July 2000 Print

The Knights of Columbus Part 1


Conduits of Patriotism and Heresy (1882-1932)

Part 1

Dr. Justin Walsh

The Knights of Columbus originated...emphasizing not so much Old World ties as loyalty to the new republic....This ardent assimilationism, this devoted Americanism—in an era when "Americanism" was in many Catholic circles a code word for heresy—accounts for the continuous expansion of the Knights....1

Even a cursory examination of the Americanist heresy will show its proponents believed three things that America should add to the Deposit of Faith. One, the doctrines of religious liberty and separation of Church and State were truths which Catholics everywhere should accept if they would be saved. Two, patriotism in the sense of unconditional love for the United States should be elevated from a desirable civic virtue to an eighth sacrament dispensing sanctifying grace. Three, religious indifferentism is not un-Catholic because pluralism is a precious American gift to God that makes evangelization by Catholics unnecessary. Although Americanists as Americanists became quiescent after the papal condemnation of 1899, their dogmas did not disappear. Instead new Americanists who outwardly donned a cloak of theological conservatism inwardly kept the heresy alive in all its virulence.

The question arises—how was it that Americanism survived into the 20th century to infect eventually the whole American Church? An important part of the answer lies with a Catholic fraternal order founded by Irishmen in 1882. The Knights of Columbus became an instrument of the heresy's survival as well as a conduit through which it ultimately engulfed the Church in North America, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands. Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for the office of President of the United States (1928), was by far the most famous member of the Order during its first half century. Smith's favorite response when attacked by opponents was "Let's look at the record!" In the spirit of Al Smith, let's look at the record to see if and how Knights of Columbus were carriers of the Americanist infection.

Christopher J. Kauffman, a professor of history at St. Louis University, was hired by the Knights to prepare a centennial history of the Order. The resultant Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982, is a well-researched and well-written official statement by the Knights explaining themselves. As Dr. Kauffman writes in his Preface (p. ix):

From our first meeting [in 1977] Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant [still head of the Order in 1999] has always been extremely supportive of every aspect of the history project. His primary concern has been that the Order's past be accurately recorded so that the members will have a strong sense of their roots and so that they and the general public will appreciate the significant role the Order has played in American church and social history.

Believing that Kauffman's book achieves Dechant's objective superbly, the present writer (a Knight for almost 20 years) relied upon Faith and Fraternalism for this sketch of the Order's history.

Fr. Michael J. McGivney

The Knights originated in 1881 at St. Mary's parish in New Haven, Connecticut when a 29-year-old priest, Fr. Michael J. McGivney, established St. Joseph's Young Men as "a total abstinence society." Fr. McGivney personified one type of cleric prominent in parishes of that time: young and Irish and dedicated to temperance as a means of fighting "the Irish curse" of drunkenness. Almost all Irish clerics agreed that "temperance" was a good thing. After all gluttony, which includes abuse of alcohol, is one of the seven deadly sins. Unlike many issues associated with Irish Americanists, therefore, a stand for temperance was well within the realm of orthodox Catholicism.

Irishmen did not always agree, however, on what temperance meant. To some it meant temperate use of alcohol. To others it meant voluntary abstinence. Still others wanted to regulate by law the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. At its most extreme, temperance meant legal prohibition.

The most outspoken and vigorous temperance advocate in the American hierarchy, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, championed temperance at one time or another under all of its possible meanings. He was converted to the cause as an eight-year-old lad in County Kilkenny when a Franciscan preacher "went about everywhere giving the pledge, and everywhere he administered it, I took the pledge," Ireland recalled.2 The experience so affected young Ireland that throughout life he never imbibed a drop of alcohol other than sacramental wine while offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

John Ireland embraced temperance with the same fanaticism he manifested for the shibboleths of American democracy. Through the sheer force of his conviction he foisted the issue upon James Gibbons so that temperance became inextricably intertwined with Americanism. On this issue Irish American prelates of all shades of opinion united so that such conservatives as Archbishop Michael Corrigan and Bishop Bernard McQuaid co-operated enthusiastically with their Americanist counterparts. In short, while all Irish Americanists were temperance fanatics, not all Irish-American temperance fanatics were Americanists. Between Americanist and conservative Irish prelates, however, untold hundreds of Irish-American priests were enlisted in the fight.

