Ars Praedicandi, Ars Politica: Sermons and the Rhetoric of Power in the Early Modern Atlantic World

AHA Session 11
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Kristine M. Wirts, University of Texas-Pan American
Matthew D. O'Hara, University of California, Santa Cruz

Session Abstract

Although the study of the sermon as a primary source has long illuminated scholarship in fields such as literature and theology, studies by historians have been less frequent until recently. Common to both Catholic and Protestant Early Modern societies, preaching was ubiquitous and included both a doctrinal component and a social dimension. Though shaped by the priority of conveying religious doctrine, preaching also responded to the social needs and expectations of audiences, providing instruction and guidance for key contemporary questions and dilemmas. Because many sermons were preserved, both in print and mansucript form, they thus offer to historians of Early Modern Europe and Colonial Latin America—broadly, the audience for this session—a rich source for study of the development both of approaches to doctrine as well as responses to the various contexts in which their preachers participated.

One important surrounding context for preaching in the Early Modern period were the social and political changes at play in the emergence of the modern state. As religious dynamics and economic circumstances changed around them, both Protestant and Catholic preachers sought to make sense of and respond to the challenges facing their institutions, often formulating their responses by way of their preaching. This panel suggests a new direction for scholarship on communities and networks of religion and politics in Early Modern Europe and Colonial Latin America by examining how preachers used the medium of the sermon as a means of formulating strategies and responses to some of the challenges they faced.

This session’s three papers intersect in their respective examinations of connections between preaching and politics. Studying the case of Early Modern France, the first paper, by Kristine Wirts, examines how Huguenot ministers articulated a new vision and worldview that became remarkably competitive in the early modern battleground of religious ideologies. The central argument is that Huguenot rhetoric signaled a change in popular sensibilities as ministers formulated new rhetorical codes that reflected changing mores and expectations. For the Huguenots, linguistic codes for capitalism, science, and technology came to replace church, rank, and privilege as the new markers of social value and authority. The second paper, by Charles Witschorik, examines sermons from Early Modern Spain and Colonial Mexico and proposes that the surprisingly flexible visions of gender present in Mexican sermons constitute an important, as yet largely unexplored source for understanding the development of the Baroque and of creole sensibilities in New Spain. The paper argues that gendered language in sermons provided a means by which the Church could both celebrate creole greatness and affirm its own position of social prominence. The third paper, by David Rex Galindo, focuses on Jesuit and Franciscan sermons from eighteenth-century New Spain and the years following the war for Mexican independence. The paper argues that Catholic preachers, by means of their sermons, took part in the contemporary political and social debates in Europe and the Americas, both teaching the social benefits of enlightened despotism and, later, growing radicalized and ultimately contributing to the advent of Mexican independence.

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