Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835–1860

W. Jason Wallace

Although slaveholding southerners and Catholics in general had little in common, both groups found themselves relentlessly attacked in the northern evangelical press during the decades leading up to the Civil War. In Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835–1860, W. Jason Wallace skillfully examines sermons, books, newspaper articles, and private correspondence of members of three antebellum groups—northern evangelicals, southern evangelicals, and Catholics—and argues that the divisions among them stemmed, at least in part, from disagreements over the role that religious convictions played in a free society.

Focusing on journals such as The Downfall of Babylon, Zion’s Herald, The New York Evangelist, and The New York Observer, Wallace argues that northern evangelicals constructed a national narrative after their own image and, in the course of vigorous promotion of that narrative, attacked what they believed was the immoral authoritarianism of both the Catholic and the slaveholder. He then examines the response of both southerners and Catholics to northern evangelical attacks. As Wallace shows, leading Catholic intellectuals interpreted and defended the contributions made by the Catholic Church to American principles such as religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Proslavery southern evangelicals, while sharing with evangelicals in the North the belief that the United States was founded on Protestant values, rejected the attempts by northern evangelicals to associate Christianity with social egalitarianism and argued that northern evangelicals compromised both the Bible and Protestantism to fit their ideal of a good society. The American evangelical dilemma arose from conflicting opinions over what it meant to be an American and a Christian.

W. Jason Wallace is associate professor of history at Samford University.

“Jason Wallace makes a clear argument of why northern evangelical Protestants were consistent in opposing both slavery and Catholicism. Although the general relationship between abolitionists and nativists has been well known, Wallace not only proves the connection but also shows the theological basis for that connection. This book will be of interest to the academic specialist and to a wider audience interested in American religious history.” — Gerald Fogarty, S.J., University of Virginia

“Despite their obvious differences, antebellum American Catholics and pro-slavery Southern evangelicals had one feature in common: their powerful aversion to Northern evangelicals’ transformation of the Christian faith into a crusading gospel of ‘progress.’ By exploring their respective critiques of Northern evangelical theology, with its overconfidence in individual and social perfectibility and its tendency to identify Christianity with American nationalism, W. Jason Wallace provides us with keen insight into American evangelicalism’s characteristic dilemmas, many of which still bedevil it today.” — Wilfred M. McClay, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

“For those who like their history complicated, Jason Wallace’s book should be at the top of their reading list. In this book Wallace takes the familiar dispute between abolitionist and pro-slavery evangelical Protestants and throws in Roman Catholicism, not only as an intriguing voice in the debates about slavery but also as a related subject of debate, with Roman Catholicism representing to evangelicals another form of slavery. The result is an episode that opens the question of slavery to the larger political and economic context of European and American debates about freedom and tyranny after the eighteenth century revolutions. Wallace argues convincingly that these disputes produced no winners, and suggests just as plausibly that the reputed winners—the northern evangelicals—lost as much as they won.” — D. G. Hart, Westminster Seminary California


“In five crisp chapters, Wallace . . . outlines how Catholicism debated the hegemonic discourse of Protestant-based acquisitive capitalism, articulated a traditional accommodation to slavery as a product of human sin, and asserted its own historic and ongoing contribution to the discussion of social morality and the proper sources of the Christian life.” — Choice

“In this trim, well-written work, W. Jason Wallace offers a theologically informed account of the important role evangelicals played in the antebellum conflicts over slavery and Catholic immigration.” — Journal of Church and State

‘This study contributes to our understanding of the controversy over slavery among American Protestants by adding a crucial third perspective on the problem—that of European and American Catholics. The desire of northern Protestants to create a unified evangelical republic, W. Jason Wallace reminds us, foundered on both southern slavery and Catholicism. The study makes a convincing case that our understanding of the controversies over slavery among American Protestants can be deepened by examining the Catholic context of these arguments.” — Journal of American History

“W. Jason Wallace’s fine monograph—drawn from the antebellum religious press, books, and sermon literature—explores the significance of this infusion of Irish, German, and French Catholics in the cauldron of American Protestantism after the Second Awakening. Set against the backdrop of the sectional discord involving slavery and competing visions of nascent nationalism, this increasingly vocal Catholic presence helped shape the antebellum debate over God and country.” — The Catholic Historical Review

“His study addresses important questions regarding the ways in which antebellum intellectuals and evangelical leaders struggled about what should substitute for a state religion. The power of religious leaders to advance the notion of a Christian or Protestant America and the belief that civic morals depended on religious ideas had, as Wallace makes clear, mixed consequences in the nineteenth century.” — Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“A welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on evangelicals and politics in the antebellum era. By giving equal attention to the Catholic vision of history, Wallace counterbalances the more familiar nativist and evangelical versions of the role that Protestantism and the United States played in historical progress.” — The Journal of Southern History

“This is an excellent study that examines the religious tensions within antebellum religious groups . . . Wallace’s work provides a broader understanding of the antebellum religious climate, particularly with the inclusion of Catholics. This volume is highly recommended for students of nineteenth-century American religious history.” —_Religious Studies Review_