The Poverty of Catholic Intellectual Life

1 In the middle of August in 1818, some three thousand five hundred Methodists descended on a farm in Washington County, Maryland, for days of prayer and fellowship. Their lush surroundings seemed to quiver in the swelter of a mid-Atlantic summer, to which the believers added the fever of faith. Men and women, white and black, freedmen and slaves, they were united by gospel zeal. There was only one hiccup: the scheduled preacher was ill-disposed and nowhere to be found.   The anxious crowd turned to the presiding elder, a convert to Methodism from Pennsylvania Dutch country named Jacob Gruber, who accepted the impromptu preaching gig as a matter of ecclesial duty. His sermon began, in the customary style, with a reading from Scripture: “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). After explaining this verse from a theological perspective, Gruber ventured to apply it to the moral conditions of the American republic at the dawn of the nineteenth century. How did the United States measure up against this biblical standard?   Not very well at all. America, Gruber charged, was guilty of “intemperance” and “profaneness.” But worst of all was the “national sin” of “slavery and oppression.” Americans espoused “self-evident truths, that all men are created equal, and have unalienable rights,” even as they also kept men, women, and children in bondage. “Is it not a reproach to a man,” asked Gruber, “to hold articles of liberty and independence in one hand and a bloody whip in the other?” There were slaves as well as white opponents of slavery at the camp that day, and we may assume that they were fired up by Gruber’s jeremiad.    But there were also slaveholders among his hearers. This last group was not amused. Following their

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