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Access over 100,000+ Sermons from Ancient to Modern : Christian Books : CHAPTER II. SPANISH CONQUEST-THE PROPAGATION, DECAY, AND DOWNFALL OF SPANISH CHRISTIANITY.

A History Of American Christianity by Leonard Woolsey Bacon


IT is a striking fact that the earliest monuments of colonial and ecclesiastical antiquity within the present domain of the United States, after the early Spanish remains in Florida, are to be found in those remotely interior and inaccessible highlands of New Mexico, which have only now begun to be reached in the westward progress of migration. Before the beginnings of permanent English colonization at Plymouth and at Jamestown, before the French beginnings on the St. Lawrence, before the close of the sixteenth century, there had been laid by Spanish soldiers, adventurers, and missionaries, in those far recesses of the continent, the foundations of Christian towns and churches, the stately walls and towers of which still invite the admiration of the traveler.

The fact is not more impressive than it is instructive. It illustrates the prodigious impetuosity of that tide of conquest which within so few years from the discovery of the American continents not only swept over the regions of South and Central America and the great plateau of Mexico, but actually occupied with military posts, with extensive and successful missions, and with a colonization which seemed to show every sign of stability and future expansion, by far the greater part of the present domain of the United States exclusive of Alaska -- an ecclesiastico-military empire stretching its vast diameter from the southernmost cape of Florida across twenty-five parallels of latitude and forty-five meridians of longitude to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The lessons taught by this amazingly swift extension of the empire and the church, and its arrest and almost extinction, are legible on the surface of the history. It is a strange, but not unparalleled, story of attempted coöeration in the common service of God and Mammon and Moloch -- of endeavors after concord between Christ and Belial.

There is no reason to question the sincerity with which the rulers of Spain believed themselves to be actuated by the highest motives of Christian charity in their terrible and fatal American policy. |The conversion of the Indians is the principal foundation of the conquest -- that which ought principally to be attended to.| So wrote the king in a correspondence in which a most cold-blooded authorization is given for the enslaving of the Indians. After the very first voyage of Columbus every expedition of discovery or invasion was equipped with its contingent of clergy -- secular priests as chaplains to the Spaniards, and friars of the regular orders for mission work among the Indians -- at cost of the royal treasury or as a charge upon the new conquests.

This subsidizing of the church was the least serious of the injuries inflicted on the cause of the gospel by the piety of the Spanish government. That such subsidizing is in the long run an injury is a lesson illustrated not only in this case, but in many parallel cases in the course of this history. A far more dreadful wrong was the identifying of the religion of Jesus Christ with a system of war and slavery, well-nigh the most atrocious in recorded history. For such a policy the Spanish nation had just received a peculiar training. It is one of the commonplaces of history to remark that the barbarian invaders of the Roman empire were themselves vanquished by their own victims, being converted by them to the Christian faith. In like manner the Spanish nation, triumphing over its Moslem subjects in the expulsion of the Moors, seemed in its American conquests to have been converted to the worst of the tenets of Islam. The propagation of the gospel in the western hemisphere, under the Spanish rule, illustrated in its public and official aspects far more the principles of Mohammed than those of Jesus. The triple alternative offered by the Saracen or the Turk -- conversion or tribute or the sword -- was renewed with aggravations by the Christian conquerors of America. In a form deliberately drawn up and prescribed by the civil and ecclesiastical counselors at Madrid, the invader of a new province was to summon the rulers and people to acknowledge the church and the pope and the king of Spain; and in case of refusal or delay to comply with this summons, the invader was to notify them of the consequences in these terms: |If you refuse, by the help of God we shall enter with force into your land, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children and make slaves of them, and sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord; and we protest that the deaths and losses that shall accrue from this are your own fault.|

While the church was thus implicated in crimes against humanity which history shudders to record, it is a grateful duty to remember that it was from the church also and in the name of Christ that bold protests and strenuous efforts were put forth in behalf of the oppressed and wronged. Such names as Las Casas and Montesinos shine with a beautiful luster in the darkness of that age; and the Dominican order, identified on the other side of the sea with the fiercest cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition, is honorable in American church history for its fearless championship of liberty and justice.

