When thriving U.S. publications raged against the Catholic Church

In the early 1900s, anti-Catholicism was so readily embraced by millions of ordinary Americans that there were several large-circulation newspapers devoted exclusively to bashing the Church of Rome and its adherents.

The Menace, the Jeffersonian, and the Good Citizen were very popular anti-Catholic publications in the early part of the 20th century. (Wikipedia)

Regardless of its particular goals, every publication ultimately has to give its readers what they want. And about a century ago, the thing many U.S. readers wanted most was anti-Catholic content. In that era, anti-Catholicism was so readily embraced by millions of ordinary Americans that there were several large-circulation newspapers devoted exclusively to bashing the Church of Rome and its adherents.

“Denominational publications and religious newspapers were also sometimes seen as a source of anti-Catholic messaging,” says Thomas Rzeznik, a history professor at Seton Hall University who co-edited The Cambridge Companion to American Catholicism. “But,” he adds, “the theological sparring that we find in those religious publications was vastly different from the rabid, sensationalized anti-Catholicism we find in papers like the Menace.”

The Menace

Established in 1911, the Menace’s circulation rocketed to 1 million within 3 years. At its peak popularity, the Menace – which operated out of an old opera house in Aurora, Missouri – enjoyed a circulation of 1.5 million, a figure far surpassing any newspaper in New York City. Indeed, this publication was so successful that the nearby railroad had to plant extra tracks just to accommodate all the anti-Catholic papers rolling out of town.

Such a level of success gave way to extreme vanity, as the Menace began billing itself as “The World’s Headquarters for Anti-Papal Literature.”

Among many messages, the Menace exhorted all its readers to vote against any Catholic running for political office, regardless of the size of that office or the political party of the candidate. The important thing was thwarting the Catholic plot to take over the country.

For an annual subscription fee of 50 cents, Menace readers could have their worst fears about Catholics confirmed each week, and also find titillating stories about convents holding children hostage, priests brainwashing their parishioners, and Catholic infiltration of political office leading up to an eventual armed takeover on behalf of Rome.

So virulent and salacious was the Menace in its accusations of Catholic misbehavior that the paper met with a federal indictment for mailing obscene materials. At the ensuing trial, however, the Menace was victorious.

In December 1919, the Menace’s printing headquarters burned down under suspicious circumstances. The publication relocated to a different Missouri town and re-christened itself as the New Menace, before moving back to its hometown of Aurora. There, under one name or another, the paper continued publishing until December 1942.

The Jeffersonian

Established in the first decade of the 20th century, this elegant-sounding publication was the enterprise of Thomas E. Watson, a Georgia criminal defense lawyer who became a publishing mogul. He also produced a literary monthly called Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine.

Printing such stories as “How the Confessional is Used by Priests to Ruin Women,” Watson was sure to attract a lot of readers – and controversy. In 1912, he faced a federal obscenity indictment for having published a highly salacious Latin quote purporting to convey the nature of questions that priests asked female parishioners inside the confessional booth.

As a battle-tested attorney, Watson conducted his own defense and – following four years of legal maneuverings – he won. Not long after the victory, though, he met with an insurmountable adversary when he attacked then-President Woodrow Wilson’s policies pertaining to U.S. involvement in World War I.

The Wilson administration responded by citing the Espionage Act. Watson was lucky not to end up in prison, but his publishing enterprise was sunk into eternal silence.

Watson “amplified beliefs that were already widely held,” says Seth Smith, a history professor and associate dean at The Catholic University of America whose research has focused on the Church in the twentieth-century rural South.

Smith relates that, for a brief postbellum period, Southerners viewed Catholics in a “relatively positive way.” Indeed, many Catholics had served the Confederacy as soldiers, nurses, or clergy.

The South’s view of Catholicism began to deteriorate “as a result of the wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,” says Smith, who adds how “Southerners feared the cultural and political implications of this immigration.”

Into this cauldron of angst, Watson, through his publishing endeavors, essentially dumped a flaming cross and bucket of kerosene.

Though Watson was “certainly not the only public figure in the South” to incite anti-Catholic sentiment, “he did contribute significantly to creating an atmosphere in which anti-Catholic organizations like the second Ku Klux Klan could flourish,” points out Smith.

