Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas

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Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas

Spain was the first European country to colonize what today is North and South America, and the Spanish approach to the region came from several directions. One was from the Caribbean area, primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico, into Florida. At its height of development, Spanish Florida included the coastal regions of Georgia and southern South Carolina. A second was into central Mexico and then northward to what today is the northern tier of the Mexican states and California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in the United States. From Mexico and the Caribbean, the Spanish moved into Central America, which in turn served as a base of operations for the conquest of Peru. Other points of entry were through the Río de la Plata region and tierra firme (firm land, mainland), the coast of Colombia and Venezuela.

Several elements framed the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The first was the reconquista, the seven-century-long process of reconquest of much of Iberia (the peninsula now occupied by Spain and Portugal) from Muslims who first invaded the region in 711. The protracted reconquista often proceeded in fits and starts, and the frontier between Muslim and Christian territories was permeable, with sides not always clearly defined. There are numerous instances of alliances between Christians and Muslims, as well as figures such as El Cid (Ruy Díaz, count of Bivar, ca. 1043–1099), a Spanish soldier who joined the other side.

However, the conflict had a profound influence on the development of Iberian Catholicism and Iberian society. Iberian Catholicism became highly chauvinistic, exclusivistic, and militant. Iberian Catholicism also had a strong thread of mysticism and Marianism (devotion to the Virgin Mary), and championed the acceptance by the Catholic Church of the concept of the Immaculate Conception, which held that Mary was born free from original sin. Finally, the reform of the church, and particularly of the mendicant and monastic orders in the late fifteenth century, created a pool of missionaries to be sent to the newly conquered lands to convert the natives.

As the reconquista drew to a close in 1492 with the conquest of Grenada, the last Muslim state in the southern part of Iberia, Queen Isabella (1451–1504), "the Catholic" ordered the expulsion of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Castile became increasingly intolerant in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and Jews in particular faced persecution. They already resided in separate ghettos in the major cities, and they experienced periodic pogroms, such as occurred in 1398.

About a century later in 1609, the crown ordered the expulsion of the remaining Muslim population in southern Iberia. Castile was also the first country to initiate a national inquisition independent of the papacy in 1478, and the court used the Holy Office (a Roman Catholic body charged with protecting the faith) to enforce the Catholic orthodoxy and insure that the converses (Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism) did not secretly practice their old beliefs. Iberia was Europe's only multiethnic and multicultural frontier during most of the medieval period, but as the Christians gained the advantage over the Muslims they initiated colonial policies designed to control the Muslim majority in the southern part of the peninsula and to transform the region into a Christian land.

The reconquista was also viewed as a crusade to liberate formerly Christian lands from the hands of the infidels, and the papacy recognized the reconquest as such. Crusader military orders, such as Santiago and Calatrava, evolved and were given extensive privileges and feudal jurisdictions in southern Iberia. The Iberian monarchs, the nobility, and the crusader orders were standard bearers for the "true faith," and they waged war to defeat the infidels, as well as for profit.

This crusader mentality was carried with the first overseas expansion into the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century and later into the Americas. Moreover, the crusade to carry the true faith to non-Christians provided a justification for conquest, and the religion of conquest formed the basis for the ideology of Iberian expansion into the Americas. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and the other Iberian explorers and conquistadores carried the banner of the crusader faith, and also sought profit while saving the souls of the infidels and pagans.

Following the encounter with the New World after 1492, the papacy theoretically assumed responsibility for the organization of missions to evangelize the newly encountered peoples. However, the papacy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century was embroiled in convoluted Italian politics, wars, and massive building projects that left the popes with insufficient resources to undertake such a major enterprise.

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain, negotiated by the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503), ratified the donation and division of the non-Christian world between the two countries. The papacy later made a number of concessions to the Crown of Castile known as the real patronato (royal patronage). In exchange for organizing and financing the evangelization of the large native populations in its newly acquired territories, the crown gained considerable authority over the Catholic Church in its American territories. This authority included the right to nominate bishops and archbishops, to create new church jurisdictions, and to fill most positions in the church. The crown also collected and retained a part of the tithes paid to the church.

The Spanish and other Europeans believed that their faith was the only true faith, and that it was their obligation to bring their faith to pagans. The experience of the reconquista in Iberia was not unique in European history. Christians had faced non-Christians for centuries, and these contacts were often confrontational and violent. In the Mediterranean area, and this included Iberia, the threat came from Muslims, and war raged for centuries. Expansion by the Ottoman Turks brought the conflict to Central Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

During the early modern period in Europe (fifteenth century on), nation-state and national identities emerged, and Christianity was a key element of those identities. As the Spanish and other Europeans invaded and colonized Europe, it would have been inconceivable for them to have not brought their faith with them and plant it in the New World.

