A Student of History

October 16, 2007

Was Thomas Burke a Catholic?

Filed under: Early America,Ireland,NC History — John Maass @ 5:53 am


During my dissertation research, I became very well acquainted with North Carolina Governor Thomas Burke, a fascinating man who tied all too early in his life, at the end of the Revolution (1783).  Given my connections with Ireland, I was particularly interested in Burke, as he was born in Co. Galway.  As I began to get deeper into the sources, I started to come across some stray references to Burke as a Catholic.  That is very striking, in that during the colonial and revolutionary period, Catholics were barred from high office (among other disabilities.)  How could Burke be a Congressman and a governor if he had been a practicing Catholic?  Where would he have worshipped in NC, given the paucity of parishes or priests there at the time? 

After 3 years and more of research into NC during this period, I came across no primary source references to Burke being a Catholic at all.  Not a single one!  Just because one comes from Galway, does not mean one is a Roman Catholic, but for some reason, writers and a few historians have stated in print that Burke was a Catholic.  The on-line Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry for North Carolina states: “Though there are few Catholics in the state, an unusual proportion have [sic] occupied prominent official positions. Thomas Burke was governor.”

 Wikipedia, not a reliable source, states that “Burke was unusual for being a practicing Roman Catholic who succeeded politically in an era when Catholics held little political power and were often discriminated against.”  The source? The on-line Catholic Encyclopedia, which gives no specific citation, and Stephen Beauregard Weeks’ Church and State in North Carolina (1893), which doesn’t name Burke at all. 

There are plenty of 19th century and early 20th century histories of North Carolina, all of which tend to be loosely cited, to say the least.  One of the most prominent is Samuel A. Ashe’s Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present (1905). This book notes Burke’s Irish roots, stating as well that Burke “was Roman Catholic in religion,” but frustratingly does not give a source for it. 

 Interestingly, there’s a Thomas Burke chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Raleigh.  This is a VERY Catholic organization, so they must be convinced that Burke was Catholic himself.  Can you imagine the furor if they found out he was a Orange!!  I could find nothing on their website regarding foundation for Burke’s alleged Catholic faith. 

If anyone can provide some hard proof of the link between Burke and Catholicism, I would love to have it.  Perhaps if I am in Galway again, I can look for some baptismal records……..


  1. I am past president of the Governor Thomas Burke Division of the AOH in Raleigh, NC. I have researched extensively on Gov. Burke and there are many references to him being a Roman Catholic. I have not had the opportunity to do research on Gov. Burke in Galway, Ireland. I have been able to deternmine that his older brother Aedanus Burke — a prominent SC politician and the Chief justice of South Carolina — attended the theological college of St. Omer in Artois, France. St Omer was an expatriate institution for the Catholic education of English / Irish students, that operated from about 1594 to 1793. It was operated by the Jesuits.

    That’s proof enough for me that his brother Thomas was also Catholic.

    Comment by Frank Mellage — November 15, 2007 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

    • Interesting how everyone discusses “his brother” Aedanus Burke – which in all the thousands of letters he never writes him? Must have been disliked. However, his brother Redmund is in writing, in fact, Thomas writes about his brother Redmund several times. I have even seen notes that Aedanus was his dad. When I wrote – The Complete History of Thomas Burke – I can attest to the numerous letters. By the way – The Orange County SAR chapter, where I was past president, OWNS Thomas Burke’s grave. It was deeded to us, and I live 2 miles from his plantation. I have found all of his land corners, and can now map the whole plantation. I think if people would look at his value outside whether he is Catholic or not, they would be impressed. My whole intent in writing his history was to use ONLY primary documentation, and tell the whole truth. – This also caused me to write another book – The Battle at Lindley’s Mill, which also published never before information about his captivity as POW. Stewart

      Comment by Stewart Dunaway — April 15, 2010 @ 8:55 am | Reply

      • Thanks! Sounds like the AOH has named their chapter after someone they don’t really know all that well.