St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut

Fr. Michael J. McGivney was one of those so enlisted and the evidence is strong that this extremely patriotic priest placed himself in the Ireland-Gibbons camp of liberal Americanists and not in the Corrigan-McQuaid camp of conservative orthodoxy. When McGivney died in 1890 one officer of the Supreme Council eulogized him for his dedication to religious liberty and patriotism:

The name [Michael J. McGivney] stands as a beacon light reminding us of the duties we owe our country, and reminding us that unrivaled civil liberty on the one side and unrivaled religious liberty on the other demand of us cultivation and exercise of the most ardent patriotism.3

For their part, St. Joseph's Young Men sought three things: fellowship with co-religionists; united action against resurgent Protestant prejudice; and some form of insurance for distressed widows and orphans of St. Mary's parish. But there was a complication. Most American insurance societies required secrecy from their members. And Rome forbade membership in secret societies, a ban that was enforced in most dioceses. Indeed, the ban was reaffirmed at the third Plenary Council in 1884 despite objections from Cardinal Gibbons and Bishop Ireland, both of whom thought secret societies in America were harmless.

In New Haven Fr. McGivney devised a solution for the seeming dilemma. He was already predisposed to Americanist Catholicism and such secret insurance groups as the Ancient Order of Hibernians. So in 1882 Father agreed to change St. Joseph's Young Men into a secret insurance fellowship. In concert with prospective officers, McGivney prepared a ritual saturated with Catholic symbolism and American patriotism. The rites envisioned four degrees (or stages) of membership and there can be no doubt that the founders intended to create a quasi-secret society.

Each initiate swore to keep "forever secret" information about ritual, regalia, props or any other Council business. Secret passwords and signs were employed, and officers at each Council included an "Outside Guard" and an "Inside Guard." These were stationed on either side of the entrance to the "Council Chamber" (meeting room) where they were charged with maintaining the "sanctity" (secrecy) of proceedings.

The New Havenites decided to call themselves Knights of Columbus in honor of the Catholic mariner who discovered America. During its first ten years the Order grew to more than 40 Councils with all but one located in Connecticut. That one was Tyler Council, chartered in 1888 in Providence, Rhode Island. It was named in honor of William Tyler, the first bishop of the Hartford-Providence diocese. The Order's propensity to merge Catholicism and Americanism was illustrated when a Charter member from Providence boasted "we...now have a name distinctly Catholic and also American, Tyler being one of our Presidents." (He spoke about John Tyler, the Vice President of the United States who became President when William Henry Harrison died in 1841.)

Christopher Kauffman thought the Order's demonstration of "harmony between Catholic Faith and American freedom" was an important element in its early success. It fostered "interdependence and mutual loyalty" among members and "engendered a sense of religious and national pride" in Irish-Americans.

Members passed through ceremonials which ritualized the Catholic contribution to America, the harmony between Catholic Faith and American freedom, and the need to display loyalty to country and to be ever ready to defend the Faith against a distorted view of the Church and American religious liberty.4

By 1890 the Knights of Columbus was ready to expand into a national organization because in the view of the official historian members would overcome anti-Catholicism simply by being good Americans. They would not proselytize among Protestants because it might smack of "European-Catholic triumphalism." That would be bad! Instead, Knights would endorse America's religious liberty whereby everyone worshipped as he or she saw fit. That would be good! Or, as Kauffman suggested, the secret was in the ritual:

The enthusiasm engendered by the ceremonials was not merely the ritualized mumbo jumbo of continental secret societies but, rather, symbolized the heightened consciousness among Knights that as Catholics they could be religiously proud and as immigrants they could be patriotically loyal. By proclaiming the nobility of the American-Catholic experience and by conspicuously avoiding any association with the Old World, [they] are a classic instance of a minority's drive to assimilate into the larger society....The Order never exhibited European-Catholic triumphalism, nor did it limit membership to those of Irish descent. Indeed, its blend of Catholic-American assimilationist attitudes indicates that it had a heavy investment in American religious pluralism.5

"An Old Enemy in New Habiliments" surfaced in 1887 when a new Know-Nothing society was founded calling itself the American Protective Association. The APA was the brain child of one Henry Francis Bowers, "an enthusiastic Mason, a member of the Blue Lodge and the thirty-second degree of the Scottish rite." Bowers insisted that America "was founded by Masons against the wishes of Rome" and the APA intended to protect "the republican institutions the Masons had established." An APA statement of principles resurrected some old nativist canards that contained a grain of truth should Catholics in America ever act as integral Catholics.

