Catholics’ Lost Cause

A review of Catholics’ Lost Cause: South Carolina Catholics and the American South, 1820-1861 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2018) by Adam L. Tate

Some thirty odd years ago, scholars began to peer into the world of immigrants in the South with not a little attention devoted to Catholics.  What they found surprised them.  Immigrants in the South adjusted to life in their new home with far less trouble and resistance than the folk who settled among the “saints” in New England.  Scholars of that day assumed that the relatively small numbers of immigrants in the South, compared to urban northern communities, left the natives less threatened and the immigrants more cowed.  There was not a lot of evidence to support this assumption, and it did run counter to the recorded experience of many immigrants into the South. Catholic migration into the South, primarily from Ireland, was especially puzzling.  America was and is a protestant country, yet the Irish Catholics quickly assimilated into Southern society, and more importantly, could assimilate.

Adam Tate, and other scholars, suggests a dynamic was in place that encouraged this assimilation.  The dynamic was, and is, the Southern propensity for multiple identities.  Florence King, the long-time social critic for the National Review, was fond of saying that contemporary Southerners loved their country, both of them.  It is an old phenomenon.  Robert Beverly, in his book, The History and Present State of Virginia, declared, “I am an Indian.”  When John Randolph of Roanoke visited England, he insisted on walking into the gallery of the House of Commons with the English gentry.  His hosts tried to dissuade him, but to their surprise Randolph, who deeply identified with his family’s English roots, was seen taking a seat in the gallery among the gentleman commoners of England.  In our own day, Ronald Hoffman recounts a story where a descendant of Charles Carroll the Settler informed Hoffman that he knew little and cared less about his family’s Irish past.  When Hoffman mentioned that he had met the current English protestant owner of the old Carroll estate in Ireland, the descendant of the Settler “glared” at his guest and stated, “Those people are on our land.”

Adam Tate’s account of South Carolina’s Catholics and the process of assimilation is an outstanding account of both identity formation and social integration of an important immigrant group into this most Southern of states. Mr. Tate faced several challenges in researching the book, most particularly the paucity of sources.  In part, this forced him to rely heavily upon the accounts and writings of the Catholic clergy.  I agree with him that this is no grave handicap, as the clergy, particularly the impressive Bishop John England of Charleston, were in the vanguard of Catholic efforts to build a lasting presence in the Palmetto state.  Catholics had a better time of it in South Carolina than Massachusetts, but it was by no means a bed of roses.  A dearth of clergy and resources hindered institution building, intellectual hostility and cultural prejudice against Catholics, and a daunting geography that spread the Dioceses of Charleston across the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Catholics in South Carolina pursued a strategy institution building to win a place in Carolina society.  The indomitable Bishop England founded the country’s first Catholic weekly, the Catholic Miscellany, as well as schools (which contained a fair number of protestant students), a seminary, and the founding of a women’s religious order.  England was also a member of Charleston’s Philosophical and Literary Society and the Anti-Dueling Society, and he was in demand as a speaker throughout the states which made up his dioceses.  Not only did England eschew any sort of Catholic ghetto building by insisting on Catholic participation in society, but he pursued a strategy that evangelicals and Lutherans were also pursuing to win respect for and acceptance of Catholic citizens.  This last is a crucial observation on Mr. Tate’s part and one that I think has eluded many scholars of religion in the South.  Bishop England’s successors continued the strategy after that singular man worked himself into an early grave.

In Mr. Tate’s view, the strategy of institution building to gain acceptance and respect for Catholics succeeded, but at a price.  Resources for these institutions where hard to come by and several projects had to be set aside.  The controversy over slavery and abolitionist mailings led to the closure of the Bishop England’s school for free blacks.  On that tortured issue, England attempted to steer a middle way between “traditionalists” who advocated for a system of slavery shaped by positive law, and evangelical “paternalists” who argued for a social and cultural amelioration of slavery’s evils.  England was not an apologist for slavery in the abstract, but neither did he advocate for the institution’s immediate abolition.  It might be best to view him as a gradualist.  What England pilloried was the too often vicious anti-Catholicism present among many in the abolitionist camp. Mr. Tate gives too much of a hearing to the “Bishop England should have and could have done more to oppose slavery camp.” The folks who are in this camp are engaging in a species of ahistorical presentism.  Bishop England knew darn well that slavery was a grave evil, but it was also deeply complex in theological, moral, social, racial, and cultural terms.  The greatest historian of American slavery, Gene Genovese, agreed with England in this assessment. Slavery was a hornet’s nest that required a good deal more car and prudence to deal with than many today, who are safely tucked away from the institution by the space of time, realize.

