The conversion of the first Paulists

April 14, 2008

Hewit Lecture of Spring 1991

The Paulist component of the 1991 Hewit Lecture took place on April 6, 1991 at St. Paul’s College in Washington, D.C. A panel of scholars which included Daniel Walker Howe, University of California, Los Angeles; the Spring 1991 Hewit Lecturer Robert Prichard, Virginia Theological Seminary; Jon Wakelyn, Catholic University of America; and Paul Robichaud, Catholic University of America and Office of Paulist History and Archives, examined the conversion experience of several of the early Paulist founders.

The Paulists have often placed a great deal of emphasis on the conversion of their founder. Isaac Hecker himself used his own conversion as a paradigm from the conversion of America. While Hecker’s movement from evangelical Protestantism to what might be called “evangelical Catholicism” has often been discussed, the panelists focused their attention on the conversion of his first companions. Was their experience of conversion similar to Hecker’s or perhaps quite different?

Where Hecker grew up in within the environment of the Methodist and Unitarian churches before he converted the remaining four – Francis Baker, George Deshon, Clarence Walworth, and Augustine Hewit – who had all been members of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Was their journey to Rome far less of a journey in faith than Hecker’s, and if so, did they understand conversion in different terms?

Among the issues discussed was the influence of the Oxford Movement on Baker, Walworth and Hewit. Panelists noted that the Oxford Movement was a development within Anglicanism to restore a Catholic character to the faith. Conversion to Roman Catholicism, as in the case of John Henry Newman was considered as an act of betrayal. While Walworth and Hewit became Catholic at about the same time as John Henry Newman, and often compared their conversions to this, their conversions were in fact quite different from Newman’s. Walworth’s book on the tractarian movement at General Seminary in New York – as the American equivalent of the Oxford Movement – was viewed by the panel as more rhetoric rather than fact.

Francis Baker, the gentle Episcopal pastor from Baltimore, was authentically influenced by the growing Catholic character of the Church of England. He was at first deeply offended by Newman’s decision to become Roman Catholic. His own conversion, which took several years of struggle, became a cause celebre in Protestant Baltimore. Baker more than the other two Paulists was a participant in the Oxford Movement to the degree it actually existed in America. Like John Henry Newman, Baker’s conversion was considered as damaging to other Catholic-leaning Episcopalians and Archbishop Kenrick made Baker’s ordination at the Cathedral in Baltimore in September, 1856 a celebration of Roman triumph. As Hewit later said of the event, it was “a sensation in Baltimore and everywhere he (Baker) was known.”

Other issues included a discussion of what the early Paulists advocated as the mission of the Society. The intellectual divisions between Isaac Hecker and Clarence Walworth based on their conversions and life experiences were discussed. Walworth’s conservatism, if not conventionality in wishing to see the Paulists continue missions to Catholics, was posited against Hecker’s broader vision of the conversion of America. Both views were seen as attributable to their experience of conversions. These divisions most likely led to Walworth’s decision to leave the Paulists in 1858, when the group chose Hecker’s mission direction over Walworth’s.