A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900

By Curran, Robert Emmett | The Journal of Southern History, November 2012 | Go to article overview

A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900


Curran, Robert Emmett, The Journal of Southern History


A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900. By James M. Woods. (Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, c. 2011. Pp. [xviii], 498. $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8130-3532-1.)

Roman Catholicism has traditionally occupied a very small part of the southern religious landscape. Southern Catholics, after all, have been for much of the region's history a suspect tiny minority in a largely evangelical Protestant society. Yet as James M. Woods's history reminds us, in the colonial era Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion in huge areas that became "the South," and the faith left a large cultural footprint. Even within British America, where the religion was largely outlawed, Catholicism first took root in a southern colony. Indeed for the first half century of the republic, the American Catholic experience was largely a southern one, as the vast majority of Catholic institutions were located in the region. Since no one has hitherto treated Roman Catholicism within the South as a whole, Woods's book is a welcome contribution.

Spain first brought Catholicism to areas that eventually would be part of the American South, beginning in Florida in the sixteenth century and in Texas in the seventeenth. The evangelization of the indigenous peoples was, in part, an instrument toward the provision of security for Spain's main empire to the south, in Mexico and beyond. Scores of missions were established, where the natives were to undergo a double conversion, becoming Catholics and farmers. Yet there was serious resistance to both of these Spanish goals. In the end the enterprise failed, not least because church was so wedded to state that when the state departed, as from Florida in 1763, the church followed.

France, the second Catholic empire to colonize the region, provided far less support than Spain did for proselytizing and settlement. By the late eighteenth century, Louisiana had developed a struggling plantation economy, worked by African slaves who formed a majority of the colony's population but largely fell outside the web of evangelization. The transplanting of thousands of Acadians, beginning in 1765, brought a unique variant of French culture that had a lasting impact in Louisiana, not least upon the church. …

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