Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War
by John C. Pinheiro.
Oxford University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $45.

Missionaries of Republicanism, a volume in Oxford University Press’s prestigious Religion in America series, demonstrates convincingly how the anti-Catholic culture of the 1830s and 1840s shaped the rhetoric surrounding the Mexican-American war. Pinheiro uses Lyman Beecher’s Plea for the West (1835), which argued that Catholicism was a threat to preserving the West for American republicanism, as a synthetic foundation for the anti-Catholicism utilized before and during the Mexican-American war. Beecher’s Plea provided Americans with arguments that represented Catholic Mexico as a threat to republicanism. Supporters of the war (with some exceptions, President James K. Polk being a major one) as well as opponents employed anti-Catholicism to make their cases for or against the war. The rhetoric was universally accepted, Pinheiro shows, by those who recruited soldiers for the war, by politicians, diplomats, journalists, soldiers, evangelical activists, abolitionists, and pacifists, all of whom used it to interpret Mexico as a culture alien to American republicanism.

Pinheiro takes his title from the Democrat John L. O’Sullivan who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 and who argued in 1847 on the basis of Anglo-Saxon superiority that it was impossible to establish a political union with the “degraded Mexican Spanish” and that the “only choice was to ‘amalgamate’ the races through the work of ‘missionaries of republicanism.’” Race, religion, and politics came together before, during, and after the war to provide a rationale for the extension of the American republic into the West to save it for republicanism and the virtues of an Anglo-Saxon and Protestant culture.

Pinheiro puts his argument in the context of the rise of anti-Catholicism in the 1830s (with Maria Monk and Beecher in the forefront of the campaign), the religious and racial issues connected with the annexation of Texas, and the rhetoric of manifest destiny during the elections of the mid 1840s. Thereafter he traces the anti-Catholicism used by recruiters for the war, politicians, soldiers in Mexico, and leading voices in American Protestantism.

Pinheiro’s description of anti-Catholicism is not doctrinal but cultural. The anti-Catholicism duringthe war was not concerned with the truth of Catholic teachings, but more with Protestant perceptions of the social, political, and cultural consequences of the religious traditions Catholics inherited from the past. But he maintains that the religious dimension was not just one of many motivating factors in the mid-nineteenth century rhetoric. For him the religious dimension was foundational to the era’s social and political views. He belongs to that group of historians who takes seriously the power that religious convictions have in shaping social and political events and the interpretations of them.

Pinheiro traces a shift in anti-Catholic rhetoric from the salacious accounts of the “Maria Monk” affair of the 1830s to the social-political rhetoric of the 1840s and 1850s. The change represented a new apologetic tact on the part of Protestants that emphasized, rather than contentious Christian doctrines, the debilitating Catholic influence on civilization. Protestants, the Catholic writer Orestes Brownson argued in 1850, focused on the lack of material, economic, political, and social development in Catholic countries because they themselves no longer agreed on fundamental doctrine. This American shift in rhetoric from the doctrinal to the social consequences of doctrine was analogous to the European debates on the influence of religion on civilization between François Guizot and Jaime Balmes in the 1840s. Pinheiro does not mention this European debate, but it demonstrates that American anti-Catholicism was part of a wider shift that was taking place in the Protestant—and indeed Catholic—rhetoric of the period. And the European debate came to America in the translations of both Guizot’s and Balmes’s works, which were widely published in the United States during the period.

Missionaries of Republicanism makes a major case for how the Mexican-American War helped to shape a national identity that combined Divine Providence, manifest destiny, Anglo-Saxon virtues, republicanism, and Protestantism—all of which became part of the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the period. Pinheiro’s work goes well beyond the arguments made in Ray Allen Billington’s Protestant Crusade and demonstrates that the formation of a national identity that combined Anglo-Saxonism and nativisim took place much earlier than the late nineteenth century where John Higham’s Strangers in the Land placed it.

The text is based upon extensive research into the sources: Polk’s presidential papers, diaries, published and unpublished correspondence of soldiers and politicians, state papers, the explicit anti-Catholic published literature of the period, legislative debates, political commentaries, and Catholic as well as Protestant and secular newspaper and magazine articles. Pinheiro has uncovered an abundance of new and previously unexamined sources that make this book a major contribution to our understanding of the period.

Missionaries of Republicanism is well written and extensively researched. It stands as a fresh and provocative interpretation of the religious dimension of the Mexican-American war and the formation of a national identity that depended significantly upon a cultural anti-Catholicism. Students and scholars of American history should find this study stimulating and an important contribution to our understanding of how religion contributed to historical events and functioned as an interpretive lens of those events.  

Patrick W. Carey is a professor and holds the William J. Kelly, S.J., Chair in Catholic Theology at Marquette University.