28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Thank you, St. Jude (1996)

In Thank You, St. Jude Robert A. Orsi examines the prayers that American Catholic women have made to Jude Thaddeus, the Saint of Hopeless Causes, in Chicago since 1929. Orsi traces the rise in popularity of this devotion to historical and cultural developments that made for “hopeless” situations among immigrants’ daughters and granddaughters. This study explores how women engaged in relationships between heaven and earth as they prayed to St. Jude and participated in the material culture of the devotion.


Devotion to St. Jude emerged as one of the most popular devotions among women from the 1930s to 1960s. Men were integral to the devotion as they stood at the forefront of promoting and overseeing the devotion. But, women played a more central role in the practice and care of the devotion. The devotion to the Saint of Hopeless Causes emerged during the Depression, World War II, and after the war as women prayed for themselves and their families at home and abroad. Women prayed to St. Jude about marital relations, love, war, health, birth, and their jobs. Mostly, women prayed for and about the men in their lives. Women were also central to the devotion as they were responsible for responding to other women’s letters and petitions in the Voice of St. Jude and in the periodical’s office. Material devotions to St. Jude continued even after the Second Vatican Council’s call in the 1960s for the devotion to be surrounded by words, not things. Despite women’s centrality in maintaining and constructing devotions to St. Jude, women were also constructed by their participation in the devotion. Periodicals attacked women for their constant problems that had to be taken to St. Jude. Advice literature called women to be more moderate consumers of goods and American culture. It advised women to focus more on the spirituality of their homes. According to Orsi, “The whole culture directed the immigrant’s daughters into devotionalism, and there they were remade against the movement of their own times” (94). Devotionalism provided women with agency and their own voices (particularly in the growing field of American medicine overseen by men). At the same time, devotions to St. Jude encouraged women to be passive, to be submissive to men, and to be dutiful sufferers.


Orsi argues that scholars must go beyond using theological, socio-historical, and psychological dichotomies for explaining why women turned to St. Jude from the 1930s to 1960s. Rather, devotion to St. Jude must be situated in the “in-betweeness” of these poles. Orsi argues that women used these devotional practices to negotiate how culture, men, and their families imagined them and how they imagined themselves. St. Jude was also a part and product of this “in- betweeness” as he constituted and destabilized American Catholic culture and women’s perceptions of themselves. The narrative and the material cultures of the devotion were integral parts of women’s relationships as they were used to give St. Jude and women agency. Orsi argues that women were subjects to and subjects of American Catholic culture and devotion to St. Jude. Orsi’s theory for understanding devotional practices as relationships between heaven and earth is profound. It allows scholars to study how people perceive themselves to interact with “the supernatural” without reducing religion to a fantasy.

26 Mar

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997)

Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how evangelicalism spread to the American South from the 1740s to 1830s. Southern Cross surveys the diaries of itinerant Baptist and Methodist preachers to recognize “why southern whites of all classes long kept their distance from evangelicals” (26). Heyrman argues that evangelicalism did not gain widespread support in the South among white Southerners until the 1830s. In its incipient years, evangelicalism challenged the social and familial roles of the Anglican South, particularly the patriarchy of white masters. Itinerant preachers “realized that the future of their churches in the South depended on more than yielding ground to gentlefolk and slaveholders. It would require winning humbler folk as well by altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions and relationships between the church and the family, and between Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism” (26). By the 1830s, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent” (26).


