Thomas Whall

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Liberty collection point

Thomas Whall

  • Values:
  • faith
  • liberty
  • justice

Student Protestor

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Dates: 1848–1911
Quote: I was expelled for not reading Protestant prayers from a Protestant bible. Such was the Modern Athens [Boston] in 1859. [117]
Quote credit: Thomas Whall, 1904
Image credit: Illustrated Irish Nation (Boston, MA) / Public Domain

Inspired by Faith

Synopsis copy: In 1859, the 10-year-old Irish Catholic immigrant Thomas Whall refused to recite from the King James Bible. Beaten and expelled for his dissent, he inspired the Eliot School Rebellion, a mass walkout by fellow students.

Image credit: University of Toronto, via Internet Archive



Mapping Irish Catholic Immigration



Image credit: Cary’s New Universal Atlas, John Cary, 1806 via Wikimedia Image caption [144]: Growth of 19th-century Irish Catholic immigration

Bubble copy: Social and economic factors led to a spike of immigration to the United States in the 19th century. This concentrated swell created discord.


Date: 1815 / 40,000

Image credit: Cary’s New Universal Atlas, John Cary, 1806 via Wikimedia

Image caption: Moderate Irish immigration

Bubble copy: Before the early 19th century, there was only moderate Catholic immigration from countries like Ireland. America’s Protestant majority and identity remained strong.


Date: 1845

Image credit: Cary’s New Universal Atlas, John Cary, 1806 via Wikimedia

Image caption: The Irish potato famine strikes

Bubble copy: The Irish potato famine created The Great Hunger in a population for which potatoes were a staple. Many Irish Catholics immigrated to the United States.


Date: 1855 / 1.5 million

Image credit: Cary’s New Universal Atlas, John Cary, 1806 via Wikimedia

Image caption: Swell of Irish immigration to the United States

Bubble copy: In the ten years after the famine hit, immigration spiked. The majority perceived Irish Catholic immigration as a threat to the established cultural order of Protestant democracy.


Date: 1880 / 437,000

Image credit: Cary’s New Universal Atlas, John Cary, 1806 via Wikimedia

Image caption: Irish immigration to the United States peaks

Bubble copy: A second famine brought a new wave of Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. With a population of nearly 2 million, Irish became more accepted by the majority. [163]

Tracing Anti-Catholic Bias

Body copy: The Whalls immigrated to Boston in 1854, when Thomas was six. Anti-Catholic bias was on the rise. A dramatic spike in immigration from Catholic countries, especially Ireland, struck fear in a deeply Protestant culture.

Image caption: Irish people prepare to leave their country for a better life in places like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

Image credit: Kean Collection / Staff


Body copy: Doubts about Catholic loyalty to American democracy gave rise to the Native American Party in the 1850s. This “native-born” political movement, also known as the “Know Nothings,” advocated anti-immigrant policies.

Image caption: Know Nothing Party flag

Image credit: Milwaukee County Historical Society


Body copy: In 1834, an anti-Catholic mob burned Boston’s Ursuline Convent to the ground. Other anti-Catholic urban riots followed, including Philadelphia’s “Bible Riots,” in 1844, and New York’s “Orange Riots,” from 1870-71.

Image caption: Destruction of the Charlestown Nunnery, August 24, 1834

Image credit: Catholic University of America via Internet Archive


Body copy: A top priority of the Know Nothings was to keep public schools free from Roman Catholic influence or accommodation. They outlined these goals in their party platform. [197]

Image caption: Handwritten Know Nothing Party platform, ca. 1856

Image credit: David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University


Body copy: In 1844, Philadelphia’s Bible Riots over Catholic schooling were among the most violent. Dozens died as Roman Catholic churches and Irish homes were razed before the militia suppressed the rioting.

Image caption: This lithograph depicts a July 7, 1844 riot in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Violence erupted there that summer.

Image credit: Free Library of Philadelphia

Eliot School Rebellion in the News


Bubble copy: When Whall was told to read from the King James Bible, he asked instead to read from his Catholic catechism. Denied, he was beaten. Fellow students walked out in the Eliot School Rebellion, attracting national news coverage.

Image credit: Library of Congress


Bubble copy: … asked Whall why he refused to read the commandments, who replied he would read them from no other book but his Catholic catechism.

Source: Thomas Whall Relates Event After Forty Five Years Image credit [270]: Library of Congress


Bubble copy: [Whall] was severely punished by blows of a rattan upon his hand until he succumbed … his hands were so swollen and inflamed the [schoolmaster] bathed them in cold water.

Source: Boston Daily Advertiser, March 18, 1859

Image credit: Library of Congress


Bubble copy: About 100 [students] rose … notified they could no longer remain in the school … the priest who is at the bottom of all of this trouble is Rev. Mr. Widget of St. Mary’s Church.

Source: Lowell Daily Citizen, March 1, 1859

Image credit: Library of Congress


Bubble copy: About three or four hundred of them have then and since left.

Source: The Vermont Phoenix, March 19, 1859

Image credit: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress

Legacy of Liberty

Question/alignment statement: Do you think that religious liberty requires accommodating the practice of all faiths in schools and other public spaces?

Image credit: SCPhotos / Alamy Stock Photo

Scripture: He must hold firmly to the message which can be trusted … he will be able to encourage others with the true teaching and also to show the error of those who are opposed.

Scripture credit: Titus 1:9

Image credit : Illustrated Irish Nation (Boston, MA) / Public Domain

Related changemakers: William Bentley Ball, Rebecca Gratz, Dorothy Day

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