On Solid Rock
The Church in New Spain in the Sixteenth Century
W. Dale Weeks
When Hernan Cortes and his army of Spaniards landed on the coasts of Mexico in 1519, they faced a new world of people entirely different than any they had known in Spain. Armed with the most modern weapons, a zeal for glory, and a fervent love for the God of their Catholic Faith the conquistadors methodically conquered the tribes and villages of the New World culminating in the conquest of the might Aztec Empire in Tenochtitlan. With every victory Cortes gave notice to the Indians that the God of heaven and the Kings of Spain had sent him to offer salvation in return for their submission. He planted crosses and erected Marian shrines along the way laying the foundation for the Christian Faith in Mexico. His intentions, no doubt were to build a strong foundation for the new Church much as a carpenter seeks to build a house on solid rock. The many people who come to New Spain in the ensuing years to assist in this missionary endeavor will face many obstacles. There will also be many victorious celebrations as the Church in New Spain becomes a reality.
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI formally donated almost all the lands of the newly discovered Indies to the Spanish crown, as long as they sought diligently to Christianize the inhabitants.1 In letters to King Charles V, Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of New Spain, requested assistance in the evangelization of the many Indians now belonging to the king’s dominion. Pedro de Gante, a Franciscan friar who arrived in New Spain in 1523, wrote his own letter to Charles V, claiming, “after all, it is the struggle for their salvation that justifies their discovery.”2 By 1524, a group of twelve other Franciscans, headed by Martin de Valencia, set ashore on the coast of New Spain, ready to start the process of evangelization. With great eagerness they made their way to Mexico City where they were welcomed with deep reverence by Cortes and the other Spaniards. As the work progressed the friars were faced with various challenges that required the religious to adapt. For example, they set out to build a church, with no church buildings so they met in ancient Aztec assembly halls for the first few months. Performing the sacraments was difficult in a land filled with idolatry and catechism was almost impossible when language barriers were present. In the face of all the obstacles in their path the Catholic Church in New Spain, founded by the Franciscans, would be well established by mid-century. Two Franciscan monks, Toribio de Benavente and Bernardino de Sahagun, would both diligently serve the Indians of New Spain by helping to establish the Catholic Faith, but within two decades, they would have opposing opinion as to the health of the new church and the condition of the foundation on which it was built.
Toribio de Benavente arrived in New Spain in 1524 along with Fray Martin de Valencia and the rest of the twelve Franciscans. Due to his obvious poverty and charity, the Indians were drawn to the thin, barefooted monk in the tattered clothes. While the twelve were passing through Tlaxcala on their way to Mexico City he overheard the Indians whispering the word “Motolinia.” Upon learning that it meant “poor little one” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec, Benavente adopted it as his own name, forever to be known as Motolinia. On his arrival, Motolinia was appalled at the spiritual conditions he saw among the Indians. “This land was a copy of hell,” he reported, and then added, “it was pitiable to see men created in the image of God become worse than brute beasts.”3 He describes in detail the horrific manner in which the native priests perform human sacrifices, allowing the victim’s heart to fall “to the ground and lay there awhile throbbing.”4 In 1568, over four decades after arriving, Motolinia would die as the last surviving member of the Twelve, and one of the most beloved religious in all of New Spain. He is best known today for his History of the Indians of New Spain, which was finished in 1540 and has become a valuable tool for historians to learn of life in New Spain following the conquest. The book tells of the establishment of the Church and the struggle the friars faced in dealing with the Indians and their traditional pantheon.