For example, the APA proclaimed that "Catholicism is irreconcilable with American citizenship" because Rome forbade Catholics to believe that religious liberty and separation of Church and State are desirable. From this it followed, claimed the APA, that Catholics could not hold "offices in National, State, or Municipal government" because they were "subject" to a foreign power. Finally, the APA argued parochial schools were unconstitutional because "religious liberty cannot extend to any un-American ecclesiastical power claiming control over the education of children growing up under the Stars and Stripes."6

In 1889 a National League for the Protection of American Institutions (NLPAI), sometimes referred to as an "upper class APA," was launched "to secure constitutional and legislative safeguards" against the Catholic Church. Thomas J. Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the administration of President Benjamin Harrison, was on the Board of Managers of the League. He was also a Mason and a Baptist minister. Honorary Vice Presidents of the League who were also Masons included: novelist James Fenimore Cooper, Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill, Vice President of the United States Levi P. Morton, Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller, book publishers Henry Holt and George L. Putnam, railroad magnates Cornelius Vanderbilt and Henry Villard, banker J. Pierpont Morgan, and Russell Sage, founder of Western Union Telegraph.7

These were formidable names indeed, men who were not to be ignored when they circulated a bogus encyclical purportedly from the pen of Leo XIII. In it the Pope supposedly claimed that the United States belonged to him and so he absolved all officers of government and the armed forces from their oaths of allegiance to their country. In conclusion the forgery said that Leo planned to take "forcible possession" of the nation and when he did "it will be the duty of the faithful to exterminate all heretics found within the jurisdiction of the United States" [Emphasis in original].8

Confrontation with the Knights of Columbus became highly probable when the APA expanded into New England in the late 1880s. Confrontation became inevitable in 1892 when the Knights expanded into "good old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells speak only to Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God" [origin of quatrain unknown]. Boston was also where Irish Catholics controlled municipal politics through the Democratic party. This was to the great chagrin of nearly 40,000 Protestants who were mostly Republican and rabidly pro-temperance. By the time the first Council was chartered in Boston the Protestants had embraced the APA and upheld Puritan morals through a Watch and Ward Society. This last, controlled by the Congregationalist Cabot family, stood guard against pornography unless it appeared in books like My Life in a Convent, a rehash in the 1890s of Maria Monk's "Confessions" of 1836.

The Knights understood confrontation differently than many of their co-religionists, including Irishmen who were more orthodox than the Knights of Columbus. Knights would refute nativist charges by proving Catholics were just as patriotic as anybody, and just as dedicated as Protestants to religious liberty and separation of Church and State. There would be no upholding of papal teachings regarding such things, and no attempt to proselytize separated brethren. The approach was illustrated by Thomas Cummings, a Boston Knight who described the Order's approach to patriotism and religious liberty in May, 1893: "With true American patriotism [the Knights] demand from their members respect for...that liberty which is the essence of all liberty and which was first planted on this continent by Roman Catholics, viz., Freedom to worship God according to one's conscience."9

With Cummings's help the Knights were soon publishing Columbiad, a monthly magazine. Here, in 1894, Cummings defended the Church against APA attacks while extolling the patriotism of his Brothers.

Like the crew who sailed with Columbus...we have men of various races and languages...[and] we make for the best type of American citizenship....For the best American is he who best exemplifies in his own life that this is not a Protestant, nor a Catholic country, nor a Hebrew country, any more than it is an Anglo-Saxon or a Latin country, but a country of all races and all creeds, with one great, broad, unmolturable [sic] creed of fair play and equal rights for all.10

Christopher Kauffman found Cummings's characterization of the Knights so impressive that he repeated it verbatim 79 pages later when the subject was anti-Catholic prejudice in the Progressive Movement of 1912 rather than in the APA of the 1890s. Shortly after the first citation, the Knights' official historian described Thomas Cummings's views as "reminiscent of those of Isaac T. Hecker," the founder of the Paulists. "Hecker's vision of the Church in America, though developed on more deeply spiritual and intellectual levels, was thoroughly Columbian," stated Kauffman. He then quotes Hecker:

...so far as it is compatible with faith and piety I am for accepting the American civilization with its usages and customs...[as] the only way in which Catholicity can become the religion of our people. The character and spirit of our people, and their institutions, must find themselves at home in our Church...and it is on this basis alone that the Catholic religion can make progress in this country....The form of government of the United States is preferable for Catholics above other forms [because it] leaves man a larger margin for liberty of action, and hence for co-operation with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, than any other government under the sun.