The first entrance of Spanish Christianity upon the soil of the United States was wholly characteristic. In quest of the Fountain of Youth, Ponce de Leon sailed for the coast of Florida equipped with forces both for the carnal and for the spiritual warfare. Besides his colonists and his men-at-arms, he brought his secular priests as chaplains and his monks as missionaries; and his instructions from the crown required him to summon the natives, as in the famous |Requerimiento,| to submit themselves to the Catholic faith and to the king of Spain, under threat of the sword and slavery. The invaders found a different temper in the natives from what was encountered in Mexico and Peru, where the populations were miserably subjugated, or in the islands, where they were first enslaved and presently completely exterminated. The insolent invasion was met, as it deserved, by effective volleys of arrows, and its chivalrous leader was driven back to Cuba, to die there of his wounds.

It is needless to recount the successive failures of Spanish civilization and Christianity to get foothold on the domain now included in the United States. Not until more than forty years after the attempt of Ponce de Leon did the expedition of the ferocious Menendez effect a permanent establishment on the coast of Florida. In September, 1565, the foundations of the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, were laid with solemn religious rites by the toil of the first negro slaves; and the event was signalized by one of the most horrible massacres in recorded history, the cold-blooded and perfidious extermination, almost to the last man, woman, and child, of a colony of French Protestants that had been planted a few months before at the mouth of the St. John's River.

The colony thus inaugurated seemed to give every promise of permanent success as a center of religious influence. The spiritual work was naturally and wisely divided into the pastoral care of the Spanish garrisons and settlements, which was taken in charge by |secular| priests, and the mission work among the Indians, committed to friars of those |regular| orders whose solid organization and independence of the episcopal hierarchy, and whose keen emulation in enterprises of self-denial, toil, and peril, have been so large an element of strength, and sometimes of weakness, in the Roman system. In turn, the mission field of the Floridas was occupied by the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and the Franciscans. Before the end of seventy years from the founding of St. Augustine the number of Christian Indians was reckoned at twenty-five or thirty thousand, distributed among forty-four missions, under the direction of thirty-five Franciscan missionaries, while the city of St. Augustine was fully equipped with religious institutions and organizations. Grave complaints are on record, which indicate that the great number of the Indian converts was out of all proportion to their meager advancement in Christian grace and knowledge but with these indications of shortcoming in the missionaries there are honorable proofs of diligent devotion to duty in the creating of a literature of instruction in the barbarous languages of the peninsula.

For one hundred and fifteen years Spain and the Spanish missionaries had exclusive possession in Florida, and it was during this period that these imposing results were achieved. In 1680 a settlement of Scotch Presbyterians at Port Royal in South Carolina seemed like a menace to the Spanish domination. It was wholly characteristic of the Spanish colony to seize the sword at once and destroy its nearest Christian neighbor. It took the sword, and perished by the sword. The war of races and sects thus inaugurated went on, with intervals of quiet, until the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, transferred Florida to the British crown. No longer sustained by the terror of the Spanish arms and by subsidies from the Spanish treasury, the whole fabric of Spanish civilization and Christianization, at the end of a history of almost two centuries, tumbled at once to complete ruin and extinction.

The story of the planting of Christian institutions in New Mexico runs parallel with the early history of Florida. Omitting from this brief summary the first discovery of these regions by fugitives from one of the disastrous early attempts to effect a settlement on the Florida coast, omitting (what we would fain narrate) the stories of heroic adventure and apostolic zeal and martyrdom which antedate the permanent occupation of the country, we note the arrival, in 1598, of a strong, numerous, and splendidly equipped colony, and the founding of a Christian city in the heart of the American continent. As usual in such Spanish enterprises, the missionary work was undertaken by a body of Franciscan friars. After the first months of hardship and discouragement, the work of the Christian colony, and especially the work of evangelization among the Indians, went forward at a marvelous rate. Reinforcements both of priests and of soldiers were received from Mexico; by the end of ten years baptisms were reported to the number of eight thousand; the entire population of the province was reckoned as being within the pale of the church; not less than sixty Franciscan friars at once were engaged in the double service of pastors and missionaries. The triumph of the gospel and of Spanish arms seemed complete and permanent.

