Epidemics and New World Religions

Jennifer Hughes
UC Riverside

Much as historians and scholars of religion have pondered how slavery, or perhaps more pointedly, the Middle Passage, shaped African-American religious belief and practice, this project seeks to uncover the impact of the initial experience of demographic collapse, and then of repeated waves of epidemic disease, upon indigenous Christianity in the New World. Although colonial New Spain is the locus of this study, my investigation and interpretation will move both outward geographically and forward in time, finding important points of reference in the Andes, Brazil, and even in the United States. Taking religion as the central interpretive category, I explore how the encounter with epidemics altered indigenous epistemologies and cosmologies including conceptions of the sacred, the place and significance of the human being in the cosmic order, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. I will look carefully at changes in ritual, mortuary practice, and notions of illness, death and dying post-contact. Within adopted Christian practice, the meaning and use of sacraments, the appeal to religious images, the purpose of processions and penitence among indigenous Christians will be key subjects for investigation and reflection.