Review: Papist Devils

Michael S. Carter

Michael S. Carter is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dayton.

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Michael S. Carter, "Review: Papist Devils," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Robert Emmett Curran. Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 1574-1783. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014. 315pp. ISBN 978-0-8132-2583-8.

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Robert Emmett Curran’s Papist Devils is a magisterial narrative history of Catholicism and anti-Catholicism (or anti-popery) in the early modern British Atlantic World. Curran, recently Professor Emeritus of History at Georgetown University, brings to bear a distinguished career in this field to provide what may become the definitive overview of the English-speaking Catholic world up to the close of the American Revolution. This book would be ideal for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses in Atlantic World, British, or early American religious history, courses on the Catholic history of America, and its straightforward prose style should find it a willing readership among non-scholars as well. The book’s broadly inclusive engagement with social, political, cultural, theological, economic, gender, and ecclesiastical-institutional history subfields is one of its most admirable features. It incorporates and cites most of the newer work in the field. Notably, the work also makes use of major recent monographs on the general histories of early British America and the Atlantic World – this is not a book only for specialists in the history of religion.

American Catholic history has, finally, in recent decades been receiving more of the attention that it deserves. Many of the now venerable (John Tracy Ellis) and even the fairly recent (Patrick Carey) surveys in American Catholic history, mostly written for popular or undergraduate audiences and therefore seeking to cover everything from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries, requires them to be necessarily brief. Or, typical for more advanced works, these focus on narrower periods or themes. Some overviews begin only with the arrival of Catholics in North America, largely neglecting the European context, or give only brief nods to the pre-Revolutionary history of Catholicism, essentially beginning their stories with the intensification of anti-Catholic nativist violence and anti-immigrant sentiment of the antebellum period. Papist Devils, then, richly contextualized in the transatlantic British Atlantic world, is a welcome contribution, as it both fills a lacuna in the literature and provides the long perspective of the crucial two centuries following England’s official break with Rome. As Curran writes, “[t]o understand the Catholic exodus from England, Ireland, and Scotland that took place over the nearly two centuries that constituted the colonial period meant a starting point of the English Reformation that had, in turn, so shaped the Catholic community that survived it and the colonies in the New World that England founded" (xii).

Papist Devils is made up of eleven chapters, followed by a brief epilogue on the “colonial legacy” of the post-Revolutionary period. The book’s first few chapters focus on the late-Elizabethan English background to American settlement, the origins and early development of the Maryland colony—with special attention to (often successful) English Jesuit missionary efforts, a subject often neglected—and issues of church and state in the early colony. The English Civil War receives a chapter, followed by the Irish Caribbean diaspora. The mainland North American Catholic experience outside of Maryland—New York and Pennsylvania—are then treated, followed by an excellent chapter on the role of anti-Catholicism as it bears upon the political and immigration history writ large in the British Atlantic during the Glorious Revolution. The final five chapters focus mostly on Catholicism in the colonies that became the United States, culminating in chapters on the Seven Years War, situated again within the entire British Atlantic, and finally Catholics in the American Revolution.

While Papist Devils contextualized and situated early American Catholicism more broadly than most histories, it focuses on Maryland. The preponderance of the primary material explores the more familiar territory of the Carroll family and other great planters of the eighteenth century, drawing upon the author’s own major expertise and upon the work of specialists such as John D. Krugler and Tricia T. Pyne. Thus, the book is also quite suitable for advanced courses in the history of the early American South, and of course Maryland and the Chesapeake specifically. The chapter on the Irish diaspora in the Caribbean is a highlight of the book, especially as this has received insufficient scholarly attention. As Curran notes, more Catholics lived in the British Caribbean in the seventeenth century, constituting at least a significant minority, than there were in the entire North American mainland.

Curran has offered an immensely satisfying and comprehensive narrative history of Catholics and their responses to the serious challenges to their freedoms and identity through the end of the American Revolution. The book concludes with a few comments on the issues left unresolved near the close of the eighteenth century—neatly paving the way for others to take up the thread.