The written record Motolinia left describes a glorious time for the religious in New Spain and reveals his opinion of the condition of the new Church. With great zeal the Indians begin coming to the Catholic Faith and at first the Franciscans are overwhelmed. “They are so eager to learn, and there were so many of them, that they were fairly piled up in the courtyards of the churches.” He would add later that “the friars…gave thanks to God with great joy at the sight of such a good beginning and of so many who should be saved.”5 There were, in fact, so many wishing to be saved; the Franciscans had to develop ways to baptize them all in their primitive setting. Motolinia describes a process of lining all the candidates in rows with the children in front, speaking to all of them simultaneously, doing the sign of the cross with a few of them, and then baptizing all the children individually. This process would then be repeated with the adults.6 According to Motolinia, this process would need to be repeated many times over. He would write, “many came to be baptized, not only on Sundays and on the days indicated for baptism, but every day, children and adults, the sick and the well, from all districts.”7 He records the claim of entire towns coming for baptism, many through harsh conditions.8 “When they come to be baptized some beg for it,” he wrote, “others insist, others ask for it kneeling, others raising and clasping their hands, moaning and crouching, others demand and receive it weeping and sighing.”9 With great passion, the Indians of New Spain come to the Catholic Faith. The first fifteen years after the conquest, (1521-1536) Motolinia estimates as many as nine million baptisms.10
Although controversial, it is doubtful that Motolinia’s estimates are exaggerated when certain evidence is considered. Brading calls the numbers credible based on Motolinia’s admission of having personally assisted another friar in baptizing over fourteen thousand in a span of five days.11 An indigenous account from Texcoco records as many as twenty thousand natives desired baptism on the same day.12 As new religious arrived, there arose such debate over the manner in which so many Indians received the sacrament that formal complaints found their way back to Spain. The Council of the Indies convened to discuss the matter with the Archbishop of Seville, but was unable to arrive at a solution. They agreed to allow the process to remain as it was while the matter could be referred to the pope.13 On June 1, 1537, Pope Paul III issued the bull, Altitudo Divini Consilii, which abdicated the Twelve Franciscans from any wrongdoing in regard to the process used to baptize the natives in New Spain. The document also contained instructions for the priests to give the full sacrament to each candidate individually, whenever possible, unless the situation was to be deemed urgent. The bishops in New Spain deliberated to discuss how best to implement the changes. It is clear that the Franciscans baptized many Indians, no doubt millions of them. The Catholic Faith had been birthed in New Spain rather rapidly as Indians came to be baptized in astounding numbers. The Christianization of the inhabitants of the New World was ahead of schedule and Motolinia was right there to see it develop.
As the Church seemingly gained solid footing in new Spain, more religious made the voyage across the sea to join the missionary efforts. In 1526, twelve Dominicans arrived, and by 1533 a group of six Augustinian monks would be on the continent. A smattering of other friars would land from time to time, among these was a Franciscan named Bernardino de Sahagun, who arrived in 1529. Sahagun, reportedly spent his first few years in new Spain in the convent at Tlalmanalco under the custodial tutelage of one Martin de Valencia, the leader of the Twelve. It is here that Sahagun begins to develop the opinion that so differs from what Motolinia believed about the new Church. Having learned a few Nahuatl words and phrases from some Indians who shared the voyage from Spain, Sahagun had a slight head start on the language by the time he arrived in the New World.14 His ability to become fluent in the language gave Sahagun an insight into the people of the newly conquered civilization. In his eyes, they were no longer “brute beasts,” but men and women with dreams and needs and fears and also a history that no one had as of yet taken the time to discover.
In 1547, Sahagun set out to record the history of the indigenous people of Mexico. For two decades religious had battled to rid the towns, homes, and minds of any shadow of pre-Catholic memory, destroying temples, relics, and any sacred writing they found while attempting to indoctrinate the presumably empty lives of the Indians with the God of Spain. Sahagun gathered the old and the wise from the towns he visited in his role as a special commissioner from the bishopric in Mexico City, conducted interviews with some of his more knowledgeable students, and with the help of four student assistants, launched his efforts to record the Nahuatl history. From these local historians, he gleaned traditions, myths, prophecies, and records that included tales of the world’s genesis and its impending demise, a list of the pantheon and rituals used in their worship, and even an amazing explanation of the Mesoamerican calendar system. Perhaps his most famous record reveals the Aztec perspective of the conquest of Mexico, complete with the story of Moctezuma and the city of Tenochtitlan as they awaited the intruders from the sea, told with an apparent flavoring of post-conquest hindsight. These writings, organized into twelve books, or chapters, faced heavy scrutiny by church officials in the New World, but even more so in Spain. A final copy would not be decided on for years and after at least ten separate translations, and or revisions and, much to Sahagun’s chagrin, the chosen version was more tempered than he preferred.
