Famous Missions of California - W. H. Hudson

Of the Mission System and its Results

It does not fall within the scope of this little sketch, in which nothing more has been aimed at than to tell an interesting story in the simplest possible way, to enter into any discussion of a question to which what has just been said might naturally seem to ea the question, namely, of the results, immediate and remote, of the mission system in California. The widely divergent conclusions on this subject registered by the historians will, on investigation, be found, as in most such cases, to depend quite as much upon bias of mind and preconceived ideals, as upon the bare facts presented, concerning which, one would imagine, there can hardly be much difference of opinion. To decide upon the value of a given social experiment, we must, to begin with, make up our minds as to what we should wish to see achieved; and where there is no unanimity concerning the object to be reached, there will scarcely be any in respect of the means employed. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that critical judgment upon the Franciscan missionaries and their work has been given here in terms of unqualified laudation, and there in the form of severest disapproval, and that everyone who touches the topic afresh is expected to take sides.

In their favor it must, I think, be universally admitted that they wrought always with the highest motives and the noblest intentions, and that their labours were really fruitful of much good among the native tribes. On the other hand, when regarded from the standpoint of secular progress, it seems equally certain that their work was sadly hampered by narrowness of outlook and understanding, and an utter want of appreciation of the demands and conditions of the modern world. Thus while we give them the fullest credit for all that they accomplished by their teachings and example, we have still frankly to acknowledge their failure in the most important and most difficult part of their undertaking—in the task of transforming many thousands of ignorant and degraded savages into self-respecting men and women, fit for the duties and responsibilities of civilization. Yet to put it in this way is to show sharply enough that such failure is not hastily to be set down to their discredit. It is often said, indeed, that they went altogether the wrong way to work for the achievement of the much-desired result; and it is unquestionably true, as La Perouse long ago pointed out, that they made the fundamental, but with them inevitable mistake, of sacrificing the temporal and material welfare of the natives to the consideration of so-called "heavenly interests." Yet in common fairness we must remember the stuff with which they had to deal. The Indian was by nature a child and a slave and if, out of children and slaves they did not at once manufacture independent and law-abiding citizens, is it for us, who have not yet exhibited triumphant success in handling the same problem under far more favorable conditions, to cover them with our contempt, or dismiss them with our blame Civilization is at best a slow and painful affair, as we half-civilized people ought surely to understand by this time—a matter not of individuals and years, but of generations and centuries; and nothing permanent has ever yet been gained by any attempt, how promising soever it may have seemed, to force the natural processes of social evolution. The mission padres bore the cross from point to point along the far-off Pacific coast; they built churches, they founded settlements, they gave their strength to the uplifting of the heathen. Little that was enduring came out of all this toil. Perhaps this was partly because their methods were shortsighted, their means inadequate o the ends proposed. But when we remember that they had set their hands to an almost impossible task, we shall perhaps be inclined rather to acknowledge their partial success, than to deal harshly with them on the score of their manifest failure.

Be all this as it may, however, the missions of California passed away, leaving practically nothing behind them but a memory. Yet this is surely a memory to be cherished by all who feel a pious reverence for the past, and whose hearts are responsive to the sense of tears that there is in mortal things. And alike for those who live beneath the blue skies of California, and for those who wander awhile as visitors among her scenes of wonder and enchantment, the old mission buildings will ever be objects of curious and unique interest. Survivals from a by-gone era, embodiments not only of the purposes of their founders, but of the faith which built the great cathedrals of Europe, they stand pathetic figures in a world to which they do not seem to belong. In the noise and bustle of the civilization which is taking possession of what was once their territory, they have no share. The life about them looks towards the future. They point mutely to the past. A tender sentiment clings about them; in their hushed enclosures we breathe at drowsy old-world atmosphere of peace; to linger within their walls, to muse in their graveyards, is to step out of the noisy present into the silence of departed years. In a land where everything is of yesterday, and whose marvellous natural beauties are but rarely touched with the associations of history or charms of romance, these things have a subtle and peculiar power—a magic not to be resisted by any one who turns aside for an hour or two from the highways of the modern world, to dream among the scenes where the old padres toiled and died. And as in imagination he there calls up the ghostly figures of neophyte and soldier and priest, now busy with the day's task-work, now kneeling at twilight mass in the dimly-lighted chapel; as the murmur of strange voices and the faint music of bell and chant steal in upon his ears; he will hardly fail to realize that, however much or little the Franciscan missionaries accomplished for California, they have passed down to our prosaic after-generation a legacy of poetry, whereof the sweetness will not soon die away.