- “A Major Problem for Catholic American Historians” by Edward P. Lilly, and: The Story of American Catholicism: The History of the Catholic Church in America by Theodore Maynard, and: The Story of American Catholicism by Leo F. Stock
The three items discussed in this note constitute something of a trifecta. None is really a classic, but they all deserve to be remembered and they have an interesting historiographic relation to each other.
The first, which seemed to drop into oblivion almost immediately after its publication in 1939, is Edward P. Lilly’s article, “A Major Problem for Catholic American Historians.”15 The “major problem” in [End Page 63] question was the absence of an up-to-date survey of American Catholic history in one volume. Lilly argued that it was not possible, or even desirable, to attempt an updated edition of John Gilmary Shea’s classic four-volume work, which was, after all, a half-century old, covered nothing after 1866, labored under faulty organization, and focused too narrowly on “the physical development of the Church.”
Lilly was conversant with recent trends in American historical scholarship in general, and he called attention to new currents of interest at work among American Catholic historians. But while he endorsed the need for more research, he believed that the accumulation of disparate studies, unrelated to each other or to any larger pattern of development, constituted “the fundamental weakness” of American Catholic historiography. For that reason, he insisted that the greatest need of the day was for a one-volume synthesis that would provide “a general, reliable narrative of the growth, influence and contribution of the Catholic Church in [sic] American civilization.”
Almost as if on cue, the second item in this three-way combination— Theodore Maynard’s The Story of American Catholicism16—appeared two years after Lilly’s article was published. It provided just the sort of comprehensive but accessible narrative Lilly had in mind. For Maynard’s stated goal was to describe the historical development of a distinctively American Catholicism by “depict[ing], in each successive period, American Catholic activity as a whole and America as a whole, and their relationship to one another” (xii). Concentrating on this “central theme” ruled out the diocese-by-diocese approach made classical by Shea. But—presumably to accommodate those who demanded something of that sort in a church history—the book included a thirty-one page appendix setting forth basic historical data on the establishment and episcopal succession of all the diocesan and archdiocesan sees in the United States.
Maynard readily conceded that he was synthesizing the research of others, but his footnoting was sparse. However, the 467 books, articles, [End Page 64] and source collections listed in the book’s bibliography testify to his wide acquaintance with the relevant literature. The main body of the work comprises twenty-nine chapters that move smoothly from the age of discovery and exploration to the two decades following World War I. He was only indifferently successful in realizing his ambitious “grand design,” but he strove earnestly to set Catholic developments in the context of the larger national scene, his knowledge of which was fairly up-to-date in terms of historiography. In his chapter on “The Frontier,” for example, Maynard noted that Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous thesis had come under criticism by the late 1930s, calling it “now somewhat flyblown” (254). Unfortunately, his treatment of the Civil War and Reconstruction was shaped by historians of the pro-Southern “revisionist” school of thought. This led Maynard to lay most of the blame for the coming of the war on the agitation of Northern abolitionists and resulted in judgments that seem scandalous today, such as his calling the Emancipation Proclamation “a monstrous injustice” to slaveholders, and his likening the federal...