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Britishers and Protestants’: Protestantism and Imperial British Identities in Britain, Canada and Australia from the 1880s to the 1920s

  • Géraldine Vaughan (a1)


This article explores the links between the assertion of British imperial identities and the anti-Catholic discourse and practices of a network of evangelical societies which existed and flourished in Britain and in the dominions from the halcyon days of the empire to the late 1920s. These bodies shared a broad evangelical definition of Protestantism and defended the notion that religious beliefs and their political implications formed the basis of a common British heritage and identity. Those who identified themselves as Britons in Britain and in the dominions brought forward arguments combining a mixture of pessimistic interpretations of British history since the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act with anxieties about ongoing Irish Catholic immigration and an alleged global papist plot. They were convinced that Protestantism was key to all civil liberties enjoyed by Britons. Inspired by John Wolffe's pioneering work, the article examines constitutional, theologico-political and socio-national anti-Catholicism across Britain and its dominions.


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This article was written during a period as a visiting fellow at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh University, which was generously funded by a Royal Society of Edinburgh / Caledonian Research Fund European Visiting Research Fellowship. I would like to thank Sir Tom Devine for his remarks on an earlier version of this article and also Patrick Vaughan for his comments.



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1 ‘Les nations colonisatrices sont presque toutes protestantes; le protestantisme, par sa tendance individuelle, la simplicité de ses moyens, son peu de besoin de communier avec le reste de la chrétienté, semble par excellence la religion du colon. Avec sa Bible, l'Anglais trouve au fond de l'Océanie l'aliment religieux que le catholique ne peut recevoir sans tout un établissement officiel d’évêques et de prêtres’: Renan, Ernest, ‘De l'avenir religieux des sociétés modernes’, Revue des Deux Mondes 29 (1860), 761–97, at 773.

2 Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1832 (New Haven, CT, 1992). For revision of the Colley thesis from historians focusing on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Sramek, Joseph, ‘Rethinking Britishness: Religion and Debates about the “Nation” among Britons in Company India’, JBS 54 (2015), 822–43; Carey, Hilary, God's Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c.1801–1908 (Cambridge, 2011).

3 MacKenzie, John M., ‘Essay and Reflection: On Scotland and the Empire’, International History Review 15 (1993), 714–39; idem, ‘Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Worlds? A Four-Nation Approach to the History of the British Empire’, History Compass 6 (2008), 1244–63.

4 Claydon, Tony and McBride, Ian, eds, Protestantism and National Identity (Cambridge, 1998), 26–7.

5 The expression ‘ultra-Protestant’ appeared in the early 1840s (OED) and referred to people who put forward extreme views in religious matters. It was inspired by the French use of ‘ultras’ with reference to the ultra-royalists in early nineteenth-century France. In this article, the ‘ultra-Protestant’ militants are persons or groups who founded specific religious and/or politico-religious associations, who gave religious issues the highest priority in their Weltanschauung and who, arguing that there was an urgency to defend Protestantism, exercised pressure on political circles.

6 Walter Walsh (1847–1912) was a militant evangelical Anglican journalist, essayist and writer, who launched the Protestant Observer in 1888. He was the author of the best-selling The Secret History of the Oxford Movement (London, 1898). The societies enrolled within the Imperial Protestant Federation were listed in several reports, such as The Imperial Protestant Federation, Report for 1899–1900 and A History of the Formation and the Progress of the Federation, to which is appended Information regarding its 27 Federated Organisations (London, 1900).

7 Wolffe, John, ‘Anti-Catholicism and the British Empire, 1815–1914’, in Carey, Hilary, ed., Empires of Religion (Basingstoke, 2008), 4363. For a recent review of the historiography of anti-Catholicism in a comparative perspective, see Anne Drury, Marjule, ‘Anti-Catholicism in Germany, Britain and the US: A Review and Critique of Recent Scholarship’, ChH 70 (2001), 98131.

8 Richards, Eric, Britannia's Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (London and New York, 2004), 214.

9 Rafferty, Oliver P., ‘The Catholic Church, Ireland and the British Empire, 1800–1921’, HR 84 (2011), 288309, at 291.

10 Sellar, Robert, Ulster and Home Rule: A Canadian Parallel (Belfast, 1912), 3.

11 Wolffe, John, ‘Protestant-Catholic Divisions in Europe and the United States: An Historical and Comparative Perspective’, Politics, Religion and Ideology 12 (2011), 241–56, at 250; see also idem, ‘A Comparative Historical Categorisation of Anti-Catholicism’, JRH 39 (2015), 182–202. Wolffe identifies four major categories of anti-Catholicism: constitutional-national, theological, socio-cultural and popular.

12 This legislation was adopted in reaction to the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, but never enforced.

13 Barr, Colin, ‘An Irish Dimension to a British Kulturkampf?’, JEH 56 (2005), 473–95.

14 Report of the Council of the Imperial Protestant Federation for 1901–1902 (London, 1902), 29–34.

15 London, BL, 3940.g.41, Untitled Church Association and National Protestant League pamphlet (London, 1906).

16 Prescott Upton, W., The King's Protestant Declaration: Why it must not be Altered, Church Association Tract 404 (London, 1910).