Perhaps the best their example that Catholics “had arrived” occurred during a yellow fever outbreak in Augusta, Georgia.  Mayor Cummings of Augusta lauded the “beautiful moral spectacle of the Sisters of Charity’s work among the victims” and contrasted it with certain protestant pastors who “fled from their churches and flocks.”  This wasn’t quite fair on Cummings’s part, but the significant point was that the protestant ministers in question requested that Bishop England publish in the Catholic Miscellany their letters explaining their absence.  Protestant ministers seeking to justify their actions in a Catholic paper to a largely Catholic audience meant that Catholics were viewed as a very real and integral part of Southern society.

Following the Southern fondness for dual identities, Catholics in South Carolina, the majority of whom were of Irish descent, continued to identify with their Irish origins.  They organized Saint Patrick’s Day Parades, formed a well -respected militia, the Irish Volunteers, (Could such a thing occur in Boston, MA?), and together with protestants of Irish descent formed the Saint Patrick’s Benevolent Society for the aid of recent immigrants to South Carolina from Ireland.  When Catholics built the great Gothic edifice, the Cathedral of Saint John and Saint Finbar, Charleston society took great pride in the cathedral, and the Mass and rites consecrating the church, as one of the city’s great cultural treasures.

These achievements of South Carolina’s Catholic population had their costs.  Though non-Catholic opposition and suspicion lessened, it never completely went away, especially among the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and evangelicals.  The maintenance of a seminary, religious order, school, and the building of the Cathedral placed immense financial burdens upon Bishop England’s successors.  When many of these institutions were destroyed in the Late Unpleasantness, Catholics had to begin again.

One impressive contribution that Mr. Tate makes to our understanding of the tension between certain evangelicals in the South and Catholics is Tate’s claim that the Catholics of South Carolina identified with a Jeffersonian vision of the republic described by John C. Calhoun as an “assemblage of peoples.”  This vision made considerable room for true diversity in culture, ethnicity, and religion.  Many of the staunchest protestant opponents of the Catholic presence in America adhered to what Mr. Tate describes as “liberal nationalism” which emphasized a broadly protestant homogeneity in the American identity, and which contained many latent, and not so latent, aspects of puritanical “city-on-the-hillism-of-the-elect.”  This is Mr. Tate’s most important theoretical contribution and warrants a good deal more probing to help us understand the source of many conflicts in American history.  I suspect that one of the reasons Catholics had a much tougher go of it north of Baltimore was the wider prevalence of this “liberal nationalism” among the natives north of Mason and Dixon’s line.

The long-term effects of the Irish Catholic experience in South Carolina, as opposed to Irish Catholic experience in Massachusetts is beyond the scope of Mr. Tate’s history, but it seems to me appropriate to throw a glance in that direction. If there are any doubts remaining about the vast gulf that separated the Irish Catholic experience in the South from that of his co-religionist of the north, then allow a non-Catholic to dispel them.  Thomas Wolfe’s fictionalized autobiography, Time and the River, details an observation of Wolfe’s protagonist, Eugene Gant of North Carolina, on Irish Catholics, north and South, based on Wolfe’s experience and observations.

Now at Cambridge, in the house of the Murphys on Trowbridge Street, he [Gant] found himself living with the Irish for the first time, and he discovered that the Murphys were utterly different from all the Irish he had known before, and all that he had felt and believed about them. He soon discovered that the Murphys were a typical family of the Boston Irish. . . .

But in the Murphys the boy discovered none of the richness, wildness, extravagance, and humour of such people as Mike Fogarty, Tim Donovan, or the MacReadys–the Irish he had known at home. The Murphys were hard, sterile, arid, meagre, and cruel: they were disfigured by a warped and infuriated puritanism, and yet they were terribly corrupt. There was nothing warm, rich, or generous about them or their lives: it seemed as if the living roots of nature had grown gnarled and barren among the walls and pavements of the city; it seemed that everything that is wild, sudden, capricious, whimsical, passionate, and mysterious in the spirit of the race had been dried and hardened out of them by their divorce from the magical earth their fathers came from, as if the snarl and jangle of the city streets, the barren and earthless angularity of steel and stone and brick had entered their souls.

One great truth that is underscored by both Mr. Tate’s book and by Mr. Wolfe is that place matters, and it matters not only in how we are accepted, and in what challenges we will face, but in what we shall become.

Mr. Tate’s contribution to our understanding of Catholics in antebellum South Carolina, and the ways in which these Catholics both navigated and assimilated into their surroundings is extraordinary.  To date, his view of the process of Catholic integration and the successful interactions of Catholics with the culture of South Carolina is unsurpassed and will serve as a useful model for other scholars.   It is most worthy of a place in the library of any serious student of Southern history.

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