Bishop Lynch's People: Slaveholding by a South Carolina Prelate

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PATRICK NEISON LYNCH (1817-1882), THIRD BISHOP OF

Charleston, was an important leader of the Catholic Church in America and a Southern patriot who served as the Confederacy's diplomatic emissary to the Holy See in 1864-1865. He was a defender of the institution of slavery and a slaveowner of significance.1 In this study the Bishop's experience, motives and methods as a slaveholder are examined. His ownership of slaves is set in the context of prevailing beliefs and practices of American Catholics of the time, especially Southern bishops. Bishop Lynch's actions are compared with his views on the institution of slavery, as expressed in the lengthy pamphlet on the subject that he published in Europe during the Civil War.

The Bishop of Charleston was essentially in line with his fellow Catholic clergy and with the clergy of other Christian denominations in the South. In his deeds he proved true to his publicly-expressed convictions about how the institution of slavery was supposed to function. Slavery was a central pillar of the Old South, and Catholics were full participants in the institution. In Lynch's time the supreme authority of the Catholic Church had declared the forcible enslavement of human beings to be morally wrong. In 1839 Pope Gregory XVI published the apostolic constitution In supremo apostolatus, in which he condemned both the act of enslavement and the international traffic in humanity.2 At the time, leading American Catholic prelates interpreted the papal ban as applying to the Translatlantic slave trade, but not to what they termed domestic slavery, i.e., the retention in servitude of the descendants of those originally enslaved. In 1840, Charleston's first Catholic bishop, John England, set forth this distinction in a famous published series of letters to United States Secretary of State John Forsyth.3 The outstanding American Catholic theologian of the day, Francis Patrick Kenrick, Bishop of Philadelphia (later Archbishop of Baltimore) wrote in his 1841 manual on moral theology that slavery was permissible, even if unfortunate, and advised that "nothing should be attempted against the laws nor anything be done or said that would make them [i.e., the slaves] bear their yoke unwillingly."4

For Catholics, as for other Americans, slavery was a contentious issue, and many American Catholic leaders were troubled by the institution. But the antebellum bishops refrained from issuing any collective public statement for or against domestic slavery. They judged it prudent not to enter the heated political fray over this question. Bishop Lynch, writing after the war, lauded the American hierarchy for having done nothing "to produce that exacerbation of feelings which resulted in the war itself...."5 Catholic slaveowners did not receive any unequivocal instruction from the hierarchy favoring general abolition or manumission.

Southern bishops, priests, religious communities and laypersons owned slaves.6 Ownership of servants by Catholic clergy and religious was neither universal nor constant. Clearly, some had qualms about the institution and took steps to cease being slaveholders. Slaveholding by Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, and that by Jesuits in Maryland, are well known.7 Two other congregations of men, the Sulpicians and the Vincentians, held slaves. Of the dozen communities of women religious in the Old South, all but two owned servants.8 As of 1769 the Catholic Church had been the largest slaveholder in French Louisiana.9 Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis owned several black servants. Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Bardstown and Louisville purchased slaves for his diocese and bequeathed them to his successor, Martin John Spalding, who also inherited a few Negroes from his father. Bishops Louis William DuBourg of New Orleans and Joseph Rosati of St. Louis acquired blacks for St. Mary's Seminary in Missouri. For nearly three decades the seminary bought, sold, hired out, traded and worked black folk. …