September 1, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Anti-Catholicism was rampant in the U.S. 100 years ago

John F. FinkMy previous three columns concerned Catholics in Indiana history. I thought I might follow them up with part of Indiana’s history that wasn’t good for Catholics. It’s the period roughly 100 years ago when anti-Catholicism was prevalent.

For us who are living in an ecumenical age, it’s hard to imagine, but anti-Catholicism flared up frequently in U.S. history, beginning with the colonies in which Catholics were forbidden to vote or hold office. Then, after the Catholic population grew from 663,000 to 3.1 million between 1840 and 1860 because of immigration, the Nativist Party (Know Nothings) did everything they could to refuse them citizenship, and there were numerous riots.

Then the Ku Klux Klan was revived nationally in 1915. Here in Indiana it was primarily anti-Catholic. It was capitalizing on the anti-Catholicism that already existed.

There was a periodical that actually had the title The Menace that told its readers how horrible the Catholic Church was; it was a menace. When that newspaper reached a circulation of a million in 1912, no less than 30 imitators jumped on board.

There were some picturesque titles: The Peril, The American Defender, The American Sentinel, The Beacon Light, The Crescent, The Converted Catholic Evangelist, The Crusader, The Emancipator, The Guardian, The Good Citizen, The Jeffersonian, The Liberator, The Masses, The Patriot, The Silverton Journal, The Sentinel of Liberty, The Torch, Watson’s Magazine and The Yellow Jacket.

From the titles, you can see that they emphasized patriotism. Articles told readers that Catholics pledged allegiance to the pope and, therefore, weren’t patriotic Americans, and that the Church wanted to take away their freedoms. A common assertion was that the assassins of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley were Catholics.

To build circulation, the periodicals sent people around the country, sometimes pretending to be ex-priests or ex-nuns, to give lectures in Protestant churches or halls. They preached about the immorality of priests and nuns in monasteries, and claimed that the Catholic Church kept weapons in the basement of the churches awaiting a revolution that would take place when the pope commanded. People believed it.

The periodicals often printed what they claimed to be an oath taken by members of the Knights of Columbus. This bogus oath said, in part, “I do promise and declare that I will, when the opportunity presents, make and wage relentless war, secretly and openly, against all heretics, Protestants and Masons, as I am directed to do, to extirpate them from the face of the whole Earth; and that I will spare neither age, sex, nor condition, and that I will hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle, and bury alive those infamous heretics; rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women, and crush their infants’ heads against the walls in order to annihilate their execrable race.”

An extended 14-paragraph oath that included the one above was published in the Congressional Record of the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 15, 1913.

So this was the situation when D.C. Stephenson became the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, which I’ll write about next week. †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!