A great bonfire was established on the lower end of the main street… Soon after dark, a rude stage … placed on wheels and drawn by horses, made its appearance, on which was seated … an effigy of the pope, hideously painted, and behind him stood another representing the Devil. Two men with masks on their faces and fantastically attired, attended the grotesque figures … the whole [group] was surrounded with lanterns, and a crowd of men and boys sung the following:
From Rome! From Rome the Pope has come,
All in 10,000 fears,
With fiery serpents all around
His head, nose, eyes and ears.
This is the treacherous dog that did contrive
To burn our King and Parliament alive;
God by his grace did this prevent,
And saved the King and Parliament.
This is an account of the Pope Day festivities that occurred each November 5 in many New England cities in the colonial era. From Boston to Newport to Salem, revelers took to the streets to commemorate the thwarting of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Fawkes, a militant Catholic, had tried to blow up Parliament when King James I was speaking there. Although the pope had no knowledge of Fawkes’ scheme, New Englanders were quick to make him rather than Fawkes the focus of their annual commemoration. (In England, by contrast, the holiday was—and is still—known as Guy Fawkes Day.)
While Pope Day had been celebrated in New England as early as the 1720s, it became much more commonplace in the 1760s after the French and Indian War ended. The struggle with the Catholic French and their Catholic Indian allies had sparked a wave of anti-Catholicism throughout the colonies. Additional measures against Catholics were enacted in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania and Pope Day ceremonies became more elaborate affairs. In Boston, rival gangs would each have their own popes and would battle each other through the night. Before the evening was over, the gangs would go to the homes of the wealthy and ring their bells asking for donations. If the owners refused to contribute, the revelers would drive a pole through their front window and proceed to the next home. The evening concluded with mobs throwing their effigies into the bonfire to great cheering from the spectators. Occasionally the merrymakers would get out of control and people would get injured. Indeed, in 1764 one boy in Boston was killed during the festivities.
In 1774, anti-Catholicism intensified still more throughout the colonies in response to the Quebec Act. Enacted by Parliament to regulate the affairs of the French Catholics in Canada, the law expanded Canada’s borders and recognized the Catholic Church’s prerogatives, including its right to receive tithes. Reverend Ezra Stiles, a prominent Newport minister who would soon be appointed president of Yale College, expressed his disgust in his diary: “The King has signed the Quebec Act, extending that Province to the Ohio and Mississippi and comprehending nearly Two Thirds of English America and established the Romish Church & IDOLATRY over all that space.” That November Stiles noted that Newporters had an unusually large Pope Day celebration, parading three popes through the city’s streets.
Within a year’s time, the colonists were fighting for their independence, having battled the English at Lexington, and Concord, and Bunker Hill. Commanding the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts, George Washington learned that his troops were planning to celebrate Pope Day that November 5. From his headquarters he issued a stern warning about “that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step … at a time when we are soliciting, and have really obtain’d the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada.”
Washington’s statement worked. No soldiers dared celebrate Pope Day that year and in the years following, the event died out in New England and the rest of the colonies. As the colonists sought help first from Canada and later from France, their attitudes towards Catholics rapidly shifted. After France announced its alliance with the colonists in 1778, many colonists found a new day to celebrate: August 25, the Feast of St. Louis. They did this to honor King Louis XVI, who was providing critically needed ships and soldiers to support the colonists.
At the Revolution’s end, Catholics found themselves in a much better position than they had been in just a decade earlier. Most of the colonial era disabilities on them had been lifted and the Church under John Carroll’s leadership started to establish parishes across the country from Boston to Bardstown, Kentucky. In the years following, a few Catholics like the Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey, the North Carolina judge William Gaston and Bishop John England would rise to prominence in the new republic. Bishop England would be invited to address Congress in 1826.
Anti-Catholicism would remain dormant in the United States until the 1830s when it would flare up again violently in response to the massive waves of Irish and German immigrants. And this time the mobs who would take to the streets would not be burning effigies of popes but would be torching actual convents and churches. Immigrants would meet hostility throughout the country, but would face an especially difficult challenge in New England, where the anti-Catholicism of the colonial era had never been fully erased.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot” was painted by Henry Perronet Briggs in 1823.