Byrnes, Joseph Francis 1939-

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Byrnes, Joseph Francis 1939-


Born October 25, 1939, in Waterbury, CT; son of Joseph F. (a dentist) and Cecelia (an executive secretary) Byrnes; married Mary Susan McCarthy (a stockbroker), August 22, 1981. Education: De Montfort College, B.A., 1966; University of Notre Dame, M.A. (liturgical research), 1967; University of Chicago, M.A. (religion and psychological studies), 1974, Ph.D., 1976. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Travel, swimming.


Home—Stillwater, OK. Office—Department of Religious Studies, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078.


St. John's University, Queens, NY, lecturer in ethics, 1969-71; Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, visiting assistant professor, 1976-77, assistant professor, 1977-81, associate professor of religious studies, 1981—.


American Historical Association, American Academy of Religion, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.


Fellowship from the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical School, 1980-81; research fellowship from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion at University of Chicago, 1981-82; Board of Faculty Representatives Award for Scholarly Excellence from Oklahoma State University, 1982; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1984.


The Virgin of Chartres: An Intellectual and Psychological History of the Work of Henry Adams, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, NJ), 1981.

The Psychology of Religion, Free Press (New York, NY), 1984.

(Editor, with others) The Religious World: Communities of Faith, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993.

Catholic and French Forever: Religious and National Identity in Modern France, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, PA), 2005.

Contributor of articles to scholarly and religious journals, including History and Theory, Marian Library Studies, America, Worship, and Lumen Vitae.


According to Marcus Cunliffe of the Times Literary Supplement, Joseph Francis Byrnes seeks in his book The Virgin of Chartres: An Intellectual andPsychological History of the Work of Henry Adams "to account for and to document Adams's interest in women, which culminated in the Virgin worship of his [book] Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres." The grandson of U.S. President John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams was a historian and author of several books, including the novels Esther and Democracy, both of which feature a woman as their main character. Critics have generally seen in Adams's Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres tributes both to his dead wife and to Elizabeth Cameron, a young wife and mother of whom Adams presumably was enamoured. Many Adams scholars have speculated as to the nature of the relationships Adams had with his wife and with Cameron, but Byrnes is not concerned with such conjecture. As Cunliffe remarked: "Dr. Byrnes is content to confine analysis to Adams's psychic needs after his mid-life crisis," providing in The Virgin of Chartres "a temperate exercise in intellectual-cum-psychological history" with a "likeable lack of Sigmundian arrogance."

In Catholic and French Forever: Religious and National Identity in Modern France, Byrnes considers the impact that Catholicism has had on the French state and its people in the years since the fall of the ancien regime in 1789. "In the ancien regime," Stephen Schloesser wrote in his Catholic Historical Review assessment, "religion was the nation's ‘foundation’; during and after the Revolution it served as ‘antithesis’; since the Great War it has been a ‘parallel force.’" Each of these areas receives its own treatment, reflecting how France rejected its religious heritage in the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, how the country returned to the Catholic fold under Napoleon, the later Bourbon kings, and the Republic and Empire periods, and finally how France and its people found a kind of middle ground, helped by the fact that, during World War I, "thousands of French priests served and died along with everyone else," declared Commonweal contributor Steven Englund, a situation that "went a long way toward recreating a certain degree of harmony between church and state." "The overall narrative is unified by an extended historical overview preceding each of the three chronological divisions," Schloesser explained. "The combination allows readers to access the material in different ways: it offers unique micro-histories (some based on rare archival sources) allowing voices of the time to speak; and … a large narrative arc under which to situate those smaller stories."

Byrnes once told CA: "‘Modern nostalgia for medieval religion’ is the theme I work on. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century individuals, such as Henry Adams and Emile Male, and group activities, such as monastic and pilgrimage revivals, have preoccupied me the most in recent years. This work has involved much reflection on European and American history and the development of the social sciences. As an intellectual and cultural historian in a department of religious studies, I hold myself responsible for the modern history of the religious experience and social scientific thought.

"Emile Male was a historian of iconographic art whose interpretation of medieval art and architecture has become part of the national self-identity of the educated French. My study—Mirror of the Universe: The Medieval World of Emile Male—is an intellectual history of the development of Male's own ideas and the cultural history of their diffusion. I show in this book that his work has been an intellectual model for modern French efforts to confront, understand, and integrate the medieval religious past into a viable self-identity.

"In one important area of historical interpretation I have a reformer's blood coursing through my veins (my past includes seminary studies and several years in the clergy). The value of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science in interpreting history is very limited, but they are still of some value to the historian. This appears to be an undramatic, middle-of-the-road position—when attacked by my less favorable reviewers they accuse me of either saying too much about psychology or using it too little. In other words, some prefer me to say nothing at all, while others want me to reveal the hidden mysteries of a personality.

"I expect still more of my reformer's blood to be spilled when I present my argument in book form—still a few years away—that there are no laws of human behavior and no mysterious revelations of behavioral meaning to be found in the social sciences; only generalizations, patterns of order, concepts, and vocabulary. We historians must know the vocabulary proper to the type of history and biography we are writing. We must have, then, an adequate knowledge of the concepts and vocabulary of psychology or sociology or political science or whatever combination of these social sciences is pertinent to the people, events, or ideas we are explaining. I shall argue that we historians are not to pretend to fill in the blanks of the historical record with imitation laws out of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and B.F. Skinner, or George Herbert Mead, Robert K. Merton, and Robert Bellah, for example. Though I expect to simulate intransigence in my presentation, I would enjoy engendering dialogue, because on this personal level such a philosophical stance entails ultimate respect for the individual based on a sound knowledge and experience of collective traditions, be they religious or secular.

"Otherwise, the most important thing in my life is travel in Europe, the experience of life, history, beauty, and discussion in Europe. There is found the good life, especially in France where I would enjoy spending about a third of each year on research, travel, and eating. My wife, a former professor of French literature, and I speak French at home a good bit of the time. I wonder if I am best summed up by a colleague of mine who said to me: ‘You are really a Frenchified Irish-American Catholic who down deep is a nineteenth-century Protestant liberal.’"



Catholic Historical Review, January, 2007, Stephen Schloesser, review of Catholic and French Forever: Religious and National Identity in Modern France, p. 189.

Commonweal, November 3, 2006, "Beyond Ideology," p. 24.

Times Literary Supplement, October 23, 1981, Marcus Cunliffe, review of The Virgin of Chartres: An Intellectual and Psychological History of the Work of Henry Adams.

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Byrnes, Joseph Francis 1939-

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