To receive a stronger sense of the spiritual roots of Columbianism, Kauffman writes, "add to Hecker's ideas those of Archbishop John Ireland." Kauffman then concludes:

Hecker and Ireland have been portrayed as liberals, but perhaps a more accurate descriptive label for their spiritual perspective on America is transformationist, since they believed that as a result of the encounter between Catholicism and American culture both experienced a positive change, as if Catholicism would be renewed within the freedom of the New World republic and American culture would be refined by its contact with the ancient faith of Western civilization.11

Adherence to the Americanist view of Catholicism continued to characterize the Order's "spiritual roots" as it expanded into New York City and Brooklyn by 1894. It remained basically Americanist in 1902 when, after only twenty years, Councils had been chartered in major cities coast to coast. By 1904 there was at least one Council in every American state and territory.

Most Councils were chartered with little notice by the local ordinary. Sometimes, however, a bishop would question if the Order "came within the category of secret societies condemned by the Church." Such an instance arose in 1901 when Bishop John Janssen of Belleville, Illinois, announced that he opposed the Knights of Columbus establishing a Council in his diocese. The bishop acted after a German-language newspaper published the part of the ceremonial that instructed initiates on the importance of secrecy. Thirty-four men defied their bishop and formed East St. Louis Council 592 anyway.

The Order appealed Janssen's action to Apostolic Delegate Diomede Falconio and was told "the establishment of councils...in a diocese is left to the prudence and discretion of the Right Reverend Bishop." After examining the ritual Falconio ruled "the law of the secret should be modified...and they agreed to it." Whether the modification was done by the East St. Louis Council or the Supreme Council is unclear. The matter ended when Bishop Janssen announced "We have now concluded to tolerate...the Knights of Columbus."12

Apparently bishops have been mute since 1901 on whether membership in the Knights violated the ban on secret societies. At least Christopher Kauffman makes no reference to any subsequent controversy with a bishop over secrecy despite the fact that initiates have continuously been instructed on the importance of the subject and swear never to reveal information about Council business.

Edward L. Hearn, Supreme Knight (1899-1909)

Under Edward L. Hearn, Supreme Knight from 1899 to 1909, the Knights expanded from a close-knit group of Irishmen located mostly in New England to a national order of nearly 250,000 members encompassing all Catholic ethnicities. Hearn was an arch-Americanist whose first act as Supreme Knight was to pledge $50,000 to establish a chair of American history at the Catholic University of America. It took "five years and several pleas" before Hearn could deliver, and when he did it was in the pompous fashion for which the Order became noted.

On April 13, 1904, more than 10,000 Knights indicated their "widespread pride in the Order's first response to a call from the American Church" as Hearn presented a check measuring ten feet in length and four feet in width. Present for the ceremonies were all of the old Americanist gang: Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishops John Ireland and John Keane, Bishop Spalding of Peoria, and Archbishop Denis J. O'Connell who, as rector of the University, accepted the check. "The University," said O'Connell, "pledges itself to administer with fidelity your sacred trust, remembering always to teach, in this capital of the nation, the history of that land which was discovered by Columbus, and which ever since has been so dearly loved and bravely defended by all those who...have come to these shores."

In his response Grand Knight Hearn saw the Knights of Columbus chair as an antidote to "the spirit of New England Puritanism" manifested by non-Catholic historians. They ignored Catholic missionaries and pioneers, and filled their books with discrimination. "These are the evils we seek to remedy by founding this Chair of American History," Hearn concluded. For his part, Cardinal Gibbons saw the Knights as a kind of Catholic nobility, perhaps even American royalty:

Gentlemen...you do not possess royal titles, nor regal purses, but you have proved today that you possess royal hearts, and deserve the noble title which you bear. May you increase in numbers and in usefulness, and continue to merit...the confidence and support of the prelates and clergy of the United States.13

Dr. Justin Walsh has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a Master's degree in History from Marquette University and a doctorate in History from Indiana University. He currently teaches at the Society of Saint Pius X's St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, MN, USA.


1. Christopher J. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982 (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 9.

2. Marvin E. O'Connell, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988), p. 9.

3. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism, p. 70.

4. Ibid., Tyler Council, p. 67; Faith and freedom harmony, p. 56.

5. Ibid, p. 71.

6. For the APA and Masonry see Paul A. Fisher, Behind the Lodge Door, Church, State and Freemasonry in America (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books Inc., 1994), pp. 76-77.

7. For the NLPAI, ibid., pp. 78-79.

8. For bogus encyclical, ibid., p. 77.

9. As cited in Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism, p. 86.

10. Ibid., p. 88.

11. Ibid., pp. 90-91.

12. Ibid., pp. 154-156.

13. Ibid., pp. 144-146.