An interesting omission from the final text was discovered many years later in an earlier copy of Sahagun’s writing. A prologue to Book IV of his history shockingly describes the impotence of the Church in New Spain a mere three decades after its founding. In his interviews with the natives, Sahagun learned of the impressions the Indians had of the Franciscans and their Catholic Faith, and their response to the Spaniard’s call for conversion. No doubt church officials would hesitate letting the world have access to this prologue, seeking to curtail a public relations nightmare.
In this prologue, Sahagun claims to have received a surprising orientation into the work of evangelization in New Spain, given by the Twelve Franciscans upon the arrival of other religious. The instructions he received were in accordance with Motolinia’s opinion of the condition of the Church. According to Sahagun all newly arriving religious were told by the Twelve, “this people had come to the faith so sincerely…that there was no need to preach against idolatry because they had abandoned it so truly.” The Twelve’s claim of the miraculous conversion of the Indians appeared to be supported, at least in Sahagun’s mind, by the incredible number of Indians who had come for baptism with “little preaching and without any miracles.” This proclamation would prove to be invalid based on information obtained in the indigenous interviews conducted by Sahagun for his history. What he discovered was startling. He learned that the Indians had duped the initial Franciscans with a “sly humility (with which) they quickly offered themselves to receive the faith.” By deceitfully patronizing the Franciscans, the Indians were able to retain much of their spiritual identity. Motolinia did not understand this but Sahagun believed it to be a fact that contributed to the Church’s condition, a condition he called, “damaged and ruined.”15
In Motolinia’s history, he acknowledges this pantheistic acceptance of Christianity, evidently blinded to the reality of the situation by a utopian mindset. “The Indians no longer called upon or served their idols except in distant and secret places.”16 With its monotheism, Christianity does not have room for the natives’ traditional idolatry, even if in private practice, yet somehow the Franciscans were convinced that the conversion of the Indians was total and authentic. Motolinia’s confession reveals the condition of the foundation on which the Church in New Spain had been built, a foundation Sahagun simply calls, “false.”17 In a 1556 letter to the Council of the Indies, Alonso de Montufar, the second archbishop of Mexico, describes his observances of the church in this manner; “If the gospel consisted only of holy baptism, we might believe in the salvation of the majority of the people.”18 He would add, “it would require some new theology to believe and say that some of these adults are saved.”19 Apparently, the majority, perhaps the vast majority of the nine million baptisms performed in the first fifteen years in New Spain were of questionable authenticity. If Montufar’s opinion is credible the foundation of the church was very shaky.
Sahagun’s prologue supports the archbishop’s interpretation by claiming, “they were baptized not like perfect believers but as fictitious ones.”20 These false conversions were not evident to the Franciscans at first, yet Sahagun suggests the Twelve were somewhat responsible for the Indians receiving “that faith without leaving the false one they had.”21 The prologue identifies three main reasons for the church being built on a sandy foundation; the indigenous culture of assimilation, a native conspiracy, and the millennial mindset of the Franciscans.
The custom of pre-conquest Mexico was to adopt the god of a new neighbor, assimilating the deity into an already existing pantheistic society. This tradition would make it more acceptable for the Indians to adopt the God of Spain, simply by adding Him to the long list of gods to whom they already paid homage. While this practice seemed natural to the natives, the Franciscans preached the monotheism of Christianity. In order to maintain their tradition of assimilation, the Indians would have to hide their rituals and festivals from the religious. Motolinia offers a shocking confession when he admits the Indians were hiding their idols at the foot of the crosses or placing them under the stones in the steps so they could worship their own traditional gods while appearing to worship at the foot of the Christian cross.22 In Sahagun’s prologue he describes the way the Indians claimed to have “disowned all the other gods they had adored.”23 In his opinion, the Indians were deceitful in that they hid the fact they continued to worship their former gods.
