Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

First Advisor

Eire, Carlos

Abstract

This dissertation examines the ways in which Catholics in the seventeenth-century British Atlantic balanced their competing identities as English, Scottish and Irish subjects and Catholics, despite persecution for their religion. It traces the stories of four groups of Catholics who, facing drastically different opportunities and restrictions, stubbornly refused to renounce their religion and conform. By 1660, Catholicism had been outlawed in the British Isles for a century, punishable by fines, forfeiture and even execution. Faced with persecution from their governments and neighbors and combatting a drastic dearth of resources in the form of priests, devotional items and sacraments, Catholic men and women adapted their religion to accommodate the unique needs and capabilities of themselves and their communities. While the institution of the Catholic Church has long enjoyed a reputation as a centralized, rigid and authoritative body with near-global command, the reality of lived Catholicism does not always cohere. The seventeenth-century British Isles and British Atlantic existed far on the fringes of Catholicism, where regulation was impossible, catechism infrequent and parishioners strikingly diverse. This dissertation examines the plurality of experiences of Catholicism among four groups of its followers: middle-class Scottish Catholic priests who self-exiled in Europe where they received a humanistic education and missionary training; poor, illiterate, Gaelic-speaking Catholic laymen and women in the Scottish Highlands and Islands who benefitted from a Catholic mission; Catholics in the colony of Maryland who enjoyed the ability to access and practice their religion openly, but faced violent political instability; and poor Irish Catholic indentured servants who labored alongside African slaves in the Caribbean. This dissertation argues that Catholic priests and parishioners adapted the tenets of the Catholic Church to their unique needs and restrictions. At the same time, they each sacrificed much in the pursuit of their devotion. Scottish priests in Europe engaged deeply with theology and doctrinal debates, but left behind their homes, their families, their land and some of their traditions. When they returned to Scotland as priests, their mission sprawled the country from Edinburgh to Aberdeen to Inverness and across the blustery western seas to the Outer Hebrides. In those places, they found Catholics desperately lacking proper catechesis and deeply ignorant of the higher points of doctrine. Through their teachings and the circulation of sacral objects including holy oils, sacraments and devotional texts, these priests helped to enlighten Catholics and preserve that religion for another generation. Across the Atlantic, Catholics in Maryland won legal toleration and even built their own churches. However, constant political drama and the intense physical demands of a new colony consistently distracted from worship and required devotional flexibility. Finally, Irish Catholics in the West Indies struggled to transplant their religion abroad in an environment nearly destitute of Catholic influence. Separated from their families and their homes and thrust into servitude in the harshest climates of the Caribbean, they practiced their religion quietly, in small gatherings in private homes. In all of these places, priests and laypeople alike practiced an imperfect form of Catholicism based on restriction, absence and disagreement. Nevertheless, they created a church that transcended the physical space of worship and adapted the central principles of the institution. Theirs was a faith imbibed and embodied. For those who remained Catholic, their religion was etched into their souls and carved into their very essence. For that reason, they could not easily reject it in the face of hardship and loss. Everywhere they shared in the pain of absence of loved ones, of homes, of resources and of freedom. Everywhere, too, they shared a resistance to persecution and a dedication to the values, communities and identities that centered on their dual status as Catholics and as imperial subjects.

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