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Frontier Apologetics

The debate that changed the face of American Catholicism

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 rank among the most famous events of nineteenth-century America. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the political issues of the day during their battle for the Illinois Senate seat, and their exchanges gripped the nation. Douglas won the Senate seat, but Lincoln laid the groundwork for his successful 1860 presidential campaign.

These acclaimed debates were just one set of countless public debates that took place across the still-young country. In a way, public debates were the internet of the time (minus the cat memes), a way to be both informed and entertained. They covered a wide variety of topics, but unsurprisingly politics and religion were the two most popular areas of interest.

If Lincoln-Douglas was the most influential political debate of the era, then the most influential religious debate of the nineteenth century occurred in 1837 between a popular Protestant minister and a Roman Catholic bishop. In fact, this debate catapulted that bishop into the national spotlight and greatly advanced the cause of Catholicism in this Protestant-majority (and at the time highly anti-Catholic) country.

Let’s take a look at this debate, its impact at the time, and what we can learn from it today.

The setting

Today we think of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a quintessentially Midwestern city. But in the first part of the nineteenth century, it was still part of “the West,” a rough frontier town struggling to survive. It was predominantly Prot­estant: in 1819, when the first Catholic church was built in Cincinnati, there were perhaps a hundred Catholics in a town of more than 10,000 people. The president of a Cincinnati Protestant seminary, Lyman Beecher, had writ­ten the popular tract “A Plea for the West” in 1835. This essay urged resistance to Catholic influence in the country’s westward expansion and is just one example of the era’s anti-Catholic zeitgeist. Most Protestants suspected that Catholics were not true Americans and took their orders from a foreign power (Rome).

Anti-Catholicism was not confined to Cincinnati; it was raging across America at the time. The 1830s saw the burning of an Ursuline convent and the publication of Maria Monk’s infamous Awful Disclosures, which con­tained incredible (and false) tales of rampant immorality among Catholic priests and nuns.

Upon this setting in 1833 entered John Baptist Purcell, the second bishop of Cincinnati. Purcell had a daunting task in front of him; his diocese spanned the entire state of Ohio, which was mostly a few towns spread out among vast wildernesses. In fact, he was officially denominated a “missionary bishop” by the Church. The last thing Purcell needed was conflict with local Protestants that would impede his missionary work. However, in the providence of God, controversy came to him anyway.

In October 1836, Purcell was invited to address an organization called the “College of Teachers,” which met regularly to discuss topics of interest to educators. Alexander Campbell, a well-known Protestant minister from Virginia, was also invited to speak at the meeting.

Campbell began the day extolling Protestantism and its importance in a proper education. Purcell could not let this go unchallenged, so he critiqued Protestantism in front of the heavily Protestant crowd. This led to heated debates among Protestants and Catholics in the city for the next few days. Campbell challenged Purcell to a public debate, and Purcell accepted reluctantly. The debate was scheduled to begin on January 13, 1837, at the local Baptist church.

The Protestant debater

Born in Ireland in 1788, Alexander Campbell was no ordinary Protestant minister. In fact, he was a founder of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, which still exists. The driving force behind Campbell’s ministry was the reunification of all Christians, Protestant and Catholic. In a sense, he was one of the first Christian ecumenists.

Campbell believed unity would occur only when Christians abandoned “non-biblical” doctrines and practices and returned to the practices of the “primitive Church.” In fact, he didn’t consider his movement a “denomination” and was the first to advocate for non-denominationalism, which is popular among Protestants today.

Campbell was a well-known figure in 1830s America, and he was no stranger to public debates. In 1820, he debated John Walker, a Presbyterian minister, over the issue of infant baptism (Campbell opposed it; Walker supported it). Campbell printed more than 4,000 copies of the debate, which quickly sold out.

In 1829, he debated Robert Owen, an agnostic, about the existence of God. He engaged in many other public debates and was considered one of the premier Protestant apologists of his time, being well learned and an excellent debater. In the weeks leading up to the Purcell debate, Cincinnati Protestants felt confident in their standard bearer, especially when they sized up his opponent, Bishop Purcell.

