Review: Patrick Lynch, 1817-1882
David C.R. Heisser and Stephen J. White, Sr. Patrick Lynch, 1817-1882: Third Catholic Bishop of Charleston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015. 280pp. ISBN 978-1-61117-404-5.
Patrick N. Lynch, the third Catholic bishop of Charleston, S.C., claimed numerous accomplishments, abilities, and shortcomings. He guided his diocese through the chaos and devastation of the mid nineteenth century and for a time was among the most prominent leaders of the American Catholic Church. Less well known today than he deserves, his predecessor, Bishop John England, casts a larger shadow. Stephen J. White, Sr., sets out to correct this imbalance. His work draws on decades of meticulous research by his colleague, the late David C.R. Heisser, for whom Lynch was a nearly life-long interest. White’s assessment of Lynch’s career and personality is appreciative, verging at times on the hagiographic, and he devotes more attention to Lynch’s “heralded ancestry” than will interest most non-Charlestonians. However, he also acknowledges Lynch’s failures and questionable decisions, for instance the way he moved female religious orders around his diocese, his equivocation, if not outright dishonestly, regarding his work on behalf of the Confederate government once the war was over, and his frequent absences from his diocese during the post-war period. This nuanced perspective, coupled with a firm grounding in primary sources, gives the work credibility and authority.
White fully explains Lynch’s background, personality, and interests—but the question remains, why does he matter to historians? Particularly the first half of the book leaves the impression that Lynch was a somewhat peripheral figure in the great movements and issues of his time. Large sections deal with the backgrounds of Lynch’s family members, teachers, colleagues, and contemporaries. At other times, White discusses episodes, such as the rise of anti-Catholicism in the 1850s, in which Lynch played only a minor role, if any. In these sections, it seems fair to say that Lynch reflected his times rather than shaped them. Lynch did seem exceptional in his interest in science. In White’s description of Lynch’s scientific endeavors, he demonstrates that Lynch indeed possessed a breadth of interests, but he falls short of showing that Lynch made any significant contribution to scientific fields, or that he had much of an impact in shaping the Church’s approach to science. For instance, White meticulously chronicles how Lynch belonged to numerous scientific societies, but other than with the issue of artesian wells, it appears he made few original contributions.
In the book’s second half however, White explains what made Lynch exceptional among his colleagues—his ownership of numerous slaves, the fact that he accepted high office in the Confederacy and undertook a mission on its behalf, and that he authored the South’s final major proslavery treatise. White deals with each of these themes in admirable detail. He is no doubt correct that these episodes in particular differentiate Lynch’s career, but even in these endeavors Lynch behaved with caution. He defended slavery in a famous exchange of letters with Archbishop John Hughes of New York, but later argued that he intended the correspondence to be kept private. He agreed to serve as a Confederate commissioner to the Vatican, but once in Rome he presented himself solely as a churchman, never handing over his letters of commission, and never, he claimed, raising the issue of Vatican recognition of the Confederacy. Perhaps because of Lynch’s reticence, or perhaps simply because he was in an impossible situation, White concedes that his most well-known undertakings ended in failure: the Confederacy was defeated, and slavery was destroyed.
Lynch’s true accomplishments lie, not in the heady final years of the Old South or in the great struggle of the war itself, but rather during the bleak post-war years. He worked tirelessly to rebuild his shattered diocese, and this unglamorous work constituted his lasting legacy. Here too he had his failings, at least by modern standards, particularly in his dealings with newly emancipated African Americans. Yet there is also much to admire in his care for the impoverished, his energy, and his devotion to returning his diocese to a firm footing.
Though White makes his arguments clearly, the book may be daunting to non-specialists. In the first few chapters, White is so wedded to a chronological approach that individual paragraphs occasionally feel out of place. Similarly, he includes so much detail that non-experts may feel a bit overwhelmed. Furthermore, as with most historical studies, several issues remain unresolved, such as whether Lynch’s failure to advance even further in the American hierarchy was due to his association with the Confederate government or his humility and determination to remain with his diocese. Nonetheless, for scholars dealing with the nineteenth-century South or southern Catholicism, or for anyone with a particular interest in the history of Charleston, this work will prove informative. White has done credit to his late colleague David Heisser’s years of research and to the life and career of Lynch himself.