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  • Elizabeth Seton:Transatlantic Cooperation, Spiritual Struggle, and the Early Republican Church
  • Catherine O'Donnell

Elizabeth Seton, despite her fame and despite the careful archival and publishing work to make her papers accessible, has received little attention from historians of American women or the early republic. Seton has been the subject of excellent studies such as those by Annabelle Melville, Ellin Kelly, Regina Bechtle, and Judith Metz.1 But historians not explicitly writing about Catholics in the period have largely ignored Seton, and even historians concerned with the institutional creation of the Church in America have tended not to weave her story into their larger narratives. This essay attempts to bring into clearer focus both Seton's stature as an assertive female religious seeker, and her place within the decades-long effort to create a Catholic Church in the new United States. It describes two aspects of her 1804-1805 conversion to Catholicism. One is Seton's role, largely unwitting, in a transatlantic struggle to create a sustainable American Catholicism in the age of the Enlightenment and nation states. The second is her relentless effort to decide her own spiritual fate.

During the difficult months of her conversion, many people tried to influence Seton's choice of faith. Her decision mattered not only to her family but also to her Anglican minister, John Henry Hobart. It mattered as well to the Catholic clergy and laity who saw in her a potentially valuable element of a nascent American Church. Seton listened to all counsel but insisted on carefully exploring for herself the doctrines [End Page 1] of both churches. Her journals and correspondence reveal that she found it difficult to assent to the claims of either religion, even though she longed to find a spiritual home. She initially opposed what she believed was a distinctively Catholic argument that salvation was possible only for members of that faith. Coming to believe that Anglicanism made a similar claim for itself, Seton became even more troubled. As Seton turned to evaluating the arguments over transubstantiation and confession, she found herself unable for months fully to accept the doctrines of Anglicanism or Catholicism. Dissent, as she experienced it, was unwanted but necessary: Nothing mattered more to Seton than her faith, so she sought assurance that she had properly aligned her personal devotion with the demands of God. As she sought that assurance, she read widely and critically in apologetical literature and debated points of doctrine with the men who wished to guide her choice. Her goal was humble but confident rest within a church. But during the months of Seton's conversion crisis, struggling to submit meant active and persistent dissent.

Seton's spiritual crisis occurred in the context of dramatic political and religious upheaval. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Catholic Church faced innumerable challenges. Both Protestant divines and Enlightenment philosophes assaulted its claims to be the arbiter of the true faith. At the same time, in Catholic nations such as France and Portugal, emerging nationalist sentiment and bureaucracies had begun to resist the reach of Rome. In one sense, the United States might have seemed the least promising territory imaginable: Anglo-American Protestant thought valorized individual will and collective patriotism by defining both against Roman Catholicism.2 But John Carroll, who would become the first American bishop, hoped that the early American republic offered a moment in which the association of Catholicism with tyranny and anti-nationalism could be disrupted. This was so because the American Revolution had provided practical reasons for loosening restrictions on Catholics and because the Revolution had conjured a different association—one between tyranny and Britain herself, thereby potentially discrediting inherited penal laws and even, perhaps, inherited mistrust of Catholics.3 The United States also appeared fertile ground for Catholicism to others who would become central to Elizabeth Seton's life and to the institutional formation of the American Church: the French clergymen William Dubourg and John (Jean) Cheverus, and the Italian merchants, Filippo and Antonio Filicchi. [End Page 2]

The French Society of Saint-Sulpice, to which William Dubourg belonged, began contemplating sending some of its priests to America as early as the 1780s and moved...


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