"I Hope Their Souls Will Soon Be White"

Paul Harvey

Hot off the presses, a terrific article and must read for American religious historians, by our contributing editor Michael Pasquier: “ ‘Though Their Skin Remains Brown, I Hope Their Souls Will Soon be White’: Slavery, French Missionaries, and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the American South, 1789-1865,” Church History 77 (June 2008): 337-370.

Pasquier’s nuanced and well-researched piece argues this conclusion (among others):

“French missionary priests, who were immigrants for all intents and purposes, responded to the practice of enslavement as Catholics and ultimately justified the practice of enslavements as Catholics. They embraced the American institution of slavery by using non-American theological and philosophical arguments, ultimately finding commonalities in the conservative and authoritarian social orders of the American South and the Roman Catholic Church. But more important, they embraced the American institution of slavery because of their practical experiences as missionaries to enslaved persons and as owners of slaves. Put simply, the experience of evangelizing and owning slaves cannot be underestimated when explaining how ‘Catholics became American.’”

Later, he writes:

“The commonalities of southern Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics hinged on a conservative understanding of the construction of a Christian social order. Despite their common conclusion, Protestant ministers and missionary priests developed their proslavery ideologies in different places and for different reasons. With the sectional conflict of the 1850s and 1860s, evangelical Protestantism and southern conservatism combined to produce an unintentionally common bond based on Christianity and slavery.”

And finally:

“the more French missionaries acted according to their understanding of Catholicism, they more they identified with southern culture and defended the institution of slavery.”

As it happens, I read this piece while making my way all the way through Erskine Clarke’s truly epic Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, which traces the life of the family, white and black, surrounding the family of the “apostle to the slaves,” Charles Colcock Jones. Jones found himself inexorably compelled to support the very institution that he bitterly criticized as a seminary student at Andover and Princeton. More on this book in a blog post in the near future – in the meantime, read Kelly Baker’s review/conference presentation on this book, from her previous blog post.


Anonymous said…
Looks fascinating. Thanks for the notice/summary.
Anonymous said…
Paul, I second your praise for Mike's article. It is solid work. As you point out, its nuance and exhaustive research are commendable.

I would add two things: Its clear transnational approach prompts thoughts about reframing American (religious) history as world history (here following Thomas Bender, et. al.). This is major strength of the article.

Also, Mike's article thoughtfully pushes the historiographical envelope another way, using recent work on female Catholics "to treat Catholic priests less as perfect representatives of a static Catholic Church and more as contributors to a common Catholic culture composed of lay and ecclesiastical persons with varying degress of cultural capital" (p. 344).

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