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Paths of Duty: Religion, Marriage, and the Press in a Transatlantic Scandal, 1835–1858

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 October 2018

History Department, University of Notre Dame. Email:


When the Rev. Pierce Connelly denounced Protestantism and converted to Catholicism in 1835, he inadvertently started a small newspaper war among the burgeoning religious press in America. While Catholic periodicals celebrated their newest addition in print, Protestant newspapermen were scandalized. They worried about how the clerical husband's conversion might affect his marital life should he pursue ordination in the Catholic Church. Soon, the Connellys dissolved their marriage in Rome and moved to England, where Pierce became a priest, and his wife Cornelia entered a convent. When, thirteen years later, Pierce reconverted and sued Cornelia “for the restoration of conjugal rights” in an English court, the case became an international sensation – with both British and American newspapers covering the developments and using the saga to comment on larger religious and political issues of their time. The two scandals demonstrate how the transatlantic press debated contested global concerns about the limits of religious freedom, the changing nature of marriage, church–state relations, and international law.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2018 

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1 Quoted in John P. Marmion, “Cornelia Connelly's Work in Education, 1848–1879,” PhD dissertation, University of Manchester, 1984, 7.

2 Pierce Connelly's letter to J. N. N. (20 Aug. 1835), quoted in “Conversion of the Rev. Pierce Connelly, A.M.,” Dublin Review, 1, 2 (July 1836), v–xiv, v.

3 Flaxman, Radegunde, A Woman Styled Bold: The Life of Cornelia Connelly, 1809–1879 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991), 15Google Scholar.

4 See Marmion, 6.

5 Cornelia Connelly's letter to Adeline Peacock Duval (1 Sept. 1835), Society of the Holy Child Jesus Archives, Rome, Italy, at, accessed 5 Nov. 2016.

6 Connelly, Pierce, Reasons for Abjuring Allegiance to the See of Rome: A Letter to the Earl of Shrewsbury (London: G. J. Palmer, 1852), 2Google Scholar.

7 Anonymous, The Life of Cornelia Connelly, 1809–1879: Foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922), 6Google Scholar.

8 See, for example, Curry, Mary Cuthrell, Making the Gods in New York: The Yoruba Religion in the African American Community (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 25Google Scholar.

9 Connelly, Reasons for Abjuring Allegiance to the See of Rome, 2.

10 Quoted in “Conversion of the Rev. Pierce Connelly,” xii.

11 Although this was unusual at the time, Pierce's conversion would set a trend: in the two decades between 1840 and 1859, twenty-nine more Episcopal priests would convert to Catholicism in the United States. See Burgess, George, List of Persons Admitted to the Order of Deacons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (Boston: A. Williams & Co., 1874), 1248Google Scholar.

12 Connelly, Pierce, A Letter to the Right Reverend Dr. Otey, Bishop of Tennessee, on the Resignation of the Rectorship of Trinity Church Natchez (Natchez: Free Trader, 1835), 56Google Scholar.

13 Quoted in Dwight, Henry Otis, The Centennial History of the American Bible Society (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 25Google Scholar.

14 See Billington, Ray Allen, The Protestant Crusade 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Macmillan, 1938), 43Google Scholar.

15 Quoted in ibid., 53.

16 Quoted in ibid., 56.

17 See the compilation of anti-Catholic publications in ibid., 445–48.

18 Connelly, A Letter to the Right Reverend Dr. Otey, 6–7.

19 Mullen, Lincoln A., “The Contours of Conversion to Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century,” U.S. Catholic Historian, 32, 2 (14 Aug. 2014), 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 “Rev. Pierce Connelly,” Catholic Telegraph, 21 Dec. 1835, 30.

21 “Mr. Connelly's Letter to Bishop Otey,” The Churchman, 23 Jan. 1836.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 “The Churchman and Mr. Connelly,” Catholic Telegraph, 18 Feb. 1836, 5–12, 5.

25 Quoted in ibid., 12.

26 Cornelia Connelly's letter to Adeline Peacock Duval (n.d.), Oscott archives, Birmingham, United Kingdom, at, accessed 5 Nov. 2016.

27 Marmion, “Cornelia Connelly's Work in Education,” 7.

28 “Conversion of the Rev. Pierce Connelly,” xii.

29 On US anti-Catholicism in this period see Oxx, Katie, The Nativist Movement in America: Religious Conflict in the 19th Century (New York: Routledge, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Catholic Herald, quoted in “Rome,” Catholic Telegraph, 23 Oct. 1845, 333.

31 “Conversions to Romanism,” Episcopal Recorder, 25 Oct. 1845, 126.

32 “Converts to Romanism,” Christian Secretary, 31 Oct. 1845, 2.

33 Positio: Informatio for the Canonization Process of the Servant of God Cornelia Connelly (née Peacock), 1809–1979 (Rome: Sacred Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, 1987), 14.

34 Pierce Connelly, “Cases before the Privy Council: Exhibit F” (letter of 24 Nov. 1847), quoted in Moore, Edmund F., Reports of Cases Heard and Determined by the Judicial Committee and the Lords of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, Volume VII (London: V. & R. Stevens and G. S. Norton, 1851), 463Google Scholar.

35 Geddes, Rick and Lueck, Dean, “The Gains from Self-Ownership and the Expansion of Women's Rights,” American Economic Review, 92, 4 (2002), 1079–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Blackstone, William, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765), 430Google Scholar: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.”