The Catholic debater

Like Campbell, John Baptist Purcell was born in Ireland, although he was twelve years Campbell’s junior. He was just thirty-three when appointed bishop of Cincinnati and only thirty-six at the time of the debate with Campbell. He had no experience with public debates. In fact, this was to be the first time an American bishop ever debated a Protestant minister. This led most obser­vers to believe the debate would be a thrashing.

He may have been young and inexperienced, but Purcell was well educated. In fact, before becoming bishop of Cincinnati, he was president of Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He himself had studied at Mount St. Mary’s as well as at a Sulpician seminary in Paris, where he was ordained a priest before returning to teach at his old school.

At the time of Purcell’s episcopal appointment, there were only sixteen Catholic churches in the entire state­wide diocese. These were served by four­teen priests. The precarious posi­tion of Catholicism and the domin­ating role of Protestantism in the frontier lands of America at this time cannot be over­emphasized.

The Catholic episcopacy and clergy in this frontier were by necessity hardy men who, while not looking for battles, did not shy away from them, either. Purcell exemplified this spirit by agreeing to what appeared to most outside ob­servers as a lopsided fight with Campbell.

The debate

The structure of the debate, agreed to by both parties, revolved around seven propo­sitions made by Campbell, which I’ve abbreviated here:

  1. The Roman Catholic Institution is not now, nor was she ever, catholic, apostolic, or holy, but is a sect and an apostasy from the only true, holy, apostolic, and catholic church of Christ.
  2. Her notion of apostolic succession is without any foundation in the Bible, in reason, or in fact.
  3. She is not uniform in her faith or united in her members, but mutable and fallible.
  4. She is the “Babylon,” the “Man of Sin,” and the Empire of the “Youngest Horn” as mentioned in the Bible.
  5. Her notions of purgatory, indulgences, auricular confession, remission of sins, transubstantiation, etc. are immoral and injurious to the well being of society, both religious and political.
  6. Notwithstanding her pretensions otherwise, we are perfectly independent of her for the existence of the Bible and for our knowledge of it.
  7. The Roman Catholic religion is essentially anti-American, being opposed to all free institutions and subversive of them.

As should be obvious, these points clearly favored the Protestant position. Yet Purcell agreed to debate them, knowing these were common positions held throughout the predominantly Protestant city and nation. Purcell knew there was no point in addressing the finer points of Catholic theology if the audience thought he represented the biblical Whore of Babylon and was a subversive foreign agent looking to overthrow America.

Purcell and Campbell debated these seven points over the course of seven days, from Friday, January 13, to Saturday, January 21, 1837 (skipping Sunday). Each day’s debate went from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and then resumed in the afternoon from 3 to 5 p.m. There were five moderators to keep the discussion on point and within the agreed-to time limits.

In the morning sessions, the first presenter (always Camp­bell) spoke for an hour on the to­pic at hand, and then back-and-forth responses were each thirty minutes long. In the afternoon sessions, each presen­tation lasted thirty minutes. To get a sense of how much ground these two men covered over those seven days, transcripts of the debates were compiled into a book of more than 450 pages.

Although Campbell intro­duced his remarks on the first day by saying, “I stand here as the defender of Prot­estantism and not as the assailant of Cath­olicism,” the debate was structured to put Campbell on the offensive and Purcell on the defensive. Each proposi­tion heavily favored the Protestant position, and so Campbell spent an hour pressing home one of the seven debate points against Catholicism before Purcell had a chance to respond to the attacks.

Although to modern ears some of the debated propositions sound harsh (the Church as “Babylon,” etc.), by contemporary standards the debate itself was quite respectful, even friendly. Purcell consistently refers to Campbell as “my friend,” and Campbell calls Purcell a “worthy gentleman” many times. They did not descend into personal attacks and stayed on topic (the five moderators likely helped).

