Gilbert Tennent and some thoughts on Colonial America’s Anti-Catholicism

Hi friends,

So for Colonial America this past semester, I had to tell the story of a primary source document.  I found this interesting sermon by a Great Awakening pastor named Gilbert Tennent.  He preached a sermon on English exceptionalism based off a battle that he thought England had won.  The problem?  England had actually lost the battle.  The battle was at the Port of Toulon and it was Protestant England against the Catholic forces of France and Spain.  However, Tennent — and apparently many colonists — had not heard this message.  Nevertheless, much of what he says goes a long way to demonstrate some of the anti-Catholicism running through the British-American Colonies.  Here is just a small portion of the paper that I wrote. . .

Gilbert Tennent was a product of the First Great Awakening, and one of the fears of the people during that movement was that of “Catholic domination.”  Throughout the colonies, “Anti-Catholicism was rampant. . .” just as much as it was in England. (1)

  The Puritans of the American colonies saw Catholicism as “ . . . corruption of the Christian message” and did not want to see it in Colonial America.  The people paired their fear of Catholics with their fear of Jacobites — supporters of the Catholic Monarchy of the Stuart dynasty.   Specifically in Pennsylvania, Tennent’s home, increased immigration led to a fear of a Catholic takeover of the tolerant, Quaker colony. (2)  Often times, Catholics were treated as enemies, particularly in New England where in the Massachusetts’ Bay Colony, a law was passed explicitly labeling Catholics as enemies to Christianity.   However, it was not only the law that stated these views on Catholicism.  During the First Great Awakening, tensions between Protestant England and Catholic France and Catholic Spain found its way into messages.

     Protestant ministers would also preach sermons that demonstrated the anti-Catholic feelings running through the colonies. Besides a message of deliverance, Tennent’s sermon holds a significant degree of Anti-Catholic sentiments.  As someone who had grown up under Puritan parents, he believed in the idea of millenarianism, which believed that the second coming of Christ was near.  Thus Tennent viewed the battle as a divine sign with the Catholics as the Antichrist-like group. (3)  Furthermore the “revivalist zeal of the colonists no doubt played a part in the anti-hierarchical nature of anti-Catholic attitudes,” that Protestants such as Tennent felt.

  As Tennent described the failure of the Gunpowder Plot he said the reason behind the attempt was, “So the bloody Papists designed to burn up at one dreadful Blast the Flowers and Strength of the English Nation, that so the Bulwark of the Protestant Zion being destroy’d, the whole might become an easy Prey to their Teeth. . .” then Tennent states how fortunate it was for the one of the nobles to find out about the attempt and be saved from the “Cruelty of Papists!” (4)

  Tennent understood that the Gunpowder plot was an attempt to destroy Parliament and the King, and the face behind the plot was a Catholic named Guy Fawkes.  Essentially what this did, was that it increased the growing feud between Protestants and Catholics throughout England — including in England’s colonies where Gilbert Tennent lived — thus continuing to increase the anti-Catholic sentiments throughout the British realm. Tennent essentially casted Catholics as “binary negatives of themselves [English Protestants],” which demonstrates the Anti-Catholic sentiment that had swelled in England and the British Colonies.  Furthermore, Tennent seemed to view England as the Israel described in the Bible’s Old Testament; following the Battle of Toulon he compared the Papists to the Egyptians, who had for a time enslaved the Israelites.  Gilbert Tennent praised God for the victory at Toulon for baffling the “hellish Councils of the Romish Ahithophels, who want to rob us[English] of our Religion, our Liberties, and Our Lives!”  He believed that Catholics were a threat to the “civil and religious Liberties” that English people at the time were experiencing.  As he concluded his comparison between the Catholics and Egypt he told his congregation to . . . pray, that he who has and does deliver will yet deliver us from Popery and Slavery.”  Tennent’s comparison of Catholicism to oppressive forces, was not only a result of Tennent’s long held anti-Catholic sentiments, but Tennent was also trying to show his congregation about what he believed was the attempt of Catholics to destroy the religious lifestyle that Tennent held dear to himself.  (5)

Well bad grammar aside, hopefully you’ve learned something new.  Hopefully you’ve gotten to see a part of Colonial America through the words of Gilbert Tennent.  Thanks for reading.





1 – Ralph E. Pyle. “The Origins of Religious Stratification in Colonial America.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42, no.1 (2003): 57-76. JSTOR, (May 6, 2013). 60

2 – Thomas S. Kidd. The Great Awakening : The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven. 2013. 200 ; Joseph J. Casino. “Anti-Popery in Colonial Pennsylvania.” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania 105, no.3 (1981): 279-309. JSTOR, (May 6, 2013). 281

3 – Joseph J. Casino. “Anti-Popery in Colonial Pennsylvania.” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania 105, no.3 (1981): 279-309. JSTOR, (May 6, 2013). 281 ; Ralph E. Pyle. “The Origins of Religious Stratification in Colonial America.”  60 ; Thomas S. Kidd. The Great Awakening : The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. xvii ; “Significance of the Great Awakening.” (accessed Apr 24, 2013).

4 – R O. Bucholz. and Newton Key. Early Modern England, 1485-1714 : A Narrative History. Malden, MA. 2013. 236 ; Benjamin Bankhurst. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography , Vol. 133, No. 4 (Oct., 2009), pp. 317-348. 318 ; Gilbert Tennent. “The Necessity of Thankfulness for Wonders of divine Mercies.” 14 ; “Biography of Gilbert Tennent.” The Great Awakening Documentary. (accessed Apr 21, 2013). ; Tennent, Gilbert. “The Necessity of Thankfulness for Wonders of divine Mercies.” 1-16

5 –  Gilbert Tennent. “The Necessity of Thankfulness for Wonders of divine Mercies.” 4, 14, 4, 5, 13, 6, 14


Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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Posted in Historical Finds, Some Of The History We Write, Stories Of Events
3 comments on “Gilbert Tennent and some thoughts on Colonial America’s Anti-Catholicism
  1. It is hardly surprising that the English colonies in America displayed anti-Catholic sentiments. In Spanish colonial America Protestants and Conversos (converts from Judaism who were thought to be insincere in their new faith) were burnt by the Inquisition at a series of Autos da Fe in Mexico and Lima.

  2. Phil says:

    Absolutely Edward, even regardless of what the Spanish were doing to the Protestants then in Spanish Colonial America, the British Protestants were anti-Catholic simply because they saw Catholics as tools of the devil. I’m sure what happened in the Spanish American colonies was just confirmation what the British at the time. It really is a fascinating topic to explore! Thanks for your input!

  3. […] 4) Gilbert Tennent and some thoughts on Colonial America’s Anti-Catholicism – Phil […]

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