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The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 810-812

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Saving the Heartland: Catholic Missionaries in Rural America, 1920-1960. By Jeffrey D. Marlett. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 2002. Pp. xi, 233. $40.00.)

Jeffrey Marlett, assistant professor of religious studies at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, offers a study of Catholic romantic agrarianism and of several of the movements, apostolates, and missionary endeavors that it fostered [End Page 810] in rural America from the 1920's until the eve of the Second Vatican Council. In the course of four chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, he defends the thesis that rural idealism constituted an important aspect of the American Catholic experience of the mid-twentieth century, and that much of contemporary Catholicism in this country "preserves some link to the Catholic agrarian past" (p. 7).

The first chapter presents the framework of the "antiurban theology" within which the Catholic Rural Life movement was established. Concerns about the declining birthrate in the nation's cities in the 1920's convinced Father Edwin O'Hara and others that the future of the Catholic Church lay in rural growth, by means of natural and spiritual fertility, that is, in an increased birthrate and in conversions to the Faith in the nation's farm regions. According to the author, the underlying sentiment was well captured in the slogan, "Eden was a garden, Sodom was a city."

Marlett holds that in addition to O'Hara, Luigi Ligutti, and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC, founded in 1923), individuals and groups as disparate as Frederick Kenkel and the Central Verein; Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement; the Grail organization; John LaFarge, S.J.; and Allen Tate saw in a rural-centered Christian social order a fulfillment of the papal social encyclicals, a spiritual and sociological antidote to modernism, and an economic remedy for the depression and the pernicious effects of urban industrialization.

Furthermore, the author highlights the connections between these movements and the Neo-Scholastic synthesis prevalent in Catholic intellectual circles and the Liturgical Movement, particularly as it was fostered by Martin Hellriegel and Virgil Michel, O.S.B. He also contends that despite these philosophical and theological links, much of Catholic agrarianism was profoundly American, largely comfortable with Thomas Jefferson's idealized vision of the family farmer and with various Protestant and secular agrarian movements. Marlett also draws into his analysis the relationship between Catholic agrarianism and the social criticism that grew out of progressive Catholicism, as well as the more virulent criticism of Father Charles Coughlin.

The second chapter traces the history of Catholic colonization projects in rural America, from the early nineteenth century to several of the Catholic Worker communes. The latter, especially, are judged to have been largely futile,though expressive of America's religious "communitarian impulse." The third chapter identifies several elements and experiments in rural Catholic America, including the efforts to create a rural Catholic devotionalism, as seenin the Company of St. Isidore. Marlett observes, however, that in many instances, rather than being "outsiders," rural Catholic laity often forged significant bonds of economic and interdenominational co-operation with Protestant neighbors. [End Page 811]

Finally, chapter four focuses on a particular phenomenon of the period and region under consideration: the Catholic motor mission. An interesting overview of the history of this apostolate to rural Catholics and non-Catholics is a real contribution to the study of Catholic evangelization in this country. Thirteen pages of photographs, in addition to the dust jacket, provide several illustrations of this uniquely American form of evangelization, giving, perhaps, the false impression that the book treats mostly this topic; it does not.

In his conclusion, Marlett draws in even more social, theological, and cultural elements and connects them with his thesis. It might be suggested that the author tries to connect too many movements and ideas, in the manner of a doctoral dissertation. Though he suggests that the theories of Matthew Fox, Rosemary R. Reuther, and Mary Daly are in some sense inheritors...


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