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DuBourg's Defense of St. Mary's College: Apologetics and the Creation of a Catholic Identity in the Early American Republic

  • Michael T. DeStefano


When the Baltimore Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church issued a pastoral letter critical of St. Mary's College in 1811 it provided an opportunity for Louis DuBourg, the college's president, to respond with an apologetic defense of the college and of Catholicism more generally. In doing so he synthesized several strands of Catholic apologetics, including the via notarum, the utilitarianism that came to dominate French Catholic apologetics in the eighteenth century, the emphasis upon beauty and emotion that characterized Chateaubriand's Genuius of Christianity, and the earlier work of Bishop Bossuet critical of the doctrinal instability of protestantism. Aimed at a popular audience, DuBourg's apologetics created an identity for the American Catholic Church that emphasized its place within the largest part of worldwide Christianity, its role as educator of the best minds of Western civilization, and the beauty of its worship.



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1 “Address of the President of St. Mary's College to Gentlemen who took degrees and numerous audience,” Companion and Weekly Miscellany, August 23, 1806, 337–339.

2 Strictures on the establishment of colleges, particularly that of St. Mary, in the precincts of Baltimore, as formerly published in The Evening Post and Telegraph (Baltimore, Md.: n.p., 1806). Hereafter Strictures. This work comprised 73 printed pages, almost all of them critical in nature. The Strictures also reprinted a brief history of St. Mary's, which had appeared in the press as “An account of the foundation and progress of the College of St. Mary's,” Companion and Weekly Miscellany, August 16, 1806, 329–332.

3 A Pastoral Letter from the Ministers, or Bishops, and Ruling Elders of the Presbytery of Baltimore to all under their charges; on various duties; but, especially, on the religious education of their Youth, George Town, October, 26, 1810 (Baltimore, Md.: Warner and Hanna, 1811). Hereafter Pastoral.

4 Louis DuBourg, St. Mary's Seminary and Catholics at large Vindicated, against the Pastoral Letter of the Ministers, Bishops, etc. of the Presbytery of Baltimore, published in September, 1811 (Baltimore, Md.: Bernard Dornin, October, 1811). Hereafter Vindication.

5 Viscount de Chateaubriand, Genius of Christianity; or the Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion, trans. Charles I. White (Philadelphia, Pa.: J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1856; orig. 1803), hereafter Genius; Jacques de Benigne Bossuet, The History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, 2 vols. (Dublin, 1829; orig. 1688), hereafter Variations.

6 Mary Augustina Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936); Marraro, Howard R., “Rome and the Catholic Church in Eighteenth Century American Magazines,” Catholic Historical Review 32, no. 3 (July 1946): 157189; Maier, Pauline, “The Pope at Harvard: The Dudleian Lectures, Anti-Catholicism, and the Politics of Protestantism” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society 97 (1985): 1641.

7 Robert Gorman, Catholic Apologetical Literature in the United States (1784–1858) (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1939), 7–9.

8 Gorman, Catholic, 7; Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic 1768–1822 (Vancouver: Regent College, 1989), 91; Francis D. Cogliano, No King, No Popery: Anti-Catholicism in Revolutionary New England (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Greenwood, 1995), 134.

9 Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776–1787 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977).

10 Chris Beneke, Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (New York: Oxford University, 2006), 180–191; Chris Beneke, “The ‘Catholic Spirit Prevailing in Our Country’: America's Moderate Religious Revolution,” in The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, ed. Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011), 277–285; Chinnici, Joeseph P., “American Catholics and Religious Pluralism, 1775–1820,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 16, no. 4 (Fall 1979): 727746; Agonito, Joeseph, “Ecumenical Stirrings: Catholic-Protestant Relations during the Episcopacy of John Carroll,” Church History 45, no. 3 (September 1976): 358373.

11 Charles Wharton, “A Letter to the Roman Catholics of the City of Worcester in England,” A Concise View of the Principal Points of Controversy between the Protestant and Catholic Churches (New York: David Longworth, 1817); the letter was originally published 1783. John Carroll, “An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America by a Catholic Clergyman,” in The John Carroll Papers, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1976; orig. 1784) 3: 82–144.

