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The Influence of Religion in Latin American History (March 2017): National Period

By Joan E. Meznar

National Period

Disintegration of the European empires in the Americas began decades before actual independence. While the reasons behind the transition from colonies to independent nations are varied and complex, religion played a role. At the institutional level, Nancy Farriss’s Crown and Clergy in Colonial Mexico, 1759–1821 shows that over the course of three hundred years of colonial rule, royal patronage of the church (the patronato real) endured even as the ways in which it was actually practiced changed. Hapsburg exercise of control over clergy in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was less direct than that instituted in the eighteenth century, particularly after Charles III implemented what came to be called Bourbon reforms. Many of the clergy resented this increased royal interference in affairs of the church. It is thus not surprising that churchmen played an important role in the actual Spanish American wars of independence.

On a more micro level, Margaret Chowning’s Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752–1863 considers the internal politics of one convent in order to unravel the spiritual and material influences that guided its members during the turbulent period of Mexican history spanning the Bourbon reforms of the late eighteenth century, the independence movements of the early nineteenth century, the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the Reform War (1857–1860), and the French intervention (1861–1867).  Using a variety of archival sources, Chowning demonstrates that the convent’s internal politics reflected changes in Mexico more generally. She provides a new viewpoint from which to consider the transformations that led to independence, as well as insight into the challenges Mexicans faced in the early national period.

In nineteenth-century Mexico, amidst the turmoil following the end of Spanish rule, some Indians attempted to reassert political autonomy. As far back as the sixteenth century, Indigenous villagers had united behind local saints when they believed they were being mistreated by the state. In the late 1840s, the Maya in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula rallied around a speaking cross to lead them in their struggle to expel from their land individuals of European descent. Nelson Reed’s classic The Caste War of Yucatán weaves a tale that shows how European symbols and acculturated Indians were incorporated into millennial Maya traditions in such a powerful fashion that they were able to restore self-rule following centuries of colonialism.

The late nineteenth century also marked the emergence of anti-government rebellions led by charismatic individuals whose religious devotion inspired their followers to believe God supported their cause. Paul Vanderwood’s The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century chronicles one such revolt by the villagers of Tomóchic in northern Mexico. Far better known is the stand taken by Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor), the founder and leader of the Brazilian community of Canudos, who tenaciously resisted the new Republican government in the 1890s. Euclides da Cunha, a journalist covering the military campaigns to subdue the rebellion, published Rebellion in the Backlands, a compelling account of two Brazils at war with each other: one rational and inspired by an increasingly secular Europe, the other clinging to the superstitions of mystical Catholicism. Almost a century later, the story of Canudos was retold by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in The War of the End of the World. Robert Levine, a historian, provides a more balanced interpretation in Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, 1893–1897, arguing that the inhabitants of Canudos were, in fact, quite orthodox Catholics protesting against new impositions by the Republican state.

Southern Mexico also witnessed intensified religious fervor among the lower classes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Edward Wright-Rios’s Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 1887-1934 describes the layered spirituality in a region marked by significant survival of Indigenous groups and cultures. As parish priests attempted to modernize their practices, women took the lead in assuring that their roles in revelation and devotion would not be pushed aside. Religion once again provided the context in which those frequently marked out of the political order asserted control and exercised a measure of power.

Often described as the first socialist revolution in the Americas, the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, aimed among other goals to quash the power of a Church that revolutionaries believed had misled and abused the poor. In the new Constitution of 1917, the Mexican revolutionary state expropriated church properties and clergy became government employees. Governors were to decide the number of clergy needed in each state. As some states drastically reduced and even eliminated altogether the presence of Catholic clergy, parishioners responded violently. The Cristero Rebellion sought to reinthrone Christ the King. Jean Meyer has vividly captured the revolt in The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People between Church and State 1926–1929. Graham Greene’s well-known novel The Power and the Glory explores the conflicting forces at work in Tabasco, Mexico, in the 1930s as an all too human priest wrestles with providing the sacrament to desperate Christians while risking martyrdom from a state that had outlawed the practice of Christianity. Wilfrid Parsons provides a contemporary account in Mexican Martyrdom: Firsthand Accounts of the Religious Persecution in Mexico, 1926–1935.