In the opening chapter of Hotel Oriente, heroine Della Berget describes Manila’s Intramuros as “an old Spanish walled enclave in the style of Gibraltar, plunked down in the middle of the tropics.”
And, in fact, that is exactly what the city’s name means: inside the walls that the Spanish built (and rebuilt and rebuilt) to protect them from those who lived outside, the Filipinos and the Chinese. Capping off the walled city was the armed citadel of Fort Santiago:
The Spanish did leave their walls on occasion. They had to if they wanted to do anything commercial. They shopped extramuros in Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, which was within a cannon’s shot of Fort Santiago in Intramuros. The range was very intentional, by the way. The Spanish had a love-hate relationship with their Chinese immigrant neighbors, who, in many cases, had been in Manila longer than they had. Sometimes the “hate” end of things meant firing volleys. The love-hate relationship also played out in shopping, especially on a street called the Escolta. The Spanish claimed the Escolta exclusively for European merchants, but some of those merchants were supplied by Chinese in the neighboring streets. After a full day of shopping in Escolta and a lovely evening on the Luneta, the Spanish would retreat within their walls to sleep.
What was inside the walls? Della calls it a “Catholic wonderland”: “If she glanced up, the city was all domes, crosses, and oyster shell windows.” And no wonder: there were seven churches in Intramuros before World War II. Seven churches—grand ones, too—in a space of a mere 1/4 square mile (166 acres). It should be no surprise to you, then, if I point out that it was really the Catholic Church, via the regular orders of friars, who controlled the Philippines. This was a Crown colony in name only. The real administrators? The Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Recollects, the Augustinians, the Vincentians, the Jesuits, and more. And Intramuros was the seat of their power, where the Manila Cathedral towered over the secular offices of the governor and loomed over the general’s desk in Fort Santiago.
When the Americans came, they used the necessary parts of Intramuros, especially Fort Santiago and the city hall (which they confusingly mislabeled the Palace, even though the governor’s—and now president’s—residence is not inside the walls).
Actually, the Americans preferred a fresh sea breeze to the cloistered staleness of Intramuros, and they began to build up the areas south of the Luneta, including Malate and Ermita (where the US embassy compound still sits). And, in their port expansion, they would create a whole “New Luneta” in what had previously been the Bay, and this is where they would build new social establishments, including the Manila Hotel and the Army and Navy Club. After this, many Americans had few reasons to enter Intramuros at all. Too bad.
Nor did the Americans like the medieval air (really, stench) of the moat surrounding Intramuros. In classic American form, they turned it into a golf course.
Yes, this hardly sounds very populist, but the colonial administration was not inclusive—and, to be fair, the short but challenging par-66, 18-hole course is now owned by the government and can be played by anyone for around $20 (residents) or $30 (tourists).
Intramuros suffered most at the end of World War II, when it was the site of the last stand between the occupying Japanese and liberating American forces. The Japanese unleashed a reign of terror on the occupants of Intramuros and Manila at large, known as the Rape of Manila. The Americans, seeking to force a surrender, bombed the city into oblivion, destroying 6 of the 7 churches in Intramuros. In fact, Intramuros was such a disaster that it was ignored during the post-war rebuilding phase and has only recently started to see a renaissance of cultural, social, and commercial activities. If you are in Manila, take a tour with performance artist Carlos Celdran, and he will make you see Intramuros in a whole new light.
Once upon a time, Catholic-Protestant strife scorched Europe. In the seventeenth century, for example, about eight million people died in the Thirty Years War, almost a tenth of the estimated total population. Germany’s male population was cut by nearly half. There were also civil wars in France, England, Scotland, and Ireland, killing millions more. The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late twentieth century were less deadly, but still deadly.
So intra-Christian conflict is not that unusual. Yet, far away in the Pacific, Spanish rule kept the competition away from Philippine shores. From northern Mindanao on up, there was no choice but Catholicism. When a hundred or so Yankee missionaries arrived on Philippine shores around 1900, though, things changed. There was no armed conflict, but the competition was still fierce. At least, the Protestants thought it was fierce. But over a hundred years later, only a small proportion of the Philippine population identify as Protestant—between two and ten percent, depending on whether you include independent nationalist movements with the American imports. Yet, despite this relatively small number, early American missionaries still had a significant impact on the face of Filipino society.
American Protestants did not want to see the return of the Spanish friars who had fled the country in the 1896 Philippine Revolution, and so they spread themselves out as widely as possible throughout the islands, taking up positions in vacated towns. They divided the large islands among themselves: the Presbyterians got Negros and Samar; Panay went to the Baptists; Mindanao went mostly to the Congregationalists; and Luzon was split between the Presbyterians, Methodists, and United Brethren. Only the Seventh Day Adventists and Episcopalians did not ratify this agreement.
