The Americas 59.3 (2003) 417-418
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Luis Martínez-Fernández, professor and chair of the Department of Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, is well-known for his comparative approach to studying the Hispanic Caribbean. In this, his most recent work, he demonstrates how Protestantism entered and spread through the exclusively-Catholic colonies during the nineteenth century. His comparison centers on the areas he knows best: Puerto Rico and Cuba. An impressive array of archival sources from repositories in New York, Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Washington, D.C., and St. Croix combine with an equally-impressive collection of newspapers, periodicals, and contemporary writings to form the evidential core of this innovative book.
The examination begins by establishing how, in spite of the "grip" that it held over the faithful, the Catholic Church was a church in crisis. Political upheavals in Spain weakened the traditional church and turned it into a defensive victim of anticlericalism. At the same time, because of the instinctive appeal of the Protestant work ethic that fostered economic development, Protestantism gained ground as a byproduct of commerce among the Catholic Caribbean and its Protestant trading partners. Through 1869, Protestants from Britain, Germany, and the United States, came to both islands as immigrants and visitors associated with foreign enclaves. Practicing religion was problematic as the Catholic Church enforced religious exclusivity. Some Protestants became "pseudo-Catholics," and attended Catholic religious services as [End Page 417] a subterfuge to conceal their nonconformity. Other Protestants worshipped in secret, attending private ceremonies in homes, hotel rooms, or aboard visiting ships. Celebrating religious sacraments was particularly difficult, and some families traveled out of the islands to marry or to have their children christened. Death posed an immediate and pressing problem as the Catholic clergy refused to allow heretics to be buried in hallowed ground. Protestant corpses were buried in out-of-the-way cemeteries that were continually in disrepair or were interred secretly on deserted islands.
Martínez-Fernández establishes a break in mid-century as he skillfully sorts out how the confusing political situation in Spain caused both the mother country and the colonies to waver between religious toleration and reactionary intolerance. A brief constitutional interlude in 1869 paved the way for the organization of Protestant assemblies in the colonies. The first assembly in Puerto Rico was convened in Ponce by Anglican foreigners, primarily from Antigua, and the church they founded was comparatively wealthy. Vieques's congregation was slower to organize and was poorer because it was composed of laboring immigrants. Throughout the following decade in Puerto Rico, the "congregation's relations with the native Catholic population were complex and controversial" (p. 93). Cuba's first congregation, organized in Havana through the mission of the North American Episcopal church, got off to an inauspicious start. The first Episcopal clergyman, Edward Kenney, arrived in Havana on the day that Spanish soldiers executed eight medical students in November 1871. Ironically, the congregations on Cuban soil ministered to foreigners, while the first native Cuban Protestant congregations were founded in New York City and Key West by exiles. One such assembly, the Santiago Episcopal Church of New York City, was the world's first Spanish-speaking Episcopal congregation. After the war, many exiles returned to Cuba, and Protestantism made inroads as Cuban-born distributors of religious materials ("colporteurs," p. 140) spread throughout the island giving away Bibles. In the 1880s, Southern Baptist missionaries entered Cuba and made significant inroads among a population already disenchanted with Spain and with the conservative Catholic clergy that supported the mother country.
The importance of Protestantism as a cultural force is one of the many understudied areas of Hispanic Caribbean history. Martínez-Fernández's book is a welcome addition; it complements a recent study of Protestant missions in Cuba in the twentieth century by Jason M. Yaremko...