Patrick N. Lynch, 1817-1882

Third Catholic Bishop of Charleston

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David C. R. Heisser, Stephen Jennings White Sr.
  • Columbia, SC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , February
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The late David C. R. Heisser (1942-2010) spent over three decades researching and writing about Patrick Neison Lynch, the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. Heisser combed archives across the United States and traveled to Rome to consult documents in the Vatican Library. His exhaustive research resulted in a thorough account of the life of Bishop Lynch. However, despite its meticulousness, Heisser’s work—completed by Stephen J. White, Jr.—often focuses too heavily on summary, lacking critical analysis and engagement with broader scholarly conversations.

Organized chronologically and thematically, Patrick N. Lynch, 1817-1882: Third Catholic Bishop of Charleston tells the story of an Irish immigrant who became a Roman Catholic priest and bishop, a prominent member of Charleston social and intellectual circles, a slaveholder of approximately 100 slaves, and a Confederate diplomat during the US Civil War [1861-1865]. Consequently, chapters in Patrick N. Lynch explore a variety of topics related to nineteenth-century US history. For example, the chapter on Lynch’s role as a Confederate commissioner places the Civil War within a global or trans-Atlantic context, a popular trend within the historiography. Similarly, the chapters entitled “Slaveholdings” and “Slavery Treatise” will interest scholars of southern religion, and those studying the Catholic Church’s relationship with slavery.

Although several chapters provide valuable anecdotes and other information about Lynch’s world, many include limited, unsatisfying, disconcerting, and/or contradictory analyses (3). For instance, at the conclusion of the chapter entitled “Rome Mission” the authors claim that the “end result of Bishop Lynch’s diplomatic mission . . . can be judged as nothing more tha[n] inconclusive,” thereby suggesting that the prelate’s role as a Confederate commissioner held little significance outside the scope of his life (112). In the two chapters related to slavery, the authors describe Lynch as a “benign slave owner” guided by his faith, and the example of family members who demonstrated “real compassion, not merely economic self-interest” as slaveholders (71, 59). To support their claim, Heisser and White offer evidence of Lynch’s commitment to maintaining his slaves’ health and wellbeing, the bishop’s refusal to separate families, and the “the fact that some of the [slaves] stayed on after emancipation and remained in the Catholic faith” indicating that “their situation had not been altogether intolerable” (71). Undoubtedly, the authors anticipated that their suppositions would trouble some readers, for they wrote: “These observations are meant not to excuse Lynch but rather to put his actions into perspective” with other, arguably more ruthless, slaveholders (71-72). Yet, in their final analysis of Lynch, the authors contradict themselves. In “his views on slavery and his practices as a slave owner,” argue Heisser and White, Lynch “was not atypical among high-ranking religious officials below the Mason-Dixon line . . . There were, of course, exceptions to the rule. Bishop Patrick N. Lynch was not one of them” (72). Thus, unless the authors regard all religious slaveholders as benign masters, Lynch cannot be characterized as both a typical slaveholder and a benevolent master.

Despite these concerns and shortcomings, Patrick N. Lynch does two things well. First, the work adds to recent scholarship about the congenial relationship between Protestants and Catholics in the antebellum South. Although Lynch faced some anti-Catholicism, the majority of Protestant leaders respected the bishop and welcomed him into the elite circles of Charleston. Compared to the experiences of their coreligionists in northern states, Lynch and other Catholics easily assimilated into southern society. Second, the work explores the relationship between Catholicism and science, showing that—in the life of Lynch, at least—the two were far from antithetical. Considered a “Renaissance Man,” Lynch spent eight years at the Urban College in Rome where he mastered seven languages and studied a variety of subjects (2). When he returned to South Carolina, Lynch joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, for the remainder of his life, published articles on a variety of subjects ranging from geology to history to astronomy to engineering. As the authors explain, “Bishop Lynch always wanted to make a real contribution to reconciling the knowledge gained from modern science with the teachings of Christian faith” (188).

While valuable for a number of reasons, Patrick N. Lynch would have benefited from tighter editing, more substantial and critical analyses, and a greater focus on the overall significance of Lynch’s life and contributions. Throughout the book, the authors consistently return to the notion that Lynch “was a man of his times” which, although is true, lacks analytical scrutiny, even for those concerned about the problems of presentism (152). Furthermore, the work juggles a number of themes without centering on one as its primary focus or delineating how they interconnected in Lynch’s life. At varying times, the authors cast Patrick N. Lynch as a work about the “broader Irish contribution to the making of America,” a piece about Lynch’s contributions “to his city, state, and nation,” while at other times, Heisser and White emphasize Lynch’s devotion to his “beloved Catholic world” (194). While Patrick N. Lynch contains evidence to support all of these claims, it never considers how all three might have been related. Parts of the work hint that perhaps Lynch assimilated into southern society, defended the institution of slavery, and supported the Confederacy because of his Irish heritage and his Catholic faith—yet the authors never explicitly make that argument. Thus, in the end, Heisser and White have provided a well-documented account of Lynch’s life; however, the biography lacks the critical analysis associated with most scholarly works.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carl C. Creason is a doctoral student in history at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David C. R. Heisser (1942–2010) was an associate professor and reference/documents librarian of the Daniel Library at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of The State Seal of South Carolina: A Short History.

Stephen Jennings White, Sr., is executive director of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum and the founder and director of the Charleston Historical Society. He is the author of Irish Charleston.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.