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Christianity 6


"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the

name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to

observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even

to the end of the age."1 A simple directive spoken by God himself through Jesus

Christ in the Sermon at the Mount, this Great Commission has impacted a

countless number of lives throughout the years. The command given by Jesus at

that time was actually to act as a continuance of His ministry after his death.

Apparently this command continued to be fulfilled even far beyond His ascension

into heaven. The commandment sparked the beginning of Christianity and

throughout the years, its cultures, religions and beliefs poured out upon the

continents, including the New World. The intent of this report is to show the

transfer of Christianity from the Old World to the Americas; it is to outline

its beginnings and show its impact on the Indian people.

The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages played an all encompassing

role over the lives of the people and the government. As the Dark Ages came to a

close the ideas of the Renaissance started to take hold, and the church's power

gradually began to dwindle. The monarchies of Europe also began to grow

replacing the church's power. Monarchies, at the close of the Middle Ages and

the dawn of the Renaissance, did not so much seek the guidance of the church as

much as it sought their approval. However, the Church during the Age of

Discovery was still a major influence. The discovery of the New World and its

previously unknown inhabitants presented new problems in the Catholic Church in

the late 14th and early 15th century. When Spain's rulers and emissaries decided

to physically conquer and populate the New World, and not just trade with it,

the transplantation of Christian institutions followed.

The church established contact with the New World, and made it a goal to

establish the Catholic doctrines among the native population there. The Catholic

Church and the Spanish monarch, however, looked upon the native population in

the New World as souls to be saved. They did not consider or treat the Indians

as equals. To them, the population seemed to mean more than the individual's

spiritual standpoint. The implanting of Christianity in the New World, and the

treatment of the native population by the missionaries and Christian conquerors

was harmful or even destructive to New World. Through men such as Cortez and

Bartolome Las Casas, accounts of the conversions have been recorded. One of the

reasons for this was the alliance of the Catholic Church with the Spanish

monarchy. The status of the Indians was irrelevant and disregarded by the

Christian conquerors and missionaries who wanted to convert them. The

missionaries subjected them to violence and reduced them to a laboring

population. The Indians, however did not always respond in a negative way to the

work of the church.

The Catholic Church arrived in the New World immediately after

Christopher Columbus laid claim to it for Spain. After Columbus's discovery of

the new lands he wrote a series of treaties as to what the European purpose

there was. Columbus, in his writings, said that the purpose of the New World was

two-fold. He said that: (1) The gospel message of the church should be spread

globally beginning with his discoveries in the New World. and (2) Second, he

stated that the riches discovered in the New World should be dedicated to the

recapture of Jerusalem from the Moslems.2 Columbus saw the discovery of the New

World as a prophesy coming true. He saw the Indians that lived there as a labor

source that should be Christianized and used for the greater good of the church.

The implementation of his two fold plan had its difficulties; However, this did

not stop or discredit the use of this part of the plan as a prime directive of

the New World.

Two papal bulls or verdicts were issued in the year of 1493 that

established the Spanish position in the New World.3 They also established the

role that the church was going to play in the New World. The first bull was

issued on May 3 given the name Inter Caetera. It said that the lands discovered

by Spanish envoys not previously under a Christian owner could be claimed by

Spain. The bull also gave the Spanish monarch the power to send men to convert

the natives to the Catholic faith and instruct them in Catholic morals. The

second papal bull issued in the same year expanded on the meaning of the primary

bull. The bull fixed a boundary for Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence

in the New World. This boundary heavily favored Spain further showing the

alliance between Spain and the Church.

The history of the Catholic Church in the New World began in the year

after Columbus' first voyage. The Spanish monarchy sent the first missionaries

to establish Christianity there. The number of missions sent to the New World

accelerated in tempo and density until the final decade of the 16th century. The

crown paid for the sending of missionaries, and its officials kept track of the

many "shiploads" of religious personnel sent and of the expenses they incurred.