The natives were also involved in what Sahagun called a conspiracy against the first evangelists. This conspiracy was propagated by the native leaders, both the caciques, whom Sahagun calls the “principals,” and the priests. Early evidence of this arises just before Cortes’ second trip into Tenochtitlan during the height of the conquest. While the Spaniards were regrouping at Texcoco, the leaders of that town came to Cortes desiring baptism. After pressing hard for permission to convert, the cacique received baptism along with many others. An indigenous account claims as many as twenty thousand wished to join him but were unable to due to the inability of the Spaniards to accommodate such a request.24 Following the fall of Tenochtitlan, and especially with the arrival of the Twelve Franciscans, many Indians would come for baptism as has already been stated. But what was this conspiracy and why would the leaders of the natives encourage such mass conversion, especially if it was not true conversion? What was their purpose?
An advocate for the Indians named Bartolome de Las Casas understood the conspiracy. He wrote, “the Indians have been brought to embrace the faith…by threats of being slain or taken into captivity.” Perhaps Sahagun’s conspiracy was initiated by the Indians in response to an ultimatum given to them by the Spaniards. The Indians were commanded to receive Christianity or face slavery for themselves and their family. Las Casas claims they were not given ample time to decide whether or not to convert to the God of Spain. “They are told they must embrace the Christian Faith immediately, without hearing any sermon preached and without any indoctrination.”25 If the sometimes controversial Las Casas is accurate in his interpretation, the Indians responded to this ultimatum by coming for baptism in multitudes. As Motolinia’s history reveals, this mass proselytism thrilled the Franciscans, yet somehow angered many secular Spaniards.26 There were at least a few Christians it seemed, who deemed it more advantageous for the Indians to remain unconverted. Las Casas describes certain incidents where the Indians were given no time to respond to the warning, and others to where the warning was not given at all.27 He also tells of one occurrence where this warning was given at night while the Indians slept and at a distance from the town where no one could possibly hear.28
This warning was more than just a Christian courtesy, it was a document written by royal decree, commanded to be read to the people of the Indies at first encounter. Cortes refers to this document, called the requerimiento, in his letters to Charles V. This royal declaration was designed to introduce the European intruders, and their intentions, to the inhabitants of the newly discovered lands. It grew out of Pope Alexander VI’s bull instructing Spain to Christianize the natives. Traveling with a royal notary, Cortes was careful to read the requerimiento in order to maintain favor with the crown. He specifically mentions the document by name in his account of the conquest, and related the various occasions he had to use it. Even under attack by the people of Tlaxcala, Cortes claimed to obey the royal command by reading the requerimiento to natives who were apparently not interested in listening.29 Shortly after arriving on the coast, he relates how the people of Cempoala, “replied not in words but with a shower of arrows.”30 At first the Indians rejected the offer contained within the requerimiento, but as the conquest progressed they became more willing to evaluate other options. In post-conquest New Spain many Indians avoided the requerimiento’s promise of slavery by simply converting to Christianity. However simple it seems, the Indians conspired successfully to retain much of their own spiritual identity while holding fast to much of their freedom by flocking to Christian baptism in large numbers.
The idea of the Franciscans being oblivious to the conspiracy as it played out right under their noses, is hard to imagine, especially when considering Motolinia’s admission of having known about the secret idol worship. In his prologue, Sahagun places the majority of the blame for the false conversions on the Franciscans’ “opinion…of their perfect faith.”31 This opinion, as Sahagun called it, stemmed from a millennial mindset the Franciscans developed shortly after arriving in New Spain. Apparently the Twelve believed the great conversion of the heathen masses was a sign from God that the end times, or millennium was near. Martin de Valencia, the leader of the Twelve, had seen a vision while in a monastery in Estremadura, Spain. This vision was of “a very great multitude of heathen souls that were converted and came to the Faith and to baptism.”32 Motolinia tells of Valencia’s strong desire to find an opportunity to go and preach to the heathen people, bringing them to the Catholic Faith through baptism. That opportunity came to him in New Spain. As the Indians began coming for baptism, the Franciscans imagined the fulfillment of the prophecy contained in Valencia’s vision. Valencia proclaimed, “now I see fulfilled what the Lord showed me in the spirit.”33 The Franciscans believed there was a supernatural movement of God, drawing the Indians to the Faith. In the minds of the Twelve, this movement would account for the many baptisms they performed with so little preaching.
