New book explores how the plague shaped Christianity in the Americas


During the first century of American colonization, as many as 20 million people in Mexico perished from disease, violence and exploitation. Jennifer Scheper Hughes, professor in the Department of History at the University of California at Riverside, examines this period from a historical and theological perspective in her new book, “The Church of the Dead: The Epidemic of 1576 and the Birth of Christianism in the Americas “.


In 1576, a catastrophic epidemic killed nearly 2 million people and simultaneously left the colonial church in ruins. During the crisis and its aftermath, Spanish missionaries and surviving indigenous communities asserted radically different visions of the future of Christianity.

“Thinking about church in Mexico is important,” said Hughes. “It predates the arrival of the Puritans in New England by a century. Mexican Catholicism is the oldest form of Christianity in the hemisphere.

When Hughes began her research in the Spanish and Mexican archives 10 years ago, she had no idea the work would be completed in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Epidemics have often been the cause of tectonic social and cultural shifts as people struggle to rebuild and rebuild societies in their wake,” said Hughes. “Human cultures are transfigured and transformed in the effort to survive epidemic cataclysms. Even in the face of loss and destruction, survivors are sometimes able to use the disruption to build something powerful and new. “

Using archival records and correspondence from missionaries in the Americas, Hughes sheds light on how the early leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico maneuvered to establish a base for the evangelization of the indigenous population. She also consults documents written by the Nahua, Mixtec, and Mayan Catholic communities of the colonial era as they sought to shape colonial realities for their benefit.

During the epidemic of 1576, the Spanish missionary brothers transformed themselves into frontline doctors and nurses. The medical care of the sick becomes for them a kind of religious sacrament, like the Eucharist. At the same time, indigenous Mexican communities founded their own hospitals and clinics. Here, they organized the care of the sick with a certain autonomy from the Spanish authority.

Perhaps the most important finding of Hughes’ research is that after the epidemic, surviving communities of Native Catholics asserted an alternative and competing view of the church. Their vision transformed the future of Christian practice in Mexico to uphold core Mesoamerican beliefs and institutions. The colonial church was forced to give in to this end.

“It was a century’s work to take this imposed religion and turn it into something they recognized as sacred,” said Hughes. “They preserved some received Christian ideas and practices that were recognizable and resonant, and rejected others which they found shattered, compromised, inconsistent or irrecoverable.”

According to Hughes, there are common misconceptions circulating about the origins of American Christianity that are not necessarily confirmed by historical evidence. One of them is that the project of Christian empire in the Americas was inevitable, destined to succeed by missionary fervor or by the sheer and violent force of colonial imposition. In retrospect, the worldwide spread of Christianity over these centuries may seem almost viral. Yet Spanish observers frequently viewed American Christianity as perpetually on the brink of failure and collapse.

“Christianity has spread despite these diseases, not because of them,” said Hughes. “People often assume that Christianity gave hope or comfort in the midst of crisis or provided a religious explanation for catastrophic illness in the absence of a scientific explanation.”

In Mexico, epidemics were considered one of the greatest threats to the survival of the church. The rapid and devastating loss of life starved the church of potential members and left the missionaries in despair.

In strategic deliberations, surviving indigenous Christian communities in Mexico have leveraged the church to uphold and protect the integrity and autonomy of the community, preserving some of Mesoamerican society’s most cherished structures for future generations. .

According to Hughes, today’s Mexican Christianity is the legacy of Native Catholic survivors of the 16th century cataclysm. In the midst of the crisis, it wasn’t just the people trying to put the pieces back together. They were actively working to affirm and implement a vision for the future. She compares this reconstruction to the consequences of the current pandemic.

“Today we begin the process of rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is an opportunity to renegotiate the principles of our society towards more just relationships and more humane social institutions,” said Hughes. “We can pay attention and listen to this opportunity. Human cultures have evolved to be resilient to disasters like this one. “

“The Church of the Dead: The Epidemic of 1576 and the Birth of Christianity in the Americas” is available online and in print August 3 from New York University Press.

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