James Fenimore Cooper and Catholicism

Henry P. Roberson (Oklahoma State University)

Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 65-68).

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In the nineteenth century, a European tour afforded Americans a chance to see the roots of Western civilization, to acquire polish and a cosmopolitan view. From 1826 till 1833, James Fenimore Cooper took his family on an extremely lengthy tour of Europe. During this tour, Cooper encountered a living, vibrant Catholicism, which surprised him, intrigued him, which may have changed him. While wary of some Catholic tendencies, Cooper unexpectedly found a powerful spirituality that spoke to him. He was an outsider looking in; this study will be from the inside looking out at Cooper and his literary critics.

How can this help critics? An example from Helen Phinit-Akson’s dissertation, Ritual and Aesthetics, will serve to illustrate. She speaks of “Cooper’s confrontation with mariolatry” (1-19) at the shrine of Einsiedlen. Mariolatry refers to worship of Mary as divine, and is not Catholic belief. A more accurate, neutral term would be ‘Marian devotion.’ While a multidisciplinary approach yields the best results, the risk of amateurism lurks in such methods.

What value does such a perspective add to the study of Cooper? Although no biographical writer will admit to having enough information about their subject, Cooper is a special challenge. Any resource that lets us see the subject speaking, acting and reacting to the people and events of his time helps the project. Consider that, during his European tour, Cooper has a significant encounter with Catholicism. After it, he writes The Heidenmauer, which centers on the Catholic church and society. He attends mass from time to time, 1 and often seeks to understand Catholicism better. 2 Reviewing his interaction with Catholicism will give a fuller portrait of the man.

The oldest prejudice in America — anti-Catholicism — came over with the Puritans and Pilgrims who fled a Church of England that was too popish. Cotton Mather boasted in 1640 that not one professing Catholic could be found in New England (Marino, 28). When John Carroll became the first American Catholic Bishop in 1790, he estimated that Catholics were less than 1% in the United States (Marino, 40). Cooper grew up in a culture that had a passive anti-Catholic component and few opportunities to meet Catholics and gain a different perspective.

What constitutes anti-Catholicism? First, it does not cover legitimate differences between Christian traditions. Cooper’s democratic nature was suspicious of the power of the Pope within the church; a view held by many quite orthodox Catholics and not bigotry. Fenimore may misunderstand what he sees or hears, but he is trying to see rightly — an attitude that speaks volumes.

There are four categories that identify most anti-Catholic rhetoric. The first attacks Catholicism as being un-Christian. The second ridicules or misinterprets Catholic doctrine or practice (mariolatry being on example) while the third attributes to the Catholic church a sinister role in an anti-Christian or an anti-American conspiracy. There is a fourth category — distorting or taking out of context illegal or scandalous behavi clergy or laity — that differs essentially from the first three and is not necessarily anti-Catholic.

Cooper’s only truly anti-Catholic remark before his European tour, of which I am aware, is in The Last of the Mohicans where the narrator mentions “the idolatrous province of the Jesuits” (Cooper, Last of the Mohicans, 224). By the time of The Heidenmauer, Cooper shows the finest characters in that work as noteworthy for their Catholic piety; they are depicted as moral, even heroic, Christians. However Cooper felt about Catholicism before his Grand Tour, it was something he was willing to reconsider, a pervasive character trait in him.

One other possible example of anti-Catholicism is cited in Thomas Gladsky’s article, “Cooper’s Other Americans” which falls in the fourth category of anti-Catholic rhetoric. Gladsky considers it evidence that “his (Cooper) thoughts turn dark as he reveals the extent of his own anti-Catholicism” (Gladsky, 1). Gladsky quotes Cooper (Beard, 3:174) that “some terrible disclosures are about to be made, touching the Canadian monasteries, which are described as no better than brothels, in which murder is a common pastime. That the conventual system is infamous, and that it was framed to ‘comfort the priests’ ... who are kept in celibacy to wheedle the women, and thus extend the influence of the papists, I make no doubt. ... ” (Gladsky, 1).

The power of Cooper’s remark decreases if the full paragraph is quoted. 3 This constitutes the informal logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominum abusive (“beside the point,” in other words). Further, it does not cause a change in Cooper himself. The striking thing about these two examples is they are all the evidence of anti-Catholicism in Cooper; there is no pattern of such remarks.