Fourscore years after the founding of the colony and mission the sudden explosion of a conspiracy, which for a long time had been secretly preparing, revealed the true value of the allegiance of the Indians to the Spanish government and of their conversion to Christ. Confounding in a common hatred the missionaries and the tyrannous conquerors, who had been associated in a common policy, the Christian Indians turned upon their rulers and their pastors alike with undiscriminating warfare. |In a few weeks no Spaniard was in New Mexico north of El Paso. Christianity and civilization were swept away at one blow.| The successful rebels bettered the instruction that they had received from their rejected pastors. The measures of compulsion that had been used to stamp out every vestige of the old religion were put into use against the new.

The cause of Catholic Christianity in New Mexico never recovered from this stunning blow. After twenty years the Spanish power, taking advantage of the anarchy and depopulation of the province, had reoccupied its former posts by military force, the missionaries were brought back under armed protection, the practice of the ancient religion was suppressed by the strong hand, and efforts, too often unsuccessful, were made to win back the apostate tribes to something more than a sullen submission to the government and the religion of their conquerors. The later history of Spanish Christianity in New Mexico is a history of decline and decay, enlivened by the usual contentions between the |regular| clergy and the episcopal government. The white population increased, the Indian population dwindled. Religion as set forth by an exotic clergy became an object of indifference when it was not an object of hatred. In 1845 the Bishop of Durango, visiting the province, found an Indian population of twenty thousand in a total of eighty thousand. The clergy numbered only seventeen priests. Three years later the province became part of the United States.

To complete the story of the planting of Spanish Christianity within the present boundaries of the United States, it is necessary to depart from the merely chronological order of American church history; for, although the immense adventurousness of Spanish explorers by sea and land had, early in the sixteenth century, made known to Christendom the coasts and harbors of the Californias, the beginnings of settlement and missions on that Pacific coast date from so late as 1769. At this period the method of such work had become settled into a system. The organization was threefold, including (1) the garrison town, (2) the Spanish settlement, and (3) the mission, at which the Indian neophytes were gathered under the tutelage and strict government of the convent of Franciscan friars. The whole system was sustained by the authority and the lavish subventions of the Spanish government, and herein lay its strength and, as the event speedily proved, its fatal weakness. The inert and feeble character of the Indians of that region offered little excuse for the atrocious cruelties that had elsewhere marked the Spanish occupation; but the paternal kindness of the stronger race was hardly less hurtful. The natives were easily persuaded to become by thousands the dependents and servants of the missions. Conversion went on apace. At the end of sixty-five years from the founding of the missions their twenty-one stations numbered a Christian native population of more than thirty thousand, and were possessed of magnificent wealth, agricultural and commercial. In that very year (1834) the long-intended purpose of the government to release the Indians from their almost slavery under the missions, and to distribute the vast property in severalty, was put in force. In eight years the more than thirty thousand Catholic Indians had dwindled to less than five thousand; the enormous estates of the missions were dissipated; the converts lapsed into savagery and paganism.

Meanwhile the Spanish population had gone on slowly increasing. In the year 1840, seventy years from the Spanish occupancy, it had risen to nearly six thousand; but it was a population the spiritual character of which gave little occasion of boasting to the Spanish church. Tardy and feeble efforts had been instituted to provide it with an organized parish ministry, when the supreme and exclusive control of that country ceased from the hands that so long had held it. |The vineyard was taken away, and given to other husbandmen.| In the year 1848 California was annexed to the United States.

This condensed story of Spanish Christianity within the present boundaries of the United States is absurdly brief compared with the vast extent of space, the three centuries of time, and what seemed at one time the grandeur of results involved in it. But in truth it has strangely little connection with the extant Christianity of our country. It is almost as completely severed from historical relation with the church of the present day as the missions of the Greenlanders in the centuries before Columbus. If we distinguish justly between the Christian work and its unchristian and almost satanic admixtures, we can join without reserve both in the eulogy and in the lament with which the Catholic historian sums up his review: |It was a glorious work, and the recital of it impresses us by the vastness and success of the toil. Yet, as we look around to-day, we can find nothing of it that remains. Names of saints in melodious Spanish stand out from maps in all that section where the Spanish monk trod, toiled, and died. A few thousand Christian Indians, descendants of those they converted and civilized, still survive in New Mexico and Arizona, and that is all.|

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