Churchmen in Antebellum Dixie
Catholics’ Lost Cause: South Carolina Catholics and the American South, 1820-1861
By Adam L. Tate
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Review Author: Jerry D. Salyer
American Catholic prelates, priests, educators, and journalists are understandably inclined to gloss over embarrassing historical figures and episodes. Neck-deep in contemporary scandals, they would naturally avoid mentioning the numerous clerics and laymen who hailed from or were aligned with the South during the antebellum period and Civil War. Who wants to speak of irascible New York newspaper editor James McMaster, who was accused of disloyalty and imprisoned by the Lincoln administration in 1861, when we could instead reflect upon the poetry of popular 1960s icon and monk Thomas Merton?
Yet, love them or hate them, Catholics of the Old South are part of the Body of Christ, and too much politically correct filtering impoverishes our understanding of them. Indeed, such filtering negates one of the key benefits of our Catholic heritage, whereby we draw upon the perspectives of different generations to help us correct the excesses and unfounded assumptions characteristic of our own era. In Catholics’ Lost Cause: South Carolina Catholics and the American South, Adam Tate, professor of history at Clayton State University, fills some of the Southern gap in Catholic historical sensibilities. Tate frames the story of Southern Catholics in general, and South Carolina Catholics in particular, as best understood within a larger clash, still significant today, between two rival conceptions of American identity.
The first conception of American identity “demanded one homogeneous people forming the national community,” which is to say that the distinctive cultural and political characteristics of each state and community had to be leveled or done away with. In its emphasis on homogeneity, this nationalist conception might put even descendants of the English Catholic settlers of Maryland in an awkward position, to say nothing of those of French or Irish extraction, all of whom would necessarily be alienated if uniformity were insisted upon in a country where the core population descended from British Protestants. The alternative and distinctly Southern vision of American identity emphasized regional and local diversity, buttressed by the sovereignty of individual states, and was most expressly articulated by South Carolina native John C. Calhoun. “Instead of a nation, we are in reality an assemblage of nations, or peoples,” Calhoun insisted during an 1842 Senate speech concerning presidential veto power, “united in their sovereign character immediately and directly by their own act, but without losing their separate and independent existence.”
When the conflict between the former vice president’s vision and that of Northern nationalists such as Daniel Webster finally came to a head in 1861, Southern Catholics — and, for that matter, even a few Northern Catholics such as McMaster — cast their lot with the late Calhoun. Tate suggests that part of the reason for their decision was that they regarded Calhoun’s loose “assemblage of peoples” as more open to “separate and independent” Catholic communities than was Northern unionism. Another reason, perhaps, was that they perceived in Webster’s nationalism more than a passing resemblance to nationalist movements in Europe, which had repeatedly clashed with the Church. As Tate writes, Catholics “feared that the revolutionary radicalism that drove Pope Pius IX from Rome would come to American shores. The rise of the Know-Nothing Party during the 1850s made real these fears. Catholic leaders in Charleston pledged support to southern conservatives,” as both groups “viewed the North as the locus of American radicalism and took refuge in Jeffersonian conceptions of both the Union and the Constitution.”
As scholars familiar with this period of American Catholic history have long known, it was common for Southern Catholics to regard the Know-Nothing movement and the abolitionist movement as two sides of the same coin. To point to just one perceived connection, pro-Southern Catholics were keenly aware that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s stridently anti-Catholic father, Lyman Beecher, had helped incite a mob to destroy an Ursuline convent in Massachusetts in 1834. Catholics also frequently “accused the Know-Nothings of advocating consolidated national government and a vigorous role for the federal government in economic affairs,” Tate writes, positions likewise unacceptable to Southern conservatives. Accurately or not, Southern Catholics tended to view the North as a hotbed of Puritan fanaticism.
Even among Northern Catholics such as Orestes Brownson, the prevailing view was not that the abolitionist movement was synonymous with the laudable cause of emancipation, but that the pamphleteers and lecturers who had inspired Nat Turner and John Brown were, at best, well-meaning terrorists. “The abolition ranks are full of insane dreamers,” Brownson once wrote, citing as evidence “their treatment of every man who adopts conclusions different from their own.” Setting aside reasoned argument, they “rush upon him with the fury of cannibals, and, as far as it depends on them, destroy his character, and make it impossible for him to hold up his head in the community.” Brownson describes abolitionists as having “fixed their minds on a given object,” such that “they deny the legitimacy of all laws and of all political institutions. Let them carry their doctrines out, and it is easy to see that a most radical revolution in the institutions of the country must be the result.” Note that this censure came from the pen of an ardently anti-slavery man who would unreservedly support the Union when war came.
Tate’s narrative gives more attention to South Carolina bishops than to Brownson, of course. John England was the first bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, and he set the tone for the Catholic presence in the Palmetto State. England’s successor, Ignatius Reynolds, presided from 1844 to 1855; Reynolds’s successor, Patrick Lynch, not only presided over the diocese during the war but also served as the Confederacy’s ambassador to the Vatican. The first and last of these bishops were native Irishmen, while Reynolds came from Nelson, one of three counties in Kentucky that had been settled around 1800 by Anglo-Catholic Marylanders.
