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Modernism as the Final Phase of Americanism: William L. Sullivan, American Catholic Apologist, 1899–1910

  • R. Scott Appleby (a1)


The figure of William L. Sullivan, the Paulist missionary and teacher who renounced Roman Catholicism in 1910 and migrated eventually to Unitarianism, poses a continuing challenge for historians of American religion. How is one to interpret his spiritual pilgrimage? Is Sullivan best understood as a reformer whose abhorrence of the perduring Vaticanism and Romanism in Catholic ecclesiology impelled him towards liberal Protestantism? Was he primarily, as he put it in his unfinished autobiography, “a moral personality under orders,” ultimately restless with every institutional expression of the “religion of the Infinite Spirit”? Or does the key to his life and thought lie in an excessive patriotism and nationalism reflected, in part, by his allegiance to the “cause” of the Americanists? Was he a Modernist? Most provocative, perhaps, is the thesis linking these two heresies: does Sullivan's career stand as the embodiment of the continuity between Americanism and Modernism?



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1 argues, John Ratté (Three Modernists [New York: Sheed & Ward, 1967] 260–62, 317–25) that Sullivan's development “confirmed the orthodox interpretation of Modernism as a rite of passage to Liberal Protestantism.” Thomas T. McAvoy argued against a connection between Americanism and Modernism in “Liberalism, Americanism, Modernism,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 63 (1953) 225–31. McGarry, Michael B., , C.S.P., “Modernism in the United States: William Laurence Sullivan, 1872–1935,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 90 (1979) 3352, and Reher, Margaret Mary, “Americanism and Modernism: Continuity or Discontinuity?” U.S. Catholic Historian 1 (1981) 87103, argue for the connection.

2 Hutchison, William R., The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976) 29.

3 Cf. Appleby, R. Scott, “American Catholic Modernism at the Turn of the Century” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1985).

4 Ireland, John, “The Church and the Age,” in idem, The Church and Modern Society (Chicago: D. H. McBride, 1896) 97.

5 Appleby, “American Catholic Modernism,” 385–94

6 Ratté, Three Modernists, 264.

7 This oversight is due largely to the previous unavailability of the Sullivan-Estelle Throckmorton correspondence which has recently been coded and filed in the archives of the Harvard Divinity School (AHDS). I am indebted to Alan Seaburg, the archivist of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, for making this correspondence available to me. Many of these letters describe the works of scholarship and spirituality most influential on Sullivan.

8 Sullivan, , Under Orders: The Autobiography of William Laurence Sullivan (Boston: Beacon, 1944; revised ed., 1966) 5054, 63, 64, 66. On Sullivan's own progress in critical studies, see Duclos, Warren E., “Crisis of an American Catholic Modernist: Toward the Moral Absolutism of William L. Sullivan,” CH 41 (1972) 370.

9 Diary entry of 15–17 January 1897 (Sullivan papers, AHDS).

10 Ibid., 24 January 1897.

11 Sullivan, William L., , C.S.P., “Some Theistic Implications of Modern Philosophy: A Dissertation in Fundamental Dogma” (Washington, DC: Archives of the Catholic University of America, 1900).

12 Sullivan, Under Orders, 75.

13 Sullivan to Estelle Throckmorton, 3 September 1910 (AHDS).

14 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 2 March 1910 (AHDS); also see Sullivan to Throckmorton, 16 August 1910 (AHDS).

15 On the impact of his mission work in Nashville, cf. McGarry, “Modernism in the United States,” 36, and Duclos, “Crisis,” 370. For a statement of Sullivan on the American ethos, see “Protestantism and Catholicism in a New Age,” a sermon delivered by the Rev. William L. Sullivan at the First Congregational Church, All Souls, 6 April 1919 (AHDS), and idem, Under Orders, 64–70, 90–95.

16 Duclos, “Crisis,” 376.

17 Sullivan also contended that inquisitors first sought to question the moral integrity of theological dissenters. “Even in cases where the man's life had been conspicuously blameless … the horrid, irreligious, utterly unchristian and criminal axiom, Cherchez la femme is considered ample to cover the incident” (Sullivan to Throckmorton, 30 May 1910 [AHDS]). Other correspondence indicates that Sullivan felt that his moral character, while in truth above reproach, would be a target for his ecclesiastical opponents once he was identified as a Modernist.

18 On Sullivan's connection with the Americanists, cf. Sullivan, Under Orders, 65–90. On his comparison of the Americanist ethos with French republicanism, cf. Sullivan, William L., “Montalembert and Lammenais,” Catholic World 76 (1903) 468.

19 Sullivan, Under Orders, 66.

20 Most of the letters are typed and bound in chronological order in the William Laurence Sullivan Papers, AHDS.

21 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 11 September 1910 (AHDS).

