Robert Emmett CURRAN. Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 1574-1783. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014. pp. 320. $29.95 pb. ISBN: 978-0-8132-2583-8. Reviewed by Daniel LLOYD, Saint Leo University, North Charleston, SC 29406
As the title of Robert Emmett Curran’s book, Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 1574-1783, suggests, this work’s scope is quite large. Curran, however, clearly succeeds in balancing detail and breadth. His work presents fascinating stories of individuals, families, and communities associated with Catholics in British America. In order to contextualize the Catholic experience, Curran uses his introduction to describe the political and social situations in Great Britain and Ireland which led to various phases of Catholic emigration. Such a beginning sets the stage for Curran’s consistently interesting presentation of the Catholic struggle to establish and maintain a place in colonial society in the face of social handicaps spawned by religious hostility.
Maryland occupies a central place in Curran’s work. He carefully walks through the history of the George Calvert’s eventual, though posthumous, success in gaining a charter for the swath of “undeveloped…land between Delaware Bay and the Potomac River,” (29). George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and a Catholic, intended his territory to be a place of religious tolerance. Curran ably demonstrates that the harmony between Calvert’s genuine Catholic piety and his financial goals, those which led to his seeking a charter in the first place, both contributed to this desire for tolerance. Even so, Curran also discusses the ways in which some of the powerful in the small Catholic minority (which Curran identifies as never more than 10% of the overall population) was, at times, able to financially prosper disproportionately.
Curran tells the story not only of the Calverts, who were granted absolute lordship in the charter, but also of several Catholic and Protestant families and the ties they created through marriage, financial partnerships, or both. Furthermore, Curran illustrates the influence that shifts in English politics and culture had on the colonies and on Maryland in particular. For example, readers are treated to a riveting description of Richard Ingle’s rebellion against the Calverts. After major looting, Ingle surprisingly failed to secure the English Parliament’s nullification of Lord Baltimore’s charter and to turn Maryland over to Protestant control. Curran also pays special attention to the, at times, difficult relationship between the lay Catholic leaders of Maryland and the Jesuits, who were most responsible for ministering to the Maryland Catholics.
The scope of the book, as already mentioned, is perhaps its most fascinating aspect. Curran grounds and fills out the Maryland experiment by attending to the Catholic populations in the West Indies, New York, and Pennsylvania. He utilizes this disparate attention to portray the variety of situations which both hindered and helped the Catholics in the New World. We learn, for example, about ways the social situations of the different environments in the British colonies could be used by the Catholic communities to help insulate them from the ebb and flow of anti-Catholic sentiment, which either came from England or developed in the colonies. Curran also effectively demonstrates ways in which Catholic populations were alternatively tolerated or mistreated. Although never treated with total respect by most non-Catholics, Catholics indeed enjoyed periods of calm, but these could easily slip into periods of suspicion and persecution. The title of the book, in fact, comes from an early episode of persecution, in which during the plundering of a Catholic’s estate, a looter found Catholic books and shouted, “Burn them Papist Divells,” (63).
By titling the book Papist Devils, Curran somewhat plays to the sensational. Though it accurately represents the most intolerant of views about Catholics in British America, the narrative presented reveals a far more complex tale. Most striking is the seeming fickleness and opportunism of the periods marked by anti-Catholic prejudice. On this score, Curran’s work might be seen as suffering from a lack of contextualization. Aside from noting oaths of allegiance which many Catholics refused to take, Curran rarely identifies the differences in theological outlook which led the Anglicans especially to view Catholicism as inherently dangerous to non-Catholic states. Some limited attention to theological disputes would, therefore, help to explain this important part of the story.
Curran’s less than 300 page trek, through two centuries and many places, is a journey well worth taking. His style is lively and engaging. Occasionally however, general readers, who are otherwise already not familiar with the historical particulars, might be confused about the players in the drama, such as the variety of Charles Carrolls (of Carrollton, the Dr., the Settler). Curran’s pace at times moves from event or person with little introduction. But general readers seem to be the most appropriate target audience for the book. Curran’s sparse use of footnotes or substantial references, which makes the work less useful to specialists, should speak to general readers who will find the quick pace a welcome attribute.