In today’s climate, all these bishops are subject to extremely unfriendly scrutiny for their failure to side with the abolitionists, yet such criticism involves a number of misconceptions, one of which is the failure to realize that abolitionism was a very specific movement. To assume that everyone who would have liked to see slavery abolished was an abolitionist is rather like assuming that everyone who cares about society is a socialist. As Tate points out, there were multiple Southern attitudes toward slavery at the time. Those whom Tate dubs “slavery traditionalists” tended to view the slave-owner as a paterfamilias whose authority was absolute; the “paternalists” sought to reform and ameliorate slavery via humanitarian codes and laws; and those whom we might call “emancipationists” hoped to abolish the institution over time through peaceful means. All three of these categories must then be distinguished from abolitionism, which, due to its association with violence and lawlessness, was a nonstarter for churchmen.
For Bishop England, abolitionists were just as wrong as those who would enshrine slavery in perpetuity and confer unconditional power to masters. Even as England reminded proponents of total hegemony for the slaveholder that only Christ’s authority is absolute, he likewise admonished abolitionists by reminding them of the Synod of Gangra, an ancient council that condemned a fourth-century gnostic-abolitionist movement, declaring for himself that he was “answerable to God to avoid anything that can disturb the peace and good order of society.” Whatever we make of England’s personal hope that gradual emancipation might be effected through an increasing Catholic influence in Southern society, nobody purporting to take the Christian legacy seriously has any business casually dismissing the bishop’s position as if it were self-evidently immoral.
As Tate clearly realizes, Jefferson Davis’s ambassador to Rome, Bishop Lynch, is by far the most embarrassing figure for modern Catholics, and of the three bishops of Charleston, Lynch is drawn the least sympathetically. Yet even Lynch — and, perhaps, especially Lynch — drives home Tate’s thesis. At the outset of the war, in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the bishop agreed to bless the flag of an Irish company of the 1st South Carolina infantry. Addressing his fellow Irishmen, Bishop Lynch told them that they came from a people that “has ever made brave, valiant, and chivalrous soldiers — one that has given distinguished men to every civilized nation, that have won imperishable honors and military glory on many a well-fought field.” After committing the flag to this “body of gallant Christian soldiery,” he exhorted, “Receive it, then — rally around it! Let it teach you of God — of Erin — of Carolina.”
Lynch takes for granted an outlook radically opposed to the uniform nationalist view that came to prevail following the war. For better or worse, since 1865 the general trend in the United States has been to level cultural and regional distinctions, leading to a uniform American identity that strains out so much of what is unique and meaningful about different regions. For Lynch, however, different modes of identity — Christian, Irishman, Carolinian — were not mutually exclusive but were, rather, complementary. Right or wrong, such a perspective regarding identity is surely something to think about. It can be, and has been, argued that there is a link between the standardization and stultification of American culture on the one hand, and recent signs of American disintegration on the other. Perhaps a center composed of Big Macs and Disney princesses cannot hold.
Whatever mistakes the Charleston bishops may have made, then, it is entirely plausible that we today can learn not only from those mistakes but also from certain perspectives that have since been lost. In several passages, Tate observes how bishops, priests, and laymen engaged South Carolina’s generally Protestant culture. On one visit to Georgia in 1844, for instance, Bishop Reynolds decided to give a public lecture whereby he explained and defended Church teaching on the Eucharist. Tate relates in detail the observations of a diocesan journalist, and he judges the lecture to have been part of an ambitious strategy of cultural engagement. The paper’s correspondent “believed that the sermon was particularly powerful in its logical rigor, for he mentioned conversing with several Protestants in the audience afterwards. One, a lawyer, said that ‘he would positively feel embarrassed, were he called on to refute the arguments’” of the bishop. The lawyer “also mentioned that he had never heard anyone explain the doctrine previously.” Tate makes clear that Reynolds “sought to dispel the prejudices of Protestants,” and he “did so not by avoiding differences in religious doctrine but by providing lengthy, and apparently entertaining, treatments of Catholic teachings.” Tate continues, “By refusing to dodge controversial topics, the bishop also played to the southern sense of honor. By appearing combative, but in a respectful way, the bishop demonstrated that he did not shrink from his neighbors.”
Insofar as his preaching reflected an understanding of the Southern honor code, a case can surely be made that Bishop Reynolds epitomized the right approach toward meeting people where they are. If it is true that few churchmen nowadays would think about denouncing abolitionism, it is also true that only a few have the stomach to get up in front of a non-Catholic crowd to explain and defend controversial Catholic teachings. This latter fact should make Catholics today pause before we congratulate ourselves for having progressed so far beyond our predecessors.
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