and effective explanation of the universe and how to deal with it. To paraphrase one recent historian, whether they knew it or not (the strong inference is that they knew it), parish priests and missionaries from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth centuries were engaged in conversation, not conversion.2 But it was not a conversation that ended with Baptism. The dialogue continued throughout the colonial period.
The development of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe illustrates this process. In 1555, the Franciscan provincial of Mexico City attacked the cult as the idolatrous worship of a man-made image. But by the mid-seventeenth century, when the apparition had been recorded in a written Nahuatl version (the Nican Mopohua), the story and the iconography of the Virgin had come closely to parallel accounts of Spanish Marian apparitions. At the same time, the popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe crossed cultural boundaries. After 1648, the cult spread most quickly among Creoles, while indigenous communities outside of the Valley of Mexico ignored it. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, it was firmly grounded in all ethnic communities throughout New Spain.
The evolutionary process involving the Virgin of Guadalupe was typical of all manifestations of the cult of the saints in Central Mexico. At the end of the sixteenth century indigenous peoples may still have used medieval Christian conceptions of the intercessory roles of the saints to mask traditional Nahua understandings of the need to appease the gods and seek protection from a pantheon of household deities and higher spiritual powers. By the eighteenth century, however, knowledge of the traditional deities and their traditional characteristics had been lost. Like rural believers in sixteenth-century Spain, those in Central Mexico now saw the Christian devil and his minions as the source of ill fortune, even though the world was ultimately under God's control. They believed that the intercessory powers of the Christian saints derived from the saints' relationship with God, not from any independent authority.
Some Bourbon bishops and priests in the vice-royalty of New Spain remained suspicious that the emphasis on the cult of saints in rural communities hid crypto-pagan practices. But it would seem that, in large part, their concerns were due to the fact that few diocesan priests (and no bishops) could speak local languages well enough to understand the content of religious devotions or to speak with their parishioners about them. The clergy was also no doubt unhappy with the control exercised by the laity over such local devotions. Priests thus found their own role severely circumscribed - a situation that was all the more serious in that their own remuneration depended on lay generosity for their services. There was also a cultural divide occasioned by
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