Senior Orations, Dickinson College

Why is Brazil in the Background?

A senior oration by Matthias S Messler(1)
delivered May 17, 1895

transcribed and annotated by Regan Winn, October 1999

Of all the nations in the two Americas, our country has so far surpassed its neighbors that adjective American, in whatever form used, applies almost exclusively to the United States.

It is thought that Brazil, the most important country of South America, is destined to be to that continent what the United States is to North America. However that may be, we know she has been in the background ever since the beginnings of the two nations(2); and it is our intention to consider the cause of this backwardness, and thus to find out why Brazil has not kept pace with the United States.

The coast of Brazil was discovered(3) one or two years after Sebastian Cabot(4) sailed along the coast of the United States; but in Brazil there were permanent settlements at Bahia(5) and Pernambuco(6) thirty years before the first permanent settlement in the bounds of our country. Other things being equal, from the standpoint of priority of settlement, Brazil ought today surpass the United States in population, wealth, and advancement.

Let us consider briefly whether other things are equal or not. The area of Brazil is greater than that of the United States, not including the territory of Alaska. Its facilities for navigation, both external and internal, are very great, having a vast extent of seacoast and navigable rivers. Its plateau and mountains abound in diamonds, gold, coal, manganese, galena, lead, iron, and sulphur. Indeed, it is said that Brazil's natural resources are quite equal to those of the United States. In the matter of climate also, the United States has not much advantage over Brazil. Except along some of the rivers, the whole country is considered generally healthful. The climate is said to be temperate and mild as compared with that of Africa, the nights being cool, or even chilly.(7) The great extent of its area, and the variety of its surface cause a variety of climate; while the elevation of the Plateau of Brazil(8) is sufficient to cause considerable variation in the seasons of that region. From these facts we conclude that Brazil has not a climate detrimental to the development of her natural resources, or to the advancement of her people.

These things being so, we may justly infer that the real cause for Brazil's Backwardness is not a material one. A brief review of the history of the government will show that there has been advancement along some lines, but it has not been at any time the outburst of a national desire for amelioration; it has been rather an outward change on account of the influence of other governments.(9)

Brazil on its discovery was formally taken possession of in the name of the Emperor of Portugal(10). It remained under the Portuguese sovereignty until the year 1822, when the Brazilians with Dom Pedro I as their Emperor declared themselves independent of Portuguese rule.(11) Under Dom Pedro II came the liberty of the slaves; and in the year 1889 this worthy Emperor gave up his sovereignty in favor of a republican form of government, which has since that time prevailed.(12) Thus we see that Brazil has imitated our country in government and in material improvement, but there is under it all great moral depravity.(13)

The question: Whence arises this great moral depravity?, brings us to the real fundamental cause. The Roman Catholic religion is the religion of Portugal, and since Brazil was settled and ruled by Portuguese, it has been the religion of Brazil ever since its settlement.(14) This has been the drawback under which Brazil has labored during all these years. The dominancy of priestcraft over the minds of the people has crushed the true principles of reform, which must spring up internally to be thoroughly effective.

Thomas Ewbank(15), a traveller in Brazil about the year 1855, gives us an idea of the state of the religion of the country at that time. In speaking of the forms and ceremonies of the church there, he says: "Almost as purely heathen as before the advent of Christ, it is a living and luminous exponent of pagan mysteries and ceremonies." Again he says: "I believe Romanism(16) as it exists in Brazil and South America generally, to be a barrier to progress, compared to which other obstacles are small, and there are native statesman alive to the fact; but incorporated as it is with the habits and thoughts of the people; transfused, as it were, through their very bones and marrow, unless some Kempis(17), or Fénélon(18), Luther(19), or Rouge, arise to purify it, generations must pass before the scales drop from their eyes, and they become mentally free."(20) This was forty years ago. Many changes have taken place since then, but they are not yet free.(21) Roman Catholicism dominating the mind, and subjecting it to a worse form of superstition than barbarism itself, can never produce a great nation.
    We know that the Christian faith was the foundation of our beloved country; and also we know that, at the formation of our republic, the gospel revival then prevalent in most of the colonies did much to plant the principles of pure morality and good government deep in the hearts of American citizens.(22) That blessed influence still abides in our country, and this is why we have so great a nation today.

Brazil as a nation never felt the influence of Protestantism.(23) It did not enter into its formation, nor yet has it been much felt within its borders. This is the one great need of Brazil today - A complete renovation of its moral condition.

That the past condition of Brazil is due to the dominancy of Roman Catholicism is more striking when we look at other papal countries.(24) Take Spain, and Portugal, the mother country of Brazil; they stand in the background with reference to other European countries. They are not advancing; they are dead.(25) If they have adopted any improvement, it is superficial, it is imitative, it did not spring up internally. Should we consider other papal countries, we would find the same thing true.(26) If they have thrown off the principles of Catholic faith, then they have to that extent advanced; but, if they are still submitting to it, you will find them for in the rear of national advancement.

It is evident that Brazils great need is evangelization. She is unable to cure herself. Many noble efforts have been made, but they were of no avail.(27) There seems no remedy except the pure gospel of Christ, which is able to save, not only men, but nations as well, through the saving of the individuals, which constitute them. 

