- Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross: Catholic-Protestant Relations in the Old South by Andrew H. M. Stern
Msgr. John Tracy Ellis as professor of American Catholic history at The Catholic University of America annually reminded his students of the opinion of Arthur Meier Schlesinger that one abiding and operative characteristic of American Protestantism was opposition to Roman Catholicism. Andrew H. M. Stern in Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross: Catholic-Protestant Relations in the Old South offers a “reassessment” for the antebellum years. Careful research and an easy narrative style address Protestant support to help provide such essentials as churches, schools, and hospitals—support that was consistent to the period under study with little suspected but widely found reality. Stern offers the following summary of attitudes toward Catholics in the South before the Civil War:
… Elsewhere in America, in contrast, attitudes towards Catholics hardened as immigration spiked. Some southerners were also antagonistic, but overall Protestant generosity counterbalanced—and even surpassed—the hostility. This striking amicableness had multiple sources. It emerged, in part, because of Catholics’ loyalty as southerners, especially their support for slavery. But other factors reinforced Protestant openness. Civic pride prompted some to contribute to Catholic institutions. Curiosity led others to admire Catholic worship. Similarities between Catholic and southern culture also improved relations. The reasons were complex, but they led to a remarkable outcome: tolerance and cooperation, more than violence and animosity, marked Catholic-Protestant relations in the antebellum South.(p. 2)
In the first four chapters Stern validates this outcome under four headings: Living Together, Healing Together, Educating Together, and Worshipping Together. First contacts by missionaries, bishops and priests, and faithful laity found a hospitable welcome and generally a respectful hearing. Material support followed early organizational efforts. Friendship among leaders and individuals, civic and economic improvement, and curiosity and social compatibility contributed to positive relationships.
Catholics proved to be pioneers in founding hospitals, orphanages, and schools throughout the antebellum South. The region was subject to epidemics of yellow fever periodically and other diseases to which Catholic personnel—especially religious women and men—responded courageously, often at the expense of their lives. The South lagged behind the nation in providing public education, and the Catholic Church offered some of the earliest efforts extending even to the collegiate level. Most were for tuition, although free students were accepted wherever possible; many [End Page 807] of the paying students came from Protestant families. In Charleston and Mobile, brief efforts were made to offer primary education to free children of color.
The fourth chapter, “Worshipping Together,” should not be construed as blurring formal boundaries between Protestant and Catholic worship. The author consciously describes a living out of Catholic life and practice in the words of Stephen T. Badin, a priest in Kentucky: “We march in procession around our cemeteries; we erect crosses on them; we preach in the hotels and other public places, and even in Protestant churches, for want of chapels” (p. 132). The chapter is summarized concisely: “Protestants helped Catholicism make a home in the South” (p. 144).
The final chapter, “Ruling Together,” might have been more aptly named, since Catholics in the antebellum period did not exist in numbers sufficient “to rule.” The material presents a succinct history and analysis of slavery in the South. Despite isolated instances of Catholic antislavery sentiment, evaluation is neither unjust nor unfair: “In time, southern Catholics not only reconciled themselves to slavery but championed it” (p. 178).
In preparing a doctoral dissertation on Michael Portier (vicar apostolic of Alabama and the Floridas and later bishop of Mobile) for the same period, this reviewer in the early 1960s discovered a similar surprising harmony and support among the various religions and faith persuasions. The present work enhances the picture that has emerged from the antebellum period for a much wider scope. Despite some minor factual errors of little consequence, the result sheds needed light on the past and...