Catholicism in the South: Center, Margin, Mirror?

By O'Gorman, Farrell | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Catholicism in the South: Center, Margin, Mirror?


O'Gorman, Farrell, The Mississippi Quarterly


A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900, by James M. Woods. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. xv, 498 pp. $69.95.

WITH THIS BOOK, THE FIRST OF ITS KIND, JAMES M. WOODS PROVIDES AN invaluable starting point and frame of reference for any reader seeking to understand "the oldest Christian faith in the American South" in the four centuries between the arrival of Ponce de Leon and the rise of Jim Crow (xiv). Woods states clearly that his narrative--dauntingly huge in scope--is primarily a "synthesis," and that if "scholars are hoping for something jarring or provocative in these pages, they might be disappointed." He relies "mainly, yet not exclusively, on Catholic writers" for his sources, judging it worthwhile to tell the story of the Church in the region largely on its own terms because that story has simply not yet been told. His "traditional, institutional narrative" therefore focuses a great deal--though again not exclusively--on official Church records, which is to say documents and correspondence penned by bishops, priests, and nuns (xiii). This approach will provide an indispensable point of comparison for future historians more interested in the experience of lay Catholics in the South (to which Woods does in fact devote some attention). While Woods's sources may primarily be "institutional," the story he succeeds in telling is by no means a serf-evident one, for the earliest Catholic religious in places as different from one another as St. Augustine, San Antonio, New Orleans, and Baltimore had no sense that they were a part of any such thing as an "American South," and certainly not of a "Southern" Catholic Church.

What those religious had in common was a commitment to fostering the Catholic faith in new colonial, multiracial societies in which slavery featured prominently. Their leaders worked in a larger milieu in which their allegiance to a Church centered in Rome was often complicated and at times entirely compromised by the rise of the modern nation-state as well as older barriers of language and culture. Woods notes that Catholicism in the US South would--and will--ultimately have to "blend aspects of a Spanish, French, and English heritage, and that blending is a major focus of this narrative" (xiv). At the outset, however, there was more conflict than blending even between Spain and France, both ostensibly "Catholic" colonial powers. And there are many scenarios illustrative of Woods's statement that "Not all of the facets of this history are bright and edifying--indeed, some are quite dark" (377).

A significant portion of Woods's first section ("The Colonial Context, 1513-1763") focuses on political and military history precisely because that history is so tightly interwoven with the beginnings of the Catholic Church in the Americas, at least in the Spanish colonies. Not all clergy were pleased with this fact, as Woods details in his chapters on La Florida and the region that would later become Texas. Dominican, Jesuit, and Franciscan missionaries from Spain protested atrocities inflicted upon natives in the South by conquistadors such as Hernando de Soto, whose three-year expedition theoretically expanded La Florida to present-day Knoxville and Little Rock. These clergymen, like their better-known counterpart Bartolome de Las Casas in Central America, deplored such atrocities as a hindrance to evangelization. They were able to make their protests directly to the king precisely because the Spanish Crown, while altogether committed to looting the Americas, nonetheless took its mission to evangelize quite seriously.

Woods's treatment of these matters and of the various Catholic missions in La Florida and Texas is fascinatingly detailed. One learns, for example, that the first book produced in what would become the United States was a 1569 grammar of the native Guale language written by a Jesuit on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia (9). …

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