“The Beginning of Civil and Religious Liberties in America”
by J. moss Ives
first published 1936
Book Three: The Harvest
During the period from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the session of the First Congress of the United States, Father John Carroll of Rock Creek, Maryland, was the leading exponent of religious liberty in the new republic. No member of the clergy in his day was more thoroughly American in thought and spirit. As Dr. Guilday in his Life and Times of John Carroll, says: “No American living caught so quickly and indelibly the spirit that created the new republic.” This biographer has made a most valuable contribution to American history, for he has brought to light facts relating to the organization of the Catholic Church in the United States that have not been generally known and recognized, and as a result of his scholarly research, the church has been given a place of prominence in the early history of the nation that it did not before occupy, not even in the minds of most Catholics. When John Carroll and his cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, left Maryland for France to begin their studies at the college of St. Omer, it was to be a course of preparation tor them to become men of leadership and vision, each in his own chosen field. The college was made up of young men preparing for life in the world and of young men preparing for the priesthood. It was accepted as the best school for the sons of English Catholics during the penal period and it was also the house of studies for the Jesuits who were to be sent to the English and American missions. Of all the continental schools it was “the best loved by the boys of Maryland,” writes Dr. Guilday and “Maryland can be looked upon to a great extent as a St. Omer’s mission.”After leaving St. Omer’s the lives of these two Maryland boys were to drift apart for a space of years and until their return to America, when their talents and ideals were to be welded in the building of a new nation. When Charles Carroll went to the Jesuit college in Rheims for the advancement of his secular education, John Carroll entered the Jesuit novitiate at Watten. After completing his novitiate he pursued his course of philosophy at Liege, and then returned to St. Omer’s to teach the classics. When St. Omer’s was confiscated by the French government and transferred to the English secular Clergy, after the edict of the parliament of Paris suppressing the Society of Jesus in France, Carroll accompanied a detachment of students on a long over land journey afoot, to the college at Bruges, Belgium. Here he remained, with the exception of year’s travel in Germany and Italy, until 1773, when by edict of the Pope there came the general suppression of the Jesuits.
The act of suppression came as a severe shock to Father Carroll. He wrote to his brother Daniel in Maryland that he was not and perhaps never would be recovered from the blow of “this dreadful intelligence.” The greatest blessing he could receive from God would be “immediate death but if he deny me this, may his Holy and adorable designs on me be wholly fulfilled.” He wondered what would become of the flourishing congregations in Maryland and Pennsylvania. He decided to return to Maryland where he would have “the comfort not only of being with you but of being further out of the reach of scandal and defamation and removed from the scene of distress of many of my dearest friends whom God knows I shall not be able to relieve. I shall therefore most certainly sail for Maryland early next Spring if I possibly can.”
Father Carroll’s situation was desperate for he had renounced all claim to his father’s estate and there was no assurance that he would receive support from the property of the suppressed Society in America. He received an invitation from Lord Arudel, descendant of Lord Baltimore’s friend, to make his home in Wardour Castle and to act as chaplain to the family and to the Catholics in the neighborhood, but the news he had received from America led him to decline this offer. The life of private chaplain in England offered no inducement to him when there was an impending struggle between the American colonists and the mother country. He set sail for Maryland in the late spring of 1774. This was a momentous decision, for had he decided not to return to America and to have remained in England, the course of events immediately following the war for independence might and probably would have been far different.
At the home of his mother at Rock Creek, Father Carroll assembled a congregation of Catholics. The little congregation grew so rapidly that it was found necessary to erect a church, St. John’s, a short distance from his mother’s home became the first Catholic church in Maryland under the secular clergy erected by a congregation which supported a pastor. Until this time the Jesuit fathers had carried on the service of religion at their own expense.
As Charles Carroll of Carrollton visioned the political and economic future of America, Father John Carroll looked beyond the years and foresaw the growth of his church and the place it was to occupy in the life of the nation. Under the inspiration of his leadership it became a church essentially American and at the same time truly Catholic. Previous to the revolution, the Catholic Church in America had been a mission. There was no juridic or ecclesiastical control except that of the Superior who in turn was subject to the jurisdiction of the English province. With the suppression of the Jesuit order, the churches and chapels came under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of London.
