restricted access New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America by John Lynch (review)
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John Lynch, New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 384 pp.

It is not uncommon to see in some remote church in Mexico or Peru a solitary Indian worshiper gazing up in a fervor of devotion at the image of an elaborately dressed Virgin Mary or a suffering saint. What exactly is the nature of popular religion in the Latin America of today? How did a few thousand Spaniards, brusquely intruding in the sixteenth century on an alien world, succeed in converting millions of lost souls to their faith, and how closely did that faith, as it took root in its new surroundings, conform to the beliefs and practices brought by the intruders from their native Christendom?

These are questions that have long occupied historians of the European conquest and colonization of central and southern America and students of Latin American religion, both past and present. There is an enormous literature on [End Page 557] what was once known as the “spiritual conquest” of the New World, but it now tends to be seen more as a process of persuasion, coercion, and mutual adaptation leading to the development of hybrid religious forms. Similarly, much has been written about the development of the institutional church in the societies of colonial Iberian America, its clashes with the secular power, and its legacy to the new nations that emerged from the independence movements of the early nineteenth century. Surprisingly, however, there has been no adequate English-language survey covering the history of religion in Latin America during the five centuries between the arrival of the Europeans and the present day. This is what John Lynch, formerly professor of Latin American history in the University of London, has set out to provide.

He has done so with great efficiency, synthesizing a vast body of literature while offering trenchant observations of his own. Inevitably, parts of the story will be familiar to many readers, but even the more familiar parts are enlivened by well-chosen contemporary quotations. We are told, for instance, how the eighteenth-century Indian keeper of a toll bridge shouted abuse at a friar who forced his way through at gunpoint. His choice of words—“Hey Friar, you Spaniard, you Jew, you renegade!”—vividly captures the complexities of a confusing colonial world. As Lynch comments: “Indians of South America caught the virus of anti-Semitism from colonists from Spain.”

A central argument of the book is that “religion and culture are not the same thing. And a society can acquire a new religion without abandoning its previous behavior, language, customs, works of art, and traditions.” The story thus becomes one of juxtaposition, in which “Spaniards preserved their religion without surrendering to cultural relativism, and Indians clung to reserves of their own culture without challenging Christian beliefs.” I am not convinced that this summary adequately explains the complex processes at work. The book unfortunately has nothing to say about the religious art and architecture that developed in these colonial societies and that suggest a degree of mutual adaptation to an evolving ethnic and social environment that goes rather further than mere juxtaposition. Lynch is surely right, however, when he goes on to say that “the association of old and new gave popular religion a Latin American identity—and a diversity—not easily classified and not immediately recognizable to Spanish newcomers in America.”

The later part of the book traces both this distinctively Latin American popular religion and the relationship between the church and governments, including the government of the church itself in Rome, from the advent of independence to the coming of liberation theology in the later twentieth century. Given the diversity of Latin American states and societies, this undertaking requires an examination of developments in each Latin American nation in turn, [End Page 558] as priests and hierarchy wrestle with ways of responding to the succession of challenges presented by liberal regimes, social oppression, economic development, and the rise of the twentieth-century dictators. There is much interesting material here, and several suggestive points of comparison, but readers may well find themselves flagging in the course of this...