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  • The Spiritual Conversion of the Americas
  • Susan Schroeder
The Spiritual Conversion of the Americas. By James Muldoon. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004. Pp. viii, 273. Notes. Index. $65.00 cloth.

This book is a most welcome addition to the scholarship on religion in the colonial Americas, although a more representative title would be "European Missionary Effort in the Colonial Americas," for the subject of the realization of conversion from the indigenous perspective is hardly addressed. The great value of the anthology is the coverage of the variety of spiritual entrepreneurial enterprises among peoples in a geographical sweep from New France to Brazil. Not discussed, however, is the "conversion" of natives in the centers—the working paradigms on which all [End Page 272] other evangelical undertakings were based. The centers, Cusco and Mexico City, served as proselytical entrepôts where the religious rallied all cultural, linguistic, and spiritual resources available to bring whom they believed were God-given (but resistant) Indians into the Christian fold.

Rather, the eleven chapters are representative of an array of individual Catholic (Franciscan and Jesuit) and Protestant (Calvinist, Lutheran, and Puritan) missionary endeavors that served either political agendas back in Europe or pious purposes in the field. Whichever it was, their justification for invasion and occupation was propagation of the faith. The Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish were all interested at some point in spreading the Gospel in the Americas, and it is noteworthy that the Protestants were generally late in taking on the task. At least part of the problem for the Protestants was their obligation to prevail over Catholics at home, which only later became their cause in the Americas. Nor were Catholics above the forceful conversion of Protestants, whether in Europe or America, as happened to the unfortunate captives taken in French and Indian raids.

The animosity between Catholics and Protestants and among Protestants groups remained intense. Yet no one could deny that the thousand and more years of Roman Christianity had furnished evangelical precedents for success that could hardly be challenged. Yet each mission had its own exclusive ideology and channeled it assets and manpower accordingly. Few had any notion of how very difficult a process it would be, for they consistently failed to appreciate the resiliency of indigenous traditions. Most natives were initially curious, but then quickly resisted the ministers' overtures. The ministers' goal was to civilize, with conversion to Christianity implicit in that goal. The native peoples discussed in the volume are almost universally perceived as savages, for most lived semi-sedentary lives at best. The Devil, too, was already everywhere and served as a convenient scapegoat.

With Europeans in their midst, just about everything would be different for indigenes. Their native worldview did not necessarily disappear, but instead selectively accommodated the Europeans' religions, to the horror of the evangelists. Politics, as for the Dutch Calvinists in Brazil and New York and Jesuits nearly everywhere, brought abrupt ends to their seemingly successful Christianizing efforts. Economics figured prominently as well; Portugal, for example, was unable to generate moneys to provide adequately for the spread of the Gospel to colonial Brazilians. Conversion outcomes across the hemisphere were transitory or incomplete, although class, ethnicity, and literacy certainly affected the process for natives in closest contact with the Europeans. The chapters in this volume are erudite, interesting, and remarkably unique in subject yet similar in terms of the overall conversion experiences they relate—despite of the very best intentions on the part of Europe's and America's Christian ministers.

Susan Schroeder
Tulane University
New Orleans, Louisiana


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pp. 272-273
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