Further, both men came across as learned, with both consistently refer­ring to facts and events from history (although Campbell more often used secondary sources, while Purcell used mostly primary sources). The overflow crowds were mesmerized, and news­papers throughout the nation covered the debate.

If the styles of the two men had to be contrasted, one could say that while both focused on defending his position via past writers and history, Purcell was far more rhetorical in his delivery. He was quick-witted and often funny. Although Campbell was the more experienced debater, Purcell was the more effective.

The aftermath

So, who won the debate? Not surpris­ingly, the partisan papers declared victory for their own contestant. The Catholic Telegraph, the diocesan news­paper, boldly declared, “We may safely assert, without any fear of contradiction, that an event more propitious for Catholicity in the West could not have occurred.” But, of course, some Protestant papers did not fear to contradict the Telegraph, claiming victory for their defender, Campbell.

The consensus among most papers, however, even many run by Protestants, was that Purcell won the debate. The Cincinnati Whig said that Campbell was “pretty well used up.” The New York Courier and Journal and Enquirer noted, “Campbell got the worst of the encounter.” The Cincinnati Gazette summed it up as follows: “Protestantism gained nothing, Cath­olicism suffered nothing.” Most damn­ing to Campbell was the Christian Palladium, a newspaper associated with Campbell’s own movement, which wrote, “Campbell . . . retires from the field, shorn of the many laurels he had won on a former occasion. . . . We regret his failure in this case.”

In the aftermath of Purcell’s victory, the prestige of both Catholics in general and Purcell himself increased both in Cincinnati and throughout the country. Purcell was asked to give lectures and preach sermons in almost every diocese in America. He gained an audience with President-elect William Henry Harrison (who was a Cincinnatian). More importantly, the debate legitimized Catholicism to many observers. By defending the patriotism of Catholics, Purcell largely overcame the public suspicion that Catholics weren’t true Americans.

The debate could not have come at a more propitious time for Catho­lics. Over the next few decades, thousands of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and other countries came to American shores. While there were still many anti-Catholic hurdles for them to overcome, the Purcell-Campbell debate helped to make the welcome a bit less hostile than it might have been otherwise.

Purcell and Campbell remained friendly for the rest of their lives. Immediately following the last day of the debate, they spent the evening together at a dinner party. They kept in contact over the years and publicly complimented each other during that time.

After Campbell’s death in 1866, Purcell spoke of his former debate adversary: “From the very first day of our acquaintance to the day of his death, I always entertained the kindliest feelings toward that gentleman. Oh! He was a most lovable character, indeed, and treated me in every way and on occasions like a brother.”

In an era of tense Catholic-Protes­tant relations, this relationship was a prime illustration of how two men could strongly disagree on fundamental issues yet still treat each other with dignity and respect.

Lessons for today

What can we learn today from a debate that took place more than 180 years ago? Three primary lessons present themselves.

First, Catholics should not shy away from battle. Bishop Purcell did not look for a fight with the dominant Protestant culture of his day, but when the battle came to him, he didn’t back down. Sometimes Catholics of this era are criticized for embracing a “fortress mentality,” but Purcell was willing to publicly confront the errors of Protestantism as well as proclaim the truths of Catholicism to unfriendly crowds. This boldness garnered him respect among Catholics but also among Protestants.

Second, while it is important to be prepared before a debate (and Purcell was well prepared), don’t underestimate the importance of delivery—in other words, rhetoric. How you say something can be as important, if not more so, than what you say. Purcell was able to win the debate because he won over the hearts of his listeners. He didn’t do this by drowning them in facts and figures but by delivering his message in a relaxed, non-defensive way, making jokes and connecting with his audience.

After the debate, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette wrote, “The Bishop . . . exhibited a degree of mildness and liberality of sentiment that was not anticipated. His addresses, taken altogether, were calculated to make a good impression both upon Protestants and upon Catholics: from the former they would remove prejudice and incline to exercise more charity toward our Roman Catholic brethren; and on the latter, they tended to make the impression that the spirit of persecution ought not to be indulged and that the practice of it ought never to be adopted in these United States of America.”

