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American Catholics and “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” 1865–1873

  • Erin Bartram


In the wake of the Civil War, Father Isaac Hecker launched several publishing ventures to advance his dream of a Catholic America, but he and his partners soon found themselves embroiled in a debate with other American Catholics, notably his friend and fellow convert Orestes Brownson, over the “use and abuse of reading.” Although the debate was certainly part of a contemporary conversation about the compatibility of Catholicism and American culture, this essay argues that it was equally rooted in a moment of American anxiety over a shifting social order, a moment when antebellum faith in the individual was being tested by the rights claims of women and Americans of color. Tacitly accepting and internalizing historical claims of intrinsic and through-going Catholic “difference,” claims offered both by American Protestants and American Catholics like Brownson, scholars often presume that debates within American Catholicism reflect “Catholic” concerns first and foremost, qualifying their utility as sources of “American” cultural history. By examining American Catholic discussions of reading, individual liberty, social order, and gender in the 1860s and 1870s, this essay argues that Brownson's arguments against the compatibility of American and Catholic life were in fact far more representative of ascendant ideas in American culture than Hecker's hopeful visions of a Catholic American future made manifest through the power of reading. In doing so, it demonstrates the ways that American Catholicism can be a valuable and complex site for studying the broader history of religion and culture in the United States.



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1 The author would like to thank Robert A. Gross for his guidance on the original version of this paper, and the audiences of the 2016 New England Historical Association conference and 2017 American Catholic Historical Association conference for their thoughtful comments. Mary R. S. Bracy, Richard D. Brown, William S. Cossen, Allison Horrocks, Mary Mahoney, and Oliver Scholes read drafts of the article and provided significant help in honing its argument and structure.

2 Carroll, Michael P., American Catholics in the Protestant Imagination: Rethinking the Academic Study of Religion (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Duncan, Jason K., Citizens or Papists? The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685–1821 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); Fenton, Elizabeth, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Franchot, Jenny, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Fessenden, Tracy, “The Convent, the Brothel, and the Protestant Woman's Sphere,” Signs 25, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 451–78; Gjerde, Jon, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Kang, S. Deborah (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Pagliarini, Marie Anne, “The Pure American Woman and the Wicked Catholic Priest: An Analysis of Anti-Catholic Literature in Antebellum America,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 9, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 97128.

3 Holland, Joe, Modern Catholic Social Thought (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 8486, 90–91.

4 Holland, Modern Catholic Social Thought, 94–96.

5 For the most complete examination of this issue, see Peter D'Agostino, Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), especially Chapter 1. As D'Agostino and others point out, these protestations and criticisms led the Holy See to condemn Americanism as a heresy in 1899's Testem Benevolentiae, placing Hecker at the center of this controversy after his death.

6 D'Agostino, Rome in America, Chapter 1; Heather A. Haveman, Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741–1860 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 168–69.

7 R. Frank Saunders, Jr. and George A. Rogers, “Bishop John England of Charleston: Catholic Spokesman and Southern Intellectual, 1820–1842” Journal of the Early Republic, 13, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 310.

8 David J. O'Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 199–200; Joseph F. Gower and Richard M. Leiliaert, eds., The Brownson-Hecker Correspondence (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1979) 185–86. Gower and Leilaert note that the Freeman's Journal, which originated in 1840, was transformed into a diocesan organ by Hughes in 1842. McMaster, with the financial support of George Hecker, became the sole owner and editor in 1848. Hecker himself had earlier been interested in using the Freeman's Journal to spread the views he and other American-minded Catholic friends shared.

9 R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 33.

10 Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880 (Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 42; David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 109–19; O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 203; Moore, Selling God, 21; J. L. Spalding, The Life of the Most Rev. M. J. Spalding, D. D.: Archbishop of Baltimore (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1873), 343.