17 As shown by Ian Machin, there had been similar processions in 1898 and 1901 without legal prosecution: Machin, G. I. T., ‘The Liberal Government and the Eucharistic Procession of 1908’, JEH 34 (1993), 559–83, at 561.

18 Ibid.; see also Devlin, Carol A., ‘The Eucharistic Procession of 1908: The Dilemma of the Liberal Government’, ChH 63 (1994), 407–35.

19 House of Commons Debates, 3 December 1926, vol. 200 col. 1587.

20 Miller, J. R., ‘Anti-Catholicism in Canada: From the British Conquest to the Great War’, in Murphy, Terrence and Storz, Gerald, eds, Creed and Culture: The Place of English-Speaking Catholics in Canadian Society 1750–1930 (Montreal, QC, 1993), 2548. The harshest legal attitude to Roman Catholics was to be found on Prince Edward Island, where Roman Catholics had to wait until 1830 before they had a right to vote and to hold public office.

21 Peter Cunich, ‘Archbishop Vaughan and the Empires of Religion in Colonial New South Wales’, in Carey, ed., Empires of Religion, 137–60, at 145.

22 The Protestant Protective Association in Ontario: History and Principles of the Organization (, 1894), 2.

23 Miller, J. R., ‘Anti-Catholic Thought in Victorian Canada’, Canadian Historical Review 66 (1985), 474–94.

24 O'Farrell, Patrick, ed., Documents in Australian Catholic History (London, 1969), 181.

25 37th Scottish Women's Protestant Annual Report, 1925–1926 (, 1926), 1.

26 ‘Solemn Protestant League and Covenant for the British Empire’, Protestant Observer, May 1902, 68.

27 Wolffe, ‘Protestant-Catholic Divisions’, 191.

28 MacRaild, Donald, ‘Transnationalising “Anti-Popery”: Militant Protestant Preachers in the Nineteenth-Century Anglo-World’, JRH 39 (2015), 224–43.

29 The Bulwark, September 1892, 3; see also Paul Laverdure, ‘Creating an Anti-Catholic Crusader: Charles Chiniquy’, JRH 15 (1988), 94–108.

30 O'Gorman, Edith, Convent Life Unveiled: Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O'Gorman, otherwise Sister Teresa de Chantal, the Escaped and Converted Nun, 35th edn (Edinburgh, 1928), vi.

31 Gross, Michael B., The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Ann Arbor, MI, 2004). There is scope for more research on this subject in connection with ultra-Protestant British associations.

32 Protestant Observer, March 1912, 54.

33 Miller, ‘Anti-Catholicism in Canada’, 25.

34 Horton, R. F., England's Danger (London, 1899), 91.

35 Douglas, George, Discourses and Addresses (Toronto, ON, 1894), 304.

36 Romani, Roberto, National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750–1914 (Cambridge, 2006), 216.

37 Protestant Alliance Official Organ, January 1898, 1.

38 McLeod, Hugh, ‘Varieties of Anticlericalism in Later Victorian and Edwardian England’, in Aston, Nigel and Cragoe, Matthew, eds, Anticlericalism in Britain c.1500–1914 (Stroud, 2000), 198220.

39 Protestant Alliance Official Organ, January 1900, 295.

40 The Watchman (Sydney), 1 February 1902, 4.

41 [Armstrong, William R.], Essay on the Times: Canada, 1887 (, 1887), 23.

42 Brown, Stewart J., ‘“Outside the Covenant”: The Scottish Presbyterian Churches and Irish Immigration, 1922–1938’, InR 42 (1991), 1945; Ritchie, David, ‘The Civil Magistrate: The Scottish Office and the anti-Irish Campaign, 1922–1929’, InR 63 (2012), 4876; Devine, Thomas M., The Scottish Nation 1700–2000 (London, 2000), 498–9.

43 Douglas, R. M., ‘Anglo-Saxons and Attacotti: The Racialization of Irishness in Britain between the World Wars’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 25 (2002), 4063.

44 Ibid. 43.

45 BL, 8142.i.14, Scottish Protestant League, General Election Leaflet no. 7 (Falkirk, 1929).

46 Wolffe, ‘Anti-Catholicism and the British Empire’, 567.

47 See, for instance, Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1955); Nordstrom, Justin, Danger on the Doorstep: Anti-Catholicism and American Print Culture in the Progressive Era (Notre Dame, IN, 2006); Jenkins, Philip, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (New York, 2003).

48 The Imperial Protestant Federation, Report for 1899–1900 (London, 1900), 16.

This article was written during a period as a visiting fellow at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh University, which was generously funded by a Royal Society of Edinburgh / Caledonian Research Fund European Visiting Research Fellowship. I would like to thank Sir Tom Devine for his remarks on an earlier version of this article and also Patrick Vaughan for his comments.



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