In the eighteenth century, the largest number of churchgoers in the South were “Anglicans, members of the colonial church of England who later came to be called Episcopalians” (7). The First Great Awakening (1730s to 1740s) did little to affect the religious atmosphere of the southern colonies. From the 1740s to 1760s, some evangelicals moved to the South to proselytize, and more settlers moved south and southwest bringing their pietistic traditions. Heyrman notes, “All of those migrants and missionaries carried into the South the conviction that spiritual rebirth was essential to salvation, and the most militant among them, Baptists and Methodists, aimed at nothing less than teaching all Southerners the language of Canaan” (11). To do this, evangelicals attacked the “popishness” of Anglicanism with its rituals and holidays, and sent young, itinerant preachers to the backcountry. Evangelicals gained some membership numbers and established churches. By 1776, however, evangelicals numbered less than 10% of the southern white population. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, evangelicals (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) gained only a few more adherents. By the early 1800s, evangelicals comprised only 17% of the white population and 8% percent of the enslaved population. “Why,” asks Heryman, “was it that evangelicals, although now invested with every advantage, still struggled to claim the soul of the South?” (23). The answer: Evangelicals challenged the social hierarchies of Anglicanism and southern culture.

These challenges angered and frightened most white laypeople, particularly white masters. Evangelicals preached about the sinfulness of humans, the torments of hell, and Satan and demons’ ability to interact with and take visible form in the world. This supernaturalism frightened white people in at least three ways. 1) It equated Satan with “the black man,” who represented the powerfulness of enslaved people. 2) It appealed to enslaved men and women who regarded supernaturalism as an integral part of religious life. 3) It frightened whites who also believed in the power and literalness of Satan. Evangelicals also challenged social hierarchy by sending out young, single, itinerant preachers. These young men challenged southern culture’s emphasis on patriarchy. These men did not defer wisdom to age, they were unmarried in a society that preferred marriage, they were single men interacting with married women, and they demanded reverence and respect from all classes of southern men. Evangelicalism also upset traditional understandings of family. Ministers ridiculed marriage, rarely dated, and married late. They expected loyalty among evangelicals after conversion, not among family members. They also upset hierarchies by seeking the conversion of women first and being in close proximity with women alone. They allowed women to speak in public, give testimony, and receive revelations. Women’s newfound spirituality looked hyper-sexual to white, male southerners. The language of family and “God the Father” in evangelical circles also undermined the earthly family. The emphasis on an intimate relationship with the male Jesus upset notions of masculinity. Moreover, ministers denounced social interaction among families and communities by denouncing dancing, parties, and drinking. Poorer white males even detested evangelicals who seemed to disrupt their relationships with white masters. Evangelicals challenged all levels of southern culture and society. These challenges hindered the popularity of evangelicalism. By the early 1800s, evangelicals recognized these stumbling blocks and altered their messages.

Evangelicals tamed their emphasis on Satan and supernaturalism to appease whites. This also meant segregating churches and seeking approval from masters to preach to and baptize enslaved Africans. Taming supernaturalism meant curtailing African participation in evangelicalism. Evangelicals stopped women from preaching and specking in public. They associated female piety with the home and domesticity. Evangelicals married and had families. They deferred power and authority to white masters. “What had come to matter most to men of God was what had always mattered most to men of honor: vindicating their mastery within the public sphere” (252). Evangelicalism draped itself in southern culture and society in order to win the souls of the South. Evangelicals came to resemble white masters. After winning the white masters, evangelicals were able to win the unchurched, white, lower classes from the 1810 to 1830s.


Southern Cross examines the spread of evangelicalism contra Nathan Hatch’s notion of democratization. Unlike Hatch, Heyrman recognizes, firstly, that regionalism was important to the growth of evangelicalism. Hatch suggests that “The choice to study common developments springs from a conviction that certain underlying cultural dynamics of this period are not reducible to distinct regional characteristics…no section of the new nation was exempt from a democratic upsurge in religious matters” (12). Heyrman shows that regionalism impacted the spread of evangelicalism in the South. Evangelicalism challenged the establishment of the Anglian Church in the southern colonies and southern culture. Regionalism hindered and postponed the democratic upsurge in religious matters.