Finally, even when debating with someone who is strongly opposed to Catholicism, always remember that he is an image of God and is loved by God. We don’t have to respect every idea, but we do have to respect every person. Bishop Purcell did this (as did Alexander Campbell). Not only is friendliness to opponents the Christian way to behave, but it also makes people more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Sidebar 1

First California Governor and Catholic Convert

Alexander Campbell’s Disciples of Christ movement attracted many people during his lifetime, particularly in the Midwest. In fact, his influence was significant enough that his followers were called “Campbellites.” One such Campbellite was Peter Hardeman Burnett, who was born in Tennessee in 1807 but grew up in Missouri.

In 1843 Burnett, by then a husband, father, and lawyer, moved his family to Oregon, where he became a member of the legislature. Soon after arriving in Oregon, something happened that would change his life. Later he would write about this incident:

In the fall of 1844, a Baptist preacher settled in my immediate neighborhood who had the published debate between Campbell and Purcell; and as the Catholic question was often mentioned, and as I knew so little about it, I borrowed and read the book. I had the utmost confidence in the capacity of Mr. Campbell as an able debater. But while the attentive reading of the debate did not convince me of the entire truth of the Catholic theory, I was greatly astonished to find that so much could be said in its support. On many points, and those of great importance, it was clear to my mind, that Mr. Campbell had been overthrown.

Up to this point an ardent Protestant (and Campbellite), Burnett was shaken. He no longer accepted the anti-Catholic assumptions he had been brought up with, and he continued to explore Catholicism. His study culminated in his conversion to Catholicism just two years later, in 1846.

Two years after his conversion, Burnett moved again, this time to California. He again got involved in politics and in 1849 was elected the first American governor of California. He later became a justice on the California Supreme Court and was president of Pacific Bank.

Throughout his professional success, he loved his Catholicism and used his legal skills, public prominence, and ardent faith to write The Path Which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church (1860). This book, from which the quote above comes, was a logical, law-based defense of the Catholic Church and was famous in its day.

Thus, the fruits of Bishop Purcell’s excellent defense of Catholicism continued, even many years after the debate and many miles from Cincinnati.

Sidebar 2

Did Bishop Purcell Deny Church Doctrine?

A key point of the Purcell-Campbell debate was the issue of infallibility. Campbell, of course, took the standard Protestant view that the Catholic Church was not infallible and neither was the pope. Bishop Purcell defended the infallibility of the Church but denied that the pope was infallible. He said, “No enlightened Catholic holds the Pope’s infallibility to be an article of the faith. I do not; and none of my brethren, that I know of, do. The Catholic believes the pope, as a man, to be liable to error, as almost any other man in the universe. Man is man, and no man is infallible, either in doctrine or morals.”

So, was Purcell denying a doctrine of the faith during the debate? Not at all, as we can see if we remember when this debate occurred: 1837. This was more than thirty years before Vatican I, the ecumenical council that authoritatively defined the doctrine of papal infallibility. At the time of the debate, Purcell was correct: papal infallibility was not an article of the faith and could be disputed among Catholics.

Purcell, in fact, attended Vatican I when it was held in 1870 (he was then an archbishop, Cincinnati having been raised to an archdiocese in 1850). While there, he argued against a declaration on papal infallibility, as did many of his fellow American bishops. He felt such a declaration could harm Catholic-Protestant relations in his country.

However, when he returned home to Cincinnati after the council, he publicly read the council’s chapter on papal infallibility and professed his belief in it. Not only that, he wrote Pope Pius IX a personal letter affirming his acceptance of the doctrine. The pope wrote back appreciating his words and deep faith.

Purcell exemplified the proper attitude of the Catholic apologist (or any Catholic, for that matter): he did not go beyond what the Church taught, but he was quick to conform his own beliefs when the Church made a definitive declaration on a controversial topic.

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