The Church & the Land: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American Society, 1923-2007

By Hurt, R. Douglas | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Church & the Land: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American Society, 1923-2007


Hurt, R. Douglas, The Catholic Historical Review


The Church & the Land: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American Society, 1923-2007. By David S. Bovée. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2010. Pp. xvi, 399. $79.95. ISBN 978-0-813-21720-8.)

The rural history of the United States includes the denominational response to social and economic problems in the countryside. During the twentieth century the Catholic Church attempted to strengthen its presence in rural America by fostering its own country life program. By 1920, church leaders believed that rural Catholics needed greater association not only to keep them in the fold but also to improve their secular lives. During the early 1920s, Father Edwin Vincent O'Hara served as the director of the Rural Life Bureau of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Council. From his parish in Oregon O'Hara worked with agricultural leaders, organizations, and clergy to help improve rural life. In 1923, O'Hara called a meeting of Catholics to discuss rural problems. Gathering in St. Louis at the same time as the Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Country Life Association, the delegates gained considerable attention and established the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) before the meeting ended. Rural Catholics now had an organized, structured way to make their needs known to the Church and society as well as to help eliminate isolation and improve assimilation.

The NCRLC worked to improve parent education and provide credit unions and vocation schools to teach children more than religion, all designed to keep Catholics on the land and boost the rural population. The NCRLC also wanted to gain converts to help ensure a denominational presence in the countryside, and it championed the traditional belief that rural culture was superior to urban living. During the 1930s the NCRLC became the most important church-affiliated agrarian movement that considered the solution of rural problems its primary responsibility for the good of the nation and Church. The NCRLC placed its faith and efforts for reform in a back-to-the-land movement and supported the subsistence homestead program of the federal government. …

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