Mathias Messler, May 1895

1. Matthias Shimp Messler was born on October 15, 1868 in Clarksburg, New Jersey. His parents were Charles P. and Ann (Bowman) Messler. He attended preparatory school at the Peddie Institute in New Jersey before attending Dickinson College in 1891. While at Dickinson, he was a member of the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, secretary of the Union Philosophical Society for two years, treasurer of the YMCA for two years, treasurer of his class for his freshman and sophomore years, chairman of the Missionary Committee for the YMCA, and curator of the Reading Room. He graduated from Dickinson in 1895 with a bachelor of arts degree in classical studies and went on to receive his bachelor of divinity from Drew Theological Seminary in 1900. He then went on to be a pastor in various Methodist Episcopal churches throughout New Jersey. On June 5, 1900, Matthias married Catharine Stewart of Hamilton Square, New Jersey. (Microcosm, 1894; Alumnus Record, 1905 - May Morris Room)

2. Brazil fell into the background quickly  during the 1800's, because Brazil along with most of Latin America, had a stagnant economy. It was a young nation which was new to the foreign exchange market and its main exports were slowly shifting from cotton and sugar in the northeast to coffee in the southern regions. Therefore, it took Brazil's economy much longer to get moving than that of the United States. (Stephen Haber, ed., How Latin America Fell Behind, Essays on the Economic Histories of Brazil and Mexico, 1800-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, 1-60.)]

3. Brazil was discovered in February of 1499 by Vicente Yañez Pinzon, one of Columbus' companions. He made no settlement, but took possession of it for the Spanish government. A year later on Easter day, April 26, Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese commander declared the country for Portugal during a mass for Easter Sunday. (Encyclopedia Britannica. 9th ed. Vol IV. Philadelphia: J.M. Stoddart and Co., 1877, 204-05)

4. Sebastian Cabot was a renowned navigator who made one of the first voyages to the Americas with his father, John, and passed by America around August of 1497. This occurred roughly two or three years before Brazil was discovered. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed. Vol IV, 552-53)

5. Bahia is a state in eastern Brazil which was originally established to be the capital on the northeastern coast in 1548 by the governor-general who took an expedition of 1000 people to Brazil. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Bahia")

6. The first permanent European settlement of Pernambuco was at Olinda in 1535.  By 1630, the Dutch occupied the region until 1654 when the Portuguese replaced them as rulers. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Pernambuco")

7. In this paragraph, Messler vaguely compares Brazil and the United States.  Here is a more specific summary of the comparison of these two countries, as of 1877.  The area of Brazil is 3, 288, 000 square miles and the area of the United States is 3, 025, 600 square miles.  Brazil has two great river basins (Amazon-Tocantins and La Plata) which comprise approximately 3/5 of the total area of Brazil.  It also has a large seacoast of mostly plains with inland canals following the coastline for long distances.  The coast is also indented with a number of land-locked bays forming very accessible harbors.  Brazil is located almost wholly in a torrid zone with sub-tropical and temperate areas covering its southern region and the elevated central plateau.  Forest areas in the valley of the Amazon have high temperatures and heavy rainfall.  There is no real change in seasons except near the coastal plains.  In the United States, however, different regions have different seasonal changes due to the fact that there are various high and low pressure areas controlling the weather patterns. Therefore, there are distinct seasonal changes of at least summer and winter with varying precipitation. On the seacoast and inlands of Brazil, yellow fever and cholera epidemics were experienced in 1850.  However, the rest of Brazil remained rather healthy. In fact, the mortality rate in the most populated towns in Brazil was below that of Europe's largest cities. The natural resources of Brazil and the United States were mostly equal, yet the United States also had oil and natural gas as main resources which Messler did not list. (Encyclopedia Britannica. 9th ed. Vol IV, 199-203; Encyclopedia Britannica. 9th ed. Vol XXIII. Philadelphia: J.M. Stoddart and Co., 1888, 840-870)

8. The Plateau of Brazil, the most important physical division of Brazil, has an elevated tableland of 1000 to 3000 ft above sea level. The climate conditions of the Plateau are widely different from those on the coast because there is less uniformity in temperature and the mountain chain to its north robs them of moisture and wind leaving a large part rainless. (Encyclopedia Britannica. 9th ed. Vol IV, 440.)

9. The history of the Brazilian government mirrors that of the United States and has been greatly influenced by outside governments. The Brazilian monarchy derives from the ancient monarchy of Portugal and the laws of the Constitution are very similar to those of England. The break from Portugal and the declaration of independence in 1822 followed by the eventual overthrow of the monarchy in 1889 to form a republican government parallels somewhat the history of the United States. (Encyclopedia Britannica. 9th ed. Vol IV, 450-461.)]

10. The Emperor of Portugal at the time of the discovery of Brazil was João III. (Encyclopedia Britannica. 9th ed. Vol IV, 205.)

