Laura de Mello e Souza
Popular religiosity in colonial Brazil was marked by the process of colonization, which placed populations of differing ethnic and cultural origins together in dynamic and conflicting ways. On the one hand, the lived experiences of these various populations reflected the beliefs of their continent of origin: Europe, Africa, and America. On the other hand, they were unavoidably intertwined, giving rise to novel forms of religious practice. Heterodox behaviors were notable from the beginning of colonization, adding to the peculiarities of the slave system that constituted colonial life and defined its social relations. In a vast territory over which the surveillance and control of religious institutions—both ecclesiastical and inquisitorial—proved unworkable, daily experiences of religiosity became increasingly distinct from the more dogmatic and “official” traits sustained by the Catholic Church. A particular type of religiosity, as heterodox and mixed as the population itself, took shape within the limits of Catholicism while continuously escaping its confines. Catholicism endured from the earliest times as the guiding orientation of Brazil, supported by the Crown as well as regular and secular clergy alike. The education of the elites was Catholic, and many of the earliest writings about the new land of Brazil came from the quills of the pious, producing foundational images marked by religious metaphors. For these reasons, popular religiosity reveals a great deal about the nature of Brazilian culture, and it is necessary to analyze it within the context of broader dynamics that define popular beliefs that do not always fit within the orthodox guidelines of official Catholicism and erudition.