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Historians of religion in the South tend to focus on Protestantism. Historians of Catholicism in America tend to focus on the urban [End Page 606] North. Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross stands at the crossroads of southern studies and Catholic studies, serving as a refreshing deviation from dominant historiographical trends and an insightful exploration of Catholic–Protestant relations in the antebellum South. By concentrating on “the day-to-day relationships of Protestant and Catholic laity and clergy,” Andrew Stern complements the history of nativism and anti-Catholicism with an alternative narrative of cooperation and toleration between Protestants and Catholics (p. 3). The result is a one-of-a-kind analysis of religious assimilation and accommodation in the Old South.
Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross follows the lives of Catholics throughout the South, with particular emphasis on white elites in and around Louisville, Charleston, and Mobile. As representatives of a minority religious group, Stern finds that Catholics interacted with Protestants more frequently and intimately than their religious counterparts in other parts of the United States. Ethnic enclaves and urban ghettos—the rule for Catholics living in places like Boston and New York—did not always define the Catholic experience in the antebellum South. On the contrary, the Catholic Church survived and sometimes thrived in the South precisely because of the generosity, curiosity, and civility of Protestants. Though religious conflicts did take place, such “instances,” according to Stern, “were exceptions; cooperation was the rule” (p. 180).
The theme of “togetherness” binds the five chapters of Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross. In Chapter One—“Living Together”—Stern describes how Catholics and Protestants developed a toleration for each other because of a shared class-consciousness among elite planters, a common Christian identity that valued the Golden Rule, and a strong anxiety about “enemies” (“Indians, British, Mexicans, rebellious slaves”) that might harm the white status quo (p. 37). Chapter Two—“Healing Together”—focuses on how Catholics and Protestants worked together to care for the sick and poor during periods of disease and epidemic. Catholic priests and religious women, in particular, distinguished themselves as highly competent caregivers, thus earning [End Page 607] the respect of their Protestant patients and healthcare collaborators. Chapter Three—“Educating Together”—follows the rise of Catholic education in the antebellum South, due in part to Protestant patronage. Chapter Four—“Worshipping Together”—describes the growth of Catholic churches and institutions throughout the South, and, with it, the involvement of Protestants in Catholic ceremonies and worship. As Stern argues, “Protestants saw Catholicism as one faith among many and recognized that, rather than threatening American society, Catholic churches sustained southern culture” (p. 144). And Chapter Five—“Ruling Together”—details how Catholics and Protestants opposed abolition, supported slavery, and fought for the Confederacy.
Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross is a well-researched, sweeping history of white Catholics and Protestants who lived together in the Old South. Relying primarily on the perspectives of elite laypeople and clergy, Stern balances the assimilation of Catholicism to southern society with the persistence of Catholic distinctiveness in matters of theology and ritual. The result is a corrective to conflict-driven narratives of Catholic–Protestant relations in the South, at times overshadowing the tension and sometimes violence that endured despite the many overtures of cooperation and friendship. Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross is required reading for students and scholars of American Catholicism and religion in the American South.
Michael Pasquier, associate professor of religious studies and history at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is author of Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789-1870 (2010).