        Comment by John Maass — April 20, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  2. Here’s the problem Mr. Mellage, which I have encountered as have you. The sources that state or imply Thomas Burke was a Catholic are not definitive, and make no citations to primary evidence. They all repeat the same speculations, so while you may have come across many “references” to Burke’s alleged Catholic faith, they are not solid. No one to date has come up with any evidence that Burke was a Catholic: no primary records, no references at the time, etc. It would be helpful if you cited your extensive research into this matter so we can all see what you rest your supposition upon.

    Also–Aedanus Burke was NOT Thomas Burke’s brother, even though both men originally came from Galway. This is a common mistake folks make all the time.

    Comment by John Maass — November 16, 2007 @ 8:09 am | Reply

  3. Burke is an Irish Catholic Name. South Ireland at that time was 99.9% Catholic.

    Comment by Jim Burke — June 17, 2008 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  4. Well, Jim, that proves nothing. Burke is not just a Catholic name. In fact it comes from de Burgh, an Anglo/Norman name which in Ireland was not only associated with the Catholics, but Protestants as well. As I stated initially, 100% of the claims that Burke was a RC to date have been based on speculation, not proof.

    Comment by John Maass — June 17, 2008 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  5. As Author of “The Complete History of Thomas Burke” – the ONLY book that covers his complete life. This book was written from ONLY primary documents. After “living” with Thomas for 1 year, I can say there is NO proof of him being a Catholic. When I debated this with other NC history people, it got down to – 1) just because he could practice his religion doesnt mean he isnt one. 2) even though he specifically wrote – NO NC govt. offical can hold office who recognizes a eclisatical authority (hmmm – Pope?) – oh that doesnt mean he wasnt one. Many Cathlics dont believe the Pope has this authority! SO WHAT makes a Catholic????
    NO LETTER to his relatives, to his brother, to close friends every mentioned ONE religious view. Nothing. Nada.
    He didnt practice his religon. What constitutes a Catholic? If you were baptized in the church, you will never leave it, regardless of your future activity. So I think this all gets down to splitting hairs over views and opinions. MY strongest evidence was his work/wording on the NC State Consitution – I cant believe a “strong” catholic writing those words – basically excluding his ability to serve – which he did. – His daughter never practiced it. She was a Presbyterian here in Hillsborough, NC – where I live. Our SAR Chapter owns his grave, and in all my research and when I talk – I cannt confirm this view.

    Comment by Stewart Dunaway — January 18, 2010 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

  6. Mr. Dunaway:
    I thank you for your post. I could not agree more. Those who claim Burke was a Catholic (practicing or otherwise) have no solid proof. One must also understand that (esp. by the 18th c.) many Catholic families converted to C of Ireland so they would not lose land, position, profession, so that even though Burke’s family may have been Catholic at one time, they may have switched faiths (at least on the outside) by the time TB was born.
    Odd that the AOH in Raleigh is named after someone most likely NOT a Catholic.

    Comment by John Maass — January 19, 2010 @ 8:22 am | Reply

  7. Interesting contentions with players bowling different Irish & American back-roads without a match bowl to take the main game; and all without its group referee/medic in attendance for any remedies – The Hon. Governor Thomas Burke – who surely deserves our respect as North Carolinians, and, the benefit of any personal doubts as to the interests he may have best served?
    Presumably, this game’s supporters and spectators also enjoy their own viewpoints and desire for an outcome to suit?
    So, if our missing counsel currently presents some problem or challenge for one side, with some opportunity or faith for the other, then, without a common rule-book or conclusive outcome fair to all, why not draw the game for now?
    Attempting it rain it out to advantage through self-interest, prejudice or incomplete perspectives, hardly helps and is hardly gamesmanship?
    Fág an bealach (Clear the way), first! Each to his own in the meantime. Then we can all look forward to reading the agreement that our 3rd Governor was Irish and ……..;
    provided of course, all research hasn’t now ended so prematurely and inconclusively!

