Graduate Research Grant Report: ‘The Protestant Image in the Catholic Mind’

July 12, 2017

William S. Cossen
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History
The Pennsylvania State University

William S. Cossen

William S. Cossen

During the summer of 2016, I was awarded an ACHA Graduate Student Summer Research Grant, which allowed me to complete the archival portion of my dissertation research by visiting The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky; this research was also funded by a Filson Fellowship and by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.  My dissertation, “The Protestant Image in the Catholic Mind: Interreligious Encounters in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” explores the construction of Protestant identity by U.S. Catholics from Reconstruction through the 1920s.  Catholics, particularly those associated with the Americanist movement, worked in the years following the Civil War to entrench their claim to belonging in the consolidating American nation.  They accomplished this by demonstrating the integral roles Catholics played in a variety of connected imperial, political, and public reform projects and by engaging in a rhetoric of anti-Protestantism against the Protestants who frequently regarded themselves as the normative Americans.

My dissertation includes a relatively wide range of opinions on Protestants and the American nation on the part of lay and clerical Catholics.  Before visiting The Filson, however, perspectives were occasionally skewed in favor of individuals from the Northeast and Midwest.  The South, despite having fewer Catholics than the urban centers of the North, also presents an important setting in which to study Catholic interactions with Protestants.  Following the Civil War, it was not uncommon for Catholics to compose the majority of urban populaces in the North, while in the South, Catholics had to learn adaptive strategies for dealing with life as a religious minority.  Compared to the sometimes violent outbursts of nativism that characterized the urban North in much of the antebellum period, southern Catholics frequently had more cordial interactions with their non-Catholic counterparts.  This can perhaps be owed to the fact that many non-Catholic southerners viewed the relatively few Catholics in their midst as less of a threat than those living in the North, the latter of whom may have been active in political machines and labor unions.  Kentucky, the home of The Filson, serves as an appealing setting in which to study nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholics due to its role as a cradle of southern Catholicism and its function as a home base for missionary priests who ministered to Catholics and sought to convert non-Catholics on the frontier.

Researching at The Filson allowed me to incorporate a more diverse array of Catholic voices into my dissertation.  Its rich holdings in the antebellum and Civil War eras granted me the opportunity to more firmly connect the dissertation to my earlier works on democratization within the southern, antebellum Catholic Church and the methods employed by nineteenth-century Catholics in combating nativism and anti-Catholicism.  Several of The Filson’s collections provide insights into the lived religious experiences of Catholics and into the mutual perceptions of Catholics and Protestants in Kentucky and the wider Ohio Valley region from the antebellum years into the 1940s.  The Bush-Beauchamp Family Papers, for instance, shed light on how the Catholic-Protestant sectarian divide could cause frictions within one family.  The extensive collection of correspondence from priests and prelates of the Diocese of Bardstown provides glimpses into everyday Catholic life in the antebellum South and into the occasional difficulties of organizing a Catholic community in a Protestant region.  For the early twentieth-century anti-Catholic revival and the Catholic response, which serve as the subjects of my dissertation’s final chapter, I found valuable materials in the Augustus Everett Willson Papers and in the Edward J. McDermott Papers, which demonstrate that many of the same rhetorical battles over the place of Catholicism in public life fought between Catholics and non-Catholics during Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign were already being waged at the local level before World War I and the emergence of the Second Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

It is oftentimes easy for scholars of U.S. Catholicism to research exclusively in archives dedicated principally to Catholic history, of which there are many of the highest quality in the United States.  However, there exists a much wider world of manuscripts that can provide new insights into our research that we may be missing by neglecting to consider the possibilities offered by non-Catholic archives.  The Filson provides one such example of an institution that, though not typically associated with Catholic studies, can provide researchers with previously neglected perspectives on U.S. Catholic history.  Exploring such libraries and historical repositories also offers the additional benefit of putting our scholarship in conversation with non-Catholic historiography, which could go a long way toward continuing the work of moving Catholic history away from the margins of U.S. history.

I would like to thank the ACHA for its generosity in supporting my dissertation research.  The ACHA’s Graduate Student Summer Research Grant moved me substantially closer to completion of my doctoral studies, as my defense is scheduled for this fall.  For much of my time as a graduate student, the ACHA has, in addition to my department, served as a scholarly home, and I am grateful for the organization’s continued support as I prepare to move forward to the next stage of my academic career.