The Good Citizen and The Fellowship Forum

Based in Zarephath, New Jersey, The Good Citizen was a 16-page monthly that saw a two-decade tenure beginning in 1913. Headed by Alma White, a pioneering female publisher and Methodist bishop, this publication featured a curious mix of white supremacist, feminist, and anti-Catholic themes.

White regarded her publication as “God’s mouthpiece for exposing political Romanism in its efforts to gain the ascendancy in the United States.”

In 1918, a group of 500 Catholics in New York City appealed to the United States Postal Service to deny service to The Good Citizen. The appeal was unsuccessful, and so ‘God’s mouthpiece’ saw widespread distribution for another 15 years.

Launched in 1921, the Fellowship Forum started with a modest circulation of 1,000 and soared to 1 million in its first six years. Promoted as “The World’s Greatest Fraternal Newspaper,” the Forum’s core readership were members of Protestant fraternal organizations.

Additionally, this paper received mention for playing a significant role in the 1920s revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The impact of anti-Catholic periodicals

Aside from the once-prominent publications mentioned above, the U.S. saw many other smaller circulation publications that had toxic amounts of anti-Church venom.

Writing for The Journal of American History, Samuel J. Thomas relates that “numerous publications, especially in the upper South and Midwest, deluged readers with largely fabricated or distorted information to prove the old charge that Catholicism was incompatible with American democracy.”

Many of these avid subscribers didn’t know any Catholics personally. And, given the insular rural nature of their surroundings, many subscribers had never seen a Catholic in the flesh. The anti-Church ideology resonated deeply nonetheless.

“Myths and misconceptions about Catholicism were free to spread unchecked in those areas,” says Rzeznik. Anti-Catholic sentiment, however, extended far beyond the backwoods. Rzeznik points out how such periodicals also had a “large circulation in Catholic strongholds in the industrial north, including cities like Buffalo and Pittsburgh and smaller industrial towns in places like Ohio and Illinois.” He adds, “Looking at the letters to the editor, we see that these newspapers enjoyed a national readership.”

Writing for The Catholic Historical Review, David L. Salvaterra relates how these types of periodicals sought to portray Catholics as “secretive, possibly disloyal, manipulative, and corrupt.” He adds that “Catholic philanthropy and social services were attacked as screens for greed or ways to harm the vulnerable; Catholic schools, convents, orphanages, and other institutions, merely fronts for power and influence, if not dens of depravity.”

These anti-Catholic periodicals were more than just Church-bashing entertainment. “People took Watson’s ideas seriously,” says Rzeznik, who adds how “the Menace and other anti-Catholic newspapers shaped public opinion across wide swaths of the population and drove political discourse.”

“Concern about Catholicism fused with concerns about broader transformations in American society, from the rise of immigration and the growth of cities to the decline of ‘traditional values’ and changing gender norms,” says Rzeznik. “These [periodicals] rallied readers to defend the country against the Catholic threat.”

Those interested in a closeup look at this defense can access old copies of The Menace or the Jeffersonian in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling Americacollection of historic American newspapers. And the Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania library provides a trove of Watson’s anti-Catholic materials.


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About Ray Cavanaugh 18 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

16 Comments

  1. Sadly there are mentally ill internet trolls who continue to spread the same anti-Catholic bile as these defunct newspapers. The Forces of the Evil One will never rest in their attacks on Christ’s Church, but they will change their tactics.

  2. These publications proved prophetic. The institutional Catholic Church today is, in fact, a most deleterious influence in American and and world affairs, and the absolute last place one would wish to turn to for God’s word and the grace of salvation. Rome really has become the seat of antichrist: The pope is a heretic who openly promotes sin, and the Church he leads is a primary constituent of the global Left. I say this as a practicing Catholic: Anyone who persecutes the institutional Church today is a friend of God and of humanity.

    • Don, I am sorry but you are not a “Practicing Catholic” for if you were you would realize in the Catechism the most beautiful faith on earth left to Peter by our Lord Jesus to be the Catholic church, who by which is full of sinful parishoners, Priests, and sometimes even Popes. This does not in any way take from the TRUTH of the church.
      I welcome you to look at it from a clearer perspective and do not be fooled by Satans intentions to tear us from within.