    Comment by Peter Baker — April 14, 2010 @ 10:28 pm | Reply

  8. JRM’s comment is probably closer to the mark. A number of Catholics did convert to the Church if Ireland for ‘practical’ considerations.(One thinks of Edmund Burke’s father). Was there any Baptism Certificate or even a Marriage Certificate?.This would give one a lead. But it would just be a lead, and wouldnt constitute proof of denomination. My Grandfather was baptised in a Catholic Church in !879 in the Cape Colony but he married a Presbyterian lass in a Congregational Church. Is there no Baptism entry in either the local Church of Ireland or Catholic Church ? Conrad Burke

    Comment by conrad burke — September 29, 2010 @ 2:20 am | Reply

  9. Here in NC, and his town, Hillsborough, there are no records of any church activity (by him). Altho there were several in the town. His daughter was a member of the Presbyterian church in Hillsboro. I could not find any records in Virginia, about his marriage. Maybe his wife Mary Wilson Freeman of Norfolk could be some help. As I have stated before, even in his personal letters, he never discussed any church, religious commentart at all. I found many letters of the local people here in Hillsboro discussing his passing – and clearly they could write what that thought – and no one mentions religion – altho they didnt think much of his wife – wicked witch of the west. One of his close friends in Edenton has a lot of letters, on the personal side too, nothing. One of my very favorite letters was Thomas to Alex McCulloh telling about his brother’s (Redmond) attempt to make a move on his wife, when Thomas was away, and he never used any religious comments about the situation, other than ‘devilish’ – Stewart

    Comment by Stewart Dunaway — September 29, 2010 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  10. Thanks for your comments Conrad and Stewart. It is interesting how the AOH just assumed TB was Catholic since he was from Ireland, and named a chapter after him!

    Comment by John Maass — September 29, 2010 @ 8:36 am | Reply

  11. MAYBE not the best place – but worth a try – I have been notified by the SAR they are attempting or pursing the move of Thomas Burke’s grave from his home-site resting place to the Old Town Cemetery in Hillsborough (if there is room). Perhaps people could comment on – good idea – or bad idea? Stewart Hillsborough NC.

    Comment by Stewart E Dunaway — March 23, 2016 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  12. Have any of you read or referenced John Sayle Watterson’s volume “Thomas Burke Restless Revolutionary” published 1980? I have this volume in my possession, as Mr. Watterson used records belonging to my husband’s family (the family of G. Burke Johnston). I will quote a piece from the introduction:
    “The inventory of Burke’s will in the Orange County Records at the State Department of Archives and History gave me an insight into his intellectual life through the listing of books in his possession at his death. In addition, I had a search conducted by the Genealogical Section at Dublin Castle, which did indicate that Burke came from an Anglo-Irish protestant rather than Roman Catholic background.” (page ix) He later refers to “his Irish friend on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, AEdanus Burke” so no relation at all, just a shared last name. (page 25) Watterson goes into greater detail about Burke’s Irish heritage and likely anglo-protestant upbringing, but does not offer anything absolutely definitive on the subject. His connection with the Dublin search is Sir Fielding Ould, Burke’s uncle, whose family is all buried in protestant cemeteries. (page 217)
    Mr. Watterson published this biography as his PhD dissertation at Northwestern University. He ends his introduction by saying, “It is my hope that this biography will give to Burke the recognition and attention that his brief but influential and poignant life deserves.”
    As to moving his grave, it is an interesting idea considering early histories of Hillsborough that we possess hardly acknowledge or claim him. (Our family also has Johnston ancestors from Hillsborough- and if the amount of ink spent on them is a measure, they were much more esteemed than Gov Burke.) I think as one of the first NC governors he certainly deserves plenty of recognition, and if moving his grave will accomplish that then perhaps that is a good idea. Then again, he has rested quite happily at Tyaquin these many years- best not to disturb him?

    Comment by Laura S Lipscomb — November 3, 2016 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

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