11. Dom Pedro was responsible for declaring independence for Brazil, devising and promulgating constitutions for both Portugal and Brazil as well as proceeding to rule Brazil for nine years as its first emperor until his natural death three weeks short of his thirty-sixth birthday. (Neill Macaulay, Dom Pedro: The Struggle for Liberty in Brazil and Portugal, 1798-1834. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986)

12. Dom Pedro II was greatly respected and often referred to as "magnanimous".  In 1888, he emancipated the slaves in Brazil which led to the fall of his reign as emperor.  Republicanism, religious conflict, and military dissatisfaction also played a role in his demise.  In 1889, a military revolt led by Manoel Deodoro da Fonseca ensued which placed Deodoro as the new chief of state in Brazil. (Charles Willis Simmons, Marshal Deodoro and the Fall of Dom Pedro II. Durham: Duke University Press, 1966)

13. Brazil began by being discovered by an outside country, Portugal and ruled by them for over 200 years until independence was declared.  Then, eventually, a republic was formed in 1889.  This process is similar to that of the United States, but over a longer period of time.  (Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th ed. Vol IV. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1910, 450)

14. The discovery of Brazil was a joint effort of Portugal and the Catholic church.  The Portuguese crown at the time was attempting to reaffirm his loyalty to Rome during the Reformation by making all of Portugal's settlements in the New World Catholic to compensate for the losses that Protestantism had caused the church.  (Thomas C. Bruneau, The Church in Brazil: The Politics of Religion. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982, 11)

15.  Thomas Ewbank lived from 1792 to 1870.  Information on his life is scarce. The Waidner-Spahr Library at Dickinson College has one book that he wrote in their catalog (A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water, Arno Press, 1972; call number: 621.252 E94). He was also a contributing author to the US Department of the Army's Report of Explorations for a Railway Route, near the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean; call number 917.8 458r v. 3.

16. Romanism is a term often taken to be offensive which refers to the faith,  doctrine or polity of the Roman Catholic Church. (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993, 1015)]

17. Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)  was a German theologian, considered to be one of the most outstanding representatives of the late medieval religious movement "Devotio Moderna". He wrote The Imitation of Christ, which is one of the most widely circulated Christian devotional books. (Encyclopedia Americana, Vol 26. Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1997, 690)

18. Francois de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715) was a French archbishop and mystical theologian whose work had a strong impact on educational philosophy, literature, and political theory. (Encyclopedia Americana, Vol 11, 97)

19. [Martin Luther (1483-1576) was a German Augustinian friar who began the Protestant movement in Europe.  He jump-started the process of developing his own form of Christianity, Lutheranism. (Encyclopedia Americana, Vol 17, 859)

20. During this time of the monarchy, Catholicism was quite inactive, but individual, secular ceremonies existed.  These ceremonies were greatly distorted by comparison to traditional Catholicism. These are the types of ceremonies which Ewbanks must have witnessed leading him to his comments found in this oration. (Bruneau, The Church in Brazil, 16)

21. After the monarchical period ended in 1889, the church separated from the state of Brazil and was forced to develop on its own. Then, in the ratification of the Constitution in 1891, freedom of worship was given recognition leading to many more changes.  For example, only civil marriages were recognized, education was secularized after 1892, members of the clergy were no longer supported by the state, and members of religious orders who obeyed a vow of obedience were disenfranchised.  However, the Church's response to this was to urgently try to gain reinstatement, therefore still attempting to control politics in Brazil. (Bruneau, The Church in Brazil, 16-17)]

22. The period in the English colonies often referred to as The Great Awakening is the religious revival dated between 1739 and 1742.  It paralleled the Protestant movement in western Europe. It is described as a conversion movement and was expressed by weeping, fainting, and physical gyrations. The Awakening sharply defined those who looked at religion rationalistically and those who looked at it in terms of religious experiences. (Encyclopedia Americana, Vol 13, 216)]

23. Brazil was never overtaken by Protestantism because the Catholics had too strong of an establishment there, yet there were other religious orders in the country.  In the 1600s and 1700s, religious orders were established which included Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, Augustinians, and Carmelites, demonstrating Catholic power. (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Vol 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996, 414)]

24. Italy, with Rome as the center of the Roman Catholic religion, was the most influential papal country, but France, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal were all strong papal countries at the time as well. (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol 14. New York: The Encyclopedia Press Inc., 1913, 261-266)

25. The strong Roman Catholic church remained intact in both Spain and Portugal even after the Protestant Reformation. These countries were strong advocates in the Counter-Reformation which meant that they remained completely under the control of the Church in both spiritual and temporal affairs. (Thomas C. Bruneau, The Political Transformation of the Brazilian Catholic Church. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 11)

26. Although these countries were challenged by the Reformation, all remain mostly Catholic. (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol 14, 261-266)

27. These religious orders played roles of varying importance in evangelization and missionary activities. They provided social services such as hospitals, prison assistance, and alms. The Society of Jesus, the most influential order and biggest threat to Catholicism had the best trained and educated religious and most dedicated missionaries. They developed the first post-secondary schools which excluded no one, regardless of race. Unfortunately this society was expelled from Brazil in 1759. Other orders played a major role in colonial economy, maintained monasteries and gathered much wealth along the way. (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Vol 1, 414-415)