      • I too believe the Catholic faith is true. I also believe that, in God’s providential design, the institutional Catholic Church today is, on net, a most wicked institution and that those who persecute her are, on net, doing humanity and God’s kingdom a favor.

        • If you believe what you say, it is you who are spitting in the face of God. His Son commands us to not abandon Him and His Church. There have always been wrongheaded voices throughout Church history, including yours obviously. For lack of a non-cliche rejoinder, but wise nonetheless, we are called to be courageous, to light one candle rather than curse the darkness.

  3. I remember driving through the south after college graduation in 1969 and seeing a large billboard that stated, “Help fight integration and Catholicism, Join the United Klans of America” (i.e., the KKK).

  4. Very interesting piece. Today, of course, we have the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, Huffington Post, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, NPR, PBS, the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America and many other outlets that are dripping with anti-Catholic bias.

    • You stole my would-be ironic commentary about how it is now Catholic journals that are dripping with anti-Catholic bigotry.

  5. Now the bashing is done by Catholic publications and media platforms disloyal and disrespectful to the Pope and which often also resist and reject many Vatican II reforms like those specifically mentioned by Pope Francis: TV network EWTN and its media empire that includes the newspaper National Catholic Register and the content provider Catholic News Agency (which is carried by similarly slanted media outlets like Catholic World Report). How times have changed.

    • Were you to pay closer attention you might notice that when a pope bashes tenants of the Catholic religion, criticism of him does not constitute the same. Secondly, disturbances over specific language in VII documents that implicitly deny original sin and promote the idea of secular utopianism, do not constitute “disloyalty” to the faith, quite the opposite.

  6. Satan always stirs up persecution of the Catholic Church. The “problem” was that in this country there was no formal state opposition to the Church like there was in Europe. So it was “necessary” for him to stir up the fears and passions of the Protestant population through malicious libel.

    However, for the record, we have never had a Catholic president. Neither President Biden is nor was JFK Catholic. And President Biden deserves to lose his office, by force if necessary. Allowing the use of federal funds to subsidize the murder of the unborn is very evil.

    However, this has been going on for some time and isn’t something that President Biden alone is guilty of. Ignorance may be excusable, but any educated Catholic wouldn’t be ignorant. And this is why only Catholics should be allowed to hold political office.

  7. Very interesting, informative, and evidently provocative, given some of the comments above.

    Two points for further interest:

    1) James Cardinal Gibbons, the Primate of America and Archbishop of Baltimore, worked tirelessly to combat anti-Catholicism (remember the “Americanist Heresy”?). He fought (and won) to make sure that priests could not speak German from the pulpit in immigrant parishes (he went all the way to Rome, and bragged to the President about it at the White House when he won).

    Tell that to the USCCB about Spanish Masses, amigos.

    The battle had its downsides: Gibbons ignored the pleas of Benedict XV and pressed Wilson hard on getting the US into the Great War. Catholic Germans didn’t want to fight their cousins, and Catholic Irish had no interest in *helping* the foul English tyrants. But Gibbons prevailed.

    2) Fascinating how appeals to the Postal Service and the Courts tried to silence these periodicals, using wartime censorship alongside other efforts. That’s exactly what happened to Father Coughlin in the late 1930s. FDR pulled his postal permit and had his freedom to use the airwaves revoked as well.

    It can happen here, folks – and the folks who did it back then were the “Greatest Generation.” How about the crew we have now?

  8. When you consider the institutional Church’s reaction to Prohibition (which was a sincere, if fatally flawed, attempt to address a crying social wrong), you can see that these publications had a certain element of truth.

  9. You couldn’t write enough pieces to adequately assess the damage done by the publications that are allegedly Catholic.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. When thriving U.S. publications raged against the Catholic Church – Via Nova Media
  2. L'anti-catholicisme des Américains dans les débuts des années 1900
  3. Welcome to the Weekend Roundup! – News & Views – 3/5/22 – excatholic4christ

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