Heryman also challenges Hatch’s notion of democratization and popular religious movements. Evangelicalism was not a democratizing movement in the sense that it liberated people from social mores and promoted equality. To be sure, the movement attempted these things in its early years in the South. The moves toward liberation, however, were not successful. Evangelical ministers eventually re-inscribed the social order and gender roles of southern culture, and supported slavery. Evangelicalism did not liberate or embody the values of ordinary citizens. It actually did the opposite. Thus, Heyrman redefines the meaning of a popular religious movement: “This is the truest sense in which southern evangelicalism was a dynamic and popular movement: It was being reinvented during the very decades that it took root in that region, transformed by the demands of laymen and –women and the responses of clerical leaders” (27). A popular religious movement is the reinvention of religious values to meet the needs of particular laypeople, clergy, and culture.

Southern Cross is also important for what it says about the characteristics of evangelicalism. The dominance of evangelicalism in the South was not inevitable. Evangelicalism struggled for almost 100 years to take root in the South. Only when evangelical ministers conformed themselves and their messages to southern society and culture did it survive and thrive. Moreover, evangelicalism in the early nineteenth-century looked strange to many people. Its focus on supernaturalism and Satan frightened people. Evangelicals tamed supernaturalism to appeal to southerners. This is an important point. However, the degree to which evangelicals actually tamed supernaturalism may be debated. Recent studies show that belief in the supernatural grew throughout the nineteenth-century. In Heyrman’s story, supernaturalism all but disappears from evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the main point still stands. Evangelicalism of the early nineteenth-century was not the evangelicalism of the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Evangelicalism is not a static force or category that describes one particular theology and practice of Christianity.

26 Mar

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)

Nathan O. Hatch examines the cultural and religious history of the early American republic between 1780 and 1830. The Democratization of American Christianity is a history of popular religious movements– including the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons–and their popular leadership. Hatch argues that “the theme of democratization is essential to understanding the development of American Christianity,” (3). The Second Great Awakening “sprang from a populist upsurge rather than from changing mores of established parishes….The heart of the movement was a revolution in communications, preaching, print, and song” (226). The Second Great Awakening was not a force of unifying revivalism. It delineated social conflicts among clergy and laymen that emerged from the social conflicts of the American Revolution.


Hatch traces the “fault lines” of democratization to the American Revolution, “the most crucial event in American history” (3). According to Hatch, “The Revolution and the beliefs flowing from it created a cultural ferment over the meaning of freedom. Turmoil swirled around crucial issues of authority, organization, and leadership” (6). This political and social turmoil incited struggles for religious authority among educated clergy and ordinary men. These struggles were also fueled by agrarian unrest that “was tightly linked to a vein of radical religious protest” (31). Common-folk preachers emerged from this crisis of authority who promoted mixtures of high and popular culture, expressed varied opinions, and exalted youth, free expression, and religious ecstasy. These ministers preached against established denominations, supported individuals’ interpretation of scripture, and deferred to the supernatural. These ministers formed five popular religious movements that exemplify the democratization of Christianity: the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons. These movements highlighted the crisis in authority in popularity culture and expressed a “democratic spirit” in three respects. First, they denied leadership to the learned and elite, and approved the use of vernacular in word and print. Second, they empowered ordinary people by encouraging the recognition of the supernatural in everyday life. Third, they gave ordinary people the right to think and act for themselves, even in theology, as exemplified in development of a popular religious print culture.

Despite these democratic notions, “religious demagogues” emerged as leaders of these movements who quested for a new religious order. Among these popular movements, restoration movements, including the Adventists and Millerites, gained influence. These latter movements were made possible by “the sharp blows of the democratic revolutions in severing taproots of orthodoxy [Calvinism, the Reformed tradition] and the disconcerting reality of intense religious pluralism in the early 1800s” (169).  By the mid-nineteenth century, “the early republic’s populist religious movements were undergoing a metamorphosis from alienation to influence” (193). The denominational landscape of America was transformed by the nation’s democratic upheavals in three ways. 1) Leaders of the popular religious movements brought change to the established churches (Finney promoted Methodist revival techniques among Presbyterians); 2) The preachers of these movements sought respectability, gentility, and legitimation; 3) The trend toward formalization and respectability brought a new wave of “religious firebrands” (195). Popular religion in America rested on the paradoxical relationship of democratic leadership: common-folk preachers fitted the Gospel to ordinary Americans while they also re-inscribed order, tradition, and authority. It also rested on the “pervasive quality of dissent” in America. The democratic spirit influenced American Christianity to such an extent that “popular culture in the early republic became manifestly Christian” (209).


