Thursday, October 19, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Celebrating 150 Years of Methodism in Mexico: Napoleon, Cinco de Mayo, and Reform

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Rev. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary.

What does Cinco de Mayo have to do with Methodism in Mexico? Restaurants, schools, and breweries in the U.S. have made the holiday popular—mostly for commercial gain. However, few can articulate the history or significance of the Cinco de Mayo holiday. Some people wrongly assume that it is Mexican Independence Day. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico launched its war on September 16, 1810, and won its independence from Spain in 1821, while the Battle of Puebla happened over 50 years later on May 5, 1862. Mexico’s victory was against the French army. 

Now what were the French doing in Mexico? This brings us to our topic of Methodists in Mexico. But first a little background.

Ever since Hernan Cortez and Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs and Emperor Moctezuma in 1521, politics in Mexico have been intimately intertwined with religion. The Spanish arrived with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. The Roman Catholic Church and clergy enjoyed broad ranging power, influence, and wealth – owning approximately 1/3 of Mexican land.

This began to change when President Benito Juarez (1806-1872) and the liberals advocated for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. They fought for a constitutional federal state, subjugation of the army to civil authorities, public education, freedom of religion, and the equal distribution of wealth through the sale of unused church property. In 1856, the liberal government headed by Juarez passed the Ley Lerdo, which ordered the sale of church lands (monasteries, cemeteries, etc.) not used for religious purposes. The Catholic Church and clergy fought back in the War of Reform (1858-1860). The liberals won this war and recaptured Mexico City in 1860, passing the freedom of religion law, which allowed other denominations besides Catholics to legally operate in Mexico. The government carried out reforms, nationalizing Catholic properties and secularizing charitable institutions (e.g., hospitals). The liberals turned around and sold these properties to the public, which allowed for the creation of a Mexican middle class.

The Roman Catholic clergy and conservative allies were on the losing end of these reforms and encouraged French Emperor Napoleon III to intervene, which he did under the pretext of an outstanding national debt to France. The French invaded Mexico in 1862, and Napoleon named Maximiliano I to be emperor of Mexico. A sense of national pride and sovereignty rallied Mexican troops, who initially defeated the French army on May 5 at the Battle of Puebla. The victory was short-lived as the better-equipped army advanced and entered Mexico City in 1864. Maximiliano I tried to create a unified government, but he was caught between the competing claims of liberals and the coalition of conservatives and clerics. In 1867, Maximiliano was defeated by Benito Juarez and executed, marking a victory for the liberals and for the Reform. 

What does this have to do with Methodism? 

The liberal government found an ally in North American and European Protestants who believed in literacy, public education, health care, democracy, and ministry in rural areas—especially to the indigenous populations. A former Franciscan convent on Gante Street in Mexico City was one once of the properties confiscated and sold by the liberal government. It was and is a majestic site. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the lands had been used by Emperor Moctezuma as a garden before it became the first and largest Franciscan convent in New Spain. Between 1862 and 1873 after being sold during the Reforma, this building had various owners and was used for different purposes. In 1865, it was home to the Chiarini Circus, which Emperor Maximiliano once attended with his wife, Carlota. While the National Palace was under repair during 1868-9, this site became a place of legislation as temporary home to the Chamber of Deputies. It was also used as a theatre, restaurant, and cantina, among other functions. 

In 1871, the Missions Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church approved $10,000 for missions in Mexico. The following year, William Butler, missionary and founder of the Methodist Church in India, was named secretary of the American and Foreign Christian Union and was tasked with mission work in papal lands, specifically in Latin America. Ms. Matilda Rankin, a Congregationalist based in Brownsville, Texas, invited the Butlers to go to Mexico, and so on February 1, 1873, the family sailed for Veracruz and took a train to Mexico City. The Butlers purchased the former Franciscan monastery for $16,300 to start the first Methodist Church. They began an orphanage with 37 girls, and Mrs. Butler established a support group for mothers every Tuesday night. 

Alejo Hern├índez became the first Mexican to be ordained by the MEC, South in December of 1871. Born in Aguascalientes, Hern├índez came to Brownsville, Texas, in search of a Protestant Bible and was ordained a deacon by Bishop Enoch Martin in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then he traveled back to Mexico City to assist Butler to help the new Methodist mission on Gante Street in 1873. The same year, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South sent Bishop JC Keener, and he purchased the former chapel of St. Andrew on the corner of San Andres and Callejon 57 streets in Mexico City. 

The liberal reforms and defeat of the French army created a window of opportunity for the Methodists, along with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestants, to begin mission work in Mexico—150 years ago this year. To honor this history, the Methodist Church of Mexico will hold a celebratory conference later this year with the theme “Renovation and Future,” to be held at the Santisima Trinidad Methodist Church at Gante Street 5, November 30 – December 2.

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