11 Fenton, Religious Liberties, 7, 29–30.

12 Brown, The Word in the World, 39–40; Steven K. Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped the Modern Church-State Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). The role of print culture in American anti-Catholicism has been well explored by historians and scholars of literature. See Fenton, Religious Liberties; Franchot, Roads to Rome; Monica L. Mercado, “‘Have You Ever Read?’: Imagining Women, Bibles, and Religious Print in Nineteenth-Century America,” U.S. Catholic Historian 31, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 1–21; Pagliarini, “The Pure American Woman and the Wicked Catholic Priest.”

13 For instance, see an essay by Philadelphia Archbishop Francis Kenrick titled “Restrictions of the Press,” Catholic Telegraph (March 27, 1845), 89; Haveman, Magazines and the Making of America, 167–69.

14 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 14–16.

15 Ibid., 19, 25–39, 53–55, 61, 97–99, 125–30, 162–65.

16 Some of this comes from the tendency to examine “evangelical Protestantism” and Catholicism as though they are comparable, when one is multidenominational and the other is a specific denomination. In fact, Candy Gunther Brown argues that Catholic publishing did avoid engaging in internal controversies in print as a direct result of the requirement for papal imprimatur and a fear of providing fodder for Protestant critics. Setting aside the fact that Catholics in America had a significant history of adopting American cultural practices, which infuriated bishops and the Vatican, we must also acknowledge that American Protestant denominations similarly policed the content of their publications. For instance, Brown notes that the Methodist Book Concern, for which Hecker worked as a young adult, officially sanctioned every publication and only allowed ministers to act as agents. Brown, The Word in the World, 42, 52–53. For the American laity's adoption of American practices, see Patrick W. Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1987).

17 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 200–201.

18 Despite the anxiety they produced among ministers, most successful Protestant publications, like the Methodist Christian Advocate, accepted that their readers had “diverse reading interests and varying attention spans,” and wanted to read something moderately entertaining. Moore, Selling God, 19.

19 American evangelicals largely reprinted the Bible and classic seventeenth-century English texts, developing what Brown refers to as an “evangelical canon,” which bound evangelicals around the world together in a textual community. The Catholic World also republished European works, but increasingly included new American pieces over time. Brown, The Word in the World, Chapter 3; O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 199–201.

20 Brown, The Word in the World, 145.

21 Erin Bartram, “Jane Minot Sedgwick II and the World of American Catholic Converts, 1820–1890” (Ph.D. diss., University of Connecticut, 2015), 349.

22 Jay P. Dolan, ed. The American Catholic Parish: A History from 1850 to the Present, vol. l (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 14–15; Friedrich Heyer, The Catholic Church from 1648 to 1870, trans. D. W. D. Shaw (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1969), 208.

23 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 184–88, 198–99.

24 Despite their missionary goals, the Paulists had been made to accept a parish assignment in New York City. O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 173–74, 199–200.

25 Brown, The Word in the World, 145.

26 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 202–203.

27 Brian Geiger, “‘In Praise of Bishop Valentine’: The Creation of Modern Valentine's Day in Antebellum America” (Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 2007), 59–70.

28 Circular to the Catholic Clergy and People of the United States Concerning the Catholic Publication Society, 3rd ed. (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, n.d.), 8.

29 “The Address of the Executive Committee of the American Tract Society to the Christian Public,” in Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series, vol. I (New York: American Tract Society, n.d.), 15.

30 Sermons Delivered during the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, October, 1866, and Pastoral Letter of the Hierarchy of the United States, Together with the Papal Rescript and Letters of Convocation; a Complete List of Dignitaries and Officers of the Council; and an Introductory Notice (Baltimore: Kelly and Piet, 1866), 83.

31 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 204–208; Patrick Carey, “American Catholic Romanticism, 1830–1888,” The Catholic Historical Review, 74, no. 4 (October 1988): 604–605. Hecker argued, like other lay and clerical romantics, that each age had a unique destiny. Moreover, he argued that each race or nation brought unique gifts that must be “synthesized,” and that the immigrant character of America meant that it was uniquely qualified to synthesize those gifts and bring “fulfillment.”

