Imprensa Evangelica: forging new religious identities in nineteenth-century Brazil
Pedro Feitoza’s essay Experiments in Missionary Writing: Protestant Missions and the Imprensa Evangelica in Brazil, 1864-1892 is the inaugural winner of the World Christianities Essay Prize*
It was in August 2008, in the countryside of the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, that I first encountered volumes of Brazil’s first Protestant periodical, the Imprensa Evangelica (Evangelical Press, 1864-1892). On this occasion I visited the house and private library of the Rev Élben Lenz César (1930-2016), pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Viçosa and founder of a Christian magazine called Ultimato. César was of his family’s third generation of Presbyterian pastors. His grandfather’s involvement with the Presbyterian Church of Brazil dated from the 1870s, when the Imprensa was alive and circulating. Amidst the vast collection of the pastor’s library there were bound numbers of the Imprensa’s first years, ranging from 1864 to 1867. What struck me in the first place, while I opened the pages of the periodical and spoke with the old pastor, was that Elben César read and meditated upon these volumes published more than 140 year before that event. He underlined passages he found interesting and annotated on the pages of the periodical, which inspired him to write books on the history of evangelical Christianity in Brazil (by that time he had published a book on the history of evangelisation and a biography of the Rev Ashbel Simonton, founder of the Imprensa and first Presbyterian missionary in Brazil). Nearly ten years after my visit to Rev César’s house, I had gathered material enough to write a history of this Protestant periodical and its circulation in Brazil.
This is the object of my article ‘Experiments in Missionary Writing: Protestant Missions and the Imprensa Evangelica in Brazil, 1864-1892’, published by the Journal of Ecclesiastical History and winner of the inaugural World Christianities Prize. The periodical, founded in November 1864, was administered by American Presbyterian missionaries and partly funded by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church of the United States. Additional funds and resources used in the Imprensa’s production came from the London-based Religious Tract Society, which contributed with reams of paper, and fundraising among Brazilian churches. As foreign missionaries took some time to learn Portuguese and not many of them became fluent in the new language, they transferred editorial responsibilities to local church leaders and ministers at the very beginning of the Imprensa’s history. These ministers, most of them Brazilian and Portuguese converts, prepared for the Presbyterian pastorate studying church history, biblical theology, Latin, Greek, among other topics with the American missionaries, and trained as licensed preachers in congregations in the countryside of São Paulo and Minas Gerais in the 1880s. They formed a marginal intelligentsia in the country, and their participation in the Imprensa projected them into the Brazilian and Lusophone public spheres in the nineteenth century. This was the case of the Revs Eduardo Carlos Pereira and José Zacarias de Miranda, who published critiques of the conservative reform of the Catholic Church (Ultramontanism), decried the dissemination of Positivism among Brazil’s intellectual elites, and condemned slavery.
At first glance, the periodical did not seem to have a wide circulation in Brazil. The Imprensa had around a thousand subscribers at its peak. However, evangelical print circulated widely across the Brazilian territory by means of a dense and far-reaching network encompassing congregations, evangelical libraries in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, colporteurs, evangelists and Bible-readers. These texts in motion generated new reading practices in the country, extending the reach of Christian literacy to small farmers, disenfranchised immigrants and urban workers. Sermons and hymns printed on the pages of the Imprensa were read and sang in small congregations scattered across villages and towns in the countryside of Brazil. Also, missionaries and teachers in Sunday and parish schools used catechisms and biblical verses printed on the Imprensa as reading primers. These actions extended the reach of the periodical far beyond the limits of subscriptions and connected oral and literate cultures. Furthermore, the production and circulation of the periodical heightened the opposition of Catholic intellectuals and journalists in different parts of Brazil. A vigorous debate on religious freedom, the effects of liberal political reforms, and the legality of non-Catholic religious propaganda emerged in the 1870s, having the pages of the Imprensa Evangelica and Catholic periodicals such as O Apostolo (The Apostle) as their main stage.
In mobilising their small constituencies at home and receiving funds from evangelical organisations in the United States and Britain, the Imprensa editors managed to keep the periodical circulating for nearly thirty years in Brazil, an important achievement for a religious minority at that time. Editors and contributors opposed the reforms introduced by the First Vatican Council (1869-70), their reverberations in Brazil, and the papacy of Pius IX. At the same time, they defended a broad set of political reforms, including the secularisation of cemeteries, the creation of civil registration of marriages and births, the concession of political rights to non-Catholics, and, ultimately, the principle of state-church separation. In doing so, this small periodical played an important role in forging new religious identities in nineteenth-century Brazil.
*The Journal of Ecclesiastical History’s new World Christianities Essay Prize awards £500, funded in part by a generous donation from the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, each year to the author of an original research article on any subject relating to the history of Christianity outside Europe and North America since the year 700. Contributions are welcome from any historical subdiscipline and with any chronological or geographical focus within those parameters. Find out more