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

By Cossen, William S. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2015 | Go to article overview

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


Cossen, William S., South Carolina Historical Magazine


A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900. By James M. Woods. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. Pp. xv, 498; $69.95, hardcover.)

James M. Woods's A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900, is an informative, detailed overview of the South's oldest Christian denomination. Woods's synthesis brings together several decades' worth of scholarship, mainly by Catholic authors, on what has traditionally been one of the region's most overlooked churches. This work reminds readers of the rich history of missions, itinerant priests, religious orders, schools, and laypeople that kept the Catholic faith alive despite repeated threats to the church's survival in the South. Although mostly characterized by an ebb-and-flow pattern of development, the Catholic Church's persistent endurance and long-lasting survival as a fixture in southern society were its defining qualities.

While not advancing a specific argument as might be expected in a more narrowly focused monograph, Woods's book offers a thorough treatment of the church across the entire region, which the author defines as the eleven Confederate states plus Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Woods, who is professor of history at Georgia Southern University, analyzes southern Catholicism on its own terms, noting that "just as the South was a peculiar region within the United States, the Catholic bishops ministering there had to live within the confines of this religious culture. Being a southern Catholic prelate was not the same as being a member of the hierarchy above the Mason-Dixon Line" (p. 298). This title serves as an update to an earlier treatment of southern Catholicism, Randall M. Miller and Jon L. Wakelyn's edited volume Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture, which first appeared in 1983.

Woods suggests that the church's small size outside of Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maryland accounts for previous scholars' relative inattention to it. "For much the same reason that Protestants are covered," states the author, "Roman Catholic historians have tended to overlook their own denomination within the South. There might be cursory coverage of the early missionaries, yet most of their studies center, naturally, on those places where there were Catholics; and, until very recently, these are outside the American South" (p. xiii). However, Catholics' smaller communities did not necessarily equate to diminished historical significance. Woods demonstrates, for instance, that although the "Catholic mission effort. . . is usually associated in the popular mind with the American Southwest," the church actually operated dozens of missions in the sixteenth century in present-day Florida and Georgia (p. 376). Additionally, the first Catholic college, seminary, and newspaper in the future United States were founded in the South, and "it was in the South," Woods reminds readers, "where the first major leaders of Catholicism lived" (p. 377). Woods's book re-orients the center of American Catholic history away from its traditional home in the urban Northeast and Midwest, encouraging scholars to account for the southern Catholics who exercised an appreciable influence over the larger American church. …

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