The Democratization of American Christianity was a response to the void in the 1980s on the religious history of the early American Republic. Hatch suggested that this void emerged because of three trends in scholarship. 1) Historians treated the early American republic as a bookend to either the American Revolution or the Jacksonian era. Thus, the era was deemed insignificant in itself. 2) Historians did not question the ubiquitous linking of the Great Awakening with the Revolution. They traced America’s root and future identity to the revivals of the eighteenth-century. 3) Scholars continued to produce historical narratives that favored elite churches and clergy.

This book urges scholars to move beyond studying American Christianity from the perspective of elite theologians. This method of study obscures transformations and power struggles in religious leadership that emerged during this time and continued to shape American Christianity. Hatch’s method looks to ordinary men who challenged denominational authority and structure, and, in doing so, “rose to leadership positions” in popular religious movements. Hatch shows that religious debates in the early American republic were not merely clashes over theological and intellectual differences, but also social struggles over power and authority.

Hatch suggests that “historians failed to appreciate the influence of popular religion in a culture shifting from classical republican values to those of a vulgar democracy and entrepreneurial individualism” for three reasons. 1) Historians from the 1950s to 1980s downplayed the social impact of the Revolution. They assumed the Revolution was about defending “home rule,” not about social conflict. And, in the same vein, they assumed that the Second Great Awakening was about deepening religious piety, not about social and religious turmoil. Revivalism, for these historians, becomes the unifying force that drove American Christianity. According to Hatch, “Revivalism as a principle agent of change has obscured the achievements of flesh-and-blood leaders and the dramatic strategies to forge new movements. It has also blurred the vastly different social functions the revival could assume for proponents as diverse as Lyman Beecher and Francis Asbury” (222). Moreover, the Second Great Awakening had been interpreted “as an attempt by traditional religious elites to impose social order upon a disordered and secularized society.” Neither of these interpretations allowed for the power struggles experienced between the clergy and laymen, between institutions and new movements.

Hatch’s insights about social conflict and historical categories are invaluable. Yet, scholars may need to rethink Hatch’s notion that democratization stemmed from the Revolution. In recent years, scholars, like Linda K. Kerber (Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America) have moved away from seeing the Revolution as the most influential event in American history. They suggest that the Revolution was revolutionary in terms of ideas, not necessarily in terms of social conflict and action. The social statuses of enslaved Africans, women, and poor white males remained the same after the Revolution. The impact of the Revolution was not the event itself, but the ideas and social change that it fostered in the early American Republic. The early American Republic, not the Revolution called for social change. Democratization was an effect of social stagnation, not necessarily social change. People were not happy with the results of the Revolution. Nevertheless, Hatch’s insights about the Second Great Awakening remain significant for the study of American religion. The historical category of “the Second Great Awakening” obscures actual historical developments and the people involved.

Historians have also failed to interpret the influence of popular religion because 2) “church historians from the more popular denominations have had reasons to sanitize their histories” (223). Hatch suggests that some historian have focused on aspects of their own religious heritage “linked to cultural enrichment, institutional cohesion, and intellectual respectability” (223). These scholars presented histories of these movements as markers of civilization and progress. They ignore notions that churches and movements can act as forces of liberation and control. These historians also present Protestantism as a single, unified entity with a commitment to “the church.” Hatch warns that this presentation of unity obscures evidence and makes it “virtually impossible for church historians…to admit that God’s ultimate plans could entail the splintering of churches” (223). Church historians also presented the Second Great Awakening as a unifying force of evangelicalism in the face of secularism. Thus, American Christianity is always at odds with American culture.

