A Religious History of Latin America
New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America
Yale University Press 422pp £25
This is the third major book that John Lynch, Emeritus Professor of Latin American History at University College London, has published with Yale University Press in the last six years. His Simón Bolívar: A Life (2006) quickly became the classic biography of the most famous figure of northern South America’s independence movements two hundred years ago. This was followed by San Martín: Argentine Soldier, American Hero (2009), a similarly detailed and contextualised volume on the liberator of the south of the continent. It might have been thought that no project could be more ambitious than taking on the lives of the two major national heroes in the shadow of whose myths entire nations have been remade. Fortunately for his readers Lynch has now turned his magnificently fluid and incisive prose to a general religious history of America south of the Rio Grande since 1492.
This is the first-time that a historian has been able to synthesise secondary and primary sources into a readable and analytical text dealing comparatively with Mexico, Central and South America. It is a remarkable achievement. It oozes authority as it ‘studies the life of the Church and the reception of Christianity by the peoples of Latin America’. Alive to the fusion between cultures and belief systems during the colonial period, Lynch narrates institutional structures and tensions as well as the religion of elites and the faith of the people. Combining remarkable summaries of general principles with surprising, enlightening and often subversive examples, Lynch is an enthusiastic, knowledgable and expansive guide: his book will be the perfect introduction to this complex subject, providing as it does quick and discrete explanations of all the historical, social and political processes that underpin the analysis. But it will also be a valuable text for experts on Latin American history, who have never before had access to such a wide-ranging, deliberately comparative and chronologically-broad account.
The chapters on the colonial period and the 19th century are wonderfully insightful, contextualised and interpretative, drawing on Lynch’s peerless knowledge of the secondary literature and published primary sources. They argue persuasively that religion infiltrated every corner of Latin American life in this period and explain how and why this happened. The chapters on the 20th century are perhaps less polished, but they provide a well-considered and valuable synthesis of everything from Church links to dictators and human rights organisations, through to liberation theology and options for the poor. Some readers might lament that Native American religious beliefs (when not in contact with Catholicism), African and Protestant traditions might all have received more attention (although they do get quite a lot) in a text with a title such as this. Lynch is unapologetic, stating right at the beginning that ‘the evidence suggests that for five centuries the defining religion of Latin America has been Catholic and this is the assumption on which the book has been written’. The narrative that follows is a strong defence of this position, closely linking colonial and republican political and economic developments to the role of the Church in a relationship that showed marked continuities across half a millennium. This makes it required reading for anyone interested in the place of religion in Latin America.
Matthew Brown is the author of The Struggle for Power in Post-Independence Colombia and Venezuela (Palgrave Macmillan Studies of the Americas, 2012).
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