Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Catholic Historical Review: One Hundred Years of Scholarship on Catholic Missions in the Early Modern World

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Catholic Historical Review: One Hundred Years of Scholarship on Catholic Missions in the Early Modern World

Article excerpt

Preaching before a crowd of Jews and Gentiles in Antioch, St. Paul proclaimed: "For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, 'I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth'" (Acts 13:47). From its beginning, the mission was central to Christianity. In the history of evangelization, the early-modern period (fifteenth to eighteenth centuries) represented the most dynamic phase in the growth of the Roman Church as Catholic missionaries, traveling on Portuguese, Spanish, and French ships, reached the "uttermost parts of the earth."

Even as they were making history, the missionaries were already compiling sources; filing reports; and crafting histories, describing the unfamiliar lands, peoples, and gods encountered, the dangers averted, the successes gained, while narrating the progress of global Christianity. Consequently, the greater part of sources that document the history of the Catholic mission stem necessarily from missionary hands. Often they reflect the con- cerns uppermost in the minds of the Gospel workers: stories of conversion, edifying tales, neophyte piety, heroic martyrdom, wonders and miracles, and the opposition of Satan, reflecting the adventures and subjectivities of different generations of missionaries. At times, the sources speak of ecclesiastical appointments, rivalries between orders, problems in liturgy and doctrine, and matters pertaining to the institution of the Church. Not infrequently, they recorded the geography, biology, economy, politics, language, and culture of the lands, providing a proto-ethnography from which anthropologists of a later century would draw information. Occasionally, the missionaries reported on the momentous political and military events of their lands, giving the first historical accounts of Asia and Africa to readers back in Europe. These writings, in many European languages, are subjective texts that reflect how Catholic missionaries saw the non-Christian world even while they recorded the acts and thoughts of those very missionaries.

Much rarer are the other voices. Of the peoples encountered in the missions, some converted, others proved curious, still others hostile, the majority showing a manifest and silent indifference. The peoples in the Americas and Africa seldom recorded their reactions to the strange doctrines preached by these strangers: many lacked a written language prior to their encounter with Europeans; others suffered conquests and destruction of their native texts. In Asia, we hear more indigenous voices from India, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Korea, and Japan, but the texts that represented the other side of this encounter remain in large measure inaccessible, scattered in manuscripts and sometimes difficult to read.

For these reasons, research on the Catholic mission has been lopsided. We have many more biographies of missionaries than those of converts, deeper analysis of missionary techniques (books, translation, music, liturgies) than of conversion experience, and a greater focus on anti-Christian persecutions than on the socioeconomic history of the Catholic mission. But things have been changing, as the discipline of missiology (the study of missionary methods, doctrines, etc.) has yielded to a history of the Christian missions that has important implications for the study of anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, comparative religion, and global history. I exemplify this development through references to four landmark books that address missionary history in colonial Latin America and Ming China written between 1933 and 2007 and further reflect on how trends in scholarship have been reflected in The Catholic Historical Review (CHR).

The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, the 1933 book by French historian of religion Robert Ricard, represented a classic in the field of missionary his- tory.1 Based on extensive research into the archives of the mendicant orders, Ricard reconstructs a comprehensive picture of the evangelization of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians between the conquest of Cortez and 1572, the year when the Society of Jesus was installed in New Spain. …

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