It is the 31st of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today’s remembrance lines up with a question brought to me from David in San Antonio. David asks “as a Church historian how do you deal with Christopher Columbus”?
Thanks, David and others who have asked versions of the Columbus question. Here’s my quick answer: I tend not to deal with him, but rather the deleterious effects of combining evangelism and empire. My medium-to-long answer has to ask questions about the role of making heroes out of sinners and our faith into something like the game of RISK.
But I have found in years of teaching that Columbus questions usually come loaded and are best dealt with in longer, personal conversations. But another approach is to find a similar character who, while not perfect, sought to bring the Good News to the New World and condemned the practice of slavery hundreds of years before the abolitionist movement. Today we remember Bartolome De Las Casas who died on this, the 31st of July (by our modern calendar) in 1566.
DLC was born in 1474 in Spain and was both a student and soldier in his early years.
He went to Hispaniola (modern Haiti) in 1502 to work in the Encomienda system of enslaving the natives. He figured, as did many, that the civilized European had rights over the land and bodies of the inferior native peoples. While overseeing his encomienda he ironically was also ordained (possibly the first person ordained from Europe in the New World).
But a group of Dominican Friars visited the island in 1511 and refused to give De Las Casas and others communion or absolution. De Las Casas was troubled by this but continued to live and work in this Spanish slave system. We know that around 1514 he was struck by a verse from the wisdom book of Ecclesiasticus “He sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages.”
Like Luther’s “aha!” moment that would occur in just a few short years, this began De Las Casas’ new path and career as an advocate for enslaved natives in newly taken Spanish colonies.
He wrote “A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies”
He debated Juan Luis de Sepulveda back in Spain over the natural rights of those native peoples
(It is worth noting that Sepulveda and the church used arguments from Aristotle to argue for the natural subjugation of the enslaved. Your regular reminder that Aristotle was not Christian, often terribly wrong, and used to justify some of our most atrocious acts in the West)
DLC would gain the ear of the Spanish King Charles I, who happened to also be known as Emperor Charles V. Chuck was sympathetic and even established the “New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians”. These radical new laws would have prohibited the keeping of natives as slaves and crippled the encomienda system. Of course, these laws were soon repealed to much rejoicing by Spaniards in the New World because…. Of course, they were. Free labor is how you get rich and build big things fast!
De Las Casas was not perfect.
Even in his repentance he was not perfect and held views of African slaves that have been rightly condemned.
His reforms were squashed but he laid down a model for arguing that Christians see the image of God in all humans.
He served and serves as a counterpoint to the argument of “well everyone was doing that then and no one really thought it was bad”.
DLC would head back to Spain in 1547 as his New World colleagues thought him too much a zealot and a nuisance. He lived the remainder of his life in Spain where he continued to debate and write on issues well ahead of his time. Bartolome De Las Casas died on this day, the 31st of July which corresponds to July 18th on the old calendar on which he still recognized by the Catholic Church. He died in 1566.
The last word for today comes from Psalm 114, a short and poetic recounting of the Exodus:
1 When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, 2 Judah became God's sanctuary, Israel his dominion. 3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. 5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? 6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? 7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who likes his encomienda with cheese and shredded beef, and maybe some sour cream. He is Christopher Gillespie
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.