Cooper recounts the experience in Switzerland which destroyed any true anti-Catholicism in him (Beard 3:174). On the eleventh of September 1828, Cooper on a walking tour in Switzerland arrived at Einsiedlen, home to a Benedictine abbey and the shrine of Our Lady of the Hermits close to the principal feast of the place on the fourteenth of September, The Feast of Angels. Cooper remarks on what seems to him to be superstitious behavior, not an unusual remark for a non-Catholic observing Catholic devotional practice. However, Cooper sees something that knocks him off his horse. He recounts that

... it was touching to hear the prayers and to see bodies of pilgrims arriving and placing themselves before the Shrine ... to pray without ceasing. ... The whole business was prayer. I was the only human being who did not seem to pray ... the interior of the chapel was well suited to excite the awe of the worshippers (Beard, 1:325-26).

The importance of this insight cannot be overestimated. Cooper saw genuine prayer and worship going on in that shrine. This observation sets Cooper outside the class of anti-Catholics. After this experience, there is a pattern of respect for Catholicism in Cooper’s writings and correspondence. His reaction, and subsequent conduct, say much about his character.

In Notions of the Americans (2:137), Cooper describes the reception of Lafayette in Philadelphia. He notes that the clergy of the city, about sixty, came with their fellow citizens to greet Lafayette. At their head were the Episcopal Bishop and the Roman Catholic Bishop. Although the Episcopal Bishop made the remarks, Cooper thought that, had the Catholic bishop been the older, he would have been asked to make the remarks and no one would have objected. For, Cooper said, “I do believe, it would give scandal to the whole nation, to learn that a slight, or an offence of any nature, were given to a priest because he happened to belong to the Roman Catholic communion” (Cooper, Notions, II:137). An unquestionably naive comment, but again indicative of a open attitude by Fenimore.

Why should a man like Cooper have developed such open attitudes? The answer will help us to see the man more clearly. Part of the explanation lies in a lack which Cooper saw in his Protestant faith. In his travel book, Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine, he said “I sometimes wish I had been educated a Catholic, in order to unite the poetry of religion with its higher principles. Are they necessarily inseparable?” (105). He doubted that human beings were philosophers enough to encounter God solely on the level of abstract truth.

It is not just the experience at Einsiedlen which affects Cooper. Cooper’s attitudes on Christianity several times resonate with the essence of Catholic theology and reinforce an appreciation of Catholicism as a true expression of Christianity. Two examples of literary insight by Cooper critics are instructive; this study will identify them as parallel to core Catholic theology.

First, an illuminating bit of history. In the mid-sixteenth century, a last attempt (the Colloquy of Regensburg) was made to reconcile Catholic and Lutherans in one institutional church. The Lutheran points were known and the instructions of the papal legates authorized them to accept the Lutheran positions. The rift should have been easily repaired, but it was not. Why? The answer is likely to be found in the Lutheran view that Catholics were too worldly, and feared the Catholic yeast would corrupt if reunion took place. Cooper’s attitudes resonate with the Catholic side of the question, explain some aspects of his writing and help us understand him better.

Gary Williams (“Cooper and European Catholicism”) points to a significant difference between Cooper and his virulently anti-Catholic friend Samuel F. B. Morse. Williams thinks that “what initially offended [Morse’s] radical Protestant sensibilities was exactly what Cooper cherished most about Catholicism — the association of God and beauty” (Williams, 155). St. Thomas Aquinas analyzed the nature of being and proposed three attributes of being: Unity, Truth, and Goodness, the transcendentals. He regarded Beauty as closely related to Goodness with physical beauty as intimately connected with spiritual beauty. Truth is Good and Beautiful (Lotz, 239). Except for the technical theological terms, this is the attitude of Fenimore Cooper: that God reveals himself in beauty.

What Cooper saw as beauty conveying the glory of God, Morse saw (in the Milan Cathedral, for example) that

how admirably contrived is every part of the system to take captive the imagination ... [the beauty of the cathedral lending] their charm to enchant the senses and i mpose on the understanding by substituting for the solemn truth of God’s Word ... the fictions of poetry and the delusions of feeling“ (Morse quoted in Williams, 155).

Where Cooper saw beauty as evidence of the fingerprints of God in the world and churches “reared in honor of God,” Morse saw the glittering corruption of Satan. Hugh C. McDougall cites the remodeling of Christ Church, Cooperstown in 1839 as an effort by Cooper to give “a truly churchly feeling” to an edifice that Cooper thought “better suited to a country ballroom, than to a church” (MacDougall, Churchly 1). Fenimore Cooper saw beauty in sacred spaces as an aid to worship and prayer. Gothic architecture — which he loved — is a physical expression of Christianity spirituality.

