- Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz
Professors Beebe and Senkewicz describe Father Junípero Serra as a man of his times rather than a figure on whom historians project their hopes and aspirations. But to say this is not to browbeat scholars for failing to distinguish between their own emotions and what the evidence says. Mingling the past and present is an occupational hazard of the profession.
Eight years ago, in her presidential address to the American Historical Association, Gabrielle Spiegel said as much when she observed that when scholars study events from long ago, the past often becomes a mirror in which they see their own image ("The Task of the Historian," American Historical Review, February 2009). The scholarship devoted to Father Serra is no different. Historians and commentators often see Serra as representative of the era they inhabit, not as the man he was.
In the middle of the twentieth century, at the height of the Cold War, Omer Englebert wrote Serra: The Last of the Conquistadors. Writing in French that was later translated to English, Englebert argues that Serra saved Indians from ignorance and prepared California for European settlement. In an era when many Americans, and apparently quite a few French people, celebrated stalwarts who challenged Communism, Englebert no doubt thought that Serra represented, and prefigured, the fight against a godless foe. Later, in the 1980s, after the American public had grown disenchanted with heroes during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Rupert Costo published The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, a work in which he finds, as the title suggests, that Serra and his fellow priests destroyed the native populace.
In the twenty-first century, a time of economic and political uncertainty, but a period in which social differences have gained greater acceptance, scholars see Serra as a complicated man who defies easy definition. In his splendid Journey to the Sun, Junípero Serra's Dream and the Founding of California, Gregory Orfalea suggests that Father Serra reflects the diversity of modern California. Pious and politically adept, he was indeed a person who could be many things. For the clever undergraduate who must write on Serra's life, it may seem impossible that the same person can be a saint, a monster, or a flawed but devout priest. So many conclusions on offer would only confirm Gabrielle Spiegel's point that history is a product of the scholar's world. Enter Beebe and Senkewicz. They try to disentangle themselves from the present and see the past on its own terms.
At frequent and appropriate points throughout their biography, Beebe and Senkewicz reproduce letters Serra wrote to his contemporaries. In a another magnificent stroke, they append four sermons he delivered in 1744—to date the only ones found—that [End Page 413] reveal the depth of his faith. When Beebe and Senkewicz address the controversy of priests ordering the flogging of Indians, they insert the letter Serra sent to Governor Felipe de Neve to defend the practice (365–370). Describing how some missionaries became depressed as they aged, Beebe and Senkewicz include the missive in which Serra asked a colleague to appeal to God for strength (394–397).
The authors' approach allows the readers to judge for themselves what sort of man Serra was. True, each reader will react differently to what he or she reads, and thus may support Spiegel's criticisms about the tendency to make the past reflect the present. For their part, Beebe and Senkewicz admit Serra was a "complex" man (37). Even so, they give readers the opportunity to make their own judgments.
When examining the letters, readers will not necessarily see Serra as historians imagine him. Instead, the readers will see Serra as a creature of the eighteenth century. If they consider Serra a saint or troubled soul, it will be by their own devices...