‘American Evangelical’ Explores Group’s Historical Fear Of Immigrants

Roughly a week before Trump ‘used rough language‘ to describe his desire to keep certain immigrants out of the country, I found American Evangelical Protestantism and European Immigrants, 1800-1924 sitting on the bookshelf at the Richmond, Ind. Goodwill.

The book relies heavily on historical writings to flesh out the view of Evangelicals concerning which immigrants they did not want coming to America (spoiler alert: Trump was playing to them with his recent Norway/shithole comment).

Public Enemy No. 1: Catholics

During the 1800-1921 era, few groups generated more fear among the Protestant Evangelicals than immigrants from mostly Catholic countries — like Ireland. But, in the Irish, the Evangelicals found a formidable foe. The Irish, because of their dealings with the British in their homelands, were highly interested and highly skilled in politics. A host of battle lines were drawn between the Irish, and the Catholics as a whole, but few generated as much animosity as public schools. Protestants were determined to force all school children to be taught from their Bible and passed laws to forbid the Catholic Bible from being used in schools. Catholics fought back, and in time, largely through the help of the Irish, pushed out the religious intolerance.

They’re All Ungodly Drunks

Even though at its core, the battle over immigration was one of religious preference (and a convenient interpretation of the Founding Father’s belief systems — as if there were one unifying interpretation of religion), but part of this also included what the nativists viewed as moral actions. During this era, the Irish and German, were coming to the country in large numbers to fill the labor shortage. Both groups had a significantly differ view on the consumption of alcohol. The view of evangelicals had shifted from the country’s inception from one that did not view drinking as a sin (only drunkenness) to a view that all consumption of alcohol was evil. This, of course, jarred with the customs of many Irish and German citizens, who not only enjoyed drinking, but were also inclined to do it on the only day they had off – Sunday. The Evangelicals fought back eventually ushering in the Prohibition.

Assimilation, Through Coercion

One of the most interesting aspects of the book, to me, is the fact that (as the author successfully demonstrates), Evangelicals members of the Republican Party, were also believers in free will, except that did not apply to moral choices. The group tirelessly worked to impose their version of morality on the country. They did not shy away from using denigrating language to describe those they considered ‘undesirable.’ Their xenophobia (and at other times racism) is also apparent in the words of many of their leaders. One leader, Josiah Strong, believed Germans were of an ‘inferior stock’ than Anglo-Saxons, and pushed for immigrants to be brought in from ‘acceptable areas’ of Europe.

After reading the book, and seeing how the views of Evangelicals today mirror 19th century views, I do wonder why they never learned to live the words of the Apostle Paul, who said,

“When I became a man, I put away childish things.”

My Rating 4 out of 5 stars. The only reason I ding the book slightly is because it is more scholarly than popular in tone. There are a lot of historical quotes and footnotes, which can may it difficult for the casual reader to read. But, those interested in seeing how deeply-rooted fear is difficult to weed out of a country’s soil, this book supplies ample quotes from 19th and 20th century Evangelical leaders — words that could have just as easily be spoken by Franklin Graham, James Dobson or Jerry Falwell Jr.

Categories: American History, Books I have read, My America

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