The Church of the Dead: The Epidemic of 1576 and the Birth of Christianity in the Americas

Jennifer Scheper Hughes. NYU, $35 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4798-0255-5
In this sharp study, historian Hughes (Biography of a Mexican Crucifix) examines the devastating epidemic of 1576 in what is present-day Mexico and its effects on the expansion of Christianity. The epidemic, a still-unidentified hemorrhagic fever that devastated native populations, was a formative moment for the church in the Americas, Hughes argues, because the emotional, physical, and theological experience of mass death shaped the way Spanish missionaries ministered to and sought to control those who made up “Christ’s New World body.” Yet while Europeans were “succumbing to despair” and neglected to toll the bells for the dead they had ministered to, Indigenous people “took up the labor of tending and ringing the church bells themselves.” In the aftermath, those who survived—both Spanish and Indigenous—tried to assert dominance. Rather than returning to the precontact past, however, Indigenous Central Americans enacted a vision of Catholic practice divorced from the “global imperial church” Spanish colonists envisioned. Hughes draws on art, architecture, and landscapes to paint a consistently rich, accessible portrait of the era. This impressive work persuasively challenges ideas about the inevitability and nature of the “Christianizing” mission in the Americas. (Aug.)
Reviewed on : 05/14/2021
Release date: 08/03/2021
Genre: Religion
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