Yael Mabat is a research fellow at the Sverdlin Institute for Latin American Studies and a lecturer of history at Ben-Gurion University. She is the author of Sacrifice and Regeneration: Seventh-day Adventism and Religious Transformation in the Andes (Nebraska, 2022) which came out in December last year.
During the past decade I have often been asked how I ever came up with the idea of researching a small Seventh-day Adventist mission station in the Andean highlands. Some people thought I was a Seventh-day Adventist or that the church commissioned this research. Others had creative ideas about the spiritual self-betterment that I was probably seeking through this sort of topic. People seemed to be looking for some kind of “revelation story,” a personal encounter, perhaps with someone related to the Seventh-day Adventist mission, that inspired me to delve into the history of a group of US missionaries, the Aymara converts who decided to follow them, and the community they built together.
Unfortunately, I don’t have such a story. No personal relationship or exotic encounter led me to explore the Seventh-day Adventist mission in Lake Titicaca, Peru. I was simply looking for an example that could serve as a good case study for a broader historical question I was interested in: How did late nineteenth century global transformations, and specifically the expansion of Capitalism, influence the religious lives and beliefs of people in the Americas? Because I was interested in the “Americas,” rather than a specific country of the region, looking at a mission station that brought together people from several countries across the continent seemed to be a good starting point. Additionally, I sought out a case in which a new religious message made significant inroads into local communities, a case in which the religious landscape changed, even if on a local or regional level, rather than a national or transnational one. A “success story,” I thought, would have created more historical sources, and perhaps provide more information about the lives of indigenous converts.
Finding such a case study took time. Generally speaking, Protestant missionaries that arrived in Latin America during the nineteenth century instigated little interest. Locals, as missionaries soon found out, were not eager to leave the pews of the Catholic Church. Eventually, a colleague mentioned that the Seventh-day Adventists were relatively influential in Puno, Peru, and suggested I look into their work. And so, my journey towards this book began.
The Lake Titicaca Seventh-day Adventist Mission stood out among Protestant missions because of its success in attracting converts. Specifically, indigenous converts who belong to the Aymara people: in a decade and a half the church membership grew from a dozen to over 7,000 converts. Thousands of others were waiting for baptism or practiced Seventh-day Adventism without officially belonging to the church. In the long run, indigenous Seventh-day Adventists became a social, economic, and intellectual elite and church members are salient in local politics. The Adventist success created a variety of sources such as newspaper articles, letters written by missionaries, reports written by local state officials and Catholic clergy, who watched the Adventist success with fear, and petitions submitted by converts.
Put together, these sources provide a good picture of who the converts and the missionaries were and why they found themselves in a mission station together. I argue that part of the mission’s success was due to the fact that the Aymara converts and US missionaries shared some important social characteristics and were subjected to similar global forces. Both converts and missionaries were young men, of the same age, who failed to secure their socio-economic positions within their original communities. Missionaries were young men who were looking to enter the growing ranks of a white-collar middle class but faced challenges because of their religious beliefs. Specifically, the regulation of the workweek, from Monday to Saturday, posed problems for Seventh-day keepers as they were forced to choose between their jobs and religious commitments. Converts were indigenous army veterans who returned home after fighting in Peru’s internal wars only to discover that their land had been usurped by large hacienda owners or other indigenous community members. The mission, and the dynamic relationship forged between converts and missionaries, served as a refuge from these pressures and a response to these challenges.