Book Review: Liberation Theology Along the Potomac

Liberation Theology Along the Potomac: Labor's Golden Rule in Early American Catholicism
by Edward Toby Terrar
Silver Spring, Maryland: CWPublishers (Downloadable pdf copy here)

This book is a history about the theology of the European settlers in Maryland and especially about the Catholics in the first half of the 17th century during the period of the English Civil War (1640-1660). It chronicles how the working people there formed Basic Christian Communities and subdued some of the same devils plaguing their present-day descendants along the Potomac. The “liberation theology” terminology used in the book is a recent development but the author argues that this term and the themes which this body of thought embraces, such as class struggle, aptly applies to early Maryland. Terrar divides his theological analysis into six chapters that cover the European background, the Catholics’ labor theory of value (distributive justice), their agrarian reform and subsistence farming, and their legislative and judiciary antinomianism in church and state.

Each chapter in the book was published earlier as a stand-alone article in periodicals such as Journal of Church and State, Science and Society, Mission Studies, Journal of Peace and Justice Studies and History of European Ideas. These articles provoked re-thinking by academics such Christopher Hill, Gary Nash, Herbert Aptheker and Arthur Marotti, which is incorporated into the book. The present book-length format is designed for a wider audience.

The analysis expands upon Terrar’s UCLA dissertation in early American economic, intellectual, legal and social history. It argues that the working people along the Potomac, and Catholics in particular, established a labor-based society and a resulting theology centered on the evangelical councils of perfection (poverty, chastity and obedience), as interpreted from their perspective, which brought about the abolition of the class system. Through revolutionary conflict their agrarian, labor and nationality programs triumphed at the grass roots and at the provincial level over both local capitalism and foreign imperialism.

Terrar notes that while generations of historians have traced the origins of America’s democratic traditions to institutions such as the New England town meetings, recent scholarship has found that the inhabitants of towns such as Cambridge, Ipswich and Watertown came from the east of England, where government was top down. They followed a similar pattern in the new world. In contrast the Maryland settlers, like their counterparts in the north and west of England, as local English county studies have documented since the 1960s, had an egalitarian tradition based on open field, communal farming. The antinomian working people were hounded out of Massachusetts, but in Maryland they dominated more completely than Gerrard Winstanley and the English levelers were able to achieve even during the period of their greatest influence under Cromwell. Among the Catholic achievements were an annual parliament, a wide franchise, equal constituencies, taxes that were small and non-existent on food and other necessities, a simplified legal system, no imprisonment for debt, no enclosures and no tithes or bishops.

The Marylanders’ landholding system is illustrative of the Potomac’s golden rule for working people. Unlike in New England, where the General Court enacted a land recording statue soon after settlement, the Catholics refused to do so. As a result land disputes in New England were settled with priority going to the recorded holder. In Maryland the priority went to the squatter, to the one working the land, to the usufruct holder, not to the landlord, proprietor or rent collector. Maryland had similar anti-capitalist measures against engrossing, forestalling, hoarding, luxury goods and usury.

Along with his account of its ramifications in the market place, Terrar takes up the history of liberation theology in the Maryland church. Like present-day Basic Christian Communities, the Potomac community, which included some Indians and Protestants was characterized by singing, liturgy, spirituality, cosmology, scripture, patron saints and, when possible, an educated clergy. At the same time there was class struggle within the church. It should be noted that those accustomed to the traditional interpretation of post-Reformation English Catholicism with its themes of martyrology, apology and debates on the hierarchy, have been disappointed with the more recent local studies of the English counties. This scholarship has found the class system, not the penal laws, to have been the main concern of the English Catholics. The Catholic magnates monopolized the clergy, just as they did real estate, educational services, political power and the court. A majority of the clergy served as the domestic chaplains and tutors to the small percent of the Catholics that were gentry, rather than in the congregational ministry to the laboring people.

In Maryland the Basic Christian Communities turned the English pattern up-side-down. Their Jesuit missionaries were educated in the snobbish, capitalist beliefs of their founder, Ignatius Loyola. As in other mission territories, their interest was in converting the Indians, in serving as domestic chaplains and tutors to the magnates, and in the administration of their own farms, not in congregational ministry. But as Terrar illustrates, from the settlement’s earliest days, the Maryland assembly enacted measures that required the clergy to serve as "pastors." This meant officiating at the baptisms, marriages, burials, and liturgy of the Basic Christian Communities. The Jesuits protested against the pastoral law, calling it "inconvenient." They expected that secular priests, that is, non-Jesuits, would come out for the congregational ministry. The Jesuits' counterparts in other parts of the colonial world hired secular clergy to attend to the needs of the laboring people who worked on their estates.

In converting the high-flying Jesuit missionaries to their theology of liberation, the farmers also used mortmain, praemunire and other measures to curb the excesses of church courts, canon law, bishops, tithes, papal bulls. Terrar documents that judicial cases in Maryland dealing with matrimony, blasphemy, sorcery, idolatry, tithes, and sacrilege were rare. Argues the author, had there been ecclesiastical courts, as in the Hapsburg empire, this would not have been the case. He points out that in Mexico in the same period, church courts were an appendage to the Hapsburg (Spanish) imperialism. Blasphemy prosecutions were frequent. Landlords used corporal punishment to coerce obedience. When workers rebelled during such punishment by blaspheming, they were turned over to church courts. The church courts applied torture, which was legal, to gain an admission of guilt concerning the blasphemy. They were further punished by the church courts to gain obedience. In the present day such Hapsburgism is used along the Potomac to keep down the Muslim working class.

The Maryland Catholics have traditionally been celebrated for their 1649 law on religious toleration, which broadened the separation  between church and state. In the context of their liberation theology, however, the pastoral and other measures that narrowed the separation between church and state was their real achievement. For laboring Catholics, the obstacle to their freedom was the Catholic magnates and clergy, not the intolerance of Protestants. It was not an accident that the pastoral legislation preceded the toleration law by a decade.

Terrar aptly quotes A.I. Morton comment about the levelers in summing up the liberation theology of the Maryland Catholics: “A party that held the center of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation’s history, voiced the aspiration of the unprivileged masses, and was able to express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten.”

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