During the Renaissance, explorers from Christian Europe made contact with distant lands and sought to spread their faith among the native populations there. The Spanish brought Catholicism to the Americas and the Philippines; the Portuguese worked to convert inhabitants of Africa, Asia, and Brazil; and French missionaries introduced Catholicism to Canada. Their efforts met with varying degrees of success.
Missions in Africa. The Portuguese undertook the first missions to western Africa. Pope Nicholas V granted Portugal the right to occupy this region in 1454, and a later pope put the Order of Christ in charge of missionary work in all Portuguese territories in Africa. By the early 1500s, Portugal had built missions in Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Angola, and Kongo. The people of Kongo readily accepted the new faith, and king Nzinga Nkuwu converted in 1491. So did his successor, Alphonso I, whose son Dom Henrique became a priest and then, in 1518, a bishop. However, the mission fell into decline by the mid-1500s because the Portuguese were involved in slave trading and were interfering in African politics.
In 1561 Jesuit* priests baptized the king of Monomotapa in present-day Mozambique. However, he soon abandoned Christianity and executed the leader of the mission as a spy. Missionaries enjoyed more success in Ethiopia, which Portugal had aided in its struggle with Muslim neighbors. Many Ethiopians, including the leader Susenyos, converted to Catholicism in the 1600s. At first, the converts practiced a blend of African religion and Catholicism, but church leaders later tried to force a stricter form of Catholicism on the people. This attempt led to a civil war and the destruction of the mission there.
Missions in the Americas. The papacy* granted the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to colonize the Americas, with the understanding that they would convert the native peoples to Catholicism. The kings taxed their subjects to pay for the missionaries' travel and living expenses, as well as the cost of building churches and missions overseas.
Missionary work in the Americas began on the islands of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and Cuba. It later expanded to Mexico and Peru. The first missionaries in Mexico arrived in 1524—a group of Franciscans known as the "Twelve Apostles of Mexico." Three years later Juan de Zumárraga became the first bishop of Mexico. He also brought the printing press to the region. The most active religious orders in Mexico and South America were the Franciscans and the Dominicans*. By contrast, the Jesuits led missionary efforts in Portuguese Brazil as well as in French Canada.
The first missionaries in the Americas eagerly learned local languages with the help of native children. They also used pictures and music to spread Christianity. One missionary, Peter of Ghent, wrote a famous catechism* based on Aztec artwork. Missionaries built churches, hospitals, and schools and colleges to educate native youth. Scholars at these schools translated catechisms into the local languages. One of these became the first book printed in the southern hemisphere.
One obstacle to missionary work was the harsh treatment of native people under the encomienda system. This system placed the land and those who lived there under the control of Spaniards. In return for this power, the Spaniards had to instruct the people in the Catholic faith. In the early 1500s the missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas sought to defend the rights of native people. He helped to replace the encomienda with the repartimiento, which replaced outright slavery with short periods of forced labor at low wages.
In an effort to convert more native people, missionaries helped to found stable settlements called reductions. These settlements used European farming practices and tools. Many of them departed from the forced labor and other harsh measures of the encomienda and repartimiento. However, they usually sought to keep the local people separate from colonists.
Missions in Asia. In the late 1490s Portuguese explorers brought missionaries to India. There they found a community of 100,000 people who called themselves "Thomas Christians," supposedly founded by the apostle Thomas. At first the Indians welcomed the Portuguese as allies against hostile Muslims. However, troubles arose later when the Portuguese tried to take control of the community from the local religious leaders. By 1533 the port city of Goa, which had its own Catholic bishop, had become the center of mission efforts throughout East Asia.
The Portuguese clergy members who accompanied early Asian explorers made little effort to convert native people. Their lack of desire to learn the local language hampered missionary efforts. The poor morals of Portuguese colonists also hurt the spread of Christianity. In the 1540s the newly founded Jesuit order began missionary work in Asia under the leadership of Francis Xavier. He traveled throughout southern India in the 1540s, learning and using local languages. In 1549 Xavier went to Japan, where he worked with local leaders to spread the Christian faith. He died three years later on a mission to China.
Xavier and other Jesuits accepted local cultures and customs, adapting them to Christian beliefs. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci founded the first missions in China. He obtained permission from the Chinese emperor to preach the Gospel and he converted many nobles and scholars. Another Jesuit missionary, Roberto di Nobili, worked in India. He adopted the dress and lifestyle of a local holy man and studied major Hindu religious works. Both Ricci and Nobili respected local practices. They viewed native customs as cultural expressions, not religious ones that presented a barrier to conversion. Alessandro Valignano of Italy followed many of these same practices as part of his work in Japan. Unfortunately, later disputes led several Asian rulers to persecute missionaries.
Protestant Missions. The Protestant countries of Europe did not establish overseas colonies during the Renaissance. However, Protestant leaders and scholars did express views on the conversion of native people. Unlike Xavier and his followers, Martin Luther rejected pagan* beliefs and practices. He saw no common ground between native religions and Christianity. John Calvin, another Protestant leader, agreed with most of Luther's ideas about the missions. However, he also believed that Protestants had a duty to spread their faith. As a result, he supported a short-lived Protestant mission to Brazil in the late 1550s.
Critical Views. Some Europeans criticized missions. The Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus supported the concept of missionary work but condemned the harsh practices of many Catholic missionaries. He argued that they should befriend native people and should not try to profit from their spiritual work. He claimed that conversion should have nothing to do with colonization, slavery, or material gain.
- * Jesuit
refers to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540
- * papacy
office and authority of the pope
- * Dominican
religious order of brothers and priests founded by St. Dominic
- * catechism
handbook of religious teachings
Art and Faith
Christian missionaries often used European paintings and images to help teach their faith. In many areas, themes from European art blended with local styles. Artists in India copied religious images in wall paintings, miniatures, and portraits. The Spanish taught painting and sculpture to Native Americans, finding them excellent students. In China, the Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione adapted Western styles to Chinese art forms. However, most missionaries looked down on local art as pagan in contrast to the Christian art of Europeans.
- * pagan
referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion