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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 342-343
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Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols. By Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2002. Pp. xii, 342. $24.95.)
In 1857 Mary Gove Nichols (1810-1884), along with her husband Thomas, were received into the Catholic Church in Cincinnati. Their decision linked them to other prominent American converts of the era. Some, like Isaac Hecker and Orestes Brownson, were religious and social radicals until just before conversion; others, including Cornelia Peacock Connelly and Levi Silliman Ives, took a shorter step from Episcopalianism when they accepted Rome's authority. Mary and Thomas belonged to the more wayward group. Living in an experimental community at the time of their baptisms, the Nicholses were well known for their beliefs in free love and spiritualism, as well as their enthusiasm for tamer reforms of health, diet, and dress. Nor was this Mary's first conversion. As a teenager, she left her father's skepticism and mother's Universalism for Quakerism, setting the stage for her later divorce from her first husband, also a Quaker. No wonder Archbishop John Purcell now wrote doubtfully to a fellow bishop about "my receiving into the Church the Mother Abbess of the free Lovers" (p. 217). His decision to honor Mary's profession of faith was not pathbreaking in 1857; Hecker, Brownson, and others from their Transcendentalist circle had been Catholics for a decade or more. Yet even if Catholicism's absorption of radicals was becoming habitual, questions remain. What led these restless people to Catholicism, and how did their reception affect the sprouting but still fragile American Church?
Shameless is an engrossing biography of Mary Gove Nichols that may be appreciated without wrestling with her conversion. Mary was in her late forties when she became a Catholic, and the change does not seem to have been life-transforming. The unifying thread was her dedication to the water cure, which remained her professional focus until her death. Married converts occasionally dissolved their families to enter religious orders or more often devoted themselves to Catholic education or charities; Mary did none of these. Silver-Isenstadt's depiction of Mary's conversion as one episode in a tumultuous life seems, in this light, a wise choice. Yet the author appears puzzled by her subject's Catholicism, making it difficult to let the subject so easily go. "The first response of twenty-first-century feminists to the Nicholses' conversion may be one of disappointment. We do not often associate the Catholic Church with progressive gender politics" (p. 214). The "Mary" of Silver-Isenstadt's study had been a liberator, offering women self-possession through health, sexual, and marriage reforms. [End Page 342] Silver-Isenstadt is too good a historian to mistake Mary's conversion for simple recanting; she concludes that "in many ways" the couple's Catholicism, promising a harmony transcending nature, "consolidated rather than contradicted their past" (p. 223). Yet she casts Mary so much as a forerunner of feminism that she slights Romantic elements in antebellum reform. Adopting Catholicism was one logical outcome of these.
Mary's advocacy of free sexual expression aimed to reconcile body and spirit. Communitarianism sought social organicism, and spiritualism was to put the living in communion with the dead. Natural rights were not ends in themselves for Romantic radicals; rather, rebellion was a means of escape from advancing capitalism and a stepping stone to reintegration outside its bounds. It is not at all surprising that some of them identified the Catholic Church—unitary and universal in its self-conception and exotic in Protestant America—as a healing site to be entered rather than constructed. Tensions that followed between Romantic longings and a deeply historical institution might have been foreseen.
Detailed and well written, Shameless is an excellent addition to the literature on antebellum reformers who became Catholics. If Silver-Isenstadt's analysis of Mary's conversion seems tentative, perhaps this reflects Gove Nichols's own lingering uncertainty about how Catholicism answered her questions. Living a vagabond life in...