Some Private Roads to Rome: The Role of Families in American Victorian Conversions to Catholicism

By Rose, Anne C. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Some Private Roads to Rome: The Role of Families in American Victorian Conversions to Catholicism


Rose, Anne C., The Catholic Historical Review


The mid-nineteenth century was the first period in American history when measurable numbers of Protestants converted to Roman Catholicism. In a culture that remained sharply anti-Catholic, this was a bold personal step. The converts were impelled by longings for the authority of a historical church, the orderliness of religious hierarchy, and a spirituality evoked by rituals woven into daily routines. Behind every conversion was a history of spiritual turmoil and resolution. These personal dramas have led scholars to picture conversion as a process of individual transformation.1 A convert's journey, however, was neither strictly inward nor solitary. Conversion had inevitable social dimensions. In private life, it was an event that took place in families and profoundly changed families in turn.

This essay explains how commonplace American assumptions about gender and domesticity shaped the entrance of Protestants into the Catholic Church and determined the consequences of conversion for their families. Both social and religious premises influenced relationships in mid-century Protestant homes. In keeping with inherited patriarchy, Victorian men behaved as heads of households on questions affecting the family's public identity, including religious affiliation. Women, perceived as guardians of heart and hearth, might nonetheless claim considerable religious freedom. The fervor of the Catholic convert ignited this mix of domestic traditionalism and change. Faith itself became a form of family power, and, depending on the sex of the convert, favored male control or female self-determination. The conversion of a husband and father brought his entire family into the Catholic Church. A wife and mother, in contrast, might practice her Catholicism on her own or with her children, but exercised limited influence over her husband's faith. The convert's intimacy with Catholic kin outside the nuclear household eased, but did not subvert, these patterns of authority at home. Individual conversions unfolded within the boundaries set by Victorian family life.2

Eleven American Protestants who entered the Catholic Church between 1836 and 1869 are the principal subjects of this study. Seven were men and four were women; seven were married, three were single, and one was widowed. Six were Episcopalians at the time of their conversions; and five were Unitarians or Transcendentalists. These facts alone do not convey the complexity of the converts' lives, however, or the utility of the sample. Because religious persuasion worked powerfully through channels of kinship, this small number of converts brought four spouses, eighteen children, and sixteen adults in extended families into the Catholic Church during the mid-century period. More spouses, children, and kin became Catholics later in time. Eleven cases of conscience provide an avenue for understanding nearly fifty conversions. Nor do their stories simply represent a religious experience occurring on the margins of the Protestant world. The converts' histories bear witness to a spiritual restlessness that reached deep into the Protestant mainstream: only five were born Episcopalians or Unitarians, while three others began their lives as Presbyterians, two as Methodists, and one as a Quaker. Few mid-century Protestants migrated as far as Catholicism. Even so, the converts underscore the presence of disquiet and the potential for redirection in American religion.3

For most Americans, too, the family was the private setting of religious experience. This analysis approaches Victorian families as networks of immediate and extended kin. The breadth of this social definition stands in contrast, however, to a narrow temporal focus. The essay limits itself to Catholic conversions of the middle nineteenth century. The purpose is both to ensure that the conversions share religious characteristics and to identify a cluster of family histories driven by similar domestic arrangements. …

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