32 Nord, Faith in Reading, 28–31.

33 Sermons Delivered during the Second Plenary Council, 78–79. From the middle of the century on, interdenominational evangelical efforts had become increasingly strained, and denominations themselves split over the question of slavery, something that was reflected in publishing organizations. Nord, Faith in Reading, 151–156. On this issue, and specifically the Bible's role in dividing Americans of faith, see Mark A. Noll, “The Catholic Press, the Bible, and Protestant Responsibility,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 3 (September 2017): 355–76, especially 363–70.

34 Circular, 8.

35 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 218.

36 “New Publications,” The Catholic World, April 1867, 142; O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 212.

37 “The address of the Executive Committee,” 5.

38 For a thorough look at the charitable pressures placed on American Catholics in this period of growth, see Mary J. Oates, The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

39 Nord, Faith in Reading, Chapter 6.

40 “The Catholic Publication Society,” The Catholic World, May 1866, 283.

41 “Family, Parish, and Sunday School Libraries,” The Catholic World, January 1868, 549–50.

42 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 218–19.

43 The Circular lists thirteen American bishops as financial contributors, most of them at the $500 or $250 per annum level, along with dozens of priests. Circular, 18–21.

44 Sermons Delivered during the Second Plenary Council, 50.

45 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 213.

46 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 217–18; Ryan, Faithful Passages, 52–55.

47 Historians have long debated the precise timing and extent of this shift. See John Higham, “From Boundlessness to Consolidation: The Transformation of American Culture, 1848–1860,” in Hanging Together: Diversity and Unity in American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 149–65.

48 John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), Chapter 4.

49 O'Donnell, Edward T., Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 3641.

50 Clinton, Catherine, The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), Chapter 7; Rosenberg, Rosalind, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 916, 42.

51 Nord, Faith in Reading, 116; Sicherman, Barbara, “Ideologies and Practices of Reading,” in A History of the Book in America: Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840–1880, eds. Caspar, Scott E., et al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 283; Moore, Selling God, 24.

52 “Family, Parish, and Sunday-School Libraries,” 547.

53 Franchot, Roads to Rome, xvii–xix.

54 “Family, Parish, and Sunday-School Libraries,” 549; “The Catholic Publication Society,” 282.

55 “The Catholic Publication Society,” 280–81.

56 Nord, Faith in Reading, 147.

57 “The Catholic Publication Society,” 282.

58 Ibid., 280.

59 Monica Mercado, “Women and the Word: Gender, Print, and Catholic Identity in Nineteenth-Century America” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2014), 67.

60 “Catholic Literature and the Catholic Public,” 401.

61 Nord, Faith in Reading, 114.

62 For an examination of the evolution of the American Catholic Church's position on this issue, see Una Cadegan, All Good Books Are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 2013.

63 Monica Mercado, “‘Have You Ever Read?’” 1–21.

64 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 218–19.

65 “Catholic Literature and the Catholic Public,” 401.

66 Nord, Faith in Reading, 118; “Family, Parish, and Sunday-School Libraries,” 546.

67 Circular, 1. This resembles a contemporaneous argument by Catholic women that their faith had long provided the opportunities that the “New Woman” claimed to offer. Kathleen Sprows Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

68 “Family, Parish, and Sunday-School Libraries,” 547.

69 Brown, Richard D., The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 175–82.

70 Carey, “American Catholic Romanticism, 1830–1888,” 603–607; Cossen, William S., “Catholic Gatekeepers: The Church and Immigration Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” U.S. Catholic Historian 34, no. 3 (Summer 2016): 911.

71 Nord, Faith in Reading, 117–28; Moore, Selling God, 20.

72 “The Catholic Publication Society,” 281.

73 “Family, Parish, and Sunday-School Libraries,” 549.

74 “The Catholic Publication Society,” 280–282.