Popular religious movements remained unexplored because of 3) the emphasis on class conflict, labor, and capitalism. “This neglect stems both from the neo-Marxist preoccupation with the formation of social classes and from the assumption that religion is generally a conservative and pernicious force” (224). Recent studies have incorporated Hatch’s criticism by incorporating the study of American religion with capitalism, the marketplace, and secularism. Studies also abound that trace evangelicals’ use of media in the nineteenth-century.

The Democratization of American Christianity revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about Christianity in the early American Republic. This book is not about popular religion in the sense that it looks beyond men in leadership positions. But, it opens the way for other scholars to delve deeper into the everyday religious lives of men, women, and children who influenced popular Christianity in the early American republic (See Heyrman, Southern Cross). Hatch shifts the study of American religion from elite to popular religion in order to see major transformations in the practice and popularity of Christianity.

26 Mar

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991)

The Divine Dramatist traces the biography of George Whitefield, “Anglo-America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher” (xiii). Harry S. Stout recounts this life story through Whitefield’s published writings and diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth-century. This book examines Whitefield’s popularity in terms of social and cultural history. Stout argues that Whitefield “bequeathed a new, more modern sense to the term evangelical. His field preaching competed not only with the ‘velvet-mouthed’ preachers of his church, but also with the vendors, sportsmen, and entertainers of the marketplace” (65-66). According to Stout, “It was left to Whitefield to become Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi). Whitefield infused religion with modern forms of consumption and helped shift the meaning of “revival” by employing modern notions of epistemology to conversion. Stout concludes that Whitefield was an American icon, a Pauline evangelist, and an American patriot.


The young Whitefield enjoyed theatre, but scorned secular entertainment after an epiphany at Oxford. As a “boy preacher,” Whitefield harnessed the power of the press to debate Anglican Bishops and publish sermons. While in Georgia, Whitefield continued publishing in the Journal to maintain his religious audience. In the 1730s, Whitefield induced revivals in London, colonial America, and Scotland. He transformed the sermon into “a dramatic event capable of competing for public attention outside the arena of the church—in fact, the marketplace” (66). By 1750, America and Britain experienced the first seeds of a “consumer revolution” (xvii) that focused on the marketplace, manufacturing, capital, and leisure. The new language of consumption did not include religion and “threatened to overtake social discourse” (xviii). Whitefield integrated religious discourse into this language of consumption to show that “preaching could be both edifying and entertaining” (xvi). Whitefield attracted international attention, especially among women, as well as controversy. Samuel Foote satirized Whitefield as Dr. Squintum and criticized his use of theatrics to market religion.

In the 1740s, Whitefield worked to restore relationships with religious authorities and continued his revivalist mission. Stout argues that Whitefield “helped introduce a new concept of religious experience that grew throughout the nineteenth-century into a recognizably ‘evangelical movement’” (xx). This concept of religious experience was grounded in revivals, typified by Whitefield, that were based on personal conversion experiences. Whitefield’s revivals in the mid- eighteenth-century departed from Puritan revivals. This departure resulted from a shift in epistemology. Puritans “denied that conversion could be experienced by those who were ignorant of the theological terms on which it rested. This meant that the teaching function of the church had always received primary interest” (206). Whitefield reversed this emphasis so that “individual experience became the ground for a shared theology” of conversions and, therefore, revival. Stout traces this shift to Lockean epistemology, which focused on sensation and experience: “As sensation represented the only avenue for natural knowledge in Lockean epistemology, so the supernatural experience of New Birth became the sole authentic means to spiritual knowledge in the evangelical revivals” (205). Modern evangelicalism is marked by a shift in the ways Christians experienced conversion and revival. Conversion and revival transformed from “a mysterious, local, communal event to one that was predictable and highly subjective” (xxi). The conversions and revivals of Whitefield were based on individual, personal, and emotional experiences of the supernatural.