Hugh C. McDougall, in his article “Exploring Man’s ‘Latent Sympathies’ in The Heidenmauer,” cites another instance which resonates to the Catholic ear. The epigram opening the article quotes from Chapter 21 of The Heidenmauer: “There are latent sympathies in human nature which ... nothing but death can finally extinguish” (Cooper, Heidenmauer 304). MacDougall proposes that Cooper in this novel “finds latent sympathies of humanity both in bad men, and in an institution, the Catholic Church” (MacDougall, “Latent,” 2).

One of the very basic differences debated between Catholic and Protestant centered around human nature. Luther and Calvin believed human nature to be wholly corrupted, having no good in it, and that grace alone bulldozed that nature to erect a supernatural nature in its place. Catholic theology characterizes human nature as wounded, creating a tendency to sin but still possessing the grace of God’s creation. Otherwise, from the Catholic view, it is hard to explain goodness and righteous behavior in non-Christians. Cooper seems to be saying, MacDougall observes, that “in every human there exist latent sympathies of humanity reflecting man’s divine creation” (MacDougall, “Latent,” 22). This view of humanity is profoundly Catholic.

Good theory raises new questions, suggests new areas of further research. As devout a Christian as he was, Fenimore was neither baptized nor a communicant in the Episcopal Church until less than a year before his death. A systematic theologian would see sacraments as seamless with the two views discussed above. Why did Cooper feel no need for sacraments? A first reaction would be to attribute this to his Quaker background, for Quakers do not have a sacramental life, but Cooper did not see an influence there. He said that “certainly, I am no advocate for the theoretical theology of my progenitors” (Beard, 3:384).

Cooper mentions transubstantiation several times as something with which he cannot agree. Not a rationalist, he may not have seen the application of the principle to practice. Perhaps the lack of churches in Cooperstown before his adulthood may be an influence. For many people, then and now (like Cooper’s father), formal joining of a church seems less important than belief and morality. Finally, however interested in Christianity, Cooper remains — as he often mentions — merely a layman in church matters.

Most men and women are defined more, limited more, by their age, culture, education, and income. Cooper’s interaction with Catholicism warns against that easy answer in his character; he helped define the republican gospel. He saw prayer, sacredness, and a true Christianity in Catholicism which marks him as a fair man, reflective about his country, culture, and religion, tolerant and open to different expressions of Christianity. The link between Cooper and Catholicism may perhaps be best characterized as Cor ad Cor, heart calling to heart, spirit to spirit.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Gleanings in Europe: England. Ed. James Franklin Beard et. al. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1982.
  • ------. Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Ed John Conron and Constance Ayers Denne. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1981.
  • ------. Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine. Ed. James Franklin Beard et. al. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986.
  • ------. Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper. Vol 1-2. Ed. James Fenimore Cooper (grandson). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1922.
  • ------. The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines [1832] New York: The Co-operative Publication Society.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Vols. 1-6. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960-68.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor [1828] Vol II. New York: Ungar, 1963.
  • Franklin, Wayne, “Fathering the Son: The Cultural Origins of James Fenimore Cooper.” Resources for American Literary Study, 27 (2001): 149-78.
  • Hofstadter, Richard, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine, Nov 1964. 77-86.
  • Lotz, J. B., “Transcendentals.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14. Ed. Most Rev. William J. McDonald et. al. Palantine, IL: Jack Heraty & Associates, 1981.
  • MacDougall, Hugh, “A True Churchly Feeling: James Fenimore Cooper and the Remodelling of Christ Church, Cooperstown”. 17 July 2003.
  • ------. “Exploring Man’s ‘Latent Sympathies’ in The Heidenmauer”, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 10), Papers from the 1995 Cooper Seminar (No. 10), The State University of New York College at Oneonta, 38-47.
  • Marino, Anthony I. The Catholics in America. New York: Vantage, 1960.
  • Phinit-Akson, Helen, Ritual and Aesthetics: The Influence of Europe on the Art of Fenimore Cooper. Bangkok, Thammasat University Press, 1976.
  • Salkeld, Joseph, ed., The Evergreen, Vol. III. Nov. 1846. 325-27.


1 Beard, 3:45.

2 Cf The Evergreen, edited by Joseph Salkeld, Vol. III (1846) contains a response to an inquiry by JFC. The text of the letter is Beard, 5:158-60.

3 The moderating phrases in the paragraph (Beard, 3:174) that Gladsky quotes are: 1) “Morse is on the catholic scent still” (the use of humor), 2) “It is said” (Cooper qualifies the certainty of the assertion), 3) “I make no doubt” (an assertion but somewhat backhanded), and 4) “but I fear our zealots will go too far” (the burning of the Ursuline convent being one result).