75 Circular, 4–5.

76 Brownson opposed slavery's expansion and eventually supported emancipation, even fuming over Roger Taney's Dred Scott decision because he believed the Chief Justice had violated his Church's belief in “the natural equality and equal dignity of all human beings.” During the war, however, Brownson flirted with the idea of colonization as a solution to the “Negro question,” and did not support black equality, referring to Africans as “the most degenerated” as a result of original sin. He argued that black suffrage could not work in places with a majority black population, where “whites could not and would not be made to submit to Negro suffrage.” Although he may have used the language of original sin more than other American commentators, his language of primitive, degenerate people was standard American racism of the period, and he received applause for it from non-Catholic crowds. Carey, Patrick W., Orestes Brownson: American Religious Weathervane (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 264–67, 276–78.

77 “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” The Catholic World, July 1866, 463–64.

78 Ibid., 466–68.

79 Ibid., 466. In an April, 1866, letter to Hecker, Brownson remarked that he was working on this piece while also completing a review of Herbert Spencer's Principles of Biology, which he called “a humbug.” Gower and Leliaert, Brownson-Hecker Correspondence, 223.

80 Brownson's own spiritual writings frequently used gendered terms to talk about his own conversion, casting it as an active and “manly” acceptance of true authority. Orestes A. Brownson, The Convert; or, Leaves From My Experience (New York: Dunigan and Brother, 1857), 33–35.

81 “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” 466.

82 Moore, Selling God, 35–36.

83 “Family, Parish, and Sunday-School Libraries,” 548.

84 “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” 464–65, 471.

85 Ibid., 471.

86 Ryan, Faithful Passages, 53.

87 As Ronald E. Butchart argues, there were very few true white “race radicals,” abolitionists who worked for black equality after the war. Instead, educational leaders like Armstrong, Samuel Chapman wanted to “use education to bind southern blacks to the soil.Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861–1876 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), xiii, 123–31.

88 “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” 473.

89 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 225–41. Steven Conn depicts Brownson and Hecker as “papal apologists” devoted to identical visions of Pius IX's spiritual and temporal power, but the reality was more complicated for both men. “‘Political Romanism’: Re-evaluating American Anti-Catholicism in the Age of Italian Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 539–40; O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, Chapter 13.

90 Carey, Orestes A. Brownson, 283–84, 329.

91 “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” 467.

92 Carey, Orestes A. Brownson, 283.

93 Orestes Brownson, “Religious Novels, and Woman versus Man,” Brownson's Quarterly Review, January 1873. Hecker and Brownson disagreed in their interpretation of the doctrine of original sin. Brownson believed in the positive school, positing that humans had lost the “original integrity of their nature” in the fall, while Hecker subscribed to the negative school, arguing that humans had not lost anything essential to human nature as a result of original sin. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson, 327–28.

94 Carey, Orestes A. Brownson, 354–55; Ryan, Faithful Passages, 25–26. Brownson referred to women's suffrage as “the ugliest and most dangerous question that could possibly be raised.” Gower and Leliaert, Brownson-Hecker Correspondence, 263.

95 “Religious Novels, and Woman Versus Man,” 68.

96 Gower and Leliaert, Brownson-Hecker Correspondence, 215.

97 As Carey puts it, “The problem was cultural and intellectual, not individual and personal.” Orestes A. Brownson, 379.

98 “Religious Novels, and Woman Versus Man,” 54–55.

99 “The Use and Abuse of Reading,” 467, 473. American Protestant men had also expressed concern over the effects of novels and female novelists, perhaps most notably with Susanna Rowson's 1791 Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, although by mid-century, many had come to accept “true” and moral novels by women like Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Moore, Selling God, 20–27.

100 McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, 95–96. McGreevy notes that not all Catholics were opposed to suffrage, and that many Protestants were. Protestant opposition was framed in explicitly Biblical terms, while Catholics opposed it on the belief that social stability was rooted in the family, not the individual.

101 Clinton, The Other Civil War, 127–45.

102 O'Brien, Isaac Hecker, 201.

103 Isaac T. Hecker to Emma Cary, August 22, 1868, Hecker Papers, Paulist Archives.

104 Erin Bartram, “Jane Minot Sedgwick II,” 252–62.

105 Cossen, “Catholic Gatekeepers,” 6–8. See also Kathleen Sprows Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith.

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