An ancient faith for the modern South : southern Catholic writers and the making of the antebellum South, 1820–1861.


Access rights

No access – contact

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation seeks to understand how a conservative religious community in a slaveholding region, southern Catholics in the antebellum United States, understood their place in the modern world. While historians of the South have increasingly interpreted southerners as quintessentially modern and American, scholars of American Catholicism have often stressed the differences between nineteenth-century Catholics and other Americans. Integrating these scholarly conversations, this dissertation investigates an important question: how modern were Catholics in the antebellum South? To find an answer, this study examines the writings of southern Catholic authors before the Civil War—novels, newspapers, monthlies, poems, histories, almanacs, pamphlets—in an effort to understand how these writers understood their place in their region and nation. Scrutiny of these sources reveals a number of important themes that link these Catholics to modernity. For one thing, progress permeated their thinking, inclining them to assume the near ascendancy of their faith in the United States. For another, Catholics also engaged with Romanticism, whose aesthetics shaped their literary culture and whose particularism wended its way into Catholics’ republicanism and nationalism. Turning to the issue of slavery, Catholics had, on account of their hierarchical theology, some affinities for the hierarchies embedded with the slave South, yet they hardly styled slavery as antimodern. Slavery, they believed, was a vehicle for progress, though Catholics in the Lower South believed it more fundamental to a well-ordered society than fellow communicants in the Upper South, who imagined a future without enslavement. Fundamentally, though, their defenses of slavery were always defenses of private property, with the most important southern Catholic apologia for slavery being a Christian defense of the interstate slave trade. This defense of individual property rights, combined with their difficulty understanding problems within slaveholding as systemic issues, allowed Catholics sincere in their commitment to paternalism to justify the slave trade at the heart of the South’s capitalist economy. Thus, Catholics maintained their distinctive religious beliefs even as they adopted new technologies, embraced progress, interacted with Romanticism, defended individual rights, and supported slavery’s capitalism. In all this, they were not only Catholics but also modern southerners.