The evangelization of the native peoples of the Americas first occurred within the context of private colonization. The first expansion overseas to the Canary Islands was organized by private individuals given grants of jurisdiction. Similarly, private individuals or consortiums of individuals organized most expeditions of exploration and conquest. The crown attempted to establish basic ground rules to insure that the native peoples were not subject to an unjust war of conquest, and that the conquistadores made provisions to evangelize the natives in the true faith. Spaniards could initiate a just war against peoples who rejected the authority of the king and had known and rejected Christianity. For example, Christians could wage war against and enslave Muslims, who had known Christianity for centuries and persisted in their own beliefs.

The crown stipulated the reading of the Requerimiento (Requirement) to native peoples before initiating war. The document, written in 1510 by the jurist Juan López de Palacios Rubios (1450–1524), gave the natives an opportunity to embrace the true faith and the authority of the king. The Laws of Burgos, legislated in 1512 and 1513, attempted to limit the exploitation and abuse of the native populations of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) under encomienda grants of jurisdiction. The laws stipulated that the holders of the encomiendas provide priests to convert the natives, although this provision was not always observed. The laws proved to be too little too late for the island's population, which was rapidly declining as a result of mistreatment and disease.

The conquests of Mexico (1519–1521) and other regions on the American mainland were followed by a more concerted effort at the evangelization of the native peoples. In 1524 the first group of twelve Franciscans arrived in Mexico. The "twelve apostles," as they were called, were only the first of a growing number of missionaries from orders including the Franciscans, Mercedarians, Augustinians, and Dominicans. The missionaries first engaged in mass baptisms and campaigns to extirpate the old gods and religion. This included efforts to destroy the images of the pre-Hispanic gods, which did not always prove successful. The statue of Huitzilopochtli from the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán evaded the Spanish, this despite a high-profile Inquisition trial in the mid-1530s. The ancestor religion persisted in the Andean region well into the colonial period

The mood of the early evangelization campaigns in Mexico, the Andean region, and other parts of mainland America was one of triumphalism. The missionaries reported thousands of baptisms that they equated to conversion, and native workers erected new and increasingly imposing churches designed to replace the sacred precincts of the pre-Hispanic religions. The missionaries also believed that they were bolstering Spanish rule in the Americas by converting the natives. However, the majority of the missionaries chose to ignore the old religious practices and beliefs of the new converts beyond the minimal knowledge necessary to extirpate the gods they equated to the devil. The Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagün (1499–1590) was one of the few to record the culture of the natives.

Disillusionment came in some instances within a generation or two of the arrival of the missionaries, as it became evident that pre-Hispanic religions, such as the Andean practices of ancestor worship, persisted underground. The organization of anti-idolatry campaigns confirmed the superficiality of the mass baptisms in the early phase of evangelization. Moreover, there were revitalization movements, such as Taki Onqoy in Peru in the 1560s, centered on the belief that the old gods would vanquish the new Christian gods. Royal policy also worked against the members of the missionary orders working in the Americas. There was a series of conflicts between the missionary orders and local bishops concerning episcopal authority over the missionaries or the lack thereof. In the 1570s in Mexico, for example, the crown ordered the missionary orders to hand over the native towns to the bishops, and to transfer personnel to work on missions on the northern frontier.

In such core areas as central Mexico and the Andean Highlands, the Spanish encountered sedentary agriculturalists living under highly stratified hierarchical state systems. On the fringes of the American territories, however, were native peoples who were nomadic hunters and gatherers or sedentary farmers living under tribal or clan polities. The crown initiated mission programs on these frontier regions, with the goal of creating a new colonial order based on autonomous communities on the model of those in central Mexico or the Andean region. Missions, also known as reducciones in some areas, became the most important frontier institution. Missions operated on all Spanish frontiers in the Americas. Well known examples include the Jesuit missions of Paraguay and the Franciscan missions of California.

Religion and the church also played an important role in the social control of Spanish America and in solidifying Spanish authority. Until the late eighteenth century, Spain did not have armies in Spanish America. Therefore, Spanish rule depended on the consensus of the colonized, and particularly of the Creole elites who presided over a society where peoples of color (natives, peoples defined as being of mixed ancestry) formed the majority. Priests preached obedience and compliance with the social rules that governed colonial society. Moreover, they stressed the rewards of an afterlife attained by not challenging the status quo.

The attitude of the Spanish government towards the role of the church changed in the mid to late eighteenth century with the growing influence of Enlightenment ideas and the initiation of reform of the colonial system in the Americas following a serious defeat at the hands of the British during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). The so-called Bourbon reforms stressed the strengthening of royal authority in the Americas and the reining in of the Catholic Church.

