Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Colonial American Religion...In the West

Brad Hart

When it comes to the history surrounding America's founding -- and particularly when it relates to religion -- most of us automatically think of the various events that took place in Boston, Philadelphia, etc. Rarely if ever do we consider the colonial history that took place in the west. After all, what was to become the United States was nothing more than 13 colonies. Why should we consider history of the west?

The land that eventually became the western part of the United States has as rich of a religious history as does the east. When we consider the various Native American tribes, each with their unique forms of worshipping the divine, the religious heritage of the west becomes virtually immeasurable. Sadly, much of this rich Native American religious culture has been lost due to disease, war, etc. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico and eventually made their way north into the southwestern part of the United States, a large portion of this Native American religious culture was replaced with the passionate and obligatory doctrine of Catholicism. Most natives were compelled to convert to Christ's "holy church" in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their families.

One group of Native Americans that converted to Catholicism, and were subsequently used as slave labor were the Tlaxcalan Indians of Mexico. After their conversion, the Tlaxcalan's were sent north to help settle Santa Fe. Their task was to construct a church, which they build upon the remnants of an ancient Indian holy site in 1598, roughly 22 years before the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth. This Church, which became known as the San Miguel Church, is today the oldest church in all of the United States. Here are a few pictures that I took of the San Miguel Church during a recent visit to Santa Fe:

Welcoming sign at the front of the church.
A View of the church from across the street.
This picture was taken from the very back of the church and gives the best perspective on the church's overall size.
The tapestry in the center was done by the Tlaxcalan Indians in the early 1600s. The church decided to leave it as it was hanging on the wall.
This is the original mural that was restored in the 1980s. It sits behind the altar.
Some additional art done by the Tlaxcalan Indians.
Here is a cutout on the floor of the church that shows where the original Indian holy mount was once located. Archaeologists estimate that the holy mount was built in 1300.

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