The Divine Dramatist is an important contribution to the study of American religion. Stout provides a much needed historical account of George Whitefield’s itinerancy. As Stout notes, “Studies of Whitefield have too often abstracted him from the age in which he lived” (xvi). Scholars often present hagiographies of Whitefield, not historical analyses. Stout does much to correct this. However, Stout’s biography may overstate the degree to which Whitefield embodied “American” values. Stout suggests that both Whitefield and Americans “chafed against authority and arbitrary powers” (91). This reading presupposes “the revolutionary spirit” of “Americans.” Many colonial Americans, especially males, supported the white, male hierarchy of the colonies. Women, slaves, and non-landowning males had little political, social, or economic authority and could not challenge established order. A stronger biography might fully situate Whitefield within this hegemonic, Anglo structure. Whitefield was an Anglo-American in the sense that he, like other Anglo-Americans, were British subjects.

Stout also presents Whitefield as the driving force behind the integration of religious discourse into the marketplace. Whitefield is presented as a phenomenon and innovator for his use of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology. Whitefield is a lone hero who transcended the public sphere and transformed religion: “Only Whitefield thought to transcend denominational lines entirely and, in effect, ply a religious trade in the open air of the marketplace” (xviii). In presenting Whitefield as a hero, Stout borders on elevating Whitefield’s biography to hagiography. To be sure, Whitefield was a popular itinerant preachers who achieved international celebrity. However, as Charles G. Finney remembered in “Measure to Promote Revivals,” Whitefield was not always so popular in British-America. According to Finney, “When Whitefield came to this country, what an astonishing opposition he raised! Often he well nigh lost his life, and barely escaped by skin of his teeth. Now, everybody looks upon him as the glory of the age in which he lived.” Many British-Americans did not recognize Whitefield as an American hero as Stout suggests.

Moreover, as other historians have shown, Whitefield’s tactics were not all that new. He did not initiate preaching outdoors, using the press for religious discourse, or calling for revivals based on personal experience. As David Hall argues in World of Wonder, Days of Judgment, print media were an integral part of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England. Moreover, Sarah Rivett challenges notions that Puritans were not modern. In The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett shows how sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans employed Lockean epistemology to experience the supernatural for personal conversions. Whitefield was more of a product of his social and historical surroundings than Stout suggests. Nevertheless, Stout’s work remains significant for its recognition of the centrality of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology to eighteenth-century Anglo-American religion, particularly Whitefield’s evangelism.

23 Mar

Orestes Brownson, “Become a Catholic” (1857)

Orestes Brownson was a nineteenth-century New England intellectual and well-known convert to Catholicism. In 1857, Brownson wrote The Convert: or, Leaves from My Experience. The book chronicled Brownson’s life-long religious experiences and his conversion from Transcendentalism to Catholicism in 1844. Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” described his conversion.

Brownson was born in Vermont in September 1803. He was brought up by an older couple as a Congregationalist. The couple taught Brownson to read. The family library included the Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Divine Songs, The Franklin Primer, and Edwards’s History of Redemption. Brownson attended Congregationalists meetings as well as those of the Methodists and Christians. He was also acquainted with “new sectaries,” universalists, deists, atheists, and “nothingarians.”[1] When Brownson was nineteen, he attended a Presbyterian meeting and was “much affected” by it. He began to question religious truth and doubt his Congregationalist faith. Brownson struggled to submit his reason to revelation, but did so in 1822 when he was baptized in a Presbyterian church in New York. Soon after, the Presbyterian Church passed resolutions that forbade Presbyterians from any kind of personal or business intercourse with non-Presbyterians, except for conversion attempts. By the late 1820s, Brownson realized he did not want to be constrained in this way. He felt that he was being watched by other church members for any infidelity with non-Presbyterians. He also began to regard predestination, eternal sin, and eternal punishment of the wicked (Reformed doctrines) as too harsh. Brownson also felt no loyalty to the Presbyterian Church.

