The Magazine

Things Not Seen

How faith was received in the Era of Good Feelings.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson famously claimed that he wrote his history to rescue his subjects “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” This did not stop him from saddling his weavers, tailors, croppers, and artisans with aspirations that they would hardly have recognized and bundling away any of their prejudices that did not tally with his Marxist theses, particularly with respect to religion, empire, monarchy, and the aristocracy, with whom the working classes had so much in common. Yet Thompson was certainly right to insist that the historian should take up his subjects on their own terms, even though he proved incapable of following this good advice himself.

Washington 1825 Picture

Washington, ca. 1825

Here, Professor Nancy Schultz of Salem State University revisits a forgotten miracle in early 19th-century Washington to attempt to shed new light on early American social and religious history, but in the process exemplifies precisely the sort of condescension that good historians should eschew.

In March 1824 Ann Mattingly, the widowed sister of Mayor Thomas Carbery, had been bedridden for seven years with breast cancer, which left her ulcerated body on the brink of death. Then, three of her local Roman Catholic priests wrote a controversial German faith healer, Prince Alexander Leopold Hohenlohe, asking him to pray for her. Having arranged for a novena, one of the priests visited Mrs. Mattingly at her home on 17th and C Streets NW and gave her communion—after which, several deponents testified, her ulcers disappeared and she rose from her sickbed entirely healed.

In describing the aftermath of the cure, Professor Schultz writes of a divided Catholic Church, one camp pressing for broadcasting the miracle and the other downplaying it; a nativist Protestant mainstream suspicious of what it perceived to be the superstitious, foreign character of Catholicism; a divided Mattingly family intent on closeting its skeletons; and a new republic struggling with questions of religion and society.

This is promising fodder for micro-history, which Schultz might have fashioned into an engaging study. Instead, she devotes most of her energies to pointing morals: taking the Catholic Church to task for what she considers its tribal separatism; upbraiding 19th-century Americans for getting “gender” wrong; and remonstrating with the Mattingly family for their unenlightened views on race in the slave-owning capital. 

Here is that “enormous condescension of posterity” against which Thompson inveighed. Rather than presenting her readers with the surprise of history, Schultz simply serves up lashes of political correctness. In one passage she quotes something from a colleague that epitomizes her own enlightened view of her subject:

For women who came of age in the antebellum era, a devotional ethic that promoted passive resignation as the appropriate Christian response to pain resonated with prevailing gender norms that associated true womanhood with self-sacrificeand submission.

Throughout Mrs. Mattingly’s Miracle, Schultz rubber-stamps this radically false view, not only of women but of religion. She also repeatedly misrepresents the separation of church and state in America, which the Founders put in place to prevent established religion, not to remove religion per se from the public square. In this case, as in so many others, the author’s prejudices prevent her from grasping the true character of her material.

Such prejudices notwithstanding, Schultz is a diligent researcher. As she notes in her introduction, she spent 10 years uncovering the details of her heroine’s cure. When she restricts herself to sharing this copious research, she can be usefully informative. For example, she unearths a number of amusing facts about the Jesuits and their slaves, and she is good on the part that Georgetown College played in the aftermath of Mrs. Mattingly’s cure.

 But she is also given to bloviating. In summing up her history, for example, she writes thus:

Mrs. Mattingly’s diseased body became a central object at the junction of mind and spirit during a period when a social order for the nation was being built. For ultimately, the process of answering the body’s needs and desires is what creates a nation’s language, culture, social institutions, and laws.

Reading this, you wonder whether undergraduates at Salem State are regularly treated to such pronouncements, sound judgment not being one of the author’s strong suits. This is most evident in her conclusion, where she claims that “unlike the broader culture of the United States, which was in the throes of inventing the mythology of assimilation, the Catholic Church actively nurtured ethnic separation by founding parishes for various ethnic groups.”