restricted access Alone before God: The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 359-360



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Alone before God: The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico. By Pamela Voekel. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. viii, 336 pp. Cloth, $64.95. Paper, $21.95.

This book adds a new level of sophistication to our understanding of the complex impact of Enlightenment ideas in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico. In ways both subtle and blunt, reformers sought to transform ideas into action. Wills, burial records, sermons, laws, official correspondence, and other sources shed light on the sociopolitics of death; they offer a window onto that process and reactions to it. The clearly written augment of this stimulating and useful work will surely engage other scholars.

In colonial society, death had meaning and purpose for those that remained behind. It required a reaffirmation of one of the most important assets of a hierarchical structure—status. The shift of responsibility to an untried younger generation required major effort to avoid any hint of downward slippage. Funeral and burial practices, in a manner similar to marriages between powerful families, became a reinforcing event, not to be mishandled. Politically, it constituted an acceptance of a certain order.

The discouragement of lavish funerals, and in 1787 the construction of cemeteries to replace burials within the church, created social insecurity and added to the sense of political alienation that infused colonial society in the latter half of the century. It split society at the top levels into those that shared the new intellectualism and those that reacted against most aspects of the Enlightenment in action. The new science could not be rejected outright, but when it impinged on the rituals that reinforced social position, it became painfully problematic to accept. Enlightened individuals had little patience with those that saw the church structure as a tomb and ritual platform for the existing generation.

The mediation of the clergy in the transition from this life to the next had important political, social, and intellectual connotations. When Spain's enlightened ministers took on the old system, they had to confront the implications of clerical practices. In that struggle, the corpse became a political pawn that was fortunately oblivious to its postmortem political participation. Midnight church burials, in cooperation with reactionary clerics, occurred, but this practice failed to demonstrate the continuity of status and its sanctification in the very bosom of the church. In the end, cemetery burials had to be accepted.

A notion of a shared inner piety based on moderation and modest display formed an important part of the strength of enlightened intellectuals (although here they came close to Protestant heresy). They desired to subordinate religion to the new science and to unleash secular economic activity. Static wealth and status, abetted by the traditional church, stood in the way. More than just the bodies needed to be buried on the outskirts of the city without display, and as quickly as possible. Enlightened ministers underestimated opposition to their reforms, in large [End Page 359] part because they were confident that they had created an enlightened elite, an enlightened community that they assumed (not without reason) could reform and influence. Yet, they overestimated that influence and its transformative power, as well as the time needed to achieve their goals.

In the next century, the issues changed. Yet, the struggle continued, now moving down the social structure to enlist the peasantry on one side or the other. The enlightened, in their desire to control the state and society, rushed reform. Not surprisingly, violence and bloodshed marked what previously had been an intellectual contest. The use of state power could not, however, compensate for the failure to convince. The Enlightenment engendered arrogance among its adherents, overly confident in their assumptions and superiority.

Their use of modern science to make irrefutable claims and justify reforms masked desires that the person in the street instinctively dismissed. In many cases, the rejection of science caused major suffering, yet the blame for the failure to convince rested with the enlightened and the state. The Day of the...


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