Review: A History of the Catholic Church in the American South
James M. Woods. A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513–1900. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. 498 pp. ISBN 978-0-8130-3532-1.
In this volume, James Woods claims to be filling a void in the historiography of southern religion by creating an institutional narrative of the oldest Christian faith in the American South. Dismissing any claim to originality (he cites in the bibliography only three pages of original sources), the author states that his goal was to produce a synthesis of previous (mostly) Catholic scholars’ work (referred to in the remaining 32 pages of the source material). Given these intentions, I think he has only partially succeeded—depending on his audience.
The material is organized into three time frames. These are: “The Colonial Context, 1513–1763;” “American Republicanism and European Decline, 1763–1845;” and “Resistance, Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Regionalism, 1845–1900.” It is Dr. Wood’s privilege to organize his material according to his own sense of “natural groupings” that he thinks will help the reader follow the storyline. However, this reader does not see the wisdom of making the third section (a mere 124 pages) carry so much freight. It is precisely on this period where the majority of Catholic scholarship has been focused. As a result, the treatment remains in the realm of “fact-stacking” (well documented though it may be), and the summary does not do justice to the literature in the field. No “synthesis” could.
The book is cleanly written, but it reads like a text aimed at a lower division survey course, and if that is its target, the presentation will be found tedious by today’s instant-messaging, non-readers, who are uninformed and disinterested about most subjects historical or institutionally religious. The 66 pages of footnotes will not be examined. Supplementary material is helpful to non-scholars: maps, some population tables constructed from decennial census data, but there are surprisingly few sketches and photos of people and places for a book spanning 387 years.
If the target audience is not the college textbook buyer, then who might benefit from this formidable compendium of information? There does exist a market for this book. It is a book for adult generalists: clergy, seminarians, inter-faith discussion groups, Catholic parish adult education classes, book-clubs of religionists, and any journalist wishing a one-stop treatment of a religion which is professed by 23.9% of American adults (second only to the combined “evangelical churches” with 26.3%).
I commend Professor Woods for his seeing a need and working to meet it, his respect for the work of other scholars in the field, and his careful, patient reading of their work, but I fear that the medium he employed, a synthesis of so many secondary sources, is passé. The book is not for the scholar, and there are a shrinking number of readers interested in such a narrow topic presented this way, however important it may be to a select few.