12 John Thayer, The Catholic Controversy (Dublin: R. Coyne, 1809; orig. 1793). Thayer was one of the more controversial figures in the church in the early republic. He was converted while visiting Europe and educated at St. Sulpice. Much was expected of him upon his return to the United States. His polemical style made his an unwanted presence in New England. His discomfort with slavery made Baltimore an uncongenial location for his work, and when he went to Kentucky he could not get along with his fellow clerics. His commitment to celibacy was purportedly less than what was expected in the American church, and he left for Ireland. He was instrumental in the founding of the Ursuline convent near Boston, which was subsequently burned down by hostile protestants.

13 Carter, Michael S., “What Shall We Say in This Liberal Age? Catholic-Protestant Controversy in the Early National Capital,” U. S. Catholic Historian 26, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 7985.

14 E.C., “The Importance of the Protestant religion politically considered,” Gazette of the United States, May 6–9, 1789; Carroll, “To John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States”, Papers, 1: 365–369, originally published in Gazette of the United States June 10, 1789, 1.

15 Jodziewicz, Thomas W., “American Catholic Apologetical Dissonance in the Early Republic? Father John Thayer and Bishop John Carroll,” Catholic Historical Review 84, no. 3 (July 1998): 455477.

16 J. David Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

17 Howard Miller, The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education 1703–1837 (New York: New York University, 1976), 297.

18 Curran, Robert Emmet, “John Carroll, Georgetown Academy, and the Origins of Catholic Higher Education,” U.S. Catholic Historian 7, no. 4 (Fall 1988): 362.

19 Samuel Eliot Morrison, Three Centuries of Harvard 1636–1936 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1936), 187–191.

20 Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic 1768–1822 (Vancouver: Regent College, 1989), 157–169, 214–243.

21 Fox, Dixon Ryan, “The Protestant Counter-Reformation in America,” New York History XVI, no. 1 (January 1935): 1933. For Fox the Reformed response to Unitarianism was an American Counter-Reformation. This is an older work but one that is effective in demonstrating the profound effect that the loss of Harvard had upon the Reformed churches.

22 Joeseph William Ruane, The Beginning of the Society of St. Sulpice in the United States (1791–1809) (Baltimore, Md.: St. Mary's Seminary, 1935), 95–157; Annabelle M. Melville, Louis William DuBourg, Bishop of Louisiana and the Floridas, Bishop of Montaban and Archbishop of Besancon, 1766–1833, vol. 1, Schoolman, 1766–1818 (Chicago: Loyola University, 1986), 103–146; “An Account of the Foundation,” 329–332; Quinn, Dorothy MacKay, “Dangers of Subversion in an American Education: A French View,” Catholic Historical Review 39, no. 2 (April 1953): 2835. Emery reported that the Pope and the Cardinal Head of Propaganda Fide, to whom the Pope turned the matter over, did not like the idea of accepting protestants. The Cardinal's opposition was not firmly held since when the Sulpician told him that Bishop Carroll had no objection he relented. Melville, DuBourg, 100.

23 Gleason, Philip, “The Main Sheet Anchor: John Carroll and Catholic Higher Education,” Review of Politics 38, no. 4 (October 1976): 600; Curran, “Georgetown Academy,” 370.

24 John O'Malley, The Firsts Jesuits (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1993), 207; Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State, trans. P.J. and D.P. Waley (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1956: orig. 1589), 99. Botero, an ex-Jesuit and grand strategist of the Counter Reformation, attributed the reconversion of some German protestants to Catholic education.

25 Edmund G. Goebel, A Study of Catholic Secondary Education during the Colonial Period up to the First Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1852 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1937), 99; for Catholics, including members of the Carroll family, at Harvard, see Morrison, Three Centuries, 198; Gleason, John Carroll, 600; Curran, John Carroll, 370; Beneke, Beyond Toleration , 96–103.

26 Cynthia A. Kierner, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and Daughter of Monticello, Her Life and Times (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012), 51–54. Later in life Martha became critical of Catholicism, with a particular dislike for the doctrine of transubstantiation, 259–260.

