Religion and Politics, 1832-1855

Religion played an influential role in Newfoundland politics during the period of representative government. The colony's first general election took place in 1832, which was the same year local Roman Catholics obtained full civil and political rights under the British Catholic Relief Act. A struggle for political power quickly emerged between upper-class English Anglicans, who traditionally governed the colony, and Irish Roman Catholics, who comprised slightly more than half of the island's population following a wave of immigration during the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

RC Church, Burin, 1849
Religion played an influential role in Newfoundland politics during the period of representative government.
From Charles de Volpi, Newfoundland: a Pictorial Record (Sherbrooke, Quebec: Longman Canada Limited, ©1972), 29.
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Roman Catholic Church and Belfry, Burin, Placentia Bay, 1849

Although voters repeatedly elected significant numbers of Roman Catholics into the House of Assembly, the colony's governors appointed an overwhelming majority of Anglican officials to the Executive Council and other influential government posts. Many Catholics believed this was an attempt to keep political power within the Anglican sphere, which further intensified interdenominational tensions. In an effort to promote Catholic rights, clergy often became actively involved in election campaigns and endorsed political candidates they believed would promote their parishioners' interests.

The Struggle for Catholic Rights

In the years leading up to representative government, Catholic rights became a prominent issue in Newfoundland. This was in large part due to events unfolding in Britain, where Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell had been campaigning for Catholic political rights since the early 1800s. He achieved success in 1829, when the British government passed the Catholic Emancipation Act removing civil restrictions on Catholics and allowing them to hold public office.

Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), n.d. Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), n.d.
Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell promoted Catholic political rights in the United Kingdom during the early 1800s. His work prompted the British government to pass the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, which removed civil restrictions on Catholics and allowed them to hold public office.
Artist unknown. Reproduced by permission of J.E. FitzGerald, ©2001.
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At the same time, Newfoundland's Catholic population had been expanding rapidly due to an influx of Irish immigrants between about 1790 and 1815. When word of the Act reached the island in May 1829, roughly 52 per cent of the island's population was Catholic. Many residents welcomed the Emancipation Act as a major step forward for Catholic rights, but were disappointed to learn a few months later that Britain would not extend the legislation to the colony.

The news fuelled Catholic discontent and sparked a string of protest meetings and petitions. Despite these efforts, Britain did not extend the Act to Newfoundland until 1832, which was the same year it granted the colony representative government. Prior to that, all governing officials on the island were appointed by either Britain or the governor and generally belonged to the Church of England.

As the colony prepared for its first general election in the fall of 1832, it became apparent that a sizeable Catholic voting population could tip the balance of power away from the Protestant mercantile community. This is turn caused religious and political issues to merge on the public stage as candidates, clergy, journalists, and others tried to influence how different segments of the public would vote.

1832 Election

Newfoundland's first general election took place in November 1832. The voting public, which included most adult males, was able to elect 15 representatives from nine districts across the island. Campaigning began in September and unfolded in a relatively peaceful manner in most outport areas. In St. John's, however, five candidates vied for three seats and politics became quickly polarized along denominational lines.

Tensions escalated in September, after local editor Henry Winton criticized candidate John Kent in his newspaper, the Public Ledger. This prompted Kent, who was running on a platform of Irish Catholic rights, to suggest Winton was an anti-Catholic exploiting his newspaper to help keep political power in the hands of the established Protestant elite. Winton then called upon Bishop Michael Fleming, head of the local Roman Catholic Church, to publicly distance himself from Kent's campaign. Fleming instead openly endorsed Kent and two other reform candidates – Presbyterian William Carson and William Thomas, a member of the Church of England.

John Kent (1805-1872), n.d.
Newfoundland politician John Kent ran on a platform of Irish Catholic rights during the 1832 general election.
Artist unknown. From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NF), Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 124.
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John Kent (1805-1872), n.d.

In the end, Kent and Thomas won their seats, while Conservative Patrick Kough became the third St. John's candidate elected into the House of Assembly. The events of the 1832 campaign effectively established religion as a heated and divisive political issue throughout the colony, as tensions that permeated St. John's politics spread to other districts and persisted for years to come. Almost immediately, two opposing political groups emerged to compete for government power – the Liberal reformers, who espoused Catholic, Methodist, and working-class rights, and the Conservative or Tory Party, which generally represented Church of England and mercantile interests.