One example of the growing anticlericalism was the order to expel the Jesuits in 1767 from the Spanish empire. Significantly, of the different missionary orders, only the Jesuits had a truly international organization. Other orders, such as the Franciscans, had separate organizations in each European country.

Bourbon anticlericalism also had a pragmatic side. A common belief was that the church controlled significant resources held in a form of entail that retarded economic development, which was a Bourbon goal. More economic activity generated more tax revenues. There was also considerable debate over the continued reliance on missions on the frontier, but a pragmatic decision was made to continue supporting them.


Both Portugal and France brought missionaries to the Americas to evangelize the native populations. Moreover, both countries established Catholicism as the official state religion in the American colonies. Beyond this, there were significant differences in Portuguese and French policies towards the native peoples.

The Portuguese introduced commercial plantation agriculture into Brazil, and in the early stages of economic development relied heavily on Indian slave laborers. The colonists of São Paulo engaged heavily in the trade in Indian slaves, and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Paulistas (colonists from São Paulo), also known as bandeirantes, ranged through the interior of South American enslaving Indians. In the 1630s the Paulistas attacked the Jesuit missions in the Río de la Plata region.

African slaves gradually replaced Indian slaves on the plantations. Jesuit missionaries came to Brazil and organized communities of natives called aldeias that were in some ways similar to Spanish frontier missions. However, the aldeias were generally located close to Portuguese settlements and served as labor reserves for the settlers.

The French in Canada, on the other hand, sought profit from the fur trade, and they relied on Indians for trade. Agriculture was developed at only a subsistence level and did not rely on Indian labor. Jesuits and other missionaries established missions for natives in Canada, the Great Lakes region, also known as the Terre Haut, and Louisiana. The Jesuit missions among the Hurons in the 1620s to late 1640s were the most successful, and the Black Robes, as native peoples called the Jesuits, converted about a third of the total Huron population. Sainte Marie des Hurons, located in Ontario, Canada, is a reconstruction of one of the missions. However, conflict between the Huron and the Iroquois led to the destruction of the Jesuit missions.

The state religion of England in the seventeenth century was the Church of England, and by law all residents of England were required to adhere to the doctrine of the church contained in the Book of Common Prayer, which was a compromise between Catholicism and the beliefs of the different Protestant sects. The colonies in North America offered "dissenters" (groups that rejected the doctrine of the Church of England) an opportunity to practice their beliefs free of persecution.

The Calvinists, commonly known as the Puritans, were one group that migrated to North America to practice their religious beliefs without interference. They created a theocracy that endured for some fifty years. The Catholic nobleman Lord Baltimore (Cecil Calvert, ca. 1605–1675) established Maryland in the 1630s as a haven for persecuted Catholics. William Penn (1644–1718), whose father had been an admiral and had connections at court, established Pennsylvania in 1682 for members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, a radical Protestant sect founded by George Fox (1624–1691). Pennsylvania during the colonial period was a haven for persecuted religious minorities. The German Pietists, better known as the Amish, was one such group that migrated to Pennsylvania to escape persecution in Europe.

Unlike the Spanish, the English did not initiate a systematic campaign to evangelize the native peoples they encountered in North America, and they generally viewed the natives as an obstacle to creating European communities in America. One exception was the effort by Puritan John Eliot (1604–1690) to establish what he called "praying towns" in New England. Eliot first preached to the Nipmuc Indians in 1646 at the site of modern Newton, Massachusetts. In 1650 Eliot organized the first praying town at Natick, also in Massachusetts. By 1675, there were fourteen praying towns, eleven in Massachusetts and three in Connecticut, mostly among the Nipmuc. Eliot also translated the Bible into the native language and published the translation between 1661 and 1663. The outbreak of the conflict between the English and native peoples known as King Philip's War (1675–1677) led to the collapse of the praying towns.

Protestant missions to native peoples continued in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even into the twentieth centuries. In the second half of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the missions often operated on reservations created by the United States government. Protestant missionaries often ran the schools for native children that attempted to obliterate most aspects of their native culture, which identified the missions with the assimilationist policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Why did Catholic missions achieve a higher degree of success than did Protestant missions? Three possible explanations have been suggested. The first has to do with the very nature of colonization by the Spanish, French, and English. The Spanish developed a colonial system based on their contacts with advanced sedentary native societies in central Mexico and the Andean region. Their colonial system relied on the exploitation of the native populations, and, as noted above, they gained legitimacy for their conquests from the papal donation that required the evangelization of the native peoples. This, taken with the experience of the reconquista, the drive towards orthodoxy within Iberia in the fifteenth century, and the longstanding crusader ethic, gave rise to the impulse to bring the true faith to the native peoples.