Brownson searched for a religion that suited him by reading books about religion. He decided to become a Universalist minister. This form of liberal Christianity, however, did not stop Brownson from having doubts about religion and he continued to search for religious truth. Brownson edited the Universalist journal Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator and published essays about his doubt. Brownson also criticized organized religion, Divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the supernatural. He recognized Universalism as a more rational doctrine than evangelical Protestantism.

In 1832, Brownson joined the Transcendentalist movement that became popular among Boston Unitarians. Brownson lauded reason, social egalitarianism, and social and religious reform. Browson became “a believer in humanity, and put humanity in the place of God.”[2] Like other Transcendentalists, he recognized the divinity of humanity, not the divinity of Jesus. Neither did Brownson recognize miracles in the Bible nor the supernatural in nature. Brownson continued to read about religion and religious truth. He eventually came to believe again in the divinity and superiority of God over man. By 1843, Brownson considered converting to Catholicism.

Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” describes Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism. Brownson realized that his conversion to Catholicism was carried out by “divine grace.” Yet, this grace did not exclude reason. Brownson recognized conversion as a “rational process, though not always distinctly noted by the convert.”[3] Brownson realized that the Church did in fact promote the progress of society, but that this was not “the end she proposes, or what she directly aims to effect.” The real end “is not attainable in this world, and the heaven she points to is a reward to be received only after this life.”[4] Moreover, Brownson understood that punishment was personal. Individuals needed to take responsibility for their actions, go to church, and beg for forgiveness. Brownson accepted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church since it was “clearly the Church of History.”[5] There was less in-fighting and denominational splits among Catholics than Protestants because of scriptural, church, and clerical authority. In 1844, Brownson contacted the Right Reverend Benedict Joseph Fenwick, Bishop of Boston, and announced his wish to convert to Catholicism. The Right Reverend John Bernard Fitzpatrick served as Brownson’s spiritual advisor, council, theologian, and catechist for eleven years.

On October 20, 1844 Brownson was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. Brownson’s acquaintances deemed his conversion unreasonable and illogical. Even so, Brownson wrote “but I honestly believe, as I believed in 1844, that [Catholicism] does, better than any other philosophical doctrine, show the harmony between the natural and the supernatural, and remove these obstacles to the reception of the Church, and her doctrine on her authority, which all intelligent and thinking men brought up outside of the Church in our day do really encounter.”[6] The Catholic Church provided clear and reasonable answers for Brownson and the modern world about the natural and supernatural.

Brownson felt that the modern world had forsaken Christianity and promoted methods of skeptical reasoning: “the philosophy which prevails, and after which the modern mind is, in some sense, moulded [sic], is opposed to Christian revelation, and does not recognize as fundamental the principles or premises which warrant the conclusions drawn in favor of Christianity. The prevalent philosophy with very nearly the whole scientific culture of the age, is not only un-Christian, but anti-Christians, and if accepted, renders the Christian faith an impossibility for a logical mind.”[7] In fact, Brownson argued that this sort of reasoning had infiltrated Evangelicalism to the point that most believers doubted the faith they practiced. “There is always lurking in the mind a suspicion of the antecedent improbability of the whole Evangelical doctrine.”[8]

Catholicism presented a worldview that supported faith, authority, reason, and history over doubt. Catholicism ordered the natural and supernatural world in such a way that Brownson no longer felt doubt about religion. Catholicism was reasonable and logical in a modern. Catholicism reconciled faith and reason in ways that Evangelicalism, liberal Christianity, Transcendentalism, evolution, and science could not. For Brownson, Catholicism was a modern religion for modern people. It would resolve the questions of doubt that ran rampant through the United States. In fact, Brownson suggested that Catholicism should be practice in public schools as a means “to combat the unbelief of the age and country.”[9] The Catholic Church, not Transcendentalism, provided ways of thinking about the natural and supernatural in reasonable terms.

[1] Orestes Augustus Brownson, The Convert: Or, Leaves from My Experience (E. Dunigan & Brother, 1857), 13.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid., 368.

[4] Ibid., 370.

[5] Ibid., 371.

[6] Ibid., 384.

[7] Ibid., 388.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 396.