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  • New Spain, New England, and the New JerusalemThe "Translation" of Empire, Faith, and Learning (translatio imperii, fidei ac scientiae) in the Colonial Missionary Project
  • David A. Boruchoff (bio)

In religion, as in love, the burden of disillusion is most difficult to bear when it results, not from doubt as to the preeminence of one's objectives and aspirations, but instead from the sense that one cannot achieve them. Hope is a terrible thing to lose, particularly when one still believes in the necessity of ideals left in abeyance, perhaps never to be realized.

In this essay, I examine the rhetorical means by which two seemingly disparate figures in the religious history of the colonial Americas sought amid difficult and distressing circumstances to keep alive the promise of the Church triumphant. Geography, time, national origin, and the rift between Catholics and Protestants might appear to impose an insurmountable difference between the Franciscan missionary fray Bernardino de Sahagún in sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico) and the Puritan minister Increase Mather in seventeenth-century New England. Seeking to bridge this difference, a handful of critics have cited the millenarian convictions of some, though not all, Franciscans and Puritans, and the gradual displacement of utopian rhetoric by the jeremiad as the first European settlers gave way to others. This analysis, based in large measure on the claims of John Leddy Phelan in regard to what he perhaps too sweepingly calls The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World,1 is problematic in the case of Sahagún, because, for all that he at first believed that Christianity would take root as a matter of course among the natives of New Spain—having been told upon arrival that "this people had come so truly to the Catholic faith of the Roman Church and were almost all baptized and perfect in it that there was no need to preach against idolatry, because [End Page 5] they had truly abandoned it"2 —it remains that neither here in optimism, nor later in despair, does Sahagún direct Apocalyptic conceits and imagery to an unambiguously Apocalyptic end like that envisioned by certain (and again I would stress but a few) of his fellow Franciscans, notably Motolinia and Jerónimo de Mendieta. Sahagún's writings on the means and ends of evangelical endeavor are instead informed by a more commonplace set of metaphors and topoi also used to set forth the expansion of empire, civilization, trade, and learning concomitant with travel and exploration in medieval and early-modern times. As we shall see, by avoiding the inexorable teleology of millenarianism, this rhetorical store would enable Sahagún to address the lost illusions of his generation in a way unlike that of Franciscans such as Mendieta or Motolinia, and of Puritans such as Mather: not by making adversity and affliction a measure of God's favor, and thus a steppingstone to salvation,3 but by distinguishing between the triumph of faith and the challenge of all human endeavor, including that of missionaries themselves.

Whereas Puritans commonly saw personal freedoms as a threat to the ongoing success of their church and community in New England—for which Urian Oakes could, in 1673, attribute the "declining posture," "great degeneracy," and "backsliding and declension" that he then perceived among the children of the founding fathers to "that great sin of confronting the faithfull Ministers of Christ, . . . plausibly, but falsly call[ing] it, an asserting of their Liberties" (24–26)4 —Sahagún's writings assert the supremacy of free will in both the diffusion of the Gospel and the reception of faith, and thus as the agent of individual and collective salvation, a belief to which even Catholic millenarians of the Counter-Reformation ascribed far less importance due to their ideas of sacred history and the events to occur in the last or latter times. Thus, even as Sahagún contends that the natives of the New World are accountable for their errors before conquest, while those afterward are due in part to the negligence of Europeans, his solution is more complex, and more respectful of human nature, than those of others in New England and New Spain...


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