Missionaries Agents of Light or of Darkness?—Part 5
A New Message for a New World
THE Western Hemisphere was first called the New World about the beginning of the 16th century. When Columbus “discovered” it in 1492, he also discovered that people were already living there and had been for hundreds of years. But then for the first time, Native Americans got a taste of nominal Christianity. What would this mean for the New World?
For centuries the Catholic Church had exercised almost complete control over the lives of Europeans. It set standards and dictated rules in nearly every field of human endeavor, including government. Such collaboration of Church and State, the alliance that had spawned the Crusades, also came to dominate the New World.
Sidney H. Rooy of the Educación Teológica in Buenos Aires writes that by the end of the 15th century, Spanish kings were convinced that “the Spanish crown was the divinely chosen instrument for the salvation of the New World.” The papacy drew an imaginary north-south line in the Atlantic dividing the rights of discovery between Spain and Portugal. In 1494 the two governments signed a treaty moving the line farther west. Thus, while Spain proceeded to settle most parts of Central and South America, Portugal moved into Brazil, whose east coast now lay east of the demarcation line. According to Rooy, both countries interpreted the papal decree to mean that “the right to the lands was coupled with the duty to evangelize the native peoples.”
Conquest of the New World
Columbus was accompanied on his second voyage in 1493 by a group of friars especially chosen to convert the natives. From then on, European conquistadores and missionary priests worked side by side in the conquest of the New World.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés reached what is now known as Mexico accompanied by a chaplain and other priests. Within 50 years, the number of missionaries had grown to 800. Another 350 were in Peru, which Francisco Pizarro had reached in 1531.
Papal bulls issued in 1493 gave secular authorities the moral justification they wanted for their campaign of conquest. They thought that they could count on God’s support because they felt that colonialism was his will. Church officials, eager to please, moved in to confer legitimacy on the colonial system. In fact, a Jesuit of the 17th century named António Vieira, born in Portugal but reared in Brazil, praised colonization, saying that without it evangelization would have been impossible.
The missionaries saw nothing amiss in using colonialism as an instrument for spreading their religion. However, this made them an integral part of the world of which Jesus said his followers should be no part.—John 17:16.
Christendom’s missionaries began at first, according to Rooy, “to uproot old rites and most external manifestations of Indian religion.” He added: “Although force was still used when necessary, many Indians were converted by peaceful means through the direct approach of the priests.”
Of course, some missionaries believed force was never really justified. For example, a Spanish Dominican missionary and priest named Bartolomé de Las Casas came to disapprove of the cruel methods used. He repeatedly pleaded in Spain in behalf of the Indians, for which reason the government gave him the title “Defender of the Indians.” His efforts met with mixed reactions, however. Some have called him a crusader, a prophet, a servant of God, and a visionary; others have called him a traitor, a paranoiac, an anarchist, and a pre-Marxist.
The goal of uprooting old rites was later discontinued. Once the natives had been pressured into accepting the name Christian, they were permitted to retain their heathen beliefs and practices. Thus, “many Christian festivals among the Sierra Indians of Peru,” says Man, Myth & Magic, “contain practices which are relics of forgotten Inca beliefs.” The Cambridge History of Latin America explains that Mexican Indians took from Christianity “those elements which suited their own spiritual and ritualistic needs and blended them with elements of their ancestral faith.”
True, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were baptized. But the “Christianity” imposed upon them was superficial at best. Little time was spent teaching them the foundations of Christianity upon which to build a strong faith. The Cambridge History of Latin America notes: “There were alarming indications that Indians who had adopted the new faith with apparent enthusiasm still venerated their old idols in secret.” In fact, some Indians reportedly placed pagan idols behind “Christian” altars in case the “Christian God” failed to respond. They were also slow in giving up long-established patterns of behavior such as polygamy.
The members of Roman Catholic orders did not always act the way one would have expected “Christian” missionaries to act. Quarrels between the orders were frequent. The Jesuits in particular were often criticized for their policies and actions. In fact, in 1759 they were expelled from Brazil.
The arrival of Protestant missionaries did not change things significantly. As the missionary ranks grew, so did the disunity typical of nominal Christianity. Catholics accused the Protestants of fostering imperialism; Protestants accused the Catholics of spreading pagan beliefs and of being responsible for keeping the people in poverty. All these claims contained more than just a grain of truth. Christendom’s missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, failed to follow the example of Jesus.
Throughout the New World, according to The Encyclopedia of Religion, “conversion went forward as an arm of the colonial ventures of the Spanish, French, and English governments.” Whereas Spain and Portugal concentrated on Latin America, France and Britain were more involved in what later became the United States and Canada.a
Like those missionaries in Latin America, the French and British missionaries set wrong priorities and became entangled in political matters. Thus, notes The Encyclopedia of Religion, “by the close of the French era in Canada, the missionaries had been more successful in making the Indians loyal to France than in converting them.”
For God or for Gold?
Some may claim that “the extension of the kingdom of God was the goal” pursued by the early conquistadores. But more realistically, The Cambridge History of Latin America says: “Above all, they wanted gold.” It was thought that once converted, the Indians “would meekly deposit large quantities of gold.”
Some of Christendom’s missionaries thus let themselves become willing instruments of those who had base motives. One of the first Europeans to recognize this was Bartolomé de Las Casas, mentioned earlier. The New Encyclopædia Britannica quotes him as writing in 1542: “The reason why the Christians have killed and destroyed such an infinite number of souls is that they have been moved by their wish for gold and their desire to enrich themselves in a very short time.”
European conquerers brought little in the way of spiritual enlightenment. In his book Mexico, James A. Michener says that Christian apologists claim that when Cortés invaded Mexico, “he found it occupied by barbarians to whom he brought both civilization and Christianity.” However, Michener says the Mexican Indians, even in 900 C.E., “were not barbarians, but they became so lax in guarding their marvellous civilization that they allowed real barbarians to overrun them.” These “real barbarians” were some of the so-called Christians.
A Work of Preparation
Christendom’s missionaries did not obey Jesus’ instructions to “make disciples . . . , teaching them to observe all the things” he had commanded. (Matthew 28:19, 20) New converts were not taught to manifest the fruitage of God’s spirit. They were not united in the one faith.
Even those of Christendom’s missionaries who were sincere could do no better than spread an apostatized form of Christianity. The “light” shed upon the New World was dim indeed. However, by introducing the Bible to some extent, Christendom’s missionaries performed a preparatory work for the vital missionary campaign that Jesus prophesied would take place in the time of the end. (Matthew 24:14) It would be a unique campaign, the most successful ever conducted in Christian history, benefiting people of all nations. Read about it in the next issue in the article “Making True Disciples Today.”
a Spanish influence was, of course, felt in Florida and the southwestern and far western part of what is now the United States, especially California.
[Picture on page 21]
Missionaries came to the Americas with European conquistadores
From the book Die Helden der christlichen Kirche