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  • Missions and Missionaries in the Americas: A Special Teaching and Research Collection of The Americas
  • Christopher Woolley

For more than 70 years, The Americas, a publication of the Academy of American Franciscan History, has been a leading forum for scholars studying the history of Spanish America’s colonial missions. As the articles collected from the journal for this special issue show, the general trend has been to move beyond the hagiographic treatment of missionaries and towards a more complex understanding of the historical roles played by the colonial missions in rural life.

While scholars such as Robert Ricard in the 1930s once posited a one-way “spiritual conquest” that cast native peoples as passive receptacles for Catholicism and European culture, such a view is no longer tenable, for several reasons.1 First, since then scholars have demonstrated how the durability of indigenous cultural systems influenced the acceptance, rejection, or modification of Catholic teachings to form new kinds of syncretic and hybrid belief structures. Second, scholars have come to recognize the ways in which the “local” and idiosyncratic flavor of Spanish Catholicism also contributed to this hybridity, as did the missionaries’ adaptation of their teachings through the use of indigenous languages and local forms of ritual expression.2 Finally, recent scholarship has also begun to explore the contested nature of power within the missions and the larger spiritual economy that connected the missions, the missionaries, and native societies to the broader political and cultural terrain. [End Page 4] From this perspective, conversion was simply one aspect of indigenous groups’ larger strategy to survive within the constraints in which they lived.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, works published in The Americas were crucial to the establishment of mission studies as an important area of colonial Latin American historiography. Many of these early works, with their focus on the key personalities of the missions, were influenced by Herbert Bolton, who served as an advisory editor to the journal for many years, and his call for scholars to train their focus on the Hispanic contribution to the “borderlands.” Such early works tended to focus primarily on the missionaries themselves and “the spirit and the achievement of the apostolic laborers,” as Charles Piette wrote in a 1947 article.3 Two works by Marion A. Habig on the Franciscan provinces of North (1944 and South (1946) America were important foundational studies of the order’s missions and the key players in establishing the Franciscan presence throughout Spanish America.4 In a 1947 contribution to The Americas, Philip Wayne Powell, a Bolton student, similarly praised the friars for their works to “pacify” the Chichimec north where the military’s “war by fire and blood” had failed.5 These studies, along with Piette’s article, formed part of a larger body of work devoted to defending the image and labors of the Franciscans from a small but growing critique led by Sherburne Cook, which painted the missions as coercive and unhealthy institutions that contributed to the demographic decline of native groups.6

More critical studies of the missionaries and their methods have tended to reveal that they were far less effective in “pacifying,” much less converting, indigenous borderland societies than Ricard and his successors believed. Several articles in The Americas challenged the view that the allegedly soft methods of the missionaries managed to overcome the larger impact of warfare, social disruption, and enslavement. Stafford Poole (1965) shows in his study of the Third Mexican Provincial Council of 1585 that the bishops of the Church were far more influential than the regular orders in guiding royal policy away from “war by fire and blood,” and that the mendicant friars in practice did little to offset the devastation caused by Spanish entradas and slave raids into the [End Page 5] Chichimec north.7 Christon I. Archer also demonstrates (1973) in his study of Indian deportations to Havana from the Internal Provinces that peace remained elusive in the northern borderlands despite centuries of efforts on the part of Spain’s regular orders to establish peaceful settlements of converted Indians.8 The situation among the non-sedentary Evueví of Paraguay was remarkably similar. As Barbara Ganson shows in an 1989 article...


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