the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as its official faith in the fourth century, convention held that a state should prescribe religious uniformity, for to countenance multiple beliefs invited political and social discord. Spain’s national church was Catholic, as was France’s (although a Protestant minority, the Huguenots, fortified towns along the Atlantic Coast), while the United Provinces (the Netherlands) embraced Reformed Protestantism, and England developed a Protestant Episcopal church. Where these powers were successful in establishing settlements would profoundly influence North America’s religious geography. Attempting to protect the wealth of Mexico and Central America, the Spanish flung outposts across the northern extremities of their American empire in an arc running through modern Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The church participated integrally in the Spanish scheme to conquer and convert the native peoples. Hence, in the Borderlands, where remote, impoverished garrisons attracted few colonials, it characteristically took the form of missions staffed by members of the Franciscan order who ministered to native peoples, rather than parishes occupied by secular priests who served European Americans. Mission compounds (doctrinas) centered about a sanctuary, surrounded by outbuildings, fortifications, and natives’ fields. Spanish colonization expropriated native labor whenever possible. While the church often succeeded in mitigating the worst exploitation, the missions themselves depended on it. The Spanish launched three major campaigns in the Borderlands. In northern New Mexico, as early as 1630, twenty-five missions included 25,000 30,000 Pueblo peoples. In Florida, two lines of doctrinas one running north along the Atlantic coast, the second reaching west toward the Panhandle reached perhaps 60,000 people by 1634. And in California, as a result of a campaign initiated in 1769, total conversions reached perhaps 100,000. In the long run, however, the devastation of native populations by epidemic disease, aggression by European and indigenous foes, and resistance by the mission Native Americans themselves diminished Catholicism’s presence in the region. The Timucuan Revolt of 1656 weakened the central Florida missions; fifty years later, the English, with their Creek allies, collapsed the entire system. The California missions disappeared when Americans swarmed into the territory in the mid-nineteenth century.

Only in New Mexico and only after the Spanish had suppressed the Pueblo Revolt, which expelled them from the region between 1680 and 1692 did the missions establish a lasting group of Catholic indigenes. With the exception of Maryland, Catholicism came of age in the United States only in the nineteenth century, long after Protestantism had established the cultural ground rules. In New France, parishes of European American Catholics arose alongside but ecclesiastically, politically, and culturally segregated from Native American churches. Proselytizing the native peoples was a major goal in New France, especially after Cardinal Richelieu, head of the Royal Council of State, reorganized the faltering colony in 1627. But because neither the Crown nor the mercantile companies that promoted French colonization could afford to send clerics, responsibility devolved upon the religious orders themselves. The most effective missionaries during the seventeenth century were the Jesuits, who paddled hundreds of miles to preach the Gospel in Huron and Algonquin villages. As warfare with the Five Nations of the Iroquois forced tribes from ancestral homes, the French established reserves for Christianized Native Americans, who obtained educational and medical services from nuns like the Ursulines, the Hospitallers, and the Sisters of Charity a female religious presence unique in colonial North American history. The Jesuits claimed to have baptized 16,000 souls from 1632 to 1672, only a minority of the native population, but the ministrations of the Catholic orders, male and female, played a critical role in New France’s survival. The good relations they fostered with native peoples facilitated the trade in furs, New France’s signal export commodity, and military alliances, on which the colony’s existence depended. The parochial church took longer to organize. Not until 1674 did the pope appoint a bishop, and only in the eighteenth century were the majority of priests themselves colonial-born Creoles. Operating in different intellectual and social contexts, the Canadian church departed in some ways from French norms. Less defensive about Protestant polemics and relatively untouched by Enlightenment skepticism, the clergy preached and, far more than their European peers, practiced the moral rigor characteristic of the French Catholic Reformation.

They also presided over congregations of independent landowners, who paid lower tithes than did French peasants. The landowners’ sense of autonomy led to practices such as a casual view of when it was necessary to baptize one’s child that prompted chronic clerical scolding. Nevertheless, the laity heeded their priests (conceptions plummeted during Lent, for instance) and gave the church their full loyalty. Catholicism became a major marker of French Canadian identity after Britain took over New France in 1763. Leery of settling too close to the Spanish, who had massacred one settlement in 1565, the French left a thousand-mile gap between themselves and their Catholic rivals, a territory that was open to Protestant occupation. The Dutch seized the opportunity to sprawl New Netherland across the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Commerce, not religion, drove Dutch colonization, reflecting a sentiment common in civic and mercantile circles that toleration preserved comity and commerce more readily than did religious exclusivity. By 1600, most of the Dutch Republic’s seven provinces in Europe had recognized the supremacy of the Reformed Church. Although the predikanten (preachers) of the Dutch Reformed Church urged the state to impose uniformity, the magistrates’ unwillingness to cede power to the clergy, coupled with merchants’ fears that enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy would hurt trade, frustrated the ministers’ hopes. Known for its toleration, the Netherlands attracted Jews and Protestant dissenters from across Europe.

These attitudes carried over into New Netherland, where the Dutch Reformed Church had little influence. The ruling West India Company preferred making profits to saving souls. It sought to dampen religious controversy in order to maintain political stability and welcomed anyone who would settle, regardless of their faith. As late as 1650, only two Reformed congregations, 150 miles apart, served the colony. Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherland’s longest-serving and most competent director-general, did try to implement a policy of religious uniformity in the 1650s, but the company overrode his plans to expel Lutherans, Jews, and Quakers. The Dutch Reformed Church gained greater cultural authority among ethnic Dutch settlers only after England conquered the colony in 1664, by which time the newly named province of New York had gained a reputation for religious heterogeneity.

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