They used to Burn Catholic Churches, now they Burn Mosques

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.

27 Responses

  1. I’m sorry Prof, but I don’t share your opinion that there is a “hysteria” about this issue in America. Other, that is, than with the media covering and fanning the story. My guess is most Americans are mildly indifferent to this story. Aware of it…..and that’s about it. It is the media, and few nuts like the nut in Florida, that care about this the most. Oh, and a few preening, moralizing people on the left, whom, while I tend to side with, can’t seem to help but be preachy to people. IOW Prof….personally, I don’t see this as a big issue. The economy is not simply a big issue. It is THEE issue.

    • Most Americans might be indifferent to this story, and I’m sure most Iranians also think their economy is the biggest issues there however I believe you are wrong.
      The way your country is viewed by the rest of the world will ultimately make or break your economy. Put simply – if you were an employer would you give a job to the Dove Church Pastor ? Right now his is the voice of the USA around the world -a country currently known for two very nasty wars+++ and Guantanamo Bay- other countries might get a bit shy about doing business with what appears to be such a big mouthed bully.

      (+ it might also not be news there but we have all noticed USA bringing their own special brand of freedom and democracy to other countries as well)

  2. Racism and bigotry are as American as apple pie. USA was founded by slaveowners , including Washington and Jefferson, and managed by Natives-murderers, including Andrew Jackson – all American heroes. They all justified their crimes by some bigotry – sometimes religious one, and more often simple by racism.

    • The truth is shameful. And people like Sarah Palin, Beck, Limbaugh fueling the hateful fires. Shameful

  3. The burning of Quran, and of desecrating the human body by the USA troops, are issues which needs you to write a comprehensive assessment into the horrors of war, and the implication of the war on the nation such as the UAE, Pakistan and others who support the USA forces.

    It is obvious that the consequences for the supporters of the so called war on terror are terrorized by events that bring shame to the word and meaning of a Muslim. The majority of Muslims are against the war that is taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the Islamic States under the USA threat of retaliation against these small states that cannot withstand the USA wrath, have to support the USA though how unwilling they may be consciously, and though how it may be against the popular public opinion of that nation.

    USA has a much better analysis of the situation in the countries which are on the face of their Foreign Policy support the war on terror, but inside have heavy grudge for such a support. The case of Pakistan is becoming evident where the ISI the all powerful wing of the Army Intelligence does all in its power to first secure its own country interest and then toe the USA line. Karzai is also doing some what that is not in the USA interest. The people of Iraq have voted out Malaki, you may like it or not.

    Quran and human body parts matter will go a long way, in the minds of the Muslim Ummah, as such it would be wise for your newspaper to draw a barrier before the flood of hatred mail starts gushing in your news rooms.

    Dawoodi Morkas ACA
    Member: Isalambad Stock Exchange (G) Ltd.
    Room # 511, Jinnah Avenue, Blue Area
    Cell: 00923002016862

  4. It seems to me the First Amendment is more concerned with making sure the Congress can’t interfere with religion than with making sure we don’t burn each other’s churches down. There are plenty of state laws punishing that crime. I suppose if there were some states that refused to prosecute mosque burning, the federal government might step in and prosecute for violation of civil rights. But we haven’t even gotten as far as banning burquas or minarets, let alone organizing to burn mosques. I’m not sure fire-bombing a piece of construction equipment at the site of a mosque quite reaches the level of “mosque burning.” Book burning is bad enough, though, and you are right to notice that people who are willing to burn books may be just as willing to burn people.

  5. Professor, on the subject of words and their meanings as connected to larger manifestations of human behavior: Has a word or phrase occurred to you, other than “hate,” to more accurately capture the nature of “nativism” and whatever-it-is that has so many foaming at the mouth from a rage that has no name until some set of incidents and sheaf of supposed “WhatdidItellyous” and “They’realllikethats” gives it a range and bearing to a target? I understand that in an exorcism, correctly naming the demon-in-possession is one mandatory step on the way to its expulsion, if it is expellable at all.

  6. […] political party in the 19th century called the "Know-Nothings."  Informed Comment's Juan Cole concludes: In the real United States it doesn’t matter what your religion is, and you can build your […]

  7. And they still know nothing, they are still ignorant, hateful, disgraces to the United States of America, its patriots and its principles.

  8. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think these actions were so much religious intolerance as they were racist riots against the Irish who were beginning to emigrate in great numbers to escape poverty and the famine of the 1840’s.

    These Irish who happened to be mostly Catholic (as opposed to the earlier Irish immigrants who were the so-called “Scotch-Irish” and considered themselves to be the “real” native American pioneers) were considered to be racially practically subhuman Celts, far below the Anglo-Saxons who rated at the top of the racial scale.

    There were so many of them that they were politically threatening to the establishment as they became mostly democrats and organized to take over the big cities. Later all this hatred was romanticized into St. Patrick’s parades and Celtic harps. But they remember.

    Do a Google image search of Thomas Nast Irish cartoons and you will see what I mean.

    • Yes, religion was a big part of the bigotry. The Catholic Bible in schools, the stock of Protestant black legend propaganda about Roman Catholicism and the pope, etc., etc. were all central. All you have to do is read the Nativist pamphlets. Look into it.

