Vieira, Antônio (1608–1697)

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Vieira, Antônio (1608–1697)

Antônio Vieira (February 6, 1608–July 18, 1697) was a Jesuit missionary, preacher, writer, and diplomat. Born in Lisbon and taken as a child to Bahia, Brazil, Vieira went to live in that city's Jesuit college at the age of fifteen. It was during his novitiate that Vieira embraced the missionary vocation that would guide him throughout his life. He learned Tupi-Guaraní and spent most of the 1630s as a missionary in Bahia. The earliest of Vieira's published sermons was preached in 1633 to an audience of black slaves at a Bahia sugar mill. Vieira reluctantly accepted the "necessity" of replacing Indian slaves with African slaves in Brazil, arguing that Indians were unable to withstand the back-breaking labor to which the Portuguese subjected them. Vieira criticized the abuses committed by owners of African slaves, but he never developed a comprehensive condemnation of African slavery like the one he produced in his sermons and letters on Indian slavery.

In 1641 Vieira was sent to Lisbon by the viceroy in Bahia to express the support of the Brazilian colony for King João IV following the Portuguese Restoration. He soon became the favorite preacher at court and a confidant of the king, who dispatched him on a series of diplomatic missions to Amsterdam and Rome. During the 1640s Vieira put forward a series of controversial proposals designed to limit the power of the Inquisition, to encourage New Christian merchants to invest in Portuguese commercial enterprises, and to cede Pernambuco to the Dutch. For the latter initiative Vieira was vilified as "the Judas of Brazil."

Vieira returned to Brazil in 1653 as superior of the Jesuit missions in the Amazon. Relations between the Jesuits and settlers there were strained by the missionaries' control over the distribution of Indian workers to Europeans. João IV gave Vieira the additional task of curbing the notorious slaving expeditions the Portuguese were conducting in the Amazon. From his base in São Luís do Maranhão, Vieira worked to improve relations between the Jesuits and the settlers while leading a series of highly successful missionary expeditions in the backlands of the Amazon. Seeking to enforce crown legislation protecting the Indians from enslavement, Vieira preached in a 1653 sermon to the settlers in São Luís:

Do you know, Christians … what fast God desires from you this Lent? That you loose the bonds of injustice, and that you let those whom you hold captive and oppressed go free. These are the sins of Maranhão These are the sins that God sends me to announce to you: "Announce to my people their rebellion" (Isaiah 58:1). Christians, God sends me to undeceive you, and I undeceive you on the part of God. You are all in a state of mortal sin. You all live and die in a state of damnation and go directly to hell. Already many [settlers] are there, and you too will soon be with them unless you change your lives." (Sermões, 12:327)

Unable to prevent the enslavement of the Indians, Vieira returned briefly to Portugal in 1655 to present his case against the settlers at court. Soon after his arrival in Lisbon, Vieira preached his most famous sermon, the "Sermão da Sexagésima," from the pulpit of the royal chapel. In it he attacked the homiletic conventions of the day and the idleness of the clergy in Portugal, particularly that of the Jesuits' rivals, the Dominicans. Sounding one of the central themes of his writings, Vieira argued that work in the overseas missions was the highest service a priest could render to the Church.

Tensions with the settlers persisted after Vieira's return to Maranhão. In what proved to be the turning point of his missionary career, rebellious settlers expelled Vieira and his fellow Jesuits from the Amazon in 1661 and sent them back to Lisbon. Vieira gradually abandoned his effort to promote the peaceful incorporation of the Indians into colonial society. During the latter part of his career Vieira worked to protect the Indians by separating them from the settler communities as completely as possible.

While in the Amazon, Vieira wrote Esperanças de Portugal (1659), a privately circulated prophetic treatise that was to provide the pretext for his arrest in 1663 by the Inquisition. Vieira for many years criticized the Inquisition on both religious and socioeconomic grounds. He was an equally vigorous critic of the Church hierarchy, and with the death of João IV in 1656 he was no longer protected from retribution. Drawing on traditional Jewish messianism and apocalyptic folk beliefs then current in Portugal, Vieira developed—in Esperanças and his subsequent defense before the tribunal, as well as in later writings such as História do futuro—a millenarian interpretation of Portuguese history that placed ever greater emphasis on the crown and the Jesuits as agents of divine providence. Vieira spent five years in prison or under house arrest. Following his release by the Inquisition in 1668, he had a successful sojourn as a preacher in Rome before returning to Brazil in 1681. During the last years of his life he served again as a Jesuit administrator, edited his sermons for publication, and wrote Clavis Prophetarum, a treatise left unfinished at his death. Vieira continues to be considered one of the greatest writers in the Portuguese language and a central figure in the religious and political history of the Luso-Brazilian world.

See alsoBahía; Inquisition: Brazil; Jesuits; João IV of Portugal; Tupi-Guarani.


Works by Vieira

Cartas do Padre Antônio Vieira, 3 vols, ed. João Lúcio d'Azevedo. Coimbra, Portugal: Imprensa da Universidade, 1925–1928.

Sermões, 16 vols, ed. Augusto Magne, S.J. São Paulo: Editora Anchieta, 1943–1945.

Obras Escolhidas, 12 vols, ed. Hernani Cidade and Antônio Sérgio. Lisbon: Livraria Sá da Costa Editora, 1951–1954.

Defesa Perante o Tribunal do Santo Oficio, 2 vols, ed. Hernani Cidade. Salvador, Bahia, Brazil: Publicações da Universidade da Bahia, 1957.

Livro Anteprimeiro da História do Futuro, 2 vols, ed. José van den Besselaar. Münster, Germany: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1976.

Apologia das coisas profetizadas, ed. Adma Muhana. Edições Cotovia, 1994.

Os autos do processo de Vieira na Inquisição, ed. Adma Muhana. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade Estadual Paulista; Salvador, Bahia: Fundação Cultural do Estado da Bahia, 1995.

Clavis Prophetarum. Book III (Bilingual Latin and Portuguese), trans. Arnoldo de Espírito Santo. Lisbon: Biblioteca Nacional, 2000.

"Two Slaveries: The Sermons of Padre Antúnio Vieira, Salvador, Bahia (ca.1633) and So Luis do Maranho (1653)" [in English]. In Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History, ed. Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, and Sandra Lauderdale Graham. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Boxer, Charles R. A Great Luso-Brazilian Figure: Padre Antônio Vieira. London: Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Councils, 1957.

Cohen, Thomas M. The Fire of Tongues: António Vieira and the Missionary Church in Brazil and Portugal. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

D'Azevedo, João Lúcio. História de Antônio Vieira. 2 vols. Lisbon: Livraria Clássica Editora, 1918–1920.

                                    Thomas M. Cohen