Saint or monster? Two new biographies of California’s founder

Junipero Serra was the extraordinary Spanish monk who converted the coastal tribes

By Mike Byfield Jan 17, 2014

Serra founded the first nine California missions, introducing agriculture and Christianity.
Serra founded the first nine California missions, introducing agriculture and Christianity.

Junipero Serra was the principal founder of California’s famed Christian missions, establishing nine settlements from San Diego to San Francisco Bay in the mid-18th century. As with Christopher Columbus and other European explorers, the legacy of this strange, tough, driven Franciscan friar is under review.

Two recent biographies cite essentially the same facts yet reach strikingly opposite conclusions. Stephen Hackel suggests in Junipero Serra that however noble his intentions, Serra was an egotistic despot who abused his Indian converts. In Journey to the Sun, Gregory Orfalea presents him as a hero working against long odds to prepare his terribly vulnerable flock for a civilized future.

Hackel is a historian from the University of California, Riverside. Orfalea, an Arab-American, teaches writing at the nearby Pitzer College. Serra himself was an academic until he was 54, a charismatic professor of theology from the Spanish island of Mallorca. Neither biographer overlooks Serra’s ferocious self-discipline. Despite a severely ulcerated leg, the aging missionary walked thousands of miles, wore penitential wire-spiked undergarments, flagellated himself, and risked his life on countless occasions.

Junipero Serra: dramatic career change at age 54.Junipero Serra: dramatic career change at age 54.

From near-naked wanderers to farmers

The Franciscans’ impact on California’s aboriginal hunter-gatherers was revolutionary. Serra, who would baptize about 5,000 aboriginal souls over 16 years, encountered clans who wore no clothing whatever. Many were friendly, some violently hostile. In theory, Indians volunteered to join a mission. Recruits learned farming, herding, carpentry and music (eight-minute video), they ate regularly and were protected against enemy tribes by the Spanish military. Serra, who died on the job in 1784, is deemed by some the father of California.

The missions were intended to evolve into normal settlements over time. During the preparatory period, Indian converts were considered Spanish subjects and treated like adult children, liable for whipping or branding if they ran away. (Similar punishment was applied to Spanish soldiers, sailors, monks and others.) Nubile girls were locked up to protect their chastity, clandestine suitors punished if caught. Given the aboriginals’ lack of resistance to European microbes, mission death rates were high. One friar wrote despairingly that even well-behaved converts “fatten, sicken and die.”

See A Century of Giants

Spanish colonization is described in Chapter 10, “Avarice and cruelty vie with devotion and faith as Spain takes America.”

A Century of Giants, Volume 9 of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years

There were certainly some abuses

Serra admitted that punishments on occasion were excessive, and that some friars fell into drunkenness, lust or insanity. He also clashed regularly with haughty Spanish officers and their thuggish troops, who were prone to raping and robbing his converts. The missions were shut down by the Mexican government during the 1830s.

Serra is decried by modern liberals for initiating a “cultural genocide” of native Californians – another way of saying he brought them out of the Stone Age. Any implication of literal genocide gets laughed out of court due to the friar’s self-sacrificial dedication to his people. In 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified the Franciscan pioneer, the third of four steps required in the Roman procedure for proclaiming sainthood. One hold-up: a lack of verified miraculous cures.

Further reading

Two Thousand Years. Twelve Volumes. One Story.
Two Thousand Years. Twelve Volumes. One Story.
Two Thousand Years. Twelve Volumes. One Story.
Two Thousand Years. Twelve Volumes. One Story.
Two Thousand Years. Twelve Volumes. One Story.

To read more testimonials of The Christians, click here.

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