The twelve Franciscans believed wholeheartedly that there was no need to preach against idolatry any longer. In their opinion, God had brought the Indians to conversion just as He had shown Martin de Valencia in his vision. Sahagun mentions in his prologue the idea of other religious being encouraged by the Twelve to adopt this mindset. The late comers appear to have had no reason at the time to doubt the authenticity of the claim, based on their own observations of the mass conversions. Over time, however the truth would reveal itself. The Church in New Spain had been built on a rather sandy foundation and as time progressed, it would struggle to stand against the storms that slammed into it. As the Encomienda system turned into a system of repartimiento, the Indians would have difficulty accepting the practicality of the Christian Faith. In his letter to Charles V, Pedro de Gante described the average life of an Indian in the repartimiento system. While explaining to the king the harshness of the treatment the Indians endured at the hands of Christians, he expressed great sympathy for the natives in their futile efforts to benefit from salvation. “May Your Majesty consider how this man can be a Christian.” “I believe,” Gante wrote, “that if he had been he would turn into a Moor out of despair.”34 In a system designed to help the Indians grow in Christianity, they were instead treated as mere slaves and driven, perhaps farther from the Catholic Faith.
In 1545, the Church in New Spain faced other trials and troubles. An outbreak of Typhus swept through the valley of Mexico once again devastating the indigenous population. Hanns Prem suggests the outbreak, which lasted until 1548, may have been the “most disastrous” pathogen attack in New Spain in the entire sixteenth century.35 A population already struggling to recover from the wars of conquest and a simultaneous smallpox epidemic, now had to endure Typhus. The Church in New Spain struggled to endure hardships. By 1562, a mere thirty-eight years after the arrival of the twelve Franciscans, another Franciscan named Jeronimo de Mendieta would express his opinion of the state of the Church in New Spain. “in visiting the convents, one hardly finds a single monk who is content and happy…the old fervor and enthusiasm for the salvation of souls seems to have disappeared.”36 He added, “the newly converted Indians no longer throng the churches to hear the word.”37 The millennial spirit that once flooded New Spain had vanished. Real life in Colonial Mexico placed a larger burden on the masses than a “damaged and ruined” church could relieve.
While Motolinia and Sahagun experienced the foundation of the Church in New Spain from different perspectives, it is difficult to understand how they could not see the condition of the Church in a uniform manner. Motolinia saw a Church built on solid rock with many converts brought to a miraculous salvation by God Himself. Sahagun saw a foundation more sandy than solid, and a group of conversions that were more likely suspect than supernatural. To look at the Mexico of the twenty-first century is to see a country deeply rooted in its Catholic Faith and very loyal to the God of Heaven who has so often revealed Himself to be the Savior of all Mexicans. No matter which opinion is the most accurate, Motolinia’s spiritual utopia or Sahagun’s holy train wreck, the facts remain the same. The Church was planted in New Spain and has survived many years of trouble. Motolinia and Sahagun both remain greatly beloved advocates for the Indians of Mexico. The foundation may have been a little unstable but it did hold. The Church in New Spain did survive and ultimately flourished, giving the people of Mexico hope for the future amidst a country with a rather unstable past.
Braden, Charles S. Religious Aspects of the Conquest of Mexico. Durham. Duke University Press. 1930.
Brading, D. A. The First America: The Spanish monarchy, Creole patriots, and the Liberal state 1492-1867. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1991.
Cook, David Noble. Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
Cortes, Hernan. Letters From Mexico. Trans. Anthony Pagden. New Haven. Yale University Press. Rev. ed. 1986.
Las Casas, Bartolome de. The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. Trans. Herma Briffault. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1974.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Trans. Lysander Kemp. Boston. Beacon. 1962.
Mills, Kenneth, William B Taylor, and Sandra Lauderdale Graham. Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History. Lanham. Rowman & Littlefield. 2002.
Motolinia, Toribio de. History of the Indians of New Spain. Trans. Elizabeth Andros Foster. Westport. Greenwood Press. 1977.
Penyak, Lee M. and Walter J. Petry. Religion in Latin America: A Documentary History. Maryknoll. Orbis. 2006.
Sahagun, Fray Bernardino de. A History of Ancient Mexico. Trans. Fanny R. Bandelier. Glorieta. Rio Grande Press. 1976.