A prominent 19th century preacher knew how to spark the flame of violence against immigrants with different religious beliefs: Portray them as part of an international conspiracy against America’s way of life.

Lyman Beecher’s fiery tract in 1835, “A Plea for the West,” ignited fears of a Catholic plot to empty out on America’s shores “the sweeping of the streets” of Europe “to lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.” Shortly after one of the Presbyterian minister’s anti-Catholic sermons in Boston, a mob burned down an Ursuline sisters convent in Charlestown.

His voice was not an anomaly in American religious history. Similar rhetoric stripping individuals of their humanity and indiscriminately grouping them together as the cause of a nation’s fears would contribute to generations of Jewish immigrants encountering virulent anti-Semitism.

We have long feared what we do not know. And we still do, new research suggests.


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