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Religion Library: Christianity

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand II of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castile Source: Public DomainFrom its beginnings, Christianity has been an apostolic, or missionary faith based on Jesus' exhortation to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20). When the Spanish and the Portuguese initiated an era of global exploration and conquest in the late 15th century, the reaping of souls became inextricably woven with the conquest of land, peoples, and resources.

In 1492, when Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile expelled the Muslims from Granada, they completed the reconquest of Spain. Several months later, Christopher Columbus and 100 Spanish Christians landed at Santo Domingo in present-day Dominican Republic.Alhambra Decree, ordering Jews to leave Spain Source: Public Domain Convinced that the Spanish crown had been divinely ordained to bring salvation to the New World, Ferdinand and Isabel sent out a second expedition in 1493. A convoy of seventeen ships carried 1500 men—soldiers, missionaries, and administrators—to the New World, bringing Spanish-style feudalism to Latin America. The Spanish soldiers carried superior weapons into battle with the indigenous Aztec, Maya, and Inca peoples. Perhaps the greatest of Spanish weapons were their horses, an animal unknown to the New World Indians. An ardent desire to impose Christianity and Spanish rule on the continent and a lust for the dreams of rumored riches forged a callous brutality in these conquistadors, who decimated the civilizations they encountered.

Voyages of Christopher Columbus Source: Public Domain

In the early 16th century in North America, Spanish missionaries arrived with the conquistadors in Florida and the Chesapeake. Several decades later, missionaries and soldiers arrived in the area around New Mexico, where they forced the native Pueblo people to convert. In the 17th century, missionaries arrived in California and built a series of missions. Here conversion was less violent. Protestant missionaries from England came to the colonies of New England in the 17th century.

As African slaves were imported in increasing numbers to the American colonies during the 18th century, Baptist and Methodist missionaries introduced Christianity to the slave population. Although the churches were controlled by the slaveholders, there arose an indigenous Christianity created and controlled by the slaves. This slave religion wove Christian language and beliefs into African culture and the lived experience of slavery.


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