36 Bishop Nicholas Wiseman's letter to Lord Shrewsbury (c.1847), quoted in Flaxman, A Woman Styled Bold, 125.

37 Cornelia Connelly's letter to Lord Shrewsbury (c.16 June 1848), Society of the Holy Child Jesus archives, Rome, Italy, at, accessed 5 Nov. 2016, original emphasis.

38 Cornelia Connelly's letter to Bishop Wiseman (c.1849), Westminster Diocesan archives, London, United Kingdom, at, accessed 5 Nov. 2016.

39 Ibid.

40 Cornelia Connelly's letter to Lady Shrewsbury (c.1848), Society of the Holy Child Jesus archives, Rome, Italy, at, accessed 5 Nov. 2016.

41 Quoted in Flaxman, 142; and in Paz, Denis G., The Priesthoods and Apostasies of Pierce Connelly: A Study of Victorian Conversion and Anticatholicism (Lewiston, NY: EMellen Press, 1986), 139Google Scholar.

42 “Re-conversion,” Christian Register, 28 April 1849.

43 On the many conservative judicial rulings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries see Hartog, Hendrik A., “Marital Exits and Marital Expectations in Nineteenth Century America,” Georgetown Law Journal, 80, 95 (1991), 95129Google Scholar.

44 Catholic Herald, quoted in “Rev. Pierce Connelly,” United States Catholic Magazine, 8, 18 (5 May 1849), 290.

45 “Reconversion,” Christian Witness and Church Advocate, 13 April 1849, 34.

46 Ibid.

47 “Connelly v. Connelly,” The English Reports: Ecclesiastical, Admiralty, and Probate and Divorce, Volume CLXIII (London: Stevens and Sons, 1919), 1291.

48 Ibid., 1292–93.

49 Ibid., 1303.

50 Ibid., 1310.

51 Ibid., 1313.

52 “Arches’ Court, Saturday, March 23,” The Times, 25 March 1850, 6.

53 “Law Intelligence: Arches Court,” The Observer, 1 April 1850, 8.

54 “Rev. Pierce Connelly,” Christian Witness and Church Advocate, 17 May 1850, 55; “Foreign Miscellany,” Littell's Living Age, 18 May 1850, 313.

55 See, for instance, Norman, Edward R., Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968)Google Scholar.

56 See, for instance, “Correspondence,” Preston Guardian, 7 Dec. 1850.

57 “Burning in Effigies of the Pope, Cardinal Wiseman, and His Twelve Bishops, at Brasten, Kent,” York Herald and General Advertiser, 21 Dec. 1850.

58 See, for instance, McNees, Eleanor, “Punch and the Pope: Three Decades of Anti-Catholic Caricature,” Victorian Periodicals Review, 37, 1 (2004), 1845Google Scholar.

59 Flaxman, A Woman Styled Bold, 149.

60 See Oxx, The Nativist Movement in America, 53–82.

61 “Connelly v. Connelly,” The English Reports: Privy Council, Volume XIII (Edinburgh: R. & R. Clark, 1901), 949–66, 960–62.

62 Ibid., 963–65.

63 “Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Saturday, June 28,” The Times, 30 June 1851, 7.

64 “Connelly v. Connelly,” 966.

65 “The Proceedings Which We Have Lately Had Occasion,” The Times, 2 July 1851, 5.

66 Ibid.

67 In the 1850s, The Spectator wass admittedly more measured than The Times or The Standard (and called both out for being unnecessarily outraged by the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850). Nonetheless, The Spectator frequently affirmed its own Protestant preference, as for example in this statement with regard to the restoration of the hierarchy: “We believe that Popery cannot live in the free atmosphere of England, now becoming freer every day.” See “Rome in England,” The Spectator, 26 Oct. 1850.

68 “The Connelly Case,” The Spectator, 5 July 1851, 5.

69 Connelly, Reasons for Abjuring Allegiance to the See of Rome, 3.

70 Ibid., 4–5.

71 Ibid., 5.

72 Ibid., 10.

73 Ibid.

74 Quoted in “Family Quarrels,” New York Evangelist, 6 Jan. 1842, original emphasis.

75 London newspapers and periodicals that covered Pierce's pamphlets included The Bulwark (Oct. 1853), the Protestant Magazine (Oct. 1853), the Morning Advertiser (22 Aug. 1853), The Standard (24 Aug. 1853), the Morning Herald (26 Aug. 1853, 8 Sept. 1853); Britannia (27 Aug. 1853, 10 Sept. 1853), John Bull (29 Aug. 1853, 10 Sept. 1853), the St. James Chronicle (8 Sept. 1853), The Times (8 Sept. 1853). See Paz, The Priesthoods and Apostasies of Pierce Connelly, 178.

76 Paz, 175.

77 Positio, 171.

78 The Tablet, 1 May 1852, p. 281.

79 “Pierce Connelly's Developments,” Christian Witness and Church Advocate, 17 Sept. 1852, 1; “Recantation,” Christian Witness and Church Advocate, 4 March 1853, 14.

80 “Reasons for Abjuring Allegiance to the See of Rome,” Church's Bizarre, 7 Aug. 1852, 279.

81 New York Sunday Times, quoted in “European Chit Chat,” Charleston Courier, 22 Sept. 1853.

82 The Know Nothing Almanac and True Americans’ Manual (New York: De Witt & Davenport, 1855), 58.

83 “Episcopal Ordination,” Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness, 28 June 1853.

84 “Case of the Rev. Pierce Connelly,” The Times, 16 Aug. 1853, 6.

85 Handwritten note attributed to Johnston, James S. in the Journal of Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church (New Orleans, 1835)Google Scholar, quoted in Paz, The Priesthoods and Apostasies of Pierce Connelly, 40.

86 Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 345.