Tracing the Finger of God: The Role of Wonders in Catholic Spirituality in Early America

Joshua Adam Burgess, University of South Carolina


This dissertation examines the role of wonders in Catholic spirituality in British North America between the founding of colonial Maryland and the early national United States. It argues that the traditional spirituality and theology that stressed God's activity in the natural world--most closely associated with late medieval and early modern Europe--persevered among Catholics in the New World. In the American setting, wonders were not only supportable, but served a practical function: they assured Catholics of divine approbation in the midst of criticism and conflict. The dissertation contextualizes, moreover, early American Catholics' belief in miracles, exorcisms, healings, and divine interventions in nature within the broader intellectual history of the early modern Atlantic world, including colonization, the rise of the 'new science,' and the Enlightenment. Finally, the dissertation examines the decline of these beliefs among Catholics in the early republic, arguing that this shift was driven by their desire to conform to American political and social sensibilities more than by intellectual changes that undermined traditional beliefs.