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SOME PRIVATE ROADS TO ROME: THE ROLE OF FAMILIES IN AMERICAN VICTORIAN CONVERSIONS TO CATHOLICISM BY Anne C. Rose* The mid-nineteenth century was the first period in American history when measurable numbers of Protestants converted to Roman Catholicism . In a culture that remained sharply anti-Catholic, this was a bold personal step. The converts were impelled by longings for the authority of a historical church, the orderliness of religious hierarchy, and a spirituality evoked by rituals woven into daily routines. Behind every conversion was a history of spiritual turmoil and resolution.These personal dramas have led scholars to picture conversion as a process of individual transformation.1 A convert's journey, however, was neither strictly *Dr. Rose is an associate professor of history and religious studies in the Pennsylvania State University. She wishes to express her gratitude for the advice and assistance of Patrick Allitt, Susan K. Harris, Carolyn Lawes, and Robert Trisco. She also thanks the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame for a grant that partially supported the research for this article. 'One reason for the individualistic focus of scholarship on conversion is that converts in Western culture have characteristically written about themselves in highly personal terms. Working in a long tradition beginning with Augustine's Confessions (397-398), mid-nineteenth-century American Protestants who became Catholics produced conversion narratives, including Levi Silliman Ives, Trials of a Mind in Its Progress to Catholicism ; A Letter to His Old Friends (Boston: Patrick Donahoe, 1854); Isaac Hecker, Questions ofthe Soul, 5th ed. (New York: D.Appleton, 1864); and James Kent Stone, The Invitation Heeded: Reasons for a Return to Catholic Unity, 11th ed. (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1870). Building on the converts' self-perception, historians have offered strong biographical analyses, such as John Farina,An American Experience ofGod: The Spirituality ofLsaac Hecker (New York, 1981). Patrick Allitt focuses on intellectual motives in conversion, in Catholic Converts: British andAmerican Lntellectuals Turn to Rome (Ithaca, New York, 1997).Jenny Franchot goes further to place individual converts in the cultural context of Protestant ambivalence toward Catholicism, in Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley, California, 1994), esp. chaps. 14- 17. There is still almost no research on the role of families in conversion , whether conversion means spiritual renewal, the adoption of a new religion, or both. Lewis R. Rambo points out this neglect in Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven, 1993), pp. 108-109, 174. One notable exception is Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of 35 36SOME PRIVATE ROADS TO ROME inward nor solitary. Conversion had inevitable social dimensions. In private life, it was an event that took place in families and profoundly changed families in turn. This essay explains how commonplace American assumptions about gender and domesticity shaped the entrance of Protestants into the Catholic Church and determined the consequences of conversion for their families. Both social and religious premises influenced relationships in mid-century Protestant homes. In keeping with inherited patriarchy , Victorian men behaved as heads of households on questions affecting the family's public identity, including religious affiliation. Women, perceived as guardians of heart and hearth, might nonetheless claim considerable religious freedom. The fervor of the Catholic convert ignited this mix of domestic traditionalism and change. Faith itself became a form of family power, and, depending on the sex of the convert , favored male control or female self-determination. The conversion of a husband and father brought his entire family into the Catholic Church. A wife and mother, in contrast, might practice her Catholicism on her own or with her children, but exercised limited influence over her husband's faith. The convert's intimacy with Catholic kin outside the nuclear household eased, but did not subvert, these patterns of authority at home. Individual conversions unfolded within the boundaries set by Victorian family life.2 the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York, 1981). For background on the American counterpart of the Oxford movement in the Episcopal church, the religious setting of many Catholic conversions, see Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History oftheAmerican People (New Haven, 1972), pp. 548-549 and chaps. 36...


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