“Converts to Rome During the XIXth Century”

William Gordon-Gorman compiled a book with the name above and published it in Britain in 1885.  You might think it consists of conversion stories, perhaps led by John Henry Newman and other converts from the Oxford Movement.  But it’s simply a directory, as the subtitle states: “A List of About Four Thousand Protestants Who Have Recently Become Roman Catholics.”

It groups converts by class, university, profession, and country. “Nobility and Gentry,” running fourteen pages, includes “The late William Wilberforce, sometime M.P. for Hull; eldest son of the Slave Emancipator.”  “Arts and Sciences” includes “John Godard, celebrated in early photography,” and “Andrew Currie, the sculptor.”

It might not mean much to us now, but to a British readership it would have been impressive that distinguished scholar-converts from Magdalen College, Oxford, were 13 in number and, from Balliol, 17 in number, including “Gerard M. Hopkins, M.A., Fellow of the Royal University of Ireland; a Jesuit and Professor of Classics at the University College, Dublin.”

That children or grandchildren became converts makes a point.  From St. John’s College, Cambridge: “Professor F. A. Paley, M.A., grandson of the author of ‘Evidences’; till lately Professor of Classics at the Catholic University College, Kensington, W.; Classical Examiner for the London University; author.”

Likewise, wives: “Mrs. J. Curran, wife of James Curran, a Quaker, of Dublin;” “Mrs. Hoyt, wife of the Rev. W.H. Hoyt, an Episcopalian rector at Vermont;” “Mrs. Elizabeth Augustine King, wife of the late Dr. Richard King, the polar traveller.”

Near the end of the book, there’s a separate “List of a Few Foreign Converts.”  From America:

The late Orestes A. Brownson, LL.D., the distinguished reviewer, whom Lord Brougham styled “the master-mind of America.”

The late Stephen Douglas, statesman.

The late Horace Greeley.

Henry Adams Thayer, of Cambridge, Mass.

Catholicism claimed Stephen Douglas as a convert: the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him “a convert to Catholicism,” perhaps on private knowledge, since his wife was a Catholic; he consented to have his children raised Catholic; and the Bishop of Chicago presided over a Catholic burial service for him,

From “The Army and the Navy” in America, one finds: “General Joseph Warren Revere, of Boston, grandson of Paul Revere, of Revolutionary Fame, and of General Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.”

Among “Ladies”:

Miss Allen, of Vermont, grand-daughter of General Ethan Allen, of the Revolutionary War

Miss Harriott Prescott, well-known in American literary circles

Rev. Mother Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity in America

Mrs. Tyler, wife of Ex-President Tyler, her daughter and granddaughter

Yes, Mother Seton was received into the Catholic Church in the 19th century, on March 14, 1805.   Harriott Prescott is better known by her acquired surname by marriage, Spofford.   She gained immediate fame in 1859 through a short story, “In a Cellar,” published in the Atlantic Monthly.   It’s not easy to find any of her works in print today, but Project Gutenberg has a collection here.


What is the point of such a list?  The author in his Preface to the Second Edition quotes a reviewer: the work “gives one a startling view of the rapid advancement which Roman Catholicism has made of late years in certain quarters.”   The advancement is startling because it is contrary to common expectations, the “political correctness” of the time, which was a general “anti-popery.”

Catholicism was supposed to fade away after the Reformation.  It was a religion of superstition, ignorance, and oppression.  It left no room for persons of strong conviction and conscience.  It was not a religion that would be fit within the bounds of reason.  The remarkable developments in science, technology, and enterprise, so visible especially in Britain and in the United States in that century, seemed out of tune with it.

And yet, here were leading figures of every walk of life deliberately converting to Catholicism.

The book lists Newman as one of several converts from Trinity College, Oxford.  But he is one among many, not the chief, not a paradigm or leader:

Rev. John Henry Newman, D.D., M.A., Fellow of Oriel College; B.D. of this University and formerly Vicar of St. Mary-the-Virgin, Oxford; for some time Rector of the Catholic University; now Cardinal and Superior of the Birmingham Oratory; author of hymns and of various esteemed works.

After all, the Oxford Movement, a full two generations before this book, might have looked as if it were spent: those converts became Catholic priests instead of Anglican clergymen, and that was all; it was over.  But the book shows, rather, that the Oxford Movement itself was part of something much more extensive.

Second Springs” seem to recur, and we might wonder when and why.  There was a kind of clearing in civilization after the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and the Catholic Church did not die, but it came roaring back.  Yet another Spring was the great “Catholic Intellectual Renaissance” of the early 20th century, discussed so well by Robert Royal in his book, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.  Pope Leo XIII’s revival of Thomism through his encyclical, Aeterni Patris, seems to have been its original impetus.

Most recently a shorter Spring – or was it simply a momentary thawing? – seemed to coalesce around Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus, in his sympathy with St. Pope John Paul II, in the face of a threatening Culture of Death.

But will someone be able to compile an equally impressive book, Converts to Rome During the XXI Century?  Are we about to see another Second Spring of even greater extensiveness – as John Paul II anticipated – nourished by the blood of the millions of martyrs of the last century?  (See Royal on this also here.)

But what you and I need to ponder is this: conversions are preceded by fidelity.  If we really want to see something like the historic surges in conversions, let’s resolve to live our Christian calling with the intensity, faithfulness, and integrity that, through graces largely hidden, can win souls in generations to come.


*Image: John [Henry] Newman by George Richmond, 1844 [National Portrait Gallery, London]. The NPG omits St. John Henry Newman’s middle name in every portrait of him held by the museum. Note that the year Richmond made this chalk drawing was the year before Newman entered the Roman Catholic Church.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.