The Louisiana purchase

The “Louisiana purchase”  changed the religious profile of the United States significantly. This former French colony – originally part of “La Nouvelle France” – was strongly Catholic, with settled cultural traditions reflecting this religious heritage. The subsequent incorporation of parts of Florida and Mexico into the Union in the first half of the nineteenth century increased the Catholic presence considerably, in that both these new acquisitions had been evangelized by the Spanish in previous centuries.

A fresh wave of immigration from European nations in the nineteenth century led to further changes in the nation’s religious profile. Now that America was firmly established as an icon of religious freedom, Catholics chose to migrate there to escape political instabil- ity and economic deprivation in Europe. Large numbers of Irish and Italian Catholics arrived at cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. German refugees, fleeing Bismarck’s repressive policies against Catholicism in the 1870s, tended to settle in the upper Midwest, in cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati. Strong ethnic loyalties led to Catholic émigrés retaining the social and religious habits of Europe, and thus not integrating within American culture. This rapid rise of Catholicism in cities that had hitherto been staunchly Protestant led to social and religious tension. By 1850, Catholicism was the largest single Christian denomination in the United States.

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The case of late nineteenth-century Boston illustrates this trend well. In 1800, Boston was a powerful symbol of the American Yankee Protestant heritage, at the heart of the largely Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Yet mass immigration from Catholic Ireland from 1840 onwards changed everything. In 1885, three Protestants were arrested by the police for preaching on the Common, sparking off protests that revealed the deep levels of insecurity within their community – above all, the sense of having become aliens and strangers in what was once their heartland.

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