Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ
by William A. Christian Jr.
University of California Press, 544 pp., $39.95
On June 29, 1931, two children saw, on the hillside of Ezkioga, a village in the Basque provinces of northeastern Spain, a vision of the Virgin Mary. By the end of 1931, an estimated one million people had come to Ezkioga to listen to the accounts of the two children, and those of about one hundred other “seers,” some of them young adults from the Ezkioga region, who had also had visions of the Virgin as well as of other saints.
William A. Christian’s dense and superbly researched book gives a sensitive and sympathetic account of what happened at Ezkioga. He divides the people concerned with the visions into three categories: the “seers,” or visionaries, themselves; the promoters, specialists in manifestations of the supernatural who organized, protected, and publicized the seers; and, finally, the believers, whose lives were altered both by what they saw and by the messages they received from the seers. All combined in a concerted effort to convince a skeptical world that the visions were true and that heavenly beings—the Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus, a variety of saints—were appearing in the hills of northern Spain in order to convey messages from above to the world below.
Visionaries with privileged access to the supernatural are to be found in most religions. Moses saw the burning bush; the New York farm boy Joseph Smith came upon angelic personages who revealed to him two gold plates on which were inscribed the book of revelation of the Mormon Church. Visionaries abound in Catholic countries, while Protestantism is a religion of self-help, each person having his own direct access to God, and few making use of intermediaries.
Visionaries have been an enduring feature of Spanish religiosity, and they have been accepted as agents of grace in direct contact with the divine. But for the Catholic Church the privileged intermediary is the priest administering the sacraments. Visionaries are potential rivals who threaten the monopoly of the universal Church. Rural visionaries at their local shrines have flourished in Spain and inspired intense devotion. But they are amateur theologians, and without guidance from the Church hierarchy they may slide into error. They must be controlled, domesticated, institutionalized. Without official backing they wither away. This was to be the tragic fate of the Ezkioga seers.
Most of the Ezkioga visions occurred at night. This led journalists to dismiss them as a pagan survival of the “cult of the moon of the ancient Vascones,” the original inhabitants of the Basque provinces before the Roman conquest. Christian rightly rejects this as nonsense. But the events at Ezkioga have to be seen against the background of the Catholic Church’s response to the threats being posed by modernism and liberalism.
The principal frontal attack on the Church had been made by the French Revolution. By the 1830s, the liberal groups that became increasingly powerful in Spain early in the century were imitating the practices of the Revolution, stripping the Church of the rural and urban …