"Growing up a Catholic in the American South, you understood two things. One is that you were a minority, and number two, most of the people who were non-Catholics in the South were very kind and very devoted to their faith," says Dr. James M. Woods.
The Georgia Southern University history professor is paraphrasing the introduction to his new book, "A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900." Woods' framing of this undercurrent in personal terms reflects the background that brought a Catholic Southerner to write about this topic. But what follows the introduction is scholarly history told in narrative form.
Among other courses, Woods teaches a class called History of Religion in the United States, and he is known for his classroom storytelling. His own story began with a Catholic upbringing in Little Rock, Ark.
While visiting a thoughtful Methodist aunt in northwestern Mississippi, he was shown a monument to six Catholic women, members of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, in a Holly Springs, Miss., graveyard. The six sisters had remained behind to care for the sick and the dying after much of the town's population fled Holly Springs during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. All six perished within a three-week span, and the community remembered their sacrifice.
In this discovery, Woods' youthful interest in Southern history converged with his faith. He went to a Catholic college, the University of Dallas, for his bachelor's degree, then to Rice for his master's in history and to Tulane, where he received his Ph.D. in U.S. history in 1983. He taught at two other colleges before arriving at Georgia Southern College in 1988.
Along the way, he kept noticing that something was missing from the rich literature available on the South's religious history.
"Any scholar of the South knows there are significant books and articles on Southern religion, very good ones ... However, works on Southern Catholicism are sparse," Woods said. "There are hardly any works at all prior to the 1980s."
He acknowledges important exceptions, especially Catholic histories of Louisiana and Texas, but elsewhere he saw a void. His efforts to fill it began when a bishop encouraged him to write a history of the church in Arkansas. "Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas" won a 1995 award from the American Association for State and Local History.
Woods' new book on the entire South opens with Ponce de León's 1513 landing in Florida and ends with the results of a 1906 special census of religious affiliation.
In between, the book seeks to highlight the conditions Southern Catholics faced and contributions they made, Woods explains. But he does not ignore controversies or the church's less shining moments.
Catholics and slavery
"Not all facets of Catholic history in the South are bright and edifying. Indeed, some are dark," he said. "Nevertheless, the U.S. South formed a subset of U.S. history, so Southern Catholicism faced its own unique challenges, which the nation overall did not confront, such as slavery, secession, defeat and economic destitution."
Concerning slavery, Woods observes, Catholics of the pre-Civil War South did not distinguish themselves much from the Protestant majority.
"A lot of Catholics pretty well, like most Protestant churches at the time, accepted slavery as long as you did not break up the family, abuse your slaves or fail to give them the gospel," he said. "In the Catholic faith, that would mean failing to have them baptized into the faith."
Louisiana, the one Southern state where Catholics outnumbered Protestants, had a state law that prohibited breaking up slave families by selling them to different buyers, Woods notes. Priests would sometimes take advantage of this law by conducting clandestine "canebrake marriages," so that slaveholders would then be legally bound to keep the families together. In the 1840s, the Vatican even made a statement that no baptized Catholic could be denied the sacrament of marriage because of slavery.
As for the idea that Catholics were themselves an oppressed minority, Woods says there was less of this in the 19th century South than is sometimes imagined.
"The Southern religious view of Catholics has been tainted by the 20th century historians looking at anti-Catholicism directed against Al Smith in the 1920s and John Kennedy in the 1960s, but in reality, there was less anti-Catholicism in the South than there was in the North prior to 1900," he said.
Anti-Catholic riots occurred in both the North and the South during the Irish influx of the mid-1800s, but there were no church or convent burnings in the South, he observes.
North Carolina law
In North Carolina, a state law until 1835 prohibited Catholics from voting or holding state office. Despite this, a Catholic man from that state, William J. Gaston, was twice elected to Congress and later appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court before he took part in a state convention that removed the discriminatory law.
The nation's first Catholic seminary, college and religious orders were all founded in the South, as Woods details in the book. The first Catholic newspaper was founded in Charleston, S.C., in 1822 by Bishop John England, who was also the first Catholic bishop to speak to the U.S. Congress.
The book, at 498 pages including endnotes, bibliography and index, is published by University Press of Florida.
Woods' conclusion hints at a sequel to carry the history into the 20th century, but he says that researching it would be a challenge because documents from more recent times are harder to access.