  9. Apropos of early 19th century PA Catholics, here is a local story you’ll probably find interesting: link to

    57 Irish immigrants near Malvern (on the “Main Line” West of Philadelphia) had been presumed to have died of Cholera in 1832. It looks now like some (or all) were murdered, presumably by a local vigilante group, for the crime of being Irish Catholic immigrants (hard to know which of those was the greatest crime).

  10. Thought I linked this one yesterday. Here it is
    link to
    “”Americans Don’t Burn Books” they cry. Oh yes they do. Americans most assuredly do burn books. They burn them with malice and with forethought as an expression of their hatred and contempt for the peoples’ of the lands they have invaded, for the peoples of those lands and for our religion.

    I know for a fact that Americans burn books, in particular The Holy Qur’an because like other Gorilla’s Guides team members I have gone into Mosques to clean them after your soldiers have desecrated them.”

    Important on the Corrie Family
    link to

  11. I dont know whether you receive MTA on your satellite, but they had a phone interview with Terry Jones and asked him what he knew about Islam and the Quran seeing as how he his book says there is no one more qualified to write on the dangers of Islam than him. It was absolutely hilarious! Turns out he has never read any part of the Quran and admits himself he knows nothing of the Quran and Shariah law. I’ll try and get that video clip online somewhere.

  12. to think that our intelligence folks go looking for Iman’s who stoke the anti american fires. And then they let this a hole in Florida stir up the anti Muslim fires all he wants. And he gets endless mainstream coverage. Aye yi yi

  13. I think this would be a good time for the president to make a major speech to the country (from the Oval Office, perhaps at a joint session of the Congress) on tolerance and hate.

    It is not just Muslims who are hated but gays and “illegal immigrants” are hated too. Obama himself has received much hate as being representative of the “other.” He should speak out against this giddy spell of intolerance and fear which the far right is stoking up and exploiting to the country’s larger detriment. That being, too, the environment we live in. The overall mood of the country. And a shameful lapse from our better nature.

    • Obama is an admirer of Lincoln, and spent some time reading his speeches before taking office. In that same mood of conciliation which we are familiar with Obama could plead for national tolerance. Evoke “the better angels of our nature.” We may need such an expression, too, especially if this pastor down in Florida follows through with his book burning. Our president may save some lives if he disassociates the country from this preacher’s acts and words.

      • Lincoln could not conciliate with the rebels until he had defeated them. Problem is, the American people can’t look on a phalanx of white, Christian, apparently middle-class bigots as rebels who need defeating when it’s so much easier to join with them to damn Moslems and Chinese and Venezuelans and Mexicans and blacks as the rebels who need defeating via the militarization of our society. That is why there is so much fear and uncertainty in our country today. No one can agree on who the real enemy is, and we’re too lazy and cowardly and broke to beat them anyway.

  14. I am largely in agreement with all you have written . But I did in the 50s object regarding the glib RC doctrine what religious freedom was OK in the US, but that in Catholic countries “only truth had rights”. And I continue to object of the RC hierarchy in this country believing that they can criticize, but not be criticized. Note: I realize that they have not been successful on the later, although politicians must listen to their tiresome moralising, but never criticize in return. Likewise I feel that Islams in this country need to occasionally speak up for non-Islam rights in their own and other Islam countries.

    • “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.”

      I’m not so sure this was a bad idea. Here in the US, our First Amendment even accepted people who announced that they want the US to be conquered by Hitler’s armies in WWII. But in most countries, that would be considered traitorous. And back in the Renaissance, the Pope was still claiming that he had a *right to rule the world* and a *right to conquer in order to do so*. :-P In fact, I don’t think they’ve ever gotten rid of that first bit as official policy.

      Asking people to renounce such claims by the Pope in order to participate in civil society is not as outlandish as it may seem to those who don’t know the history; the thing is that the Pope was basically a warlord for most of the Middle Ages, with minor religious trappings. The Catholic Church became much more respectable *after* it had its temporal power broken by Italian Independence.

  15. RE: “The Nativists came out in numbers to mount demonstrations in Irish Catholic neighborhoods in north Philadelphia…” – Juan Cole
    SEE: “The Most Terrifying of All Battles: When the Enemy Lies Within Ourselves” ~ By Arthur Silber, 08/16/10
    (excerpt)…Those who repeatedly and furiously denounce the “Ground Zero mosque,” as they speak in horrified tones of the coming conquest of America by Islam, tremble before one possibility far more than any enemy they have chosen to identify. Their capacity for more accurate perception and even minimal self-awareness is altogether obliterated by their greatest of all fears: that they might have to hold up a mirror to their own souls and see the diseased, twisted nature of what they have allowed to permanently reside there.
    Such people cannot be reasoned with, and it is futile to try. But we should always remember what it is that actually drives them to such destructive rage, and that it has nothing at all to do with the source they are willing to identify. This pattern is, of course, as old as humankind. What we loathe in ourselves, we place in others. Then we destroy those others, believing we thus destroy what we loathe.
    But the enemy still lives, inside us. Until that is understood, the battle will never end, nor will the destruction, the suffering and the death…

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