Silliman University in Dumaguete was begun by the Presbyterian missionary couple David and Laura Hibbard. In my Sugar Sun series, I’ve renamed the school Brinsmade and taken a lot of liberties with the characters, but it’s not all fiction. A lot of the general priggishness that comes out of the mouth of my character Daniel Stinnett, president of Brinsmade, is stuff American missionaries really said or wrote down. In my new novella, Tempting Hymn, you get a very intimate look at what these communities might have been like. My hero, Jonas, is a good man whose ecumenical faith will be challenged by some of the more small-minded missionaries with whom he works. It was important to me that Rosa and Jonas find common ground in a world complicated by church politics and colonial attitudes. I sometimes get to write what I wished had happened in history.
It should be said that the missionaries did do some good work. First, they could be more inclusive than normal colonial officials. They offered opportunities for Filipinos to join their ranks as members, ministers, and missionaries. At Silliman, a Filipino had to pass an examination and earn the members’ vote, but if he or she (most likely he) did so, he could be tasked to spread the word throughout the rest of Negros and Cebu islands. By 1907, only six years after the founding of Silliman, there were five ordained Filipino ministers. They could preach in their vernacular languages—in fact, it was encouraged in order to reach a wider audience.
The other key advantage of the missionaries’ presence were the services they provided, particularly in education and health. Silliman was a school, after all. The American missionaries understood that the Thomasites, the American public school teachers, were doing good work, but they still thought that a secular curriculum was incomplete. David Hibbard integrated religion into the regular coursework and included several prayer sessions a week, including three commitments on Sunday. But Silliman’s reading, writing, and arithmetic education did not suffer because of it. In fact, his students had good success in finding employment in the new colonial government:
One boy, Andres Pada, who came to us a raw unlikely specimen three years ago has been appointed an Inspector of the Secondary Public School building and is giving good satisfaction. Another boy named Apolonario Bagay has been appointed as overseer of the roads for a portion of the province and is doing good work there. Four or five of the boys have gone out this year as teachers in the public schools of the province, and though they have not had enough training to do very good work yet, I have heard no complaints.
Okay, that seems like being damned with faint praise, but it was quite complimentary by American colonial standards. And Silliman was so popular in the region that they had more applicants than they could handle. They had to turn away boarders and take only “externos,” or day students. The local elites embraced the Hibbards and Silliman in general. In 1907, Demetrio Larena, the former governor of Negros Oriental province (and brother to the mayor of Dumaguete), converted to Presbyterianism. Silliman is now one of the best private universities in the Philippines, and it might have grown strong partly because of the very favorable town-gown relations.
American missionaries did more than educate, though. They also brought medical personnel to Asia. Interestingly, several of these doctors were women. In the Presbyterians’ list of new missionaries in June 1907, there were three single female doctors—two were sent to China and one to the Philippines. Another woman physician, Dr. Mary Hannah Fulton, started a medical college for women in China. One female doctor, Rebecca Parrish, will be the model for a future character of mine: Liddy Sheppard, the heroine of Sugar Communion. The real Dr. Parrish founded the Mary Johnston Hospital and School of Nursing in an impoverished area north of Manila, and she would give 27 years of service there before retiring. In 1950 Philippine president Elpidio Quirino bestowed upon her a medal of honor for her work. I’ve taken some liberties (as I do), but this woman’s passion for providing a safe place for women to give birth will filter down to my heroine, Liddy.
Of course, you might wonder why Christians would want to spread their faith to other Christians—until you realize that, at the turn of the century, many American Protestants did not think Catholics were Christians. They put “papists,” as they called them, right along side infidels, idolaters, and heretics. Reverend Roy H. Brown said:
Three hundred years have passed since this people first heard the Gospel from the Catholic Priests, and yet their condition morally is appalling….Saints and Mary are revered and worshiped while Christ is forgotten, and His place usurped….They know nothing about Christ or the Bible; their religion is a mixture of paganism with Christianity with the religious nomenclature.
This bias included a proscription against marriage to Catholics. In the Presbyterian version of the Westminster Confession of Faith at the end of the nineteenth century, it said that those who “profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters, neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life or maintain damnable heresies.” Since they did not consider marriage a sacrament, you did not have to marry in a church—but the church was still going to tell you whom to marry. I fudged the rules a bit in Tempting Hymn when I allowed Jonas to marry Rosa, a Catholic, though his Presbyterian friends are none too happy about it. (And, you may remember that in Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina and Ben’s parents’ Catholic-Protestant marriage had been a scandal back in Boston.)
There were some more progressive missionaries, of course. In fact, the first Presbyterian missionary to arrive in the Philippines, Rev. Dr. James D. Rodgers, said that the purpose of the mission was “to help Christians of all classes to become better Christians.” He was including Catholics as Christians.