27 John Williams, “The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, 1707” in Captive Histories: English, French and Native Narratives on the 1704 Deerfield Raid, eds. Evan Haefili and Kevin Sweeney (Amherst: University Press of Massachusetts, 2006), 89–157; Haefili, Evan and Sweeney, Kevin, “The Redeemed Captive as recurrent seller: Politics and Publication 1707–1854,” New England Quarterly 77, no. 3 (September 2004): 341367; John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: an Early Study from Early America (New York: Knopf, 1994). Williams's book, one of the most famous of the captivity narratives, gave a detailed account of the extent to which the Canadian clergy would go in trying to effect conversions among captives. His account was reprinted many times into the nineteenth century. Although he returned to Massachusetts, his captive daughter converted and lived most of her life in Canada. Her story is told in The Unredeemed Captive.

28 Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 23, 32, 35–37; William M.S. Stith Rasmusses and Robert S. Tilton, George Washington: The Man behind the Myth (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1999), 11–12.

29 Paul F. Grendler, “The Universities of the Renaissance and Reformation” in Renaissance Education between Religion and Politics, ed. Grandler (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006), 25–26.

30 Henry Mumford Jones, America and French Culture, 1750–1848 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1927). Jones noted examples of protestants who travelled to Canada or Europe for a Catholic education, something that he thought gave a cosmopolitan tone to American culture, 23–24.

31 Bushman, Refinement, 187–195.

32 Strictures, 15–18, 24–26. He wrote as Pliny the Younger. Melville, Louis William DuBourg, 127.

33 Noll, Princeton, 96–97; K. Alan Snyder, “Foundations of Liberty: the Christian Republicanism of Timothy Dwight and Jedidiah Morse,” New England Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 1983): 391–392.

34 Pastoral, 8.

35 Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820 Inclusive (Philadelphia, Pa.: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1847).

36 Frank D. Bilartz, Urban Religion and the Second Great Awakening: Church and Society in Early National Baltimore (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University, 1986), 22, 85; William Reynolds, A Brief History of the Presbyterian Church of Baltimore (Baltimore, Md.: Waverly, 1913); Patrick Allision, Rise and Progress of the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore Town, 1793 and John C. Backus, An Historical Discourse, 1859 both in First Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Md., 1761–1895 (Baltimore, Md.: E. Stanley Sterling & Co., 1895).

37 Pastoral, 14.

38 Claude Fleury, Catechismus (Philadelphia, Pa.: Jonannes Conrad, 1805). This was a Latin version of the Petit Catechisme Historique, originally published in French in 1683. The American editor took the liberty of expurgating “the few chapters which contain the peculiar tenets of the Roman Catholic Church” (iv). Raymond E. Wanner, Claude Fleury (1640–1723) as an Educational Historiographer and Thinker (The Hague: Martinus Nbijhoff, 1975), 248–256.

39 Pastoral, 22.

40 Beneke, Beyond Toleration, 180–186.

41 Melville, Louis William DuBourg, 82–146.

42 Thomas W. Spalding, The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789–1994 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1989), 40. In Spalding's view, “Ultimately, it was the success of DuBourg's academy that kept the Sulpicians in the United States.”

43 Spalding, Premier See, 36–41.

44 Roberti Bellarmini, De notis ecclesiae, in Opera Omnia (Rome: Minerva, 1965; orig. 1586) 2: 361–407.

45 Gustave Thils, Les notes de l'eglise dans l'apologetique catholique depuis le reforme (Gerbloux: J. Duculot, 1937), 241–246; A.G. Dickens and John Tokin, The Reformation in Historical Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1985), 128–129. Dickens and Tokin wrote that the amplitude of the church was a recurring theme in The French Encyclopedia.

46 DuBourg, Vindication, 8–9.

47 Bossuet, Variations, 1: 80.

48 DuBourg ‘s numbers are nearly identical to those of William Carey, the Baptist missionary, who was one of the earliest to quantify adherents of the world's religions and of paganism. The only difference was that Carey gave 44 million for the number of protestants. William Carey, An Enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the Heathens (Leicester: n.p., 1792), 62.

49 John England used this argument in his address to Congress in 1826. See William R. Hutchinson, Religious Pluralism in America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 2003), 128; Sebastian G. Messier, The Works of the Right Reverend John England, First Bishop of Charleston (Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1908) 7: 33.

