In a bold 1826 address, Bishop John England defended the faith in front of President John Quincy Adams and others who thought badly of it

Much attention has been given in recent years to the role of religion in American life. A recent exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. contributes to that discussion by highlighting the religious views and practices of Americans from the colonial to ante-bellum eras.

The exhibit, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” shows the vital role that faith played in the early years of the nation. By presenting the contributions of various denominations, it also celebrates the diversity of beliefs that have come to characterize the American religious experience.

Several artifacts reflect Catholic practices, but perhaps the most interesting of these focuses on a sermon given by Bishop John England of Charleston, S.C., in 1826. This talk was delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it marked the first time that a Catholic spoke on religion in that chamber. A copy of the speech and an oil portrait of Bishop England are included in the exhibit.

What is most important to us today is that Bishop England delivered a memorable speech that boldly proclaimed the beliefs of his faith while at the same time stressing its compatibility with republican virtues.

But this was only one event in a career that was notable in its defense of Catholicism in the press of the day.

A Rebuttal to the President

The speech he delivered in Washington Jan. 8, 1826, partly responded to anti-Catholic remarks made by John Quincy Adams in a Fourth of July oration nearly five years earlier. Adams was by then president and was on hand to hear the bishop's rebuttal.

Bishop England's route to the dais of the House of Representatives was a rather unusual one. Born in Ireland, he arrived in the United States in 1820 as a 34-year-old priest, newly appointed as the first bishop of Charleston. The post was largely a missionary one, for the diocese included only three priests and 5,000 Catholics in three states.

Still, he accomplished much in the 22 years he led his people. He established a prototypical diocesan council, founded the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy — which still exists today — and launched the first American Catholic weekly newspaper, the United States Catholic Miscellany. In recognition of his many journalistic efforts, the Catholic Press Association presents an annual publisher's award in his name.

The catalogue for the Library of Congress exhibit notes that clergymen from various denominations were routinely invited to preach in the House. Bishop England apparently leapt at the opportunity to present a Catholic rejoinder to those who, like Adams, were either skeptical or disdainful of the Church. Virulent anti-Catholicism would not develop for another decade or so, but clearly the antecedents were present.

In a preface to the published version of his speech, England said he had sought to address the misunderstanding that even educated people had about the beliefs of the Catholic Church. At several points in the sermon, he discussed the myths that were conveyed regarding Catholic practices, and he most certainly believed Adams was one of those myth makers.

Separating Church & State

In an age where republicanism — a commitment to equality and virtue — was strongly followed, Bishop England sought to show that Catholicism was perfectly compatible with that ideal. He also endorsed a division between religion and civil government, saying that such a dichotomy was in the best interest of both institutions. One of the bishop's biographers, Peter Clarke, has written, “John England was the first theoretician of separation of Church and state and freedom of religion.”

In dissecting this notable speech, the reader is impressed by the steady, but forceful apologia offered by the Irishman. He tells the assembly, which surely was overwhelmingly non-Catholic, that the revelation of truth from the Lord was given to early Church leaders.

In the first century these holy men “formed but one Church through many nations — one tribunal to testify in every place the same doctrine — all the individuals who taught, were witnesses for or against each other: the whole body, with the successor of Peter at its head, watchful to see that each taught that which was originally delivered,” he said.

There has been a constancy to this truth throughout the ages, and it must be presented to each age “neither adding, omitting, [nor] changing.” After arguing the static universality of revealed truth, Bishop England then addresses the political issues that were of interest to his republican audience.

Politics & the Pope

First he discusses the same question that dogged Alfred Smith in his 1928 presidential campaign and John F. Kennedy in 1960: Does a Catholic have inappropriate loyalty to a foreign power — that is, the Pope? Here is where Bishop England is most emphatic.

“I would not allow,” he says, “to the Pope or to any bishop of our Church, outside this Union, the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant balloting box. He has no right to interference.”

He then goes a step further by emphasizing that Congress and the U.S. government have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Church.

He told the gathering, “You have no power to interfere with my religious rights, the tribunal of the Church has no power to interfere with my civil rights. It is a duty which every good man ought to discharge for his own, and for the public benefit, to resist any encroachment upon either.” Unfortunately, he notes, there are misinformed people who believe certain slanders against the Catholic Church. One is that the Church is despotic and antithetical to a republican form of government. He counters by citing Catholic individuals and nations who have been bulwarks against despotism, and argues that there is no evidence that Catholics are anything but true republican patriots.

To the charge that the Church has encouraged persecution, he says that, sadly, every Church has practiced some degree of cruelty and bigotry. This was wrong, but there is nothing in Catholic teaching which encourages it. Even the Inquisition, he notes, was a civil, not a religious, movement.

The final political point he addressed dealt with the Church's role in deposing unfriendly kings — clearly a practice that would raise concerns. The evidence, he argues, is absent; and legends to the contrary are the product of biased writers. It is not, he stresses, a tenet of the Church that popes interfere with legitimate governments, whether kingdoms or republics.

Kudos from Congress

The bishop's sermon, which lasted two hours, was apparently so well received that 21 members of Congress immediately encouraged him to publish it in book form. This he did, and a copy of that book is part of the Library of Congress exhibit. Less than one month after the speech, Bishop John England, a native of Cork, Ireland, became an American citizen.

The exhibit is replete with stories such as that of Bishop England. Although the various components of the historical display do not go into the detail provided here, the overall effect is to create a better appreciation for the richness of America's religious history.

“Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” ended its showing in Washington, D.C., Aug. 25, but is scheduled to continue to other U.S. cities. Presumably, many more Americans will get a chance to see the works of people such as Bishop England and Father Andrew White, who celebrated the first Mass in America in 1634.

These offerings help us to understand one notable observation made by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 and cited in one of the exhibit's booklets.

The legendary Frenchman wrote in Democracy in America: “I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion, for who can read the human heart?

“But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society,” he said.

Joseph Esposito is the Register's Washington Correspondent.

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