American Protective Association

American Protective Association
American Protective Association

The American Protective Association (APA) was the largest anti-Catholic organization in the United States during the late 1880s and 1890s. The organization was founded as a secret order in Clinton, Iowa, on 13 March 1887, by Henry Francis Bowers. Its goal was to fight the perceived threat posed by Roman Catholicism in the United States, a threat that was often couched in conspiratorial terms.

Bowers was a lawyer who had been elected to a number of county offices as a Republican. He also was a Mason, a member of the Blue Lodge, and a member of the thirty-second degree of the Scottish Rite. The incident that led to the creation of the APA was a local election in which a Protestant candidate believed he was defeated by the Catholic vote. The Bowers group met the Sunday after that election.

One of the central principles of the APA was support of the separation of church and state. The organization’s members were particularly concerned about Catholicism infiltrating public schools. The APA’s message proved popular. Soon after its founding, the organization grew, with chapters spreading through the Midwest.

By 1891, there were branches in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. The APA had 70,000 members in twenty states in 1893. Increased immigration and an economic panic led to additional growth so that by 1896, the organization’s peak year, it claimed 2.5 million members, spread across every state. Membership declined after the presidential election of 1896.

Most of the members of the APA were Republicans and, thus, Republican candidates had to give the organization serious consideration. In early 1896, the group attacked William McKinley, a potential Republican candidate for president. McKinley became a target because he failed to meet with members of the APA and to explain how he planned to implement their demands if he were elected. According to the organization’s platform officeholders were not to appoint Catholics to any position.

In spite of the support provided to McKinley when he ran for governor of Ohio in 1893, the APA spread rumors that he was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, that he took advice from the Catholic bishop of Columbus, and that he had two children in a convent. McKinley was elected president despite the rumors. The APA suffered internal disputes over endorsing McKinley and the organization began losing members because of the dissension.

Membership of the APA involved secret rituals. New members were required to swear a number of oaths while blindfolded. These oaths included promises not to employ a Catholic worker if a Protestant was available and not to go on strike with Catholics. The blindfold was then removed because the member had left “mental darkness,” and he took a final vow. This vow included a denunciation of Roman Catholicism and the pope, and a pledge to protect the order and its members.

The secret oath became public in an exposé published in the St. Paul (Minnesota) Globe in 1893. The U.S. Congress also proposed to investigate the APA after a former congressman, Henry M. Youmans of Michigan, claimed that his opponent in the 1892 election was a member of the organization. According to Youmans, membership in the APA invalidated his opponent’s candidacy for Congress.

To build public support for their cause, members of the APA spread propaganda about Catholic goals for America. A pastoral letter, allegedly written by U.S. Catholic bishops, advocated the creation of a Catholic political party and suggested that education and true faith were not compatible. A forged papal encyclical entitled “Instructions to Catholics” called on Catholics to take over the U.S. government because Protestants had forfeited all right to the country.

According to the encyclical, the Catholic uprising was to take place “on or about the feast of Ignatius Loyola [31 July] in the year of our Lord, 1893,” or on the date of the convening of the Catholic Congress at the Chicago World’s Fair, 5 September. In the course of the uprising, Catholics were to exterminate all heretics (i.e., non-Catholics) found in the United States.

The American Protective Association became largely moribund by 1900. The organization did not completely disappear until 1911 with the death of its founder and leader, Henry Bowers. Throughout its existence, no record exists of violence against Catholics by members of the APA, but the group was effective in making many Americans fearful of the Catholic Church. Although the APA ceased to exist, anti-Catholicism continued in the United States through the early decades of the 1900s.