Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols

Article excerpt

Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gave Nichols. By Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2002. Pp.xii, 342. $24.95.)

In 1857 Mary Gove Nichols (1810-1884), along with her husband Thomas, were received into the Catholic Church in Cincinnati. Their decision linked them to other prominent American converts of the era. Some, like Isaac Hecker and Orestes Brownson, were religious and social radicals until just before conversion; others, including Cornelia Peacock Connelly and Levi Sillimaii Ives, took a shorter step from Episcopalianism when they accepted Rome's authority. Mary and Thomas belonged to the more wayward group. Living in an experimental community at the time of their baptisms, the Nicholses were well known for their beliefs in free love and spiritualism, as well as their enthusiasm for tamer reforms of health, diet, and dress. Nor was this Mary's first conversion. As a teenager, she left her father's skepticism and mother's Universalism for Quakerism, setting the stage for her later divorce from her first husband, also a Quaker. No wonder Archbishop John Purcell now wrote doubtfully to a fellow bishop about "my receiving into the Church the Mother Abbess of the free Lovers" (p. 217). His decision to honor Mary's profession of faith was not pathbreaking in 1857; Hecker, Brownson, and others from their Transcendentalist circle had been Catholics for a decade or more. Yet even if Catholicism's absorption of radicals was becoming habitual, questions remain. What led these restless people to Catholicism, and how did their reception affect the sprouting but still fragile American Church?

Shameless is an engrossing biography of Mary Gove Nichols that may be appreciated without wrestling with her conversion. Mary was in her late forties when she became a Catholic, and the change does not seem to have been life-transforming. The unifying thread was her dedication to the water cure, which remained her professional focus until her death. Married converts occasionally dissolved their families to enter religious orders or more often devoted themselves to Catholic education or charities; Mary did none of these. Silver-Isenstadt's depiction of Mary's conversion as one episode in a tumultuous life seems, in this light, a wise choice. …

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