50 William Everdell, Christian Apologetics in France 1730–1790: The Roots of Romantic Religion (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1987), 130–150; Albertan-Coppola, Sylviane, “L'Apologetique Catholique Francaise A L'Age des Lumieres,” Revue de l'histoire des religions 205, no. 2 (1988): 168.

51 Strictures, 26.

52 Bellarmini, De notis, 404–405. He cited favorable remarks made by pagans, Jews, Turks and heretics.

53 Everdell, Christian Apologetics, 137–138. Also see Chateaubriand, Genius: “There is no disgrace in being believers with Newton and Bossuet, with Pascal and Racine” (49).

54 John McManners, Death and the Enlightenment, Changing Attitudes to Death Among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-century France (New York: Oxford University, 1981), 234–269; The Death of Voltaire,” The Assembly's Missionary Magazine or Evangelical Intelligencer II, no. 1 (January 1806), 3032.

55 Rosengarten, J.G., “The Early French Members of the Philosophical Society,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 46 (January-April 1907): 8793.

56 Barbara Sher Tinsley, History and Polemics in the French Reformation: Flormond de Raemond: Defender of the Faith (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University, 1992), 93, 95–96, 122, 209. The author identified Raemond, who lived in the sixteenth century, as a spiritual forebear of Chateaubriand. Raemond argued that Catholicism was superior to Protestantism both culturally and religiously, that Catholic rites were superior because they met the needs of the people, and that the Calvinist ministry was poorly educated.

57 Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England from Its First Planting in the Year 1620. Unto the Year of our Lord, 1698 (London 1702). Book IV, “The History of Harvard,” 126. The Canadian seminaries of both Montreal and Quebec postdate the founding of Harvard, so it is not clear what the founders of Harvard could have had in mind as a standard to be outdone. It may well be that Catholic universities in general were on their minds, in addition to the university in Mexico, founded in 1551.

58 Edward Hawarden, True Church of Christ Shown, from the Concurrent Testimonies of Scripture and Primitive Tradition (Baltimore: R. Coyne, 1808; orig. England, 1714), 119–121.

59 S.J.Barnett, Idol Temples and Crafty Priests: the Origins of Enlightenment Anticlericalism (New York: St. Martin's, 1999) for the recycling of Reformation priest craft charges during the Enlightenment; Everdell, Christian Apologetics, 109, “Undoubtedly, the utilitarian ethic is one of the master conceptions of the Enlightenment.”

60 “Sur les advantages que l'establissment du Christianisme a procures au genre humain” is a French version of a lecture given in Latin at the Sorbonne on July 3, 1750. Demonstrations Evangelique, tome dixieme (Paris: Petite-Montrouge, 1843; orig. pub. in Oeuves de M. Turgot, 9 vols. Paris, 1808–1811). It would have circulated in manuscript before it appeared in print; Everdell, Christian Apologetics, 82–87.

61 Jeffrey D. Burson, “The Catholic Enlightenment in France, from the fin de siècle Crisis of Consciousness to the Revolution, 1650–1789,” in A Companion to the Catholic Enlightenment in Europe, eds. Ulrich L. Lehrer and Michael O'Neill Grinty (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 65.

62 Sylviane Albertan-Coppola, “L'Apologetique Catholique Francaise an L'Age des Lumieres,” 171, noted the convergence of the language of Catholic apologists with that of the philosophes, although the meaning that they gave to the same words could vary. The same could be said for the language of protestants.

63 Denis Diderot, Diderot on Art: The Salon of 1765 and Notes on Painting, ed. John Goodman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1995), vol. 1, 135–137. DuBourg incorrectly cited the Letter on Painting as the source of the quotation, but it was actually from the text of the Salon of 1765, to which the Letter was an appendix. Diderot's critical comments on the Paris salons circulated in manuscript and his complete works included the Salon of 1765 and the Letter. Diderot's writings on art were enormously influential in the nineteenth century, and accordingly his comments on liturgy were widely circulated. Of all the aspects of religious life, liturgy probably came through the gauntlet of Enlightenment criticism the least savaged. In addition to Diderot and Voltaire, Montesquieu had good things to say about Catholic worship in The Spirit of the Laws.