The records show that the Spanish dispatched missionaries to more than 65

destinations, ranging from Florida and California to Chile and the Strait of

Magellan.4 Between 1493, when the first mission left for Espanola, and Spanish

American independence (roughly 1821) more than 15 thousand missionaries crossed

the Atlantic under royal approval and support. 5

The Spanish, when choosing who to send as their principle emissaries of

the Catholic Church, disregarded the opinions of the Spanish bishops and clergy,

and called up friars belonging to several monastic orders. There were three

monastic orders of friars that came to the New World. These were the Franciscans,

the Dominicans, and the Augustianians.6 While other secular priests were not

discouraged from going to the New World, the Crown did not send them as

missionaries. "By sending friars instead of secular priests to convert the

Indians, Spain took advantage of an old evangelical strain in European

monasticism".7 If one looks back further, in the times before the Christianity

of Europe, monks wandered and roamed the countryside converting the rural

populations. The present monarchy reimplemented this obsolete idea as a primary

missionary tactic in the New World. The Spanish monarch also picked the monastic

orders to fulfill this task because they were among those who possessed an

education. Spain at this time lacked seminaries and religious education

facilities. The local priests were either undereducated or uneducated to the

point were they were seen as largely ignorant.

Once in the New World the missionaries played an indispensable role in

conquering the Indian population for the Gospel, concentrating it in towns and

villages and taking charge of administration. Some times these settlements were

largely left in the hands of church officials because they were unreachable by

colony administrators. "Rural churchmen, in the frontier settings of the 16th

century acted in an atmosphere of independence which bordered on impunity".8

These missions were not always run in the best interest of the Indians. The

natives were often subject to harsh conditions, and they were not protected by

the missions. The missions instituted by the government were described this way,

"The church, with few exceptions, accompanied and legitimized the genocide,

slavery, ecocide, and exploitation of the wealth of the land. The mission left a

bitter fruit inherited by the descendants of the survivors of the invasion". 9

No country at this time conceived of setting up anything but a Christian

empire. "The monarch of Castile not only exercised supreme secular authority,

but he was also the head of the colonial church. Indeed, his laws of the Indies

began with the words, 'On the Holy Catholic Faith' ".10 The Church because it

was under the Spanish monarchy participated in the wrongs incurred in the New

World. The Church went along with the government in instituting the unfair

practices against the native population.

Las Casas writings about the treatment and conversion of the Indians are

some of the best that survive today. Las Casas was a Spanish bishop who late in

life became a renowned champion of the Indians. He was born in Seville in August

1474, and he first went to the New World in 1502. He became a priest and

participated in the acquiring of Cuba. He received land and slaves as a reward

for his contribution. In 1514 he experienced a radical change of heart and came

to feel that the native population had been unjustly treated by his countrymen.

He then became determined to dedicate the remainder of his life to their defense.

Las Casas was one of the notable authorities on the Indians, and was remarkable

because he realized the Indians should not be measured by the Spanish yardstick,

but must rather be understood with in the framework of their own culture. He saw

the Indians not as heathens and savages, but in a different stage of development

from Europe. Las Casas contended that the Indians had many skills and

accomplishments, and in fact possessed a culture worthy of respect.11

Las Casas writes about the treatment of the Indians upon being subjected

to the Spanish Christians. He accompanied the Spanish entourage on the

occupation of Cuba. In this venture he accompanied the expedition in the office

of Clerico. He stated that one of the chief cares of this office was when they

halted in any town or village, it was his job to assign separate quarters to the

Spanish and the Indians. This was to prevent violence from erupting between the

two peoples. His principle job; however was to assemble the children in order to

baptize them. This was a sad task for Las Casas because scarcely any of the

children remained alive a few months afterward. This was due to violence or the

disease that the Spanish brought with them. Las Casas on his travels also saw

the violence and horrors which the Indians were subject to. Las Casas describes

this scene upon entering the Indian village of Caonao: "The Clerico was

preparing for the division of the rations amongst the men, when suddenly a

Spaniard, prompted, as was thought, by the Devil, drew his sword: the rest drew

theirs; and immediately they all began to hack and hew the poor Indians, who

were sitting quietly near them, and offering not more resistance than so many


Las Casas then goes on to describe the scene as "heaps of bodies . . .

strewn about, like sheaves of corn, waiting to be gathered up".13 The

Spaniard's job was to convert the native population to Christianity, not use

them to test the sharpness of their swords which they had done in this case.

In Mexico, Hernan Cortez, the conqueror, recognized the need for

religious instruction among Indians. His instructions he received from the

Spanish monarchy and the Pope for his venture included the order to, "spread the

knowledge of the true faith and the Church of God among those people who dwell

in darkness,".14 Cortez followed these instructions very diligently. When he

encountered the Indians on the mainland of Central America, he undertook their

religious conversions. He explained the Christian religion to them, and wanted

the natives to renounce their idols and embrace the Christian religion. He and

the religious men with him preached against sodomy and human sacrifice to the

tribes that they encountered. In Mexico, like other Spanish colonies, numerous

Friars and priests came and worked to Christianize the native population.

