History of Jesuits in Latin America

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History of Jesuits in Latin America

The presence of the Catholic Church in almost all the corners of the world has gone on unchallenged. For centuries, Catholic Orders have played a role in exerting social, religious and economic influences over underdeveloped remote societies. Whereas today such missions may have deemed redundant especially with the emergence of rival denominations and modernization, history is laden with examples of such missions that changed the course of societies.

One such presence that has been closely examined and one recognized for the multi-tiered influence it had on the society is the Jesuits Order in Latin America. In their wake, they left a society with an established network of economic, social and educational order before they were expelled by the crown governments for their conflicting economic, political and ideological interests. The Catholic Dogma remains a formidable force in Latin America surpassing that of any other church and having a solidified control over the religious life of the populace.

The history of the Catholic Church in Latin America dates back to the late 16th century as priests from various orders embarked on a mission to spread the word to the indigenous remote areas of the South American continent. The Jesuits had a late arrival compared to other orders but despite this, they have been recognized as having left an indelible mark and impression upon the natives more than any other religious group.

The story of their settlement has been well chronicled and retold to generations after generations. Though their relationship would eventually sour leading to the hostile eviction and suppression of their dogma, the Jesuits were warmly welcomed by the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments who positively viewed western religion as an apt tool for civilizing the natives and introducing western ways thus make them easily governable (Robert, 2008).

Immense scholarly attention has been channeled to establish the major reasons behind the success of Jesuits in Latin America and the rationalization of their solid foothold despite being late entrants. While some literature may focus on the seemingly vast resources they wielded as enabling them to finance elaborate religious expeditions, many historians have come to the conclusion that the success lay in Jesuits willingness to blend Christianity with the existing pre-colonial culture.

It has to be reiterated that the main motivation the colonial governments welcoming the missionaries was because they saw them as sugar coated baits to the Indians which would ensure their submissiveness to the colonial authority. To the colonists, these Reductions (mission settlements) would be appropriate tools for bringing the Indians together for the purpose of taxation and effective colonization.

In Mexico, these settlements were referred to as conregacion while in Brazil they were called aldeias and were seen as appropriate instruments for the Europeanization of the Indians (Gary, 2010). The Jesuits first set foot in Paraguay, amongst the Tupi-Guarani peoples before extending their influence to areas such as Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina amongst others. The initial arrival of the Jesuits in Latin America was facilitated by the Spanish crown and the superiors in Rome as a joint effort to popularize Christianity as well as civilize the indigenous communities.

It is the zeal with which they interacted with the natives and also with the Spanish colonial government that would determine their success. Their initial abodes were in the European dominated settlements. They found themselves at a disadvantage because other mission pioneers such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans had already mapped out and occupied the easily accessible territories and hence the Jesuits had to venture deep into the Aztec imperialism to reach the indigenous populations.

Although eager to work with the native communities, prudence dictated that they had to commence their mission in the Spanish populated zones before venturing into the interiors. It is here hence that they set a solid foundation and initiated educational institutions that had a philosophical impact upon the immediate society as well as extending to the rest of the colony (Herman 1). One glaring impact that the Jesuits had in Latin America was the solidifying of the economic base of the locals.

Scholarly interest has over the years been devoted to explore the extent of the Jesuits wealth and economic interests across South America and has revealed astronomical resources that led to the survival and the expansion of the Jesuit mission but ironically was also a source of conflict with the state and also the private secular haciendas. The Jesuit order was institutionalized in Rome in 1535 and unlike other orders was able to cultivate a cohesive structure away from the wrangles that characterized the state and church relations.

Coupled with astute management of financial resources, the urban and rural properties that they owned, the Jesuits were able to expand the sphere of their mission deep into the interior (Enrique 1981). With such immense resources, the Jesuits were able to set up major development facilities as well as ensure the provision of social amenities such as health and education. As most have concurred, the Jesuits were administrative geniuses with their file and rank laden with individuals of various skills and competences.

