John Carroll - First American Archbishop

John Carroll - First American Archbishop

John Carroll was the first Archbishop in the United States.

Carroll, whose brother Daniel signed the Constitution, played mainly a spiritual role in the American Revolution itself. However, certain relationships he established with other Founding Fathers helped normalized Catholicism in the United States and assisted in the move toward separation of Church and State.

Colonial Catholicism

During the 18th century it was common for wealthy colonists to send their children to Great Britain to receive a higher education.

The Carroll family decided to send their children to France.  Why? Well, because the Carroll’s were Catholic.

At the time, Maryland was a refuge for many of the world’s Catholics.  They were comfortable there, and although they were traditionally viewed by other colonists as untrustworthy, times were changing.

One of these children, John Carroll, would live through the changing attitudes.

John Carroll

John Carroll was just 13 when he was sent to Europe for his education.  He would remain there, teaching at his old school, for more than twenty-five years.

In 1773, the Jesuits (of which Carroll was a part) were suppressed in France.  In response, John decided to return to Maryland.

Soon after his return, Carroll founded St. John the Evangelist Parish.  As this was getting under way, he was contacted by his cousin Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  Charles informed John the Continental Congress asked him to join a committee and go to Quebec. Their goal was to ask Canada to join the Revolution.


The American Revolutionaries’ relationship with Quebec was flimsy at best.

Quebec had been a colony of France until it was taken over by Great Britain during the Seven Years War.  One of the Intolerable Acts (the appropriately named Quebec Act), which made the rebels so mad, gave the citizens of Quebec the ability to maintain their Catholic Religion.  Many of the people of New England were extremely unhappy about this, as they viewed their nation as Protestant.

Conversely, the Continental Congress thought the people of Quebec would eagerly join the American Revolution specifically because of their French/Catholic heritage.  

John Carroll, as one of the few men specifically trained as a Catholic priest, was seen as exactly the type of representative to negotiate with Quebec’s leaders.

Unfortunately, these talks did not result in the assistance of Quebec in the war.  This is primarily because, as stated earlier, the British had just given Catholics the ability to practice their religion unhindered. Their New England neighbors were very outspoken of their distrust of Catholics and Quebec could not overlook those ideas.

The one bit of good news which came out of this journey, for John Carroll anyway, was a new friend he made: Benjamin Franklin.

Superior of the Missions

Technically, Catholicism in the United States was still overseen by the Bishop in London.

After independence was declared, taking orders from someone in Britain was no longer an option.  However, due to the American’s determination to keep church and state separated, Carroll and his colleagues were hesitant to request that a Bishop be appointed in the United States.

Benjamin Franklin, now serving as a Minister to France, had secret discussions with certain important members of the Catholic Church in Paris in order to resolve this issue.  

Franklin convinced the Church to set up an Independent Mission.  This rarely used device, usually reserved for extremely remote locations, permits a Parish to work on behalf of the Church without strict over-site.

On June 9, 1784, Pope Pius VI gave John Carroll the title of Superior of the Missions of the thirteen United States of North America.  Carroll was suddenly the highest-ranking Catholic official on the continent.


Carroll went about the task of uniting the Catholics in America.  He was successful enough that the other leaders of the American Church asked he be named Bishop.

Rarely in history have the people had a say in who the Pope chose for a position.  This time it was different. The citizens were letting the Pope know the United States was ready.  But they also let him know there was only one person the country was ready for.

John Carroll was named as the first Bishop in American history.

After establishing Georgetown University and building the first cathedral in the United States, Carroll was then promoted to Archbishop.  He was also able to name three Bishops to serve under him.

By the time of his death, John Carroll had establish the American Catholic Church on an equal footing with those of Europe.

If you enjoy learning about religion in the Founding Period, you might enjoy my articles on Thomas Fitzsimmons and Pierpont Edwards.

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Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about John Carroll, you can read his ‘Life and Times’ for free here. You can also purchase a copy for your house through the affiliate link below.

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