Catholic and Jewish Immigrants

Catholic and Jewish ImmigrantsNew immigration to the United States in the 19th century changed the American religious landscape and sparked nativist, anti-immigration responses. Irish immigration led to anti-Catholic sentiment, and Jewish immigration to antisemitism. Later, Italian and Eastern European immigration led to intra-faith and additional inter-faith conflict as well. These tensions played out in debates on the presence of Protestant religion in public schools, which precipitated the growth of Catholic independent schools and the eventual eradication of all devotional Biblical reading in schools. Muslims and non-European immigrants have also experienced such tensions in the 20th and 21st centuries.

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While there had been small communities of Catholics and Jews since the Colonial period, the massive immigration of the 19th and early 20th centuries brought a new influx of Catholics and Jews to America. For the first time, Anglo-Protestant Americans were presented with a new level of ethnic and religious diversity and with it came the challenge to assess the true meaning of America’s commitment to religious freedom.

America has always been a nation of immigrants, but the greatest waves of immigration did not begin until the 1820s. Following the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, nearly 600,000 immigrants, mostly English and Irish, came to American shores. In the next twenty years, annual immigration rates reached three million. By the mid-19th century, English-speaking immigrants were joined by Germans, with nearly one million flocking to America between 1848 and 1858. Many came as political dissidents or uprooted peasants, discouraged by the limited economic opportunities at home. German Jews came seeking freedom from burdensome taxes and legal limitations on their right to marry, find jobs, and establish a home.

Around the same time, beginning in 1845 and continuing for ten years, potato famines struck Ireland, sending Irish families pouring into America at a steady rate. The famines were the catalyzing crisis, but population growth, an outmoded economy, and increasing literacy were all contributing factors to this wave of Irish immigration. By 1855, nearly two million Irish people had resettled, largely in the American northeast. The Boston Pilot—a Catholic publication named after a journal in Dublin—began publication in the 1830s, and by the 1840s and 1850s more than a dozen Catholic churches had sprung up in Boston alone.

The German and Irish migrations in the period before the Civil War brought new religious challenges to a country on the eve of its own internal conflicts. Some outspoken religious and political leaders spoke out against the Catholics, calling them “Papists” whose allegiance would always be to the Pope rather than to the American flag. For others, anti-Catholicism was still a legacy of the Protestant Reformation, kept alive by groups such as The American Society to Promote the Principles of the Protestant Reformation, founded in 1840 to guard against the rapid growth of the “influence of Romanism.” To be Protestant, for some, meant to define oneself over and against Catholicism, and to resist the presence of Catholics in schools, neighborhoods, and the nation. In the 1850s a political party calling themselves the “Know-Nothings” gained widespread support for a party platform that was distinctly anti-foreign and anti-Catholic. “Nativism” began to walk hand in hand with anti-Catholicism, despite the historical fact that Catholics had played a significantly supportive role in the American Revolution, had participated in the Constitutional Convention, and had otherwise demonstrated their distinctly American loyalties.

The response to Jewish immigrants was equally embedded in a history of anti-Jewish sentiment. Between 1825 and 1865 the Jewish population in New York City grew from approximately 500 to 40,000. Many new Jewish immigrants found that the stereotypes they had hoped to leave behind them were alive and well in their new country. Some non-Jews were uncomfortable with the rising Jewish population and were quick to define Jews as clever, miserly, competitive merchants, eager to snatch a dollar from the hands of the innocent customer. Such negative images, perpetuated for centuries in Europe, had travelled to America in the minds of some of the earliest Protestant immigrants. As Jews became the newest American arrivals, old myths about Jewish character resurfaced, reinforced by the reality that the majority of Jews made their living as peddlers and merchants.

By the 1880s, new arrivals from southern and eastern Europe began to form a distinctive “second wave” of immigration to America. In addition to Protestant Scandinavians were Italian Catholics and Eastern European Jews. This period was distinctive for the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving, the diversity of their languages and cultures, and the extent to which their religious practices were unfamiliar not only to the American-born residents but also to the immigrants who had arrived mid-century. In the feverish years between 1892 and 1924, more than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, and a new American cultural milieu emerged.