As Oreste (97) agrees, “under the religious habit of the order were hidden skilled technicians in the most distinct specialties: educators and psychologist; engineers and architects; metal workers and agriculturalist; artisans of many different trades; doctors and pharmacists; and even painters and sculptors. ” Armed with such immense human resources, they left a decisive influence on the local communities. The schools they set up for the natives were unprecedented.

Although there exists other universities set up by the Dominicans and the Franciscans, the Jesuit schools have been recognized for their powerful impact. An example of the famous universities they set up include san Ignacio de Loyola in Cordoba and Xaverian University in Bogota situated in Argentina and Colombia respectively. A notable contribution has been hailed as having been upon the Indian tribes spanning across both North and South America. By the time the Jesuits began their settlement in Latin America, the Indians were either gatherers or nomadic hunters.

By the close of their 150 years of stay, the Indians had become a more organized and educated community with social and economic height equaling that of medieval western towns. Examples that have been greatly highlighted are the Guarani towns referred to as the Settlements of Paraguay. These settlements would later become urbanized being put under the charge of Jesuit priests aided by selected Indians. These settlements formed core units of the national economy creating a concentrated web of economic and social traffic. Each settlement was self autonomous complete with a church and artisan workshops.

Education was a core concern and was a main preoccupation to the priests; it was a hence necessary that each town be equipped with a school and a library. Indians in the Jesuit settlements were able to accomplish a high level of economic, social and cultural development outdoing even the Spanish towns in the region. Undoubtedly, the Jesuits had a huge economic, social, religious and cultural impact in Latin America. Their prosperity and a strong sense of independence put them on a collision path with the Spanish and Portugal crowns and it was only a matter of time before they were expelled.

Indeed in 1767, the Spanish king announced the banishment of all Jesuits from all the Spanish controlled areas. This would consequently lead to the taking over of all Jesuit possessions by the colonial government and the return to Europe of all Jesuits under arrest. The woes leading to the expulsion of the Jesuits can be traced to Europe where strong opposition began to arise coupled by a papal decree to dissolve the Jesuit mission or what was known as the Company of Jesus.

A diagnosis of the conflict between the Jesuits and the Spanish crown reveals that it revolved around economic, ideological and political factors. There are those that have pointed out that the immense resources that the Jesuits accumulated and their seemingly prosperity was their undoing. As reiterated above, the Jesuits became a major economic class leading to the development of Jesuit haciendas. A wealthy class of Jesuits that owned huge tracts of plantations becoming influential figures in both social and political circles.

This involvement in economic concerns in the long-term led to the development of conditions that deviated from the original intent of the Company of Jesus. Like the secular haciendas, the Jesuits began enjoying elite privileges and pursuing interests that put them at a crossroad with the crown administration. The Jesuits were also seen as undermining the crown by exploiting the special relations they enjoyed with the Indians they protected. There were claims that the Jesuits were treasonable and were engaged in secret plots against the crown.

An example would be an uprising in Oporto referred to as the Taverners Revolt which was alleged to have been plotted by the Jesuits albeit never being proven. To the secular haciendas, the Jesuits economic prowess was a major threat to their livelihood. The Jesuits were accused of unfair trade practices and of grabbing the fertile lands at the expense of other enterprising Europeans. For instance they were accused of monopolizing the spice trade in the Amazon and of locking other interested traders using unfair practices. Herman, 1980)

The wealth and the influence that the Jesuits wielded hence left them at a precarious situation creating a fear amongst other groups that their domination would lead to the disintegration of the Portuguese and the Spanish crowns paving way for the taking over the mantle by the Jesuits who by then were spread almost across the whole of South America. It was for these reasons that the pope issued a banning decree and the crown governments followed it up by expelling all the Jesuits, confiscating their properties and their huge plantations (Jeffrey, 2004)

Indeed the history of the Jesuits in Latin America and their accomplishments remain exemplary. Touted as one of the most influential group of missionaries from Europe, the Jesuit settlement in its wake, and after close to 150 years, left a more advanced economy with advances in education that has continued to be recognized more than two centuries after the banishment of Jesuits. While the major reasons for their expulsion lay in the numerous political, economic and ideological conflicts with the secular haciendas, the crown and the authorities in Rome, their exit left a major blow to south America that would take years to mend.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 September 2016

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