64 Diderot, Salon of 1765, 136–137.

65 Bernard Plongeron, “Bonheur et civilsation Chretiene”: une nouvelle Apologetique au XVIII siècle,” in Transactions of the Fourth International Congress on the Enlightenment VI, SVEC 154, ed. Theodore Besterman (Oxford: Oxford University, 1976), 1637–1655.

66 Everdell, 115; Mona Ozuf, Festivals and the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1988), 53, on the Corpus Christi procession as the model for a revolutionary festival.

67 Chateaubriand, Genius, 72.

68 Burson, “The Catholic Enlightenment in France,” 115 on affective utility in Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand too described the Corpus Christi ceremony: “The God of the Christians is satisfied with the emotions of the heart and with the uniformity of sentiment which springs from the peaceful reign of virtue in the soul.” Genius, 496–498.

69 Vicesimus. Knox, “On the Utility of Religious Ceremonies and of Admitting Music and External Magnificence in Places of Devotion,” in Essays Moral and Literary (London: Charles Dilly, 1794; orig. 1778), 2: 274–277. Knox also believed that ceremony helped to prevent immorality. He cited the ceremonies of Greek and Rome as precedents for Christian ceremony, but not to imply that Catholicism was heathenish, which was a common protestant view, but to underscore their utility in the ancient world.

70 Nigel Aston, Art and Religion in Eighteenth Century Europe (London: Reaktion, 2009), 65–72.

71 The first English edition of The Genius was an abridgement called The Beauties of Christianity, trans. Frederic Shobert (London: n.p., 1813). This was republished in a U.S. edition in 1815. When DuBourg wrote of the great artists who have graced the church with their work the names that he cited were drawn from a list that Chateaubriand had used. This list included not only names that were widely known like Michelangelo and Raphael, but LeSeur and Poussin, the reference to which by DuBourg was not likely to have been a coincidence. DuBourg's list also included the composer Pergolesi, who had also been mentioned by Chateaubriand, and the only religious composer named by both.

72 Edmund W. Sinnott, Meeting Houses in Early New England (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963); Louis P. Nelson, The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2008); Gretchen Townsend Buggeln, Temples of Grace: the Material Transformation of Connecticut's Churches, 1790–1840 (Hanover: University Press of New Hampshire, 2003).

73 Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1967), 11–12.

74 Beneke, Beyond Toleration, 82–84, for protestant efforts to unite around fundamentals.

75 Jacques-Andre Naigeon, “Unitarians,” in The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, trans. by Dena Goodman and Susan Emanuel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2010), Originally published as “Unitaires” Encyclopedia ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Paris: n.p., 1765), 17: 387–401.

76 DeStefano, Michael, “John Carroll, the Amplitude Apologetic and the Baltimore Cathedral,” American Catholic Studies 122, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 3161.

77 Sybher, G. Wylie, “Faisant ce qu'll leur vient a plasir”: The Image of Protestantism in French Catholic Polemic on the Eve of Religious Wars,” The Sixteenth Century Journal II, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 5984.

78 Carroll, “Letter to Anthony Garnier,” November 24, 1811, Papers, 3: 162.

79 James Crowley, A Defence of the Pastoral Letter, of the Presbytery of Baltimore; in reply to the “Vindictors of St. Mary's College. Etc” with an Appendix containing reasons for recantation from the errors of the Church of Rome (Baltimore, Md.: Warner and Hanna, 1812).

80 The Sons of St. Dominick: A Dialogue between a Protestant and a Catholic, On the occasion of the late Defence of the Pastoral Letter, of the Presbytery of Baltimore, against The Vindication of St. Mary's Seminary, and Catholics at large, etc. (Baltimore, Md.: Bernard Dornin, 1812). Gorman, 16, on the authorship.

81 Minutes of the General Assembly, 490.

82 Mannard, Joeseph G., “Supported Principally by the Funds of Protestants: Wheeling Female Academy and the Masking of the Catholic Community in Antebellum Western Virginia,” American Catholic Studies 114, no. 1 (2003): 4179.

83 Jody M. Roy, Rhetorical Campaigns of the Nineteenth Century: Anti-Catholics and Catholics in America (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1999) pointed out the rhetorical aggressiveness of much of Catholic apologetics, which contrasted with the irenic tone of official church pronouncements.

The author would like to thank the anonymous readers for their careful review of this article and for their suggestions.

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