At the outbreak of the war a serious problem confronted the American Catholics. For ten years, writes Dr. Guilday, “the work in the American vineyard went on in listless way as it was bound to, without a shepherd and manned by a little group of priests who had been dishonored and disbanded by the Holy See.”(Jesuits disbanded in 1776) Priests and laity turned instinctively to Father Carroll for leadership. He responded with his plan of organization of 1782. The Jesuits had control of considerable real property in Maryland and Pennsylvania and the proper administration of this property was a most vexing problem. Father Carroll, in his plan, placed upon the clergy of the two states, the obligations arising from justice and charity, of using the funds entrusted their predecessors and to themselves solely for the spiritual uplift of the faithful and for the sustenance of the clergy. An arrangement of checks and balances, such as is found in the American form of government, was agreed upon among themselves. There was to be a general meeting of the clergy, each district electing a representative.
Father Carroll, aware of the unjust confiscation of the Jesuit property in Europe, was not unmindful that similar action might be taken in America. In true American spirit he wrote to his friend Father Charles Plowden in London:
John Carroll as a good Catholic never questioned the spiritual supremacy of the Pope, but he was at all times anxious to see that the temporal jurisdiction of the papacy would not intrude itself into the plan of organization of the church in America. His attitude was always uncompromising on all points of doctrine but in temporal matters and affairs of government he believed in rendering unto “Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” The policy of separation of State and Church established in early Maryland was, so far as he was concerned, quite proper to be the policy of the new government. In a letter written the following year to Father Plowden, Carroll told the need of establishing “regulations tending to perpetuate a succession of laborers in this vineyard, to preserve their morals, to prevent idleness and to secure an equitable and frugal administration of temporals.” He saw an immense field “opened to the zeal of apostolic men,” with innumerable Catholics going and ready to go “into the new regions bordering on the Mississippi, perhaps the finest in the world and impatiently clamorous for clergymen to attend them.”On June 27, 1783, an historic meeting of the Catholic clergy was held at the old Jesuit residence at Whitemarsh on the property that was left to the mission under the will of James Carroll. Here the question of constitution for the American church was considered. Carroll’s plan was fully discussed, and the first steps were taken for a church government. A committee of five was appointed to draw up a petition to the Holy see asking the Father John Lewis who had been superior of the mission be formally constituted Superior of the Church in the United States. John Carroll was one of the committee. The petition discloses that there was a close contact between the leaders of the Catholic clergy and the leaders of the new government. The first paragraph of the petition addressed to the holy Father, reads:
The petition asked the the Pontiff to confirm Father Lewis as ecclesiastical superior with the necessary faculties.
When the contents of this petition became known to the rest of the American clergy it was feared by some that it was not sufficiently respectful in tone, and accordingly another committee of which Carroll was a member was appointed to draft a second petition. The second request contained the modification that the American clergy be permitted to elect their own superior and declared that the United States government would not permit the presence of a bishop in the country.
In these petitions in the subsequent negotiations and letters of Father Carroll, there is evident a strong desire to be free from any dependence on any foreign jurisdiction other than such as was necessary to recognize the spiritual supremacy of the Pope. This point is stressed and explained in a letter from Father Carroll to a friend in Rome accompanying the second petition. He wrote:
He called attention to the fact that the clergy of the Church of England, who were heretofore subject to the Bishop of London, had withdrawn themselves from obedience to that dignitary as “the umbrage taken at this dependence was so great.”Meanwhile in France, Benjamin Franklin was unintentionally working at cross purposes to the American Catholic clergy. He saw what he believed was an opportunity to be of service to the Catholic church in America by having it made subject to the jurisdiction of French bishopric. The French clergy were naturally in favor of such a plan and negotiations had made considerable progress before Franklin discovered that Father Carroll and his fellow priests did not favor the project. They refused to subject themselves to any foreign ecclesiastical jurisdiction be it French or British. If a bishopric were to be created they wished a bishop of their own choice who would be native-born American. The negotiations were broken off as soon as Franklin realized his mistake. He decided that sound policy required him to favor the appointment of an American missionary priest as Superior of the Catholic clergy in the United States.Father Lewis being of advanced years it was decided to select a younger man. John Carroll was appointed superior. The letter announcing the appointment stated it was known that the selection of Father Carroll would “please and gratify many members of the republic and especially Mr. Franklin, the eminent individual who represents the same republic at the Court of the Most Christian King.” Father Lewis’ name was the first on a list submitted by the American clergy for appointment; Father Carroll’s was the last.
It was explained that the appointment was only temporary, and the later a Vicar-Apostolic vested with the title and character of a bishop would be named. The letter announcing the appointment was presented by Father Carroll to his brethren at the Whitemarsh chapter. Thereupon the chapter voted that a committee be empowered to send a memorial to Rome stating that as “the majority of the Protestant population are averse to Roman Catholic prelate, the introduction of the Episcopal office would awaken their jealous.” The appointment was not to the liking of Carroll. He was apprehensive because the American Church was subject to what he called “foreign domination,” then too the appointment was made by and its duration was at the will and pleasure of the Sacred Congregation.
It was repugnant to him to accept any position that was to be held at the pleasure of foreign body. He wrote to his fellow clergy that nothing but the “present extreme necessity of some spiritual powers here” could induce him to act under a commission that might produce, if long continued, the most “dangerous jealousy.” He was urged by several of the clergy to accept without hesitation. He wrote a long letter to his friend Father Thorpe at Rome full stating conditions as they then existed in the United States and frankly giving his objections to the form of the appointment however was not such as he wished and could not have continued long in its present forms. He wrote:
He makes two objections to the future church government as it was planned at Rome. First, that the form of church government in the United States was no longer a mission. “By acquiring civil and religious rights in common with other Christians we are become a national Catholic Clergy.” He hopes that in a few years a bishop will be appointed. “We are not in immediate need of one,” but when the time comes he conceives that it will “be more advantageous to Religion and less liable to give offense that he be ordinary Bishop and not a Vicar Apostolic and to be chosen and presented to His Holiness by the American Catholic Clergy.”
There were several reasons that finally prompted him to accept the appointment. One of these, urged upon him by his fellow clergy, was that if he did not accept, a foreigner might be appointed Prefect-Apostolic.The formal Latin letter written by Father Carroll accepting the appointment embodies the same ideas as expressed in the previous letter to Father Thorpe and explained his objections even more frankly. He gave as his reason for objecting to the American Church being subject to the Sacred Congregation, his desire to “retain absolutely the spiritual jurisdiction of the Holy See and at the same time remove all objections to us as though we had anything hostile to the national independence.” How long they were to enjoy the benefit of this toleration or equal rights he does not dare to assert.
He gives a gentle hint at the end of the letter that if “it does not seem proper to allow the priests who have labored for so many years in this vineyard of the Lord” to propose that one of their number whom they deem best fitted for the office of Bishop that “some method will be adopted by which a bad feeling may not be excited among the people of this country, Catholic and Protestant.”The importance of this letter, Dr. Guilday says, can hardly be exaggerated. It is the first document of its kind that passed between the Church in the United States and the Holy See, and it contains for the church historian of the new republic “the most valuable synthesis of the state of religion in this country which we possess for the Revolutionary period.”With his mother’s home at Rock Creek as a center, Father Carroll began his visitation under his new appointment in the summer 1785. His first visit was to the historic mission of St. Inigoes where he laid the corner stone of a new church. He visited stations and congregations in Maryland and Virginia during the summer. In the autumn he visited Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. He kept away from New England which up to that time had not shown a spirit of hospitality to Catholics. On the return from his visitation he wrote a letter to the Nuncio at Paris about the general situation of the Church in the new republic:
One important fact brought out in the correspondence between Father Carroll and the Congregation of Propaganda was the willingness of the Church authorities at Rome to grant the requests of the American clergy and to cooperate in every way possible so that the new church government would conform to American ideals. Cardinal Antonelli, Prefect of the Congregation, wrote to Father Carroll, July 23, 1785, announcing that ampler faculties had been granted him He assures him that the Sacred Congregation will appoint a vicar apostolic with the title and character of bishop and will confer this dignity upon Father Carroll, but if it is thought more expedient and will be more in accordance with the constitution of the Republic for the missionaries themselves at first to recommend someone to the Sacred Congregation who might be elevated to the office of Vicar Apostolic, “the Sacred Congregation will not cease to perform what you decide to be the more suitable.” He also gives the assurance that in order to remove all risk of displeasure “I have seen to it that a new copy of faculties be enclosed for you,” in which the usual clause for the appointment of priests and workers by the Congregation has been removed and the power granted Father Carroll as Superior of selecting workers whom he “shall judge suitable in the Lord.”Father Carroll found as a result of his first visitation that there were more Catholics in the United States than he had realized and therefore in greater need of a bishop. Unknown to him, Franklin had discussed the matter of the appointment of bishop with the Church authorities, said he preferred to see Carroll appointed Bishop at once and that the American Congress “would be pleased to see the Catholic Church in the United States properly organized under its own Episcopal authority.” The only thing that now stood in the way of the appointment of bishop was the question of finance. The church officials at Rome would have to know more about the temporalities of the nascent church before a bishopric could be created.Dr. Guilday states that it was “a foregone conclusion that when the constitution should be written the principle of religious liberty or to put it more accurately disestablishment, would find a place in its clauses.” Father Carroll judging from his correspondence and writings evidently did not regard it as a foregone conclusion and as a matter of fact when the constitution was first written and adopted it contained no clause recognizing religious liberty nor providing against a church establishment. In reference to religious toleration Father Carroll is always careful in his letters to limit the states where there was full toleration, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia. All of the New England States, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina were decidedlyanti-Catholic. Prior to the Revolution there were legal disabilities against Catholics in nearly every colony. For a large part of the inhabitants of the Thirteen original states it may be said that Protestantism and patriotism were synonymous. As Father Carroll said in one of his letters previously quoted, Prejudice against Catholics was so long continued and so deep seated that time only would overcome it. It was partially and temporarily lessened by the aid that Catholic France gave to the American cause and the support that was given to the Revolution by the large majority of Catholic colonists.
Theodore Roosevelt in his Life of Gouverneur Morris in the American Statesmen Series, says:
Two services held in Catholic churches in Philadelphia at the close of the war attended by officers and members of Congress did much to create a better understanding between Catholics and Protestants. On the third anniversary of the Declaration of Independence July 4, 1779 a Te Deum service was held at St. Mary’s Church where a patriotic sermon was preached by the chaplain of the French legation, in the course of which he declared that the Revolution had placed “the sons of America among the free and independent nations of the earth.” Two years later another memorial service was held in the same church. Father Bandol, the French chaplain, again preached the sermon and declared that the new American government presented “to the universe the noble sight of a society which, founded in equality and justice, secures to the individuals who compose it the utmost happiness which can be derived from human institutions.”When Charles and John Carroll were sent on the Canadian mission they were given an implied promise that religious freedom would be the policy of the new government. The great services rendered throughout the Revolution by Charles Carroll and the fact that nearly all the Catholics in the country were loyal to the American cause and had contributed brave officers and men to the Continental Army could not be forgotten nor disregarded when bigotry raised its head and demanded discrimination.Several times John Carroll found it necessary to remind the nation’s statesmen that Catholics as well as Protestants had shed their blood on the battle-grounds of the Revolution, and that a revival of the policy of discrimination and of disability would be grand ingratitude for the devotion and the loyalty of Catholic patriots. He realized how quickly the fires of persecution and bigotry could be rekindled and was not easily lulled into a sense of false security because of a temporary period of tolerance that had come as the result of the part played by Catholics in the Revolution.
