Exploration and Conquest

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.

Catholic missionary efforts in Africa in the 16th-18th centuries withered from the difficulty of obtaining support from Europe, and many Protestant efforts at evangelization in the early 19th century suffered a similar fate. One major exception was found in Sierra Leone, where in 1787 an emancipationist group sponsored the return of Africans from London. The resulting community in Freetown became the source for a growing network of West African Christian communities. But these communities did not take root in the rural populations.

Missionary efforts in Africa increased dramatically after 1870, and while the missionaries were not notably successful in winning converts, they were spectacularly successful in learning local languages, teaching, and developing hospitals and health care systems. They translated the Bible into dozens of African languages, which brought Biblical Christianity into the heart of African communities.

Christian missionaries first reached western China in the 7th century, where it is believed the church survived for about two centuries. Franciscan missionaries reached China in the 14th century, but the distance from Europe was too great to obtain the necessary support to sustain the mission. A Jesuit mission in the 16th century survived for about a century and a half. Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived in China in the middle of the 19th century, and when the Boxer Rebellion failed at the end of the 19th century, many young people turned to Christianity for fresh moral and social resources. The establishment of Communist rule in 1949 officially suppressed, sometimes violently, all religions, forcing Christians to go underground.

San Juan Capistrano, mission in California founded in 1776 Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/79719675@N00/4216531096/Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, and in the three and a half centuries of Christian rule, most of the population was converted. Protestant missionaries arrived after the Americans defeated the Spanish in 1898, and almost all mainline Protestant denominations are established there. The Philippine Republic is the only Christian nation in Asia.

Back to History