The hysteria about mosques in the United States is nothing new in our history. Even though the United States was founded by a ragtag series of religious heretics seeking freedom to worship as they would; even though its constitution enshrines freedom of religion– even so, periods of religious intolerance have reared their ugly heads repeatedly in American history.
The kind of opposition nowadays expressed toward the mosque and the Quran was directed in the 1840s against Olde St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia, its ‘dangerous’ Irish congregation, and their Catholic Bible.
Even though Pennsylvania was founded on the principle of religious toleration as set out in William Penn’s Charter of Liberties, even though its leaders in the 18th century made a place for Catholics and Jews and various Protestant groups, by the 1840s a bunch of bigotted yahoos called ‘Nativists’ were desecrating those noble American values.
In 1796 two Irish friars were sent by the Vatican to buy land for the church, and its cornerstone was laid. “Contributors to the church included President Washington, Commodore John “Father of the U.S. Navy” Barry …, and Constitution signer Thomas Fitzsimons.” Note that the Founding Generation supported the church even though it received Foreign Funding. And, in Britain (and British-ruled Ireland), Catholicism labored under severe disabilities, having been until the late 18th century more or less outlawed. Even in the beginning stages of Catholic emancipation, Catholics were required to assert that they rejected the idea of the Pope having temporal power in order to get basic rights.
As with today’s anti-Muslim bigots, who charge Muslims with wanting to rule the world and impose their religious law on everyone, so the mainstream Protestant rap against the Catholic church was also the charge that it sought political dominance.
The Liberty Bell had been cast in 1752 in England to celebrate Penn’s charter of liberties, but was cracked. Another was cast, the Sister Bell, which ultimately was put in the Olde St. Augustine church.
So Olde St. Augustine was hallowed ground in the history of American religious freedom.
(I might interject that one branch of my family, the Catholic Kohls/ Coles, arrived from Darmstadt in 1830 and settled in Chambersburg, Pa., and would have witnessed the rise of the Nativists in their new home.)
The Bible was still taught in American schools in the early 1840s, and Bishop Francis Kenrick successfully petitioned the school system to allow Catholic students to use a Catholic Bible. Furious Protestants accused him of being anti-Bible and of plotting to gradually push the Bible out of the school curriculum altogether.
The Nativists came out in numbers to mount demonstrations in Irish Catholic neighborhoods in north Philadelphia. One of them turned violent and four Protestants were killed. The Nativists asserted that one of their martyrs had been trying to raise an American flag as he was killed by the “Papists.”
After that mobs formed and burned St. Michael’s Catholic church. Then they attacked Olde St. Augustine and burned it down, library, Sister Bell, and all. William Penn and George Washington were spinning in their graves.
When they poured the library’s books into the street and set them afire, the Nativist mob ended up burning the Bible.
The Catholics rebuilt the Olde St. Augustine. A boys school founded by the friars evolved into Villanova University. In 1960, an Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency.
People who would burn down a church to which George Washington had made a donation don’t care anything about American values.
And people who would burn a mosque might as well buy a copy of the constitution and light it up.
In the real United States it doesn’t matter what your religion is, and you can build your house of worship where you please, and you don’t have to be born here to be a citizen. Nativists believed the opposite of all these things. They formed a secret party in the nineteenth century that they called the “Know-Nothings.”
They are back.