The vision of Europe's Hapsburg monarchs in the sixteenth century only reinforced these tendencies. The Hapsburgs viewed themselves as the defenders of the true faith, and led crusades against the Turkish threat in the Mediterranean world and the growing number of Protestants in central Europe.

The government-supported missionaries and the evangelization of French and English colonies in North America were quite different from that of the Spanish. The French established settlements in the Saint Lawrence River valley, but also engaged in trade with native groups for furs. The French also believed their faith to be superior and to be the only true faith, and felt the responsibility to take that faith to the native peoples. At the same time the presence of missionaries, particularly Jesuits among the Huron, also facilitated the fur trade.

The English colonies were different from the French and Spanish. The English came to America to firmly implant Europe there. They came to establish towns and farms, and arrived in large numbers and wanted the land that was occupied by the natives. Whereas the Spanish and French had reasons to establish relations with native peoples, the English did not. The American natives occupied lands the English wanted, and the native inhabitants were generally viewed as a threat to the English settlements. Thus the colonial governments did not support missions in the same way that the Spanish and French did.

The nexus of relations between the English and native peoples can be see in the example of the New England Puritan colonies, as well as early Virginia. The Puritans believed that God had given them the land in New England to exploit, and Puritan leaders were inclined to push native communities aside. The relationship was often violent, as evidenced by the Pequot War in 1636 and 1637 and King Philip's War. The latter conflict was a desperate attempt by native peoples to preserve their society and culture in the face of aggressive English occupation and creation of new communities that forced natives off of their lands.

In Virginia, the colonization of Jamestown and other new communities was met by resistance from native groups almost from the beginning, resulting in two major conflicts in the 1620s and again in the 1640s. These conflicts, and the general attitude of the English towards native peoples, did not create a climate conducive to the launching of missionary campaigns. Moreover, the English colonists developed generally autonomous local governments that tended to be unsympathetic to evangelization of native peoples.

A second factor was theological. Catholicism was and is a religion with mass appeal, because it offers salvation to those who repent. Moreover, doctrine dictates the baptism of children as soon as possible after birth, because of the belief that unbaptized children will go to purgatory after they die. Furthermore, a degree of syncretism occurred in Catholic missions established on native communities in central Mexico, the Andean region, and the fringes of Spanish territory, such as the north Mexican frontier. Syncretism, such as the association by native peoples of old gods with Catholic saints, was a key factor in what the missionaries believed to be the conversion of native peoples to the true faith.

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, on the other hand, introduced new beliefs that did not lend themselves to the conversion of native peoples with cultures that did not have a foundation in Christianity. The Anabaptists, for example, rejected the baptism of newborn children, and instead believed that the acceptance of God's covenant should be a decision made when people could fully understand the decision being made. The Calvinist belief in predestination, the idea that God had already chosen those who would gain salvation and those who would not, also did not lend itself to mass conversion.

Moreover, the seventeenth-century Puritan theocracy in New England, which afforded full church membership only to the "elect" (those who could show that they had God's grace and would gain salvation), was a cause of friction between native peoples in the region and the colonists. The Puritan leadership expected native peoples to live by an alien set of moral and social rules, even if the natives had chosen not to embrace the new faith. This policy contributed to the outbreak of King Philip's War, and it certainly did not make the new religion attractive to native peoples. Puritan leaders did not tolerate any deviation from their teachings, and they did not tolerate the syncretism that facilitated "conversion" in Spanish America.

Finally, demographic patterns undermined evangelization, particularly in Protestant English colonies. In the centuries following the first European incursions into the Americas, native populations declined in numbers because of disease and other factors. Mortality rates were particularly high among children, the segment of the native population in which missionaries placed their greatest hopes for indoctrination.

In the California missions, for example, the Franciscans continued to relocate pagans on the missions while indoctrinating the children and adults already living there. This meant that there were always large numbers of pagans interacting with new converts already exposed to varying levels of Catholic indoctrination. These conditions created a climate conducive to the covert survival of traditional religious beliefs. Moreover, infant and child mortality rates were high, and most children died before reaching their tenth birthday. This limited the ability of the missionaries to create a core of indoctrinated children in the mission populations.

The United States today is a Christian country because of the imprint of European colonists and their descendants and not because of the conversion of native peoples to the new religion. The trajectory of Spanish colonization established a strong Catholic tradition in much of Latin America.

see also Catholic Church in Iberian America; Mission, Civilizing; Religion, Roman Catholic Church.


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Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas