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Books & CultureBooks & CultureJanuary/February 2007


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Cross-Purposes
How 19th c. Protestants appropriated Catholic forms in the Gothic Revival.



There is no country in the whole world," Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1840, "in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." Eighteenth-century philosophes might have assured their readers that the diffusion of knowledge would spell the irreversible decline of religion, but Tocqueville saw facts disproving this jejune theory. "There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equaled by their ignorance and their debasement," he wrote, "while in America one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world fulfils all the outward duties of religion with fervor." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. And yet Tocqueville was emphatic that this fervor had nothing to do with forms: "I have seen no country in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States."

When American Protestants first broke with decades of pious iconoclasm in the 1840s and began adopting the crosses, candles, choir vestments, sanctuary flowers, stained glass windows, and Gothic architecture of Roman Catholics, a sea-change took place in American religion. Why and in what ways Protestants adopted these Roman Catholic forms is the theme of Ryan K. Smith's Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses: Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century. Well-researched and engagingly argued, the book is a welcome contribution to a subject that has not received the attention it deserves.

Protestant appropriation of Roman Catholic forms occurred in an America rife with Protestant anti-Catholic bigotry. When Catholic Europeans began immigrating in large numbers in the 1840s, the charge was reiterated that they were superstitious, ...



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