In this new multi-ethnic setting, the powerful pulls of religious and cultural identity often worked at cross purposes. Newly arrived Italian Catholics often found themselves at odds with the Irish, with whom they shared a common faith but held entirely different languages, nationalities, customs, and even styles of worship. Yet both Irish and Italian Catholics were drawn together, working to resist the anti-Catholicism they confronted on both national and neighborhood levels. Similarly, newly arrived Russian Jews faced resistance from both Jews and non-Jews. More Orthodox than their German counterparts, Eastern European Jews faced difficult decisions about how much of their communal village life should and could be preserved in American cities. Refusing to work on the Sabbath limited economic opportunities and could cost a garment worker his or her job. Meanwhile, more established middle-class American and German Jews expressed ambivalence about the influx of their Eastern European and Russian counterparts. Many feared a loss of economic status or an increase in discrimination as the rise of Jewish immigration fanned the flames of antisemitism. With a kind of ironic logic, some established immigrant Jews added their voices to the cries for more restrictive immigration policies.

The public school, also called the “common school,” was perhaps the most important arena of inter-religious encounter and conflict. From the mid-19th century on, both Catholics and Jews struggled with the American public school system, finding that the much vaunted “free public education” had a strong Protestant bias. Catholics like Archbishop John Hughes of New York protested against what he called anti-Catholic teachings in the schools. Jews like Joseph Brandon of San Francisco raised their voices against the move to recite the Lord’s Prayer in the classroom. Staunch advocates of a public school system that would not allow sectarian teaching found their voice in Horace Mann. And Protestant defenders like Josiah Strong articulated commonly held prejudices about the incompatibility of Roman Catholicism and democracy and the threat of Roman Catholics to the public school system. The public discussion that raged through the second half of the 19th century raised many of the same issues that were at the center of the debate on religion in the public schools in the late 20th century.

The Catholic and Jewish communities eventually evolved different strategies for dealing with public schools. Catholics developed a privately-funded parochial school system, supported by Catholic parishes and staffed, on the whole, by nuns, thereby seeking to insure children received Christian moral and religious education as well as instruction in the specifically Catholic catechism. The Jewish community, however, opted for active participation in the public schools, which they saw as nurturing American roots and opening avenues into mainstream American life. They also sought to appeal to the Constitution in protesting the school system’s Christian bias. As early as the 1860s, Isaac Mayer Wise, leader of the Reform community in Cincinnati, succeeded in having devotional Bible readings eliminated from what were supposed to be secular public schools. After lengthy appeals, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled such devotional Bible reading violated the Constitutional separation of church and state.

In late 20th and into 21st century America, Muslims have encountered many of the same challenges that Catholic and Jewish immigrants faced a century ago when it comes to public education. Today, however, Muslims often perceive the bias to be secular rather than Protestant. In addition, school curricula may contain stereotypical or inaccurate discussions of Islam. Many Muslim parents have opted for full-time Islamic schools. They contend that it is too difficult to bring their children up as “good Muslims” when they are immersed in the values and environment of American public schools. Other Muslims have insisted on the importance of the public school system and worked to improve the understanding of Islam among teachers, administrators, and textbook providers.

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Archbishop Hughes on Education, New York, 1840

The encounter of Catholics and Jews with the power of America’s Protestant majority became visible in the response of Catholics and Jews to American public schools, where they found a clear Protestant bias. Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864) of New York writes forcefully of the prejudicial image of Catholics presented in the public schools, with their distinctly Protestant cast. He suggests that since Catholics are obliged to pay taxes for such schools, they be allowed to support their own school system with these revenues. Eventually Catholics would develop a strong, privately supported parochial school system.

