Why Colonial America Was So Afraid of Catholic Quebec

Many Americans feared that the pope would order an invasion from Quebec to impose Catholicism on them.

(photo: C.P. Champion, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In describing the conversion of Sister Frances Margaret Allen, I concluded: “Like all converts, Fanny Allen had to overcome many obstacles, including the almost inbred fear and hatred of Catholicism of her family and her state.” I also noted that her mother had Fanny baptized in the Episcopal Church before she went to Montreal, as though it would inoculate her from Catholic infection or attraction.

This fear of Catholics and of Canadian Catholics in particular had deep colonial roots in the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years’ War fought between France and England in several colonial territories) and the 1774 Quebec Act. Great Britain, with help from their British colonists in North America, won the war in 1763 and had obtained the French territory of Quebec in Canada. The colonists were pleased with the defeat of Catholic France.

Eleven years later, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, integrating the former French colony into British Canada. American colonists were not pleased with many of the decisions reached by Parliament. Although the issue of religious liberty among Protestants was tremendously important in the revolutionary period, as Thomas S. Kidd recounts in God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2012), American Protestants did not think that Catholics should be free to practice their faith.

The Quebec Act allowed Catholics in Canada, unlike Catholics in England or other British colonies, not only to practice their faith freely, but to serve in government offices without taking an oath that denied their faith. Catholics in England, Scotland and Ireland could not serve in political office because they would have had to deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist (which the government called Transubstantiation), the invocation of saints, and the authority of the pope. Catholics in Canada could simply swear loyalty to King George III.

The British Province of Quebec was ruled by a governor and council appointed by Parliament with no representative legislature. The territory of Quebec was extended down to the Ohio River where Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia colonists had organized the Ohio Company. This was the territory the French and Indian War had been fought over, and while Great Britain won it, the American colonies lost it.

The Continental Congress included the Quebec Act in their list of Intolerable Acts when the British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in response to the Boston Tea Party in 1774. It was also referenced in the “Declaration of Independence” as one of the grievances against King George III (“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies”).

The Quebec Act elicited common fears of Catholicism; it was “dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion, and to the civil rights and liberties of all America,” according to the Suffolk Resolves on Sept. 18, 1774. Americans feared that the pope would order an invasion from Quebec to impose Catholicism on them.

That fear had even deeper roots from their memories of England. Most immediately, the colonists referred to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Catholic king James II was deposed after trying to institute religious freedom for Protestant dissenters (Protestants who were not Anglicans), Catholics, and Quakers. When William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’s “ungrateful” daughter) invaded England from Holland, the colonists rejoiced that Popery had been defeated.

Behind the memory of the Glorious Revolution lurked the legend of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the Spanish Armada of 1588. Catholics were not to be trusted and the pope was the anti-Christ.

There’s no denying the irony of two Revolutionary facts. The first, that France under the most Catholic King Louis XVI supported the American rebels, with the Marquis de Lafayette serving with General George Washington. Because of this Catholic support, Washington forbade the usual Guy Fawkes celebrations on Nov. 5, 1775 of burning the pope in effigy. He did not think it appropriate to insult the Continental Army’s Catholic allies.

The second: the Continental Congress sent a delegation to Montreal in 1776 asking Canadians—including Catholics—to join the Americans in revolution against Britain. Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and two Catholics, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Father John Carroll, Charles’ cousin negotiated with both the government and the Catholic Church. Among the points approved by the Continental Congress in the negotiation was maintaining freedom of religion for Catholics in Canada.

The hierarchy in Canada did not trust the American Continental Congress because of the way Catholics were treated in colonial New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It certainly did not help that the Continental Congress had denounced Catholicism so strongly after the passage of the Quebec Act. One “Fifth of November” without insult was not enough. The delegation returned to America returned without success.

The U.S. Constitution, ratified by the states in 1789, rejected the kind of Test Acts for Federal office that Great Britain finally eliminated in 1829 with Catholic Emancipation. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights prevented the establishment of a church on the Federal level and many of the states adopted religious freedom clauses in their constitutions, even if they kept official state churches.

But old prejudices linger on and even in 1805, in a household that regarded all organized religion as contrary to reason, the dangers of Catholicism in Montreal, Canada were all too real to Fanny Allen’s family. When those fears were realized in her conversion and religious vocation, only familial love and God’s grace could bring reconciliation.

This story originally appeared Sept. 26, 2016, at the Register.