When the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1787, there was published in the same city a monthly magazine call the Colombian Magazine or Monthly Miscellany, dedicated to “history, manners, literature and characters.” Beginning with the April number there appeared a series of articles written by an anonymous writer who signed himself “A-Z.” The subject of articles was announced as “Considerations on Religion in General but more particularly on the Christian Religion.” The first article was as general and as inoffensive as the subject would indicate but after the convention began its sessions in May there crept into the articles an insidious attack on the Catholic religion. The real purpose of the writer was only too apparent. Father Carroll sensing the situation determined to reply. It was not until December, however, and after the convention had adjourned that the reply appeared in print. The effusions of “A-Z were first page articles, but the reply of Father Carroll appeared only in fine print in a supplement of the December number and in expurgated form. The reply of Father Carroll was vigorous and convincing but it appeared too late to have an effect on the convention.
The Federal Convention for the adoption of the Constitution that met in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, adjourned on September 17th. No action was taken by the convention on the question of religious liberty other than the provision that no religious test should be required of federal office holders. This was no doubt pleasing to “A-Z,” as it was disappointing to Father Carroll. Matthew Carey was one of the proprietors of the Colombian Magazine. He was so disgusted with the tone of the letters and with the manner in which the editors had withheld publication of Father Carroll’s reply that he withdrew from the enterprise and later began the publication of another magazine know as The American Museum.
In the same letter he tells Carey that he had sent “a few infusions on this subject to the Columbian Magazine eighteen months ago,” but the editor “after violating his engagement made at the outset of his work and delaying the publication for many months printed it at length with unjustifiable retrenchment.”All the writings of Father Carroll stressed two cardinal principles, liberty and equality. All that he asked for his church was what he claimed should be granted to all churches-equal rights and privileges under the law. This was but an application of the policy of early Maryland that had been put in the code of 1639 and had given to “Holy Churches” all rights and privileges free and inviolate.His broad spirit of tolerance was shown in the part that he took in the controversy with the former Jesuit, Reverend Charles Wharton, who after the suppression of Society left the Catholic Church and became an Anglican priest. It was a controversy that was carried on in a spirit of fairness and with no trace of bitterness. Father Carroll said he hoped that to engage in the controversy would not disturb
John Carroll was chosen by the freedom of election granted to the American clergy as Bishop of the Church in the United States. At a meeting of the clergy held at Whitemarsh, May 18, 1789, after the celebration of Mass, the votes of those present, as well of those who were at a distance, were taken and it was disclosed that Father Carroll had been duly elected Bishop, having received twenty-four out of twenty-eight votes, for being cast for two other candidates. Baltimore was unanimously chosen as the place for the episcopal See, being “in the center of Maryland where the greater part of the faithful and of the clergy are to be found and whence the faith has been happily disseminated through the other provinces.”
The election was confirmed by the Holy See and the letter announcing the confirmation stated:
The choice of Carroll as bishop had the approval of both Franklin and Jefferson and also met with the approbation of Washington. Franklin in 1784 had made know to the authorities at Rome his approval. A letter written by Jefferson from Monticello discloses that he was consulted concerning the appointment of Carroll as bishop and gave his approval. The letter is written to Archbishop Marechal and is dated January 17, 1820. Jefferson refers to the death of Cardinal Dugnani who was the papal nuncio at Paris while Jefferson was minister to France. He speaks of the “intimate acquaintance” he had with the Cardinal and says: “I sincerely regret his loss, having been consulted by him while at Paris by instruction from the Pope previous to making the appointment of Bishop Carroll to the See of Baltimore and given an assurance that he was perfectly free to make such an establishment without offense to our institutions or opinions.”
There is the testimony of Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Custis, as to the esteem in which the first President held Bishop Carroll. In a letter written to the Reverend Charles White, D.D., he said:
George Washington was inaugurated the first President of the United States and John Carroll was elected the first Bishop of the Catholic Church in the United States in the same year.(1789) This coincidence Dr. Guilday points out “ends rather than begins a striking parallel between the history of the thirteen original states and the history of the Catholic Church within the reconstruction years of 1773-1789.” Many of the problems of the church were analogous(-nl-gs)(Similar or alike in such a way as to permit the drawing of an analogy) to those of the new nation and were solved in much the same manner. Bishop Carroll was not only the most forceful champion of the principle of religious freedom and equality in his time, but he laid the foundations of his Church organization deep in the principles that gave birth to the new republic.