Review: For Church and Confederacy

Andrew Stern

Andrew Stern is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

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Andrew Stern, "Review: For Church and Confederacy," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Robert Emmett Curran, ed. For Church and Confederacy: the Lynches of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019. xxiv, 410pp. 978-1-61117-917-0.

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The real joy of studying the past lies in directly encountering the men and women who shaped it. In For Church and Confederacy: the Lynches of South Carolina, Robert Curran has made available a trove of primary sources that facilitate this kind of encounter.  The letters of the Lynches of South Carolina, one of the most influential Catholic families of the antebellum South, survive in various archives. From this mass of material, Curran selected missives spanning the pivotal years of 1858-1865, written primarily by and to Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston and six of his siblings. In addition to the enormous task of deciphering the handwriting, Curran also provides contextual information for the period and, in extensive footnotes, offers brief information about the correspondents and subjects of the letters. This context is essential, since letter writers who share a historical and social context assume a great deal of knowledge that contemporary readers will not possess.

Despite some tedious details about the prices of crops and the ailments of distant relations, these letters offer glimpses into the life of an antebellum family and their world. Notably, many of the major historical events of the period garner little attention from these correspondents, even in the midst of the war years. With only few exceptions, they seldom mention nativism or anti-Catholicism. It seems that, while the Lynches’ faith figured prominently in their self-identity, to their neighbors they were fellow South Carolinians who just happened to be Catholic.

Rather than reflecting on the events that contemporary readers would assume most important, the Lynch siblings concerned themselves more with prosaic matters, particularly money (especially the brothers) and health (the sisters). The writers’ focus on these themes is itself illuminating. For instance, while most readers will probably be aware of the prevalence of disease in the antebellum South, the letters emphasize the devastating toll of yellow fever and consumption and the ways they shaped the psyches of those who endured them. The letters discuss struggles with alcoholism, a crisis of vocation, career successes and disappointments, friendships and rivalries–humanizing these writers as complex and relatable individuals, rather than abstract historical figures.

This large collection presents very few letters from Bishop Lynch, although it does feature some of his writings to other prelates and secular leaders, including his famous defense of secession to Archbishop John Hughes of New York and his apology for slavery, written while serving as a Confederate envoy in Europe. Readers get to know Bishop Lynch indirectly, seeing him through the eyes of his siblings, who often chide him for being such a dilatory correspondent.

Ellen Lynch’s voice emerges most strongly from this cacophony. Known by her religious name Baptista, the Bishop’s sister served as superioress of the Ursuline convent in Columbia. Baptista’s letters open a window into the workings of an antebellum convent, its finances, the recruitment of new members and, above all, the way Catholic education won converts to the Church.  A fascinating figure, Baptista often jumps from the mundane to the philosophical. Her letters also reveal a wonderful, at times biting, sense of humor, for example when she speculates that a widow seeking to join the convent in fact “only awaits another offer to become Mrs. Somebody Else” (66). This clearly capable and ambitious woman never attained the national prominence of her elder brother. Yet, the structure of the Catholic Church provided an outlet for her talents, allowing her freedom and opportunities otherwise unavailable to most women at the time.

The letters of the Lynch family bear witness to a pivotal and tragic period in the history of the South. They testify to the resilience of people who endured tragedies, including the calamity of war, and yet found in their relationships with God and one another the strength to persevere. Above all, they allow us to know them, as much as the intervening years will permit. By making these letters accessible, Curran has resurrected the dead and given them voice, the ultimate achievement of a historian.