Alone Before God

The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico

Alone Before God

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: Published: August 2002

Author: Pamela Voekel

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Mexico, Religious Studies

Focusing on cemetery burials in late-eighteenth-century Mexico, Alone Before God provides a window onto the contested origins of modernity in Mexico. By investigating the religious and political debates surrounding the initiative to transfer the burials of prominent citizens from urban to suburban cemeteries, Pamela Voekel challenges the characterization of Catholicism in Mexico as an intractable and monolithic institution that had to be forcibly dragged into the modern world.
Drawing on the archival research of wills, public documents, and other texts from late-colonial and early-republican Mexico, Voekel describes the marked scaling-down of the pomp and display that had characterized baroque Catholic burials and the various devices through which citizens sought to safeguard their souls in the afterlife. In lieu of these baroque practices, the new enlightened Catholics, claims Voekel, expressed a spiritually and hygienically motivated preference for extremely simple burial ceremonies, for burial outside the confines of the church building, and for leaving their earthly goods to charity. Claiming that these changes mirrored a larger shift from an external, corporate Catholicism to a more interior piety, she demonstrates how this new form of Catholicism helped to initiate a cultural and epistemic shift that placed the individual at the center of knowledge.
Breaking with the traditional historiography to argue that Mexican liberalism had deeply religious roots, Alone Before God will be of interest to specialists in Latin American history, modernity, and religion.


"Alone Before God presents a balanced and convincing argument based on an impressive, century-and-a-half sampling of wills, along with more traditional sources of the social/intellectual historian's craft. The book will find a wide audience among historians interested in religious thought, the rise of the medical establishment, and modernity. Moreover, no scholar interested in the origins and impact of modernity and liberalism in Mexico or Latin America more generally can afford to ignore Voekel's insights into reform Catholicism's influence on the political culture of the independence era and nineteenth century." — Christopher R. Boyer , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Alone Before God will interest the scholar of Mexican history and sociology, the theologian, the historian of religion and of the church, the educated layperson, and even the student of popular culture." — Juanita Garciagodoy, Journal of Religion

"Beautifully written, with a clever turn of phrase just often enough to surprise and delight the reader, Alone Before God travels the road from the public worship of baroque Catholicism to the individual meditation and supplication of an austere, reformed, enlightened search for grace and salvation." — Anne Staples, The Americas

"Her book is well argued, and Voekel's method demonstrates the promise of using material cultural analysis to probe ideological shifts. Alone Before God is an excellent resource for the scholar or graduate student." — Paul Kahan , Religious Studies Review

"In her aptly titled book, Pamela Voekel advances a compelling thesis with profound implications for our understanding of the critical period in Mexican history between the last decades of colonial rule and the first fifty years after independence. . . . Seldom does a single book do so much to chart new directions in our understandings of a specific historical period. Students and experts in the field alike will find much here for discussion." — William E. French , Western Historical Quarterly

"In providing us with such useful information and such thoughtful analyses, Voekel has contributed significantly to our understanding of a difficult topic-the changing nature of religious faith in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico." — Patricia Seed , Catholic Historical Review

"The reader will find this a thoughtful book that will generate much discussion and related research endeavors for years to come. Voekel reveals a depth of understanding for the subject that is apparent in the book's careful construction. The reader should not neglect to review Voekel's postscript to understand the currency of the topic and her acute powers of observation." — Deborah J. Baldwin , Colonial Latin American Historical Review

"This book adds a new level of sophistication to our understanding of the complex impact of Enlightenment ideas in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico. . . . The author provides a provocative, rewarding work, which those interested in the Enlightenment in action-its virtues, its excess, and its faults-will enjoy. It is a scholar's book and deserves a close reading." — Colin M. Maclachlan , Hispanic American Historical Review

"Voekel provides an intriguing argument concerning the influence of Enlightenment ideals in Mexico. . . . This work is important for scholars of Latin America because it challenges complacent notions of the Enlightenment as solely a secular influence. Instead, the author makes a bold argument that the Catholic Church, not the Spanish monarchy or later the Mexican state, served as the catalyst for the introduction of Enlightenment ideals." — J. David Granger, The Latin Americanist

"Voekel's Alone Before God is a innovative, provocative, and exciting work that illuminates the study of modern Mexican history." — Donald F. Stevens, Latin American Research Review

"Voekel's engagingly written study . . . is certain to occupy a place in the historiography of Mexican ideas and culture for a long time to come." — Terry Rugeley , American Historical Review

“This arresting study couples substance and style to transform what could have been a dry treatise on internecine clerical debates about dogma and inner spirituality into an intriguing and lively examination of the character of Mexican modernity sure to complicate our understandings of nineteenth-century liberal thought.” — Allen Wells, Bowdoin College

“Voekel's engaging history of the debates surrounding burials and cemetaries in late colonial Mexico provides a fresh perspective on the origins of nationalist sentiments in Latin America. Her creative reading of wills and other archival materals will inspire historians and anthropologists to think in new was about the role of religion in early liberal thought." — Deborah Poole, New School University


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Pamela Voekel is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. The Baroque Backdrop

2. The Reformation in Mexico City

3. Freeing the Virtuous Individual

4. The Battle for Church Burials

5. Piety, Power, and Politics

6. The Ideology Articulated

7. The Rise of Medical Empiricism

8. The Heir Apparent






Primary Sources

Secondary Sources
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, Thomas McGann Memorial Prize, Rocky Mountain Council of Latin American Studies

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2943-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2927-5
Publicity material