Antônio Vieira (1608-1697) was the foremost orator in the Portuguese Empire in the 17th century and a defender of Jewish, Native, and black Americans from exploitation and persecution within the empire.
Antônio Vieira was born in Lisbon on Feb. 6, 1608, into a family of modest means. His father obtained a government post in Salvador (Bahia), capital of Brazil, where the family moved in 1614. Antônio studied at the local Jesuit college and proved himself to be a superior student. In 1623 he entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained 11 years later. He taught theology in the Jesuit college, while he earned a reputation as the most brilliant orator in Brazil.
Returning to Lisbon in 1641, Vieira soon became a confidant of King John IV, who sent him on a number of important and delicate diplomatic missions to The Hague, Paris, and Rome. Portuguese diplomacy was extremely complex because Portugal had declared its independence from Spain in 1640 after 60 years of union and because the Dutch had been occupying northeastern Brazil since 1630. Like most of the Portuguese of the period, Vieira believed Spain to be the more dangerous of the two enemies confronting the empire, and he was quite willing to placate the Dutch by conceding Pernambuco to their claims in return for support against neighboring Spain. The Brazilians denounced the suggestions of any concession and succeeded, with scant help from Portugal, in expelling the Dutch from northeastern Brazil in 1654.
Father Vieira frequently preached before the court. His extremely popular sermons drew capacity crowds in Portugal, just as they had earlier in Brazil. At that time the pulpit was a place from which to inform the public as well as to influence public opinion. The sermons covered much more than just religious subjects. Vieira stoutly defended the restoration of Portuguese independence and predicted a glorious future for the empire. Extreme patriotism was one of the chief characteristics pervading his oratory. In many of his sermons, both in Brazil and Portugal, he defended the New Christians (Jews who had been forced to accept Christianity and who were the constant concern of the Inquisition) and pleaded for the liberty of Native American and black slaves as well as fair treatment for them. In one fiery sermon preached in Brazil, Vieira asked rhetorically, "Can there be a greater want of understanding, or a greater error of judgment between men and men than for me to think that I must be your master because I was born farther away from the sun, and you must be my slave because you were born nearer to it?" It was a revolutionary question for the 17th century. Many of the social views of this Jesuit were far in advance of his time.
In 1652 Vieira returned to Brazil, this time residing in Maranhão, the northern region in which large numbers of the Native Americans still lived. He devoted himself to missionary activities among them. In that region the colonists still exploited, even enslaved, those natives as the only readily available source of labor. Vieira vigorously defended the freedom of those Indians, protesting before the Crown the brutal enslavement of subjects in the New World. His impassioned pleas pricked the royal conscience and prompted the Monarch to issue new and more stringent laws to protect the natives. The irate colonists, fearful of the loss of their workers, expelled Vieira from Maranhão in 1661.
Back in Lisbon, Vieira faced the Inquisition, suspicious of his defense of the New Christians, tolerance of the Jews, and predictions of the future. The Inquisition imprisoned him until 1667, when, thanks to a political coup d'etat, his friends succeeded in freeing him. The following year the Crown fully pardoned him. He left for Rome to plead the cause of the Portuguese Jews. There he quickly won fame as an orator, and at one time he served as the confessor to Queen Christina of Sweden. Returning to Lisbon in 1675, he began to prepare an edition of his sermons, which were printed in 16 volumes between 1679 and 1748. In 1681 he sailed back to Brazil, a land for which he had great love. He died on July 18, 1697, in Salvador, blind and deaf but still mentally alert.
There is very little in English on Vieira. Mary C. Gotaas, Bossuet and Vieira (1953), is a study of the literary styles of the French and Brazilian priests. For historical background see Caio Prado, The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil (trans. 1967).