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Bishop James Gibbons, the Bible, and Protestant America

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 77-104 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0026

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When James Gibbons (1834–1921), Bishop of Richmond, Virginia, and Administrator Apostolic of North Carolina, published The Faith of Our Fathers in December 1876, he stated the book’s purpose forthrightly in its sub-title: “Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ.” This relatively short book has been a much-read standard of Catholic apologetics from that time to this day. Yet its publication that year also made a notable contribution to a general shift in the broader history of the Bible in American culture. This article explores the nature of that change set within the context of broader American developments during the 1870s.

Gibbons would later become the ninth Archbishop of Baltimore (1877–1921) and in 1886 the second American to be named a cardinal of the Catholic Church. For the last decades of his life he was the most visible American Catholic and one of the most influential voices representing American interests to the Holy See. Attention to the circumstances surrounding the appearance of The Faith of Our Fathers suggests that he began to exert a broad influence early in his career. Besides his explicit religious intentions, Gibbons was also making three large and contentious claims about the place of Catholics in the United States: first, the Bible belonged to Catholics every bit as much as to Protestants; second, Catholicism should be regarded as the normative expression of Christian faith because, among other important reasons, God sanctioned its understanding and use of Scripture; and third, Catholicism should be regarded as a fully American religion.

An introduction to the book and its enduring popularity begins this study, but then it is necessary to consider at some length the surrounding contexts in which The Faith of Our Fathers appeared, before returning to examine its exposition. Such an examination of what the bishop wrote in the context of when he wrote it will explain the unusual significance of his effort for the history of the Bible in America.

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Bishop James Gibbons (Courtesy of American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC).

The Bishop and His Book

The Faith of Our Fathers arose from Gibbons’ responsibilities as a young bishop in Wilmington, North Carolina, and then Richmond, Virginia. In the course of his duties in these overwhelmingly Protestant regions of the United States, he was often called upon to explain the character of Catholic Christianity. To indicate the dimensions of that challenging assignment, it is useful to remember that when Gibbons in 1868 began his service as the missionary vicar apostolic of North Carolina, the state had more congregations of both Methodists and Baptists than individual Catholics; Virginia enjoyed a larger Catholic population, but when in 1872 he was promoted to the residential see of Richmond, while still maintaining his North Carolina charge, that population represented at most two percent of Virginia’s total.1 For some years Gibbons had been recommending several books to correspondents and interlocutors who asked for such introductions. These included John Milner’s The End of Religious Controversy in Friendly Correspondence Between a Religious Society of Protestants and a Catholic Divine, first published in England in 1819; The Catholic Christian Instructed in the Sacraments, Sacrifice, Ceremonies, and Observances of the Church which appeared in 1738 from Bishop Richard Challoner, the best known English Catholic of his generation who also revised the Douay-Rheims Bible translation; and a printed series of lectures by Gibbons’ own mentor, Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore, entitled The Evidences of Catholicity.2 During these same years Gibbons’ own speaking before what he called “mixed audiences” had multiplied the opportunities where such resources were useful, “especially on the occasion of a mission in the rural districts” when such talks could be “supplemented by books or tracts circulated among the people, and which could be read and pondered at leisure.”3 The Faith of Our Fathers was the product of those occasions.

Before publication Gibbons asked a young man, John B. Tabb, whom he had shepherded into the Church as an adult convert, to review the manuscript because of what historian John Tracy Ellis called Tabb’s...

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