Still, in the end, the Protestants had more in common with each other than with the Catholics. The American denominations—the Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Evangelical United Brethren, Philippine Methodists, and the Congregational Church—would decide to merge into the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). It was their hope that this would provide more unity to fight the Catholic front.
It was not very successful. These more traditional churches would end up losing the war to the nationalized independent churches (like Iglesia ni Cristo), along with the Seventh Day Adventists and more recent missionaries like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But, in the end, numbers may not matter. The real impact these missionaries would have would be social and academic, not spiritual.
Tempting Hymn is about two people of faith—different faiths, actually, which is one of many obstacles the characters must overcome. Jonas is an American Presbyterian missionary, and Rosa is a Filipina Catholic nurse. The book has spiritual elements, but it is not an inspirational romance. (In other words, there is explicit sex. Yay!)
No matter if you are a religious person or not, good music is good music—and that includes hymns. At the school where I teach, we have all-school chapels four mornings a week. The prayers are interfaith and the talks secular, but we sing from the Episcopalian 1982 Hymnal at the end of every service. After a while, a person gets to have favorites. She might even recognize hymns by number.
It was during Lessons & Carols—which is a Christmas-time chapel on steroids—that the idea for Jonas and Rosa’s story came to me. I still have the program I ruined with all my scribbles. When ideas come, you do not wait two hours to go home and write them down. No, you borrow a pen and write furiously throughout the entire concert. Was that a little rude? Yes. But, in my defense, I think the choir would have really appreciated how much their singing moved me. When I finished the book, I knew what the epilogue scene had to be: my favorite solo that opens Lessons & Carols, sung in my imagination by Rosa.
I chose the other hymns in the book based upon their beauty and meaning. I had to be historically accurate, of course, so I worked from the 1895 revision of The Hymnal, approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Most of the hymns below can be found by the identifying number given.
Prologue: “Amazing Grace.” This is one of the few not included in the hymnal mentioned above. Though this early 19th century song was included in earlier Presbyterian versions—for example, it was hymn number 519 in the 1874 Hymnal—they omitted it in 1895 for reasons I cannot fathom. But I still used the song. Jonas would have certainly learned this song from older versions, and he would have sung it often for his daughter, Grace. Now the song is the single most frequently sung hymn in the Presbyterian Church USA, with more than sixty-six percent of their congregations singing it twice or more per year. For your listening pleasure, I chose Elvis Presley’s version (below) so that I could showcase a male voice. (And, if youwant to hear the bass of the tune as a solo, listen to this version by Acappella with Tim Faust.)
Chapter Two: Number 589, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The reader may not recognize the middle verses I used in this scene, but they will likely recognize the title of the song. Everyone from Mumford & Sons to the Christian punk band Eleventyseven has covered it. Sufjan Stevens has a wonderful version in his Complete Christmas Collection, but that video was removed from YouTube. Instead, I found this version by Sarah Noëlle, which is lovely:
Chapter Three: Number 524, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” I fudged the history here just a bit. The 18th century words for this song are correct, but do not try to sing the notes printed there. This hymn really did not catch on until the tune Cwm Rhondda was written, a year after my character Jonas sings it in the book. I hope you will forgive the anachronism. As befits a Welsh tune by a Welsh composer, the version I have chosen to post here is sung by the Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Church, Cardiff:
Chapter Five: Number 98, “The Spacious Firmament on High.” This is, without doubt, my favorite hymn—and yet it seems to be the least popular to cover. The reason I love it may be the same reason most choirs do not: it is very deist in theology, with a vague “supreme architect” Creator fashioning the universe of planets, stars, and orbs. Moreover, the hymn is by Hadyn. It’s gorgeous! I chose an a cappella version (by a group named Acappella) because it allows you to hear the bass clearly, though the beat is a little fast:
Chapter Seven: “Adoro Te Devote.” Since this is a Catholic hymn, you will not find it in the Presbyterian hymnal. The mass described in this chapter was a Tridentine Mass (pre-1962 Second Vatican Council), which means it would have been all in Latin, and the hymns would have been Gregorian. Have you listened to Gregorian music? Beautiful, but not catchy. And Latin. Did I mention the Latin? Of the various hymns I listened to, this one has the most identifiable melody, probably because the music was not written until after the seventeenth century. Therefore, it was the best choice for Jonas to sing on the fly:
Chapter Eight: Number 24, “Abide with Me.” I used this song as both a hymn to be sung by Jonas while he fixes the mill, and also, later, as a chapter title. It is the kind of hymn that I think a man with a natural bass would enjoy singing because it stays within his range. The lyrics also tell the story of the big decision he is about to make. The version below is sung by George Beverly Shea:
Chapter Twelve: Number 304, “The Church’s One Foundation.” In the story, I make a point of the different directions the bass and sopranos go in this song—opposite, but complimentary. To hear the bass part only, listen to this great tutorial by BassHymn:
To hear all the parts together, I have chosen a video by King’s College Cambridge:
Chapter Twelve (again): Number 692, “Now the Day is Over.” I found this hymn in the Children’s Services section of the hymnal, and it fits perfectly as a lullaby. This version is by Pat Boone:
Chapter Nineteen: Number 276, “Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost.” I chose this hymn because of its paraphrasing of the Apostle Paul’s I Corinthians 13. You know the passage I’m talking about:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things….And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I wanted this sentiment in hymn form, which is surprisingly hard to find. Here, at least, is the common tune used for the hymn:
Epilogue: Number 696, “Once in Royal David’s City.” Sitting through this service in December 2013 gave me the seeds of Rosa and Jonas’s story, so I end the book (and this post) with the real deal. No substitutions. In this, the 2015 Groton School Lessons & Carols service, the soprano solo is sung by Phoebe Fry, Form of 2017 (and Barnard College class of 2021). She is a talented singer-songwriter in the folk-pop tradition, so please check out her amazing songs. (The orchestra prelude is wonderful, but you can skip right to the hymn at minute 12:15.) Enjoy!
Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy Rosa and Jonas’s story. It is about finding a home for love.
Taking their name from the Visayan words for “woman” and “spirit,” the babaylans were “mystical women who wielded social and spiritual power in pre-colonial Philippine society,” according to Marianita “Girlie” Villariba. Because the Spanish viewed these women as a threat to the spread of Catholicism and patriarchy, the friars discredited the babaylans by spreading rumors that they were really vampire-like mythical creatures, or aswangs.
But babaylans did not have to be women. You could be a man—or you could be a man living under an adopted female identity, part of the long proto-transgender tradition in Southeast Asia. (By the way, the Philippines just elected their first transgender congresswoman.) Anyone who had a lifetime’s track record of helping the community—through both bandages (healers) or swords (warriors)—could be selected. This range of duties will be important to the way the identity of babaylans will evolve, especially at the turn of the twentieth century.
The babaylan’s unique blend of nationalism and traditionalism pushed them to challenge both Americans and hacenderos at the same time. Babaylans spoke to God in their native language, and God told them to oppose the changes hitting their island. They believed that God inhabited all of nature, so the destruction of nature—particularly by industrial machines—was against the will of the universe. Men joined the movement in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly “discontented marginalized peasants,” according to Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga. This made the babaylans “a peasant protest movement with messianic, revivalistic, and nativistic overtones.”
The largest of these revolts was led by Dionisio Sigobela, also known as Papa (Pope) Isio. As historian Renato Constantino wrote, the situation in the early 1900s was particularly tenuous. War and revolution had closed ports and destroyed farmland. Natural disasters like drought, locusts, and rinderpest made the situation worse.Laborers were rapidly being replaced by machines, though both were in short supply. According to Constantino, only one-fifth of 1898’s arable land was planted four years later, in 1902.
Times were tough, as Javier Altarejos will tell you in my upcoming novella, Tempting Hymn. In this scene, Javier reveals the babaylan ties of one of his former employees, Peping Ramos, whom you may remember as the disgruntled cane slasher who shot a young boy in Under the Sugar Sun. Javier is speaking to the hero of Tempting Hymn, an American named Jonas Vanderburg. Jonas is curious about the babaylans because he is falling in love with Peping’s daughter, Rosa Ramos.
“When I took over the hacienda, Peping was sure he could manage me.” Javier took a sip of his drink. “He was wrong.”
“So he ran off to join the madmen in the mountains?”
“They’re not all madmen—though they do attract every troublemaker on the island. The babaylan are more like the trade unionists you have in America.”
“But their popes and special charms—”
“Give them credibility.”
That credibility came from the traditional role of babaylans as priest(ess), sage, and seer. People admired the babaylans, and they would not stop admiring them just because the Americans said so. In fact, the Yanks were not able to put down Papa Isio’s insurrection until 1907—a tough reality for Americans to stomach since they had made such a big deal of declaring peace in 1902.
The declaration fooled no one because Samar was rising up again, too. In fact, Samar had a very similar movement to the babaylans, complete with its own popes and sacred amulets: the pulahans (or “red pants”). The pulahans will be an important theme in my upcoming novel, Sugar Moon. Both the pulahans and the babaylans believed that:
an apocalyptic clash was coming;
they alone would survive; and
a new independent world order would be built upon the ashes of imperialism and industrialism.
If this sounds familiar, take a look at the Boxer Rebellion in China—same time, same motives, and same ideology. It’s not a coincidence. As a teacher of world history, imperialism, and comparative religions, movements like the babaylans and the pulahans represent the intersection of everything that interests me. And, of course, I like to work these complicated trends into kissing books. Enjoy!
Featured image includes three babaylan mandalas, created by artist Perla Daly.