Besides the introduction of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment, with the prevailing theory that from these even children are to get their notions of religion, contrary to our principles, there were in the class books of those schools false (as we believe) historical statements respecting the men and things of past times, calculated to fill the minds of our children with errors of fact, and at the same time to excite in them prejudice against the religion of their parents and guardians. These passages were not considered as sectarian, inasmuch as they had been selected as mere reading lessons, and were not in favor of any particular sect, but merely against the Catholics. We feel it is unjust that such passages should be taught at all in schools, to the support of which we are contributors as well as others. But that such books should be put into the hands of our own children, and that in part at our own expense, was in our opinion unjust, unnatural, and at all events to us intolerable.

Accordingly, through very great additional sacrifices, we have been obliged to provide schools, under our churches and elsewhere, in which to educate our children as our conscientious duty required. This we have done to the number of some thousands for several years past, during all of which time we have been obliged to pay taxes; and we feel it unjust and oppressive that while we educate our children, as well we contend as they would be at the public schools, we are denied our portion of the school fund, simply because we at the same time endeavor to train them up in principles of virtue and religion. This we feel to be unjust and unequal. For we pay taxes in proportion to our timbers, as other citizens. We are supposed to be from one hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand in the State. And although most of us are poor, still the poorest man among us is obliged to pay taxes, from the sweat of his brow, in the rent of his room or little tenement. Is it not, then, hard and unjust that such a man cannot have the benefit of education for his child without sacrificing the rights of his religion and conscience? He sends his child to a school under the protection of his Church, in which these rights will be secure. But he has to support this school also. In Ireland he was compelled to support a church hostile to his religion, and here he is compelled to support schools in which his religion fares but little better, and to support his own school besides.

Is this state of things, fellow citizens, and especially Americans, is this state of things worthy of you, worthy of our country, worthy of our just and glorious constitution? Put yourself in the poor man’s place, and say whether you would not despise him if he did not labor by every lawful means to emancipate himself from this bondage. He has to pay double taxation for the education of his child, one to the misinterpreted law of the land, and another to his conscience. He sees his child going to school with perhaps only the fragment of a worn out book, thinly clad, and its bare feet on the frozen pavement; whereas, if he had his rights he could improve the clothing, he could get better books, and have his child better taught than it is possible in actual circumstances.

Nothing can be more false than some statements of our motives which have been put forth against us.

It has been asserted that we seek our share of the school funds for the support and advance of our religion.

We beg to assure you with respect, that we would scorn to support or advance our religion at any other than our own expense. But we are unwilling to pay taxes for the purpose of destroying our religion in the minds of our children. This points out the sole difference between what we seek and what some narrowminded or misinformed journals have accused us of seeking.

If the public schools could have been constituted on a principle which would have secured a perfect NEUTRALITY of influence on the subject of religion, then we should have no reason to complain. But this has not been done, and we respectfully submit that it is impossible. The cold indifference with which it is required that all religion shall be treated in those schools–the Scriptures without note or comment; the selection of passages, as reading lessons, from Protestants and prejudiced authors, on points in which our creed is supposed to be involved; the comments of the teacher, of which the commissioners cannot be cognizant; the school libraries, stuffed with sectarian works against us–form against our religion a combination of influences prejudicial to our religion, and to whose action it would be criminal in us to expose our children at such an age.

[From John G. Hassard, Life of the Most Reverend John Hughes (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1866), 230-32.]

Jewish Response to School Prayer

A controversy in San Francisco in 1875 concerned a proposal by a Protestant minister to restore religion to the “Godless” schools by having the students recite the Lord’s Prayer. Joseph R. Brandon, a prominent San Francisco Jew, responded forcefully to this proposal.

Letter of Joseph R. Brandon in Response to the Reverend Mr. Hemphill:

Mr. Hemphill, in his cry about Godless schools, evidently represents that class of men who must see the name of God stamped upon everything; who are uneasy because it does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, and are continually agitating to get it there, as the first step to sectarianizing the Government. What doctrine is this? Cannot things speak of God to the soul of man without the letters of His name being graven upon them? Do flowers speak to us of Him? Yet we find not His name on them. Do we see the lightning assume the form of the letters of His name, or hear the thunder pronounce the sound? Yet, they speak to us of Him. Does the wind shriek His name to us in the tempest, or whisper it in the zephyr? Yet they speak to us of Him. Do the heavens declare His glory, and the earth His handiwork:  “There is no speech, there is no language, yet their voice is heard.” And if the name of God does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, surely to him who has God in his heart His hand is seen therein, and he may exclaim with the magicians of Egypt, “The finger of God is here.” . . .

