Irish Catholics Were “Heathen,” Too

guest post by Lois Glewwe

You never know what you might find while searching for a historic figure on the Internet. I was looking for R. McQuestern, who was mentioned in Robert Cressell’s little book  Among the Sioux: A Story of the Twin Cities and the Two Dakotas. McQuestern was the author of a biography of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson.

The only McQuestern who showed up was a Mrs. McQuestern who was listed as making a donation to the American and Foreign Christian Union in 1861. I’d never heard of this organization so I continued searching and found the following information on the website of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, PA.

“The American and Foreign Christian Union (AFCU) was founded in New York City in May of 1849 with the express purpose of converting Roman Catholics to evangelical Protestantism, both in the United States and abroad. Union members considered this task to be an essential step toward their larger goal of converting the world to the American Protestant and democratic way of life.”

It’s significant that the AFCU was founded through the union of three other societies which were established in the 1840s, a time of heavy Irish Catholic immigration to America. The American Protestant Society (1844-1849) directed its efforts toward converting foreign-born American Catholics. The Christian Alliance (1842-1849) focused on Italian Catholics born in Italy and elsewhere. The Foreign Evangelical Society (1839-1849) spread Protestantism by providing financial support to groups and individuals in Catholic and non-Catholic countries.

I must admit that I had to laugh at what today seems such an absurd effort. I’d had no idea that the anti-Catholic prejudices of the Minnesota’s missionaries to the Dakota, extended to an official organization with such a blatant purpose.

The PHS website explains that leading clergymen of the Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed and Methodist Episcopal churches comprised the constituency of the Union. “The AFCU relied upon voluntary contributions from members of the various sympathetic evangelical Protestant denominations and received its strongest support, throughout the 35 years of its active missionary work, from those of the Presbyterian and Congregational churches.” By 1860, the organization had 73 workers they were supporting across the United States.

Given the AFCU’s close ties to Presbyterians and Congregationalists, it’s safe to assume that the Ponds, the Riggses, and the Williamsons were aware of the organization’s conversion goals, if not actually numbered among its financial supporters. There is thus a certain delicious irony in the fact that a French Canadian Roman Catholic, Joseph Renville, probably did more to promote the acceptance of the missionaries among the Dakota people than anyone else in Minnesota history.

What happened to the AFCU? In 1884, the organization apparently abandoned American Roman Catholics to their self-chosen fate and focused solely on converting Catholics through the work of The American Church in Paris. The organization still exists today. Their website offers the following statement:

“The American and Foreign Christian Union (AFCU) Organization exists solely for the purpose of supporting the ministries, in Christ’s name, of the American Church in Paris (ACP), the American Church in Berlin (ACB) and the Vienna Community Church (VCC).”

–Lois Glewwe


Lois A. Glewwe, former Director of Rights and Reproductions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and past executive at several Minnesota historical organizations, is writing a biography of abolitionist and teacher Jane Smith Williamson, whose prolific correspondence is a window into the close personal relationships between Dakota people and Protestant missionaries in mid- and middle west in the 19th century. Glewwe’s most recent publication, “The Journey of the Prisoners” in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Exile Begins (Prairie Echoes, 2008) tells the story of the vigilante attack on a wagon convoy of shackled Dakota prisoners outside New Ulm, Minnesota, in the wake of the 1862 war.

Photo credit: “Celtic Cross” not sourced, Google Images

This entry was posted in Doing Historical Research, Opinion, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Irish Catholics Were “Heathen,” Too

  1. Pingback: …And So Were German Turners | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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