Religious Tensions

Although voters elected significant numbers of Roman Catholic candidates into the House of Assembly in the 1832 and ensuing elections, the governor did not appoint any Catholics to the politically powerful Executive Council until 1840. Even after that date, the majority of government appointees belonged to the Church of England, which further contributed to Catholic discontent. Many felt the state perceived Protestantism as more respectable than Catholicism and feared the governor and other authorities were using their powers to preserve Protestant influence.

In contrast, most governors considered Fleming a divisive and incendiary figure and wished to minimize his influence among the voting population. This sentiment was shared by the British Colonial Office, which approached Catholic authorities in Rome on four separate occasions to have Fleming removed from the island. Rome, meanwhile, remained largely supportive of Fleming, although Pope Gregory XVI ordered him and all local clergy to abstain from politics in 1838. Fleming initially complied, but two years later openly backed Catholic candidate Lawrence O'Brien in an 1840 election.

Rev. Michael Anthony Fleming (1792-1850), n.d. Rev. Michael Anthony Fleming (1792-1850), n.d.
Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Fleming was frequently involved in Newfoundland politics during the period of representative government. Many governors considered Fleming a divisive and incendiary figure and wished to minimize his influence among the voting population.
Artist unknown. From M.F. Howley, Ecclesiastical History of Newfoundland (Boston: Doyle and Whittle, 1888) 1.
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As religious and class tensions merged in the political arena, they sometimes resulted in public disorder and violence. Winton, for example, was the target of much public resentment during the 1830s, largely because of editorials he wrote criticizing the Roman Catholic clergy, Irish population, reform movement, and sealers. After Winton endorsed a Conservative candidate in an 1833 by-election and openly criticized Fleming, protestors assembled outside his house on Christmas Day, but dispersed once military forces arrived to end demonstrations. Two years later, five unidentified assailants attacked Winton while he was traveling to from Carbonear to Harbour Grace and mutilated his ears.

Divided Vote

Despite the prominence of sectarianism in Newfoundland politics, the Roman Catholic vote was not a unified one and parishioners were often divided along class and political lines. Opposing Fleming and the Liberal Party was a group of influential and wealthy Roman Catholics with strong ties to the predominantly Protestant mercantile community. Among these were conservative Patrick Kough, whose candidacy helped divide the Catholic vote during the 1832 election, and Eliza Boulton, wife of the colony's Conservative chief justice Henry Boulton.

The Protestant vote was also not entirely cohesive. Many working-class members of the Church of England were sympathetic to the Liberal platform, which tended to oppose mercantile influence and promote the rights of fishers. Wesleyan Methodists also tended to support Liberal candidates after 1833, when the Church of England opposed a bill that would broaden the rights of Methodist clergy. Reformer Kent strongly supported the bill in the House of Assembly and ultimately helped pass it into law.

Wesleyan Church, Carbonear, 1846
Wesleyan Methodists in Newfoundland tended to support Liberal candidates after 1833.
From Charles de Volpi, Newfoundland: a Pictorial Record (Sherbrooke, Quebec: Longman Canada Limited, ©1972), 28.
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Wesleyan Church and Mission House, Carbonear, NL, 1846.

Concerns surrounding denominational education further solidified Methodist support for Liberals during the 1850s. Anglican Bishop Edward Feild wished to subdivide government funding of Protestant schools among Anglican and Methodist students. Methodists opposed the move out of fear it would dramatically reduce their ability to deliver quality education – approximately 70 per cent of all Protestants were Anglican and a redistribution of grant money would give the Church of England the bulk of all Protestant funding. In a successful attempt to court Methodist votes, Liberal MHAs repeatedly blocked the Conservative party's attempts to subdivide the education grant.

Support from the numerically important Roman Catholic and Methodist populations ultimately helped the Liberal party win a majority of seats in the 1852 general election and convince Britain to grant Newfoundland responsible government in 1855.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2009, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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