The hope of all thinking men as the means to this end is education—education of the highest order—the cultivation of science, the exercise of reason, unlimited in its objects; but to this end it must be UNSECTARIAN. None must be shut out from that light, which is to dissipate the clouds of bigotry and prejudice, and hasten the appearance of the cloudless sky of which we have spoken, and whence the heavenly dew distills.

Education—unsectarian education is the hope and salvation of the Jew, as of all who have passed through religious persecution; for it is from the deep, dark clouds of ignorance, which bespeak its absence among men, that the direst shafts of bigotry and persecution which have fallen upon our people and others have proceeded. Well, indeed, and earnestly may we labor for its diffusion, and seek not to drive children from, but to persuade and invite them to the common schools by removing all obstacles in the way.

Let our education be of the widest kind. Let reason and religion, too long divorced, too long at enmity, be reconciled. Let all of us, with free thought and free, unsectarian education, seek to lift ourselves and our fellows above the clouds of ignorance, sectarianism and prejudice, until these clouds can be dissipated.  .  .  .

No, reader; because sectarian prayer has not been permitted in the schools, the friend of true education and true religion need not wail with Mr. Hemphill—that a battle has been lost—that Rome has conquered. He may rather rejoice that free thought, free education, free religion has gained a victory over the churchmen of all denominations; that the great principle has at last been enunciated, that the State, which should be the common parent and protector of all its children—majority or minority, few or many—will not lend its aid to dispense the particolored light of any particular sect, but only that colorless, illuminating principle which is common to all; and let us fervently hope, and at the same time be vigilant, that sectarianism, whether in the garb of Catholic priest, or Protestant minister, rob us not of the victory.

[From L.P. Gartner, ed., Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History (New York: Teachers College Press, 1969), 91-93. © 1969 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.]

Josiah Strong: Our Country

The Reverend Josiah Strong was a Congregational minister and a representative of the American Home Missionary Society. During the time he wrote this book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, he was the pastor of Central Congregational Church in Cincinnati. With a strong Anglo-Saxon Protestant point of view Strong attacks what he sees to be the great “perils” of the times—including immigration, Catholicism or Romanism, as he calls it; the Catholic and secular threat to the public school system; Mormonism, intemperance, socialism, wealth, and the city. Each of these topics receives treatment in a chapter. He must have struck a responsive chord with this presentation of America’s challenges and problems, for this book remained in print for decades. He presents an often strident view of America’s capacity to absorb real religious difference, excerpted here.

From Chapter V: Perils—Romanism

We have made a brief comparison of some of the fundamental principles of Romanism with those of the Republic. And,

1) We have seen the supreme sovereignty of the Pope opposed to the sovereignty of the people.

2) We have seen that the commands of the Pope, instead of the constitution and laws of the land, demand the highest allegiance of Roman Catholics in the United States.

3) We have seen that the alien Romanist who seeks citizenship swears true obedience to the Pope instead of “renouncing forever all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty,” as required by our laws.

4) We have seen that Romanism teaches religious intolerance instead of religious liberty.

5) We have seen that Rome demands the censorship of ideas and of the press, instead of the freedom of the press and of speech.

6) We have seen that she approves the union of church and state instead of their entire separation.

7) We have seen that she is opposed to our public schools.

Manifestly there is an irreconcilable difference between papal principles and the fundamental principles of our free institutions. Popular government is self-government. A nation is capable of self-government only so far as the individuals who compose it are capable of self-government. To place one’s conscience, therefore, in the keeping of another, and to disavow all personal responsibility in obeying the dictation of another, is as far as possible from self-government, and, therefore, wholly inconsistent with republican institutions, and, if sufficiently common, dangerous to their stability. It is the theory of absolutism in the state, that man exists for the state. It is the theory of absolutism in the church that man exists for the church. But in republican and Protestant America it is believed that church and state exist for the people and are to be administered by them. Our fundamental ideas of society, therefore, are as radically opposed to Vaticanism as to imperialism, and it is as inconsistent with our liberties for Americans to yield allegiance to the Pope as to the Czar.