22 Sullivan to William Wendte, 4 September 1910 (AHDS); Sullivan to Throckmorton, 9 June 1906 (AHDS); Sullivan to Throckmorton, 30 January 1910 (AHDS).

23 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 11 December 1909 (AHDS).

24 Sullivan, Under Orders. 70–71. See also Sullivan, , “The Future of the Christian Religion,” Catholic World 70 (1899) 157.

25 Sullivan, Under Orders, 73.

26 Ibid., 66.

27 Ibid., 87.

28 Ibid., 89. Yet Sullivan perceived in the mystical tradition of Roman Catholicism an important emphasis he found lacking in Unitarianism; cf. Sullivan, “Is Protestantism in Decay?” an unpublished essay, 19 November 1933 (AHDS).

29 Sullivan, Under Orders, 154.

30 Ibid., 79.

31 Ibid., 88. See also two articles Sullivan wrote at this time on the necessity of incorporating the methods of higher criticism into Catholic biblical and historical studies: “Fr. Hogan and the Intellectual Apostolate,” Catholic World 75 (1903), and “The Latest Word on the Theology of Inspiration,” Catholic World 84 (1905).

32 Sullivan, Under Orders, 105–6.

33 Sullivan, William L., C.S.P., “Catholicity and Some Elements in our National Life,” The New York Review 1 (November-December 1905) 262–63.

34 Ibid., 264.

35 Ibid., 265.

36 Ibid., 267. See also Sweeney, David, The Life of John Lancaster Spalding: First Bishop of Peoria. 1840–1915 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1965).

37 Sullivan, William L., , C.S.P., “The Three Heavenly Witnesses,” The New York Review 2 (September-October 1906) 175–88.

38 Ibid., 188.

39 Sullivan, Under Orders, 106.

40 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 15 May 1908 (AHDS).

41 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 14 June 1910 (AHDS). Also, on Letters to His Holiness, cf. Sullivan to Wendte, 4 September 1910 (AHDS). Francesco Turvasi believes that Sullivan copied the style and much of the substance of Letters to His Holiness from a similar work by Italian Modernist Ernesto Buonaiuti entitled Letters from a Modernist.

42 Sullivan, William L., Letters to His Holiness, Pope Pius X (Chicago: Open Court, 1910) xviii.

43 Cf. Duclos. “Crisis,” 371, and Ratté, Three Modernists, 289 as examples of this flawed interpretation.

44 Sullivan articulated this strategy in a letter to Throckmorton. The book's “concessions to criticism shock those that have never known the processes of criticism.… To such, the book will be merely a scandal. But to those in these days, not a few, who, as they have grown in knowledge, have been appalled in finding the very foundations of reverence and the moral life crumbling beneath their feet may find in that book a religious earnestness, a spiritual fervor, and a love for the unseen sanctities of God” (14 June 1910 [AHDS]).

45 “As to that book, the evolution of religious thought has brought a crisis to our doors.… I was driven practically against my will to recognize the profound religiousness of such voices of protest and appeal as Murri's in Italy, Schell's in Germany. Loisy and Tunnel's in France, and Tyrrell and Dell's in England, and forced to the opinion that here, too, some word, desolating as the necessity is, should be spoken toward the same end.… I felt urged to say a word which, however destructive it appears on the surface, I am still convinced is constructive toward a simpler, sincerer, and happier time to come “(Sullivan to Throckmorton, 22 June 1910 [AHDS]).

46 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 7 April 1910 (AHDS).

47 William L. Sullivan, “The Need of a Liberal Catholicism in America” (unpublished essay. 1910; AHDS).

48 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 18 May 1910 (AHDS).

49 Sullivan, Under Orders, 80, 109–11. See also idem. The Priest: A Tale of Modernism in New England (Boston, 1914), in which the protagonist of the novel, Ambrose Hanlon, faces a similar crisis in his priesthood.

50 Sullivan to Throckmorton, 4 April 1910 (AHDS); Ratté. Three Modernists, 285–87. effectively pulls together from various sources all the stories told by Sullivan of troubled or hypocritical priests who continued in the priesthood despite their disbelief.

51 Sullivan, Under Orders, 137.

52 Sullivan, Letters to His Holiness, xiv–xv.

54 Ibid., 134.

55 Ibid. On this point, cf. Houtin to Sullivan, 7 April 1911 (AHDS).

56 Sullivan, Letters to His Holiness, 163–64.

57 Sullivan to Wendte, 4 September 1910 (AHDS).

59 William L. Sullivan, “The Final Phase of Modernism” (unpublished essay, 1910; AHDS).

60 Ratté, Three Modernists, 327; Sullivan, Under Orders, 199.

61 William L. Sullivan, “Catholicism: Advantages and Disadvantages” (unpublished sermon, no date; AHDS).


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