St. Francis of America

How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America's Most Popular Saint

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Patricia Appelbaum
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $20.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469623740.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Before the birdbaths, before the pet medals and the spurious sayings, Francis of Assisi stood for whatever first preoccupied Americans more than a century and a half ago. Devotees of the fine arts admired the challenges to convention by the little poor man. Rather than a refined scion, Francesco Bernardone represented a raw rebel. Today’s consumers at any gardening outlet may check him out, if reduced to a cast mold with a bar code. Both reactions to Francis remind patrons or shoppers of “what one lacks and perhaps longs for—a life free of possessions; a life that is not dominated by money or property or, in fact, consumerism (4). Religious historian Patricia Appelbaum thus introduces this well-researched and engagingly written survey of Francis’s crossover reception within a predominantly Protestant polity and now a secular, acquisitive culture. Appelbaum explains the Poverello’s enduring appeal. 

Appelbaum encourages readers to widen their perceptions of her subject. She investigates how sainthood takes on or shunts aside meaning for those who do not include such a formal category in their faith or worldview. Assisi itself is elevated into a tourist site energized with an aura. The fact that Francis lived there allows seekers of any allegiance to identify with a defiant dropout who begged on medieval streets. 

In nine chapters, Appelbaum surveys how Francis has been socially constructed. After placing his initial attraction within a revival of interest in Catholic aesthetics and Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel movement, she examines the impact of Paul Sabatier’s 1894 biography of Francis. The first account of Francis to reject hagiography, Sabatier’s archival effort resembled Ernest Ronan’s 1863 critical scrutiny of Christ. Appelbaum then situates this reforming impulse within the careers of Quaker Rufus Jones and socialist Vida Scudder. Their advocacy of Francis as a pacifist pioneer eased his acceptance by Progressive Era non-Catholics. These impacts sparked Catholic ripostes affirming the saint’s fidelity to the papacy and to Roman rulings.

The next section examines the era between world wars. The social activist side of Francis appealed to many, even as his advocacy of voluntary poverty hit close to home for most Americans during the Depression. The 1940s popularized the “peace prayer” erroneously credited to the saint. Meanwhile his statues spread throughout gardens across the country. Appelbaum grounds the birdbaths within a love of place. “Like the prayer, they could be private; like the hymn [‘All Creatures Great and Small’], they could be used in a small community.” This admiration set the sylvan scene for Earth Day in 1970 and the promotion of “the patron saint of ecology” (88). Postwar prosperity generated many versions of the odd man out from Assisi. Robert Lawson’s children’s tale Rabbit Hill and Bernard Malamud’s urban Jewish parable The Assistant gain in-depth analyses as they reveal narrative responses to the saint’s firm rejection of attachment to the things of this world. That such a reaction co-exists with Francis’s celebrated love of nature complicates his contemporary depictions. 

Unfortunately, the hot pink and mustard yellow vibrancy of a San Francisco Summer of Love poster with an offbeat, mixed message from its municipal namesake to its hippie versus straight heirs is reproduced only in monochrome. But as with visuals throughout this study, it reveals Appelbaum’s range of references. About eighty pages document her fieldwork, list sources consulted, and include endnotes. These appendages combined with two indices enhance this book’s value. Any scholar of material Christianity or popular culture will find St. Francis of America a welcome resource. 

The rise of the Jesus People and evangelicals who recast Francis as a hippie; the embrace of his spirit by environmentalists; the attempt to capture his charisma on film; and his conversion into “creation-centered spirituality” by post-Christian skeptics and New Age adherents typify recent trends. Shifts in American attitudes to Francis anticipate Appelbaum’s thoughtful inquiry into the “blessing of the animals” ritual across ecumenical or sectarian lines. Appelbaum edits replies to her 2013 questionnaire. She sifts testimony from over forty “living voices” about what Francis means personally and spiritually. These sensibilities expand into diverse contexts: Islam, postmodernism, and folklore. “Artist, poet, clown; traveler, camper, farmer; leper, street person, prisoner: the list goes on and on” (181). Sly guises illustrate disparate roles played in nine centuries of the odyssey of Francis from Assisi.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Humanities Coordinator at DeVry University.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patricia Appelbaum is a historian and independent scholar of American religion.

Keywords: 

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