The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1977, Volume 23, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review
Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

Rules and Precepts of the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain. By Charles W. Polzer. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. x, 141 pages. $4.50, softbound, $8.50, clothbound.


Reviewed by Cynthia Radding Murrieta, Researcher in history, Centro Regional del Noroeste, Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Secretaria de Educaci6n Pdblica, Mexico.

Rules and Precepts is the first work to appear in the publications series entitled “Documentary Relations of the Southwest.” The intent of the series, as stated by the author, is to provide for the scholar and aficionado alike source materials for anthropological and historical research on the Southwest, “unimpaired by interpretive synthesis” (p. ix), through the selection, annotation, and translation into English of key, informative documents.

The present volume is a carefully prepared compilation of regulations for the administration of the Jesuit missions, as established and reviewed periodically by the Fathers Visitor and the Provincials of the Order in New Spain, and recorded at the mission rectorate of San Francisco Borja in Sonora. This publication is based on a typescript copy by Gerard Decorme, S.J., reconstituted from several archives and deposited in the Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus, compared with the original documents now housed in the Mexican Archivo Histórico de Hacienda. The text is accompanied with explanatory notes, including brief biographical sketches of each of the Fathers named.

The rules here presented cover a chrono­logical span of one and a half centuries (1610-1763). The documents reveal the major areas of concern in the Jesuit sions: conversion of the Indian neophytes to Christian ritual and doctrine; temporal administration of the mission communities; observance of religious discipline among the Jesuit fathers; and relations between the missionaries and “externs,” the Spanish colonials. Greatest emphasis is placed on indoctrination in the Christian faith, wherein importance is given to the missionaries’ mastery of the native languages. The rules make clear that while the missionary administered the economic life of the missions, he was not to be an entrepreneur nor to engage in any kind of profit making; yet the bases for specific decisions concerning division of lands, distribution of harvests, and sale of surplus produce are not made explicit here. In all matters, spiritual and temporal, the missionary was bound by obedience to follow the judgment of his superiors.

In addition to the minute detail covered in the regulations, as noted by Polzer, one detects a growing sensitivity in the Jesuit superiors to criticism from outside the Order.

The published regulations (Part II) are preceded by the author’s “Interpretation” (Part I) concerning the terms associated with mission documentation, the import of the regulations for the operation of the missions, and Jesuit mission methodology. It is pointed out that the rules as stated constitute the norms by which the missions should have been run, and not necessarily the modes of actual practice (pp. x, 13).

Of particular interest is Father Polzer’s thoughtful discussion of mission methodology. To the missionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, methods of conversion were largely “pragmatic responses to situations as perceived” (p. 39) and understood in terms of divine grace and the Christian virtue of charity. Polzer stresses the evolutionary character of the mission enterprise, by which the problems which the missionary confronted grew more complex as the missions developed from recent conversiones to established doctrinas, and in this context distinguishes between the concepts of indoctrination and acculturation (p. 53).

The author’s comparison between the relative success of the Jesuit and Franciscan missions of northern New Spain invites discussion. He cites both anthropological and historical data in an attempt to associate patterns of native acculturation to specific differences in mission methodology. While admitting his argument, it should be pointed out that differences in degree of acculturation reflect the impact of the mission experience in combination with aboriginal cultural patterns and the multiple influences of Spanish frontier institutions and agents: presidios, mining centers and Spanish towns, private haciendas and ranches, and provincial civil authority. Rules and Precepts, in both the interpretive and documentary sections, provides a valuable contribution to the ethnohistory and colonial historiography of Northwest Mexico, written with a dash of humor and the sensitivity of a scholar and humanist whose interests lie close to the region’s cultural and historical legacy.