From Chapter VI: Perils—Religion and the Public Schools

Democracy necessitates the public school. Important as is the school to any civilized people, it is exceptionally so to us, for in the United States the common school has a function which is peculiar, viz., to Americanize the children of immigrants. The public school is the principal digestive organ of the body politic. By means of it the children of strange and dissimilar races which come to us are, in one generation, assimilated and made Americans. It is the heterogeneous character of our population (especially in cities) which threatens the integrity of our public school system and at the same time renders it supremely important to maintain that integrity. Moreover, apart from consequences to the school system, the policy which is finally adopted by the American people touching religion and the public schools concerns most intimately the welfare both of our youth and of the State. . . .Two theories that threaten the well-being of the schools and of the State demand our attention.

First, that of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which holds that education should be distinctly religious, which of course means Roman Catholic. Vague or general instruction will not suffice, there must be inculcated the system of doctrine found in the Roman catechism. It holds that religious and secular education cannot be safely separated. Inasmuch, therefore, as the State will not teach Roman Catholic doctrine in the public schools, parochial schools become necessary.

It is held that the public schools are in fact Protestant, and that Catholics are taxed to support them while they carry the burden of their own parochial schools. They complain that this is an injustice which can be removed only by the division of the school fund, and that to divide this fund between the “Protestant” and Catholic schools pro rata would be only equitable. . . .

This cleavage of the population along religious lines is greatly to be regretted. It is un-American. It carries the shadow on the dial of progress back from the nineteenth to the seventeenth century. Intercourse tends to eliminate differences and to make a population homogeneous. Non-intercourse nourishes suspicion, prejudice, and religious bitterness, of which the world has had quite enough already. There are many reasons why children of different religions and different races, of rich and poor, of all classes of society, should mingle in the public school. This segregation of the Catholic children, though well intended, inflicts injury upon society and a greater injury upon the Catholic children themselves. How can the evil results which must necessarily attend the establishment of parochial schools be minimized? Certainly not by secularizing the public schools. This remedy was tried to a considerable extent, when the question of the Bible in the public schools was so widely discussed some twenty years ago. Instead of conciliating the Catholic priesthood, it only put into their mouth the cry which they are using today, with the greatest effect upon their own people, viz., that the public schools are “godless.”

…The second theory touching religion and the public schools which demands our attention is that of the secularists, among whom are counted many Christian men as well as all Jews and agnostics.

According to this theory the province of the State is wholly secular; its true attitude is that of absolute neutrality toward all forms of religious belief and unbelief; to teach religion in any form is to do violence to the rights of certain classes of citizens.

…When the fathers added to the Constitution the principle of strict separation of Church and State, they did not intend to divorce the State from all religion. Says Judge Story, speaking of the time when the Constitution was adopted, “The attempt to level all religions, and make it a matter of State policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.” The principle of the separation of Church and State undoubtedly forbids sectarian instruction in the State schools; but we have the highest legal and judicial authority for saying that it does not forbid undenominational religious teaching. “But,” it will be asked, “does not the teaching of religious doctrine which is undenominational violate the rights of agnostics quite as much as inculcating the dogmas of one sect wrongs the adherents of others?” By no means; because the teaching of the three great fundamental doctrines which are common to all monotheistic religions is essential to the perpetuity of free institutions, while the inculcation of sectarian dogmas is not. These three doctrines are that of the existence of God, the immortality of man, and man’s accountability. These doctrines are held in common by all Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. There are comparatively few in this country who do not hold them; and the children of these few should be taught these fundamental truths of religion, not because agnostics are in the minority, for questions of conscience can be settled neither by majorities nor by authority, but because the necessities of the State are above individual rights.

[From Rev. Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. (New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1891), 76-7, 92-6.]