“The Frown of All Christendom”: Conservative Protestants Against the Mexican War, 1846-48

When the Mexican War began in 1846, American Protestants split over whether the war was justified or not. Northern Protestants denounced the war as a pro-slavery landgrab by expansionist Democrat James K. Polk. That the war pitted a liberal and expansionist United States against one of Mexico’s more conservative administrations—that of Mariano Paredes—was noted by conservative Protestants of the era. Paredes’s realism and religiosity defined his presidency. He was “strongly proclerical” and “believed that a liberal democracy and federal structure were inappropriate for Mexico in its then state of development, and that the country could be governed only by the army in alliance with the educated and affluent elite.”[1]

Works emphasizing Northern denunciations of the Mexican War have understandably emphasized slavery’s role in the Democrat expansion program. What is less studied is the degree to which Northern opinion saw the Mexican War as an unchristian invasion of another Christian country. Anti-Catholic rhetoric defined many Protestants, but anti-Catholicism as a political or religious polemic was not so universal or influential that Protestants did not identify Mexico as a Christian country defending its own religion. Samuel D. Burchard, a Presbyterian minister in New York City, portrayed the Mexican War to his congregants as religious conflict in which a godless, secular and expansionist state invaded a defenseless Christian people. Burchard “boldly” asserted that “in view of all the facts, that this is no war of defence on our part, but purely a war of aggression. Mexico is defending her altars, her fire-sides, her castles, her temples–not we.”

Burchard’s sermon suggested that Mexico, not the United States, was a wronged Christian government. How could a “high minded and Christian nation” countenance Polk’s invasion, he asked his congregants. “Whatever may be the secret or avowed object of this war, it is a foul blot upon our national honor. It is supremely contemptible for this Christian and great nation, and in the full blaze of the nineteenth century, to stoop from her high dignity, and go to war with a half-civilized, barbarous, weak and defenseless people.” The United States’ war effort deserved “the frown of all Christendom. Its existence mars the sacred festivities of this hallowed occasion. It makes us rut the cup of national blessing to our lips with a trembling hand.”

Interestingly, Burchard saw the rise of secular liberalism in American government and society as increasingly the likelihood of papal power, not reducing it. Godless invasions of Catholic countries would only help the cause of the Pope, he warned. The American republic, he feared, was becoming “more and more lax in our morals.” The “belief, in an all-seeing God” sat more “loosely upon multitudes of the people” than it had in previous generations. Americans “desecrated and set at naught” the Sabbath. The Democrat government—which Burchard tied to freethinking and secularism—wrongly drove Native Americans “from the graves of his fathers” and scattered them, “like the leaves of his native forests.” Infidelity was “permitted to stalk abroad unrebuked.” The “power of the Roman Pontiff” daily increased. The “spirit of honorable confidence, of high-minded Christian patriotism” forsook “to a great extent, our halls of legislation.”[2]

What Burchard’s sermon makes clear was that to a significant extent many conservative Protestants saw the Mexican War not as expanding American liberties or increasing Protestant influence, but as a danger to both.

[1] Michael P. Costeloe, “Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga” in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture 4 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1996), 312.

[2] Samuel D. Burchard, Causes of National Solicitude: A Sermon Preached in the Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1847 (New York: S.W. Benedict, 1848), 18-22.


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