Review: Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross
Andrew H. M. Stern. Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross: Catholic-Protestant Relations in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. xii + 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-81731-774-4.
“Groundbreaking” appears so frequently that it obscures the works that actually do achieve something new. Andrew Stern’s Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross does break new ground, specifically for a time and region where customary stereotypes still hold sway. The antebellum South was, presumably, a bastion of white Protestant hegemony. Outside of Louisiana, coastal Alabama, Kentucky, and Maryland, Roman Catholics did not figure prominently socially or politically. Stern instead asserts southern Catholic strength and inclusion. Catholic and Protestants cooperated readily in several elements of antebellum southern life, including, but extending beyond, a defense of slavery.
Randall Miller and Jon Wakelyn first challenged this trope with their anthology Catholics in the Old South (1983, 1999). Southern Catholics certainly contributed to southern life while wrestling with their own involvement with slavery. This important early study nevertheless adhered to a presumption of southern Catholic outsiderness. While referencing Miller and Wakelyn’s study, Stern dismisses this assumption, which he insists stems from American Catholic history’s preoccupation with the immigrant church of the urban northeast and upper-midwest. This history and the anti-Catholic reaction such as the Charlestown Ursuline convent burning and Maria Monk’s “awful disclosures” combine to mask from Catholic and southern historians alike the reality of religious cooperation in the antebellum South (3–5).
Prior to the Civil War, American Catholics remained somewhat evenly distributed; northern diocese outnumbered southern ones only twenty-two to fifteen. Slave-owning border states like Kentucky contained widespread and vibrant Catholic populations (6). Stern moves away from the customary foci—Baltimore and New Orleans—and examines primarily Louisville, Charleston, and Mobile. These smaller cities housed sizeable Catholic populations, yet small enough to require constant contact with Protestant neighbors. The Louisville diocese (originally founded at Bardstown in 1808) included Catholic settlers who had arrived with the earliest Protestants and, like them, lived off hunting and farming. By mid-century Louisville had become the twelfth largest city in the country; its diverse, industrialized economy thrived, just like northeastern cities, due to Catholic immigrant workers. Charleston, South Carolina, remained a city of the planter aristocracy and thus the South’s least industrialized city. Nevertheless, by 1855, Catholic immigrants comprised roughly forty percent of the city’s white population. Charleston’s ethnically diverse Catholic parishes testified to the city’s social diversity. Mobile, Alabama, predated both Charleston and Louisville, and thus featured French and Spanish influences older than either white Protestant merchants or mid-century Catholic immigrants (10–13). While the colonial era witnessed a Protestant, particularly Anglican, political ascendency that banned Catholics from office, the nineteenth century witnessed far greater cooperation.
Overall, antebellum southern Catholics enjoyed good relations with their Protestant neighbors. They cared for each other since they lived, studied, worshipped, and ruled together. They did so even though Catholic bishops increasingly voiced ultramontanist—i.e., pro-papal—sentiments. Therefore, Catholics maintained their reputations as good Americans and southerners, while in the urban North the same factors usually sparked intense doubts over Catholic assimilation.
The South’s climate of toleration grew from practical circumstances. In smaller cities like Louisville, Mobile, and Charleston, elites of both religious communities commingled as equals, comforting and mourning together. Whereas in the colonial period, Catholicism could be associated with imperial powers like Spain and France, in the antebellum period Catholic southerners sided with their Protestant neighbors against common enemies like Indians, the British, rebellious slaves, and eventually the North.
Through this cooperation, Catholic southerners set about building their own religious enterprises beyond the parish church: first the school, and then institutions serving the common good like charities for the poor, hospitals, and orphanages. Protestants recognized that these endeavors could serve their own needs. They therefore donated financial support to Catholic organizations and enrolled their children in Catholic schools. Several Catholics died serving the region’s sick, which garnered greater respect for the Church.
The constant drive to create separate Catholic schools led to the southern Church’s ethnic diversity, as clergy and religious orders from Europe, including post-revolutionary France, came to teach. Still, given the fewer Catholic elites outside Baltimore and New Orleans, Catholic schools needed—and received—ample assistance from Protestant donors. This assistance even extended to places of worship, as growing Catholic parishes often shared space with local Protestant congregations. These sorts of religious exchanges opened doors for curious antebellum religious seekers to experiment with Catholicism.
Finally, Catholics participated fully in southern slavery. Across the region both clergy and laypeople owned slaves. Anti-Catholic violence erupted in the 1850s in both northern and southern cities as a reaction against seemingly incessant immigration from Ireland and Germany. In the South, though, anti-Catholic groups like the “Know-Nothings” were quickly labeled as northern abolitionist thugs. This in turn cast Catholics as fellow southerners harassed by northern intrusiveness. Being fully immersed in southern life, as secession approached Catholics largely sided with the short-lived Confederacy. For Protestant southerners, Catholic enthusiasm for the cause placed their loyalties beyond reproach.
With this book, Stern firmly moves beyond conventional historiographical presumptions. His command of documentary evidence is both impressive and an invitation for further research. Upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and interested readers alike will enjoy his clear writing and exhaustive examples. Given the regional claim made, one might quibble over expanding beyond three smaller cities to “the South” writ large. Stern recognizes this, maintaining the connection to the South’s grand Catholic centers like New Orleans. Still, this book’s success prompts the question: “What happened next?” By the 1940s much of the South was considered “no priest land.” Therefore, a future study of southern Catholics in the rural South excepting Louisiana will need to build from Stern’s work.