- Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America by Jon Gjerde
Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America is a poignant testimony to the late Jon Gjerde’s scholarly acumen in analyzing the role played by religious and cultural diversity in nineteenth-century U.S. nation-building. Gjerde had completed six of the monograph’s seven chapters before his unexpected death on October 26, 2008, at age fifty-five. Thankfully, S. Deborah Kang (assistant professor in the Department of History of California State University, San Marcos, and previously a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, where Gjerde taught) accepted the task of editing the extant introduction and six completed chapters. Kang added a preface explaining her editorial role and a brief epilogue reflecting on the work’s contribution to the field.
Gjerde presents “conversations” between American Protestants and Roman Catholics, immigrants as well as notable converts, concerning the true religious foundation of the emerging nation. Gjerde’s term, “conversation,” effectively captures the back-and-forth between the Protestant narrative and the Catholic counter-narrative in the century-long exchange. His illustrations from a wide-range of primary sources highlight the acrimony that fueled the debates and clearly demonstrate the “quandaries” facing each group in defending its positions.
Gjerde opens with an account of the religiously-inflected Philadelphia riots of 1844 as the historical frame for his analysis of the “geopolitics of faith” inherited from Europe and played out in America’s developing national context. He then includes race to add depth and nuance to the potent mix that defined American peoplehood. He had intended to return to the Philadelphia riots in the seventh chapter. The final chapter’s absence has little impact on the overall effectiveness of Gjerde’s argument.
Gjerde organizes his analysis around a central “conundrum” facing each party. As explained in chapter 1, “The Protestant Conundrum” involves, on the one hand, American “affirmations of freedom of belief and proscriptions against an established religion” and, on the other, a widely held conviction that the American republic’s well-being depended upon a Protestant religious homogeneity (p. 23). Catholic immigrants posed the first serious threat to Protestant America’s defense of religious liberty. “The Catholic Conundrum,” discussed in chapter 2, concerns the Catholic rhetorical affirmation of America’s liberal principle of religious pluralism as the basis for its right to defend its exclusive claim—Roman Catholicism as the one true faith. The four subsequent chapters present four major social and political controversies: the settlement of the West, public education, the family and women, and the emerging capitalist economy and the challenges to social justice (including slavery).
Chapters 3 through 6 feature first the American Protestant narratives; then the Catholic counter-narratives; and conclude with Gjerde’s remarks about the [End Page 637] social, cultural, and political outcomes. Instead of Protestant homogeneity or America’s conversion to Catholicism, religious denominations proliferated, common schools were secularized, and Catholics established an alternative institutional system, what Gjerde describes as Catholic social and cultural “pillorization” (p. 140).
Historians of American immigration and religion will appreciate how this single text provides with remarkable clarity the complexity of nineteenth-century America’s “geopolitics of faith” in its spatial and temporal dimensions. Gjerde presents the narratives and counter-narratives with such careful detail that the reader has a sense of engaging each side’s argument firsthand. Although Gjerde avoids any anachronism, most readers will hear in these accounts echoes of the acrimony in contemporary debates concerning education, family and women, and the economy in an ever more religiously diverse and still racially polarized society. Gjerde’s thoughtful reading of America’s ongoing struggles with religious and cultural diversity is clearly evident on every page of this text, a fitting tribute to his scholarly accomplishments. Requiescat in pace.