However, this was largely ineffectual because the various Holy men could only

sow a few grains here or there. Cortez realized the need for order in the

Catholic Church in the New World to convert the native population. Cortez wrote

to the king of Spain, Charles V, about the need for missionaries to convert the

Indians. He asked for friars of the St. Francis or St. Dominic order who would

set up monasteries to instruct and convert the native population. There,

presently arrived in Mexico at San Juan de Ulua on May 13 or 14, 1524 the famous

mission of Twelve, who began the methodical conversion of the Indians.

Cortez's envisions of monastic communities, where the native population

could be converted to Christianity, came true especially in Mexico. Huge

monasteries were built for the purpose of the conversion of the native

population. These monasteries built were of enormous size and decorated

ostentatiously. The monasteries included pomp and circumstance in their

ceremonies. The reason claimed for doing this was to keep the Indians interested

in Catholicism and away from their native religions. "On February 8, 1537,

Zumarraga wrote the Council of the Indies that beautiful churches helped in the

conversion of the Indians and strengthened their devotion. Twenty years later,

on February 1, 1558, Viceroy Luis de Velasco make the same observation to Philip


These churches, supposedly built for the benefit of the native

population, were built or supported by the native population. For them this was

a heavy burden, whether they built the churches themselves or had to pay workmen

to the labor. They had to do this at the cost of neglecting their fields or

trades. There were also accounts of the friars physically punishing the Indians

for their work or lack of it, "But one must accept with reserve the testimony

of the Indians who complained of abuses by the Dominicans during the

construction of the convent at Puebla, claiming they were exhausted from work,

and that one of the religious had loaded them with large stones and them beaten

them over the head with a stick".16

The missions set up by the church were also guilty of abusing the native

population. The Indians were supposed to benefit from these missions, but all

they received from them was more misery. The Indians in having to support these

new edifices and having to convert to Christianity suffered from a double edged


The native Americans had three responses to the thrusting of the

Christian religion upon them. One response was the incorporation of elements of

Christianity into their own religion, creating a new religious system. They took

the beliefs out of the Christian religion that agreed or make sense with their

religion and combined the two.

"Ancient rituals attached to Christian ones included a sweeping ceremony that

accompanied the bringing of the Eucharist to the sick, the lighting of fires on

the eve of the nativity, the extreme use of self-flagellation, the burning of a

traditional incense before images of saint, dedicating strings of ears or corn

to the Virgin".17 Some Indians outright rejected Christianity. An example of

this written by Thomas Giles was, "among the Incas of Peru, baptism was

considered subjection to the invader; some Incan chiefs killed those who

accepted the rite".18 The Indians largely could not accept Christian beliefs

because of the actions of the Christians themselves. The brutality and the lack

of concern or remorse that the Spanish showed to the Indians played a large role

for the rejection of the Spanish religion. The Indians did not want any part of

a religion that preached rape, slaughter, and cruel subjugation. The explanation

of a Mayan who objected to the behaviors of the Spanish was the following, "The

true God, the true Dios came, but this was the origin too of affliction for us:

the origin of tax, of out giving them alms; of trial through the grabbing of

cacao money, of trial by blowgun; stomping the people; violent removal; forced

debt, debt created by false testimony; petty litigation, harassment, violent

removal; the collaboration with the Spaniards on the part of the priests, . . .

and all the while the mistreated were further maltreated...but it will happen

that tears will come to the eyes of God the Father. The justica of God the

Father will settle on the whole world." 19

Not all the Indians rejected the Christian religion. Many of them

accepted it. They desired Christian friendships and to change their habits to

the ones of the Spanish. The reasons for the acceptance of Christianity vary,

but one of these is fear. Some Christian conquerors threatened lives if the

Indians were not baptized and did not actively participate in the Church.

Another reason for the conversion is that the Indians were in awe of the

conquers. The Spanish represented power and the Indians were in reverence of

their great amount of power they represented. Some accepted the religion because

the missionaries demonstrated boundless zeal, high morals, and great courage.

Not all of the missionaries sent by the Church were violent or corrupt. There

were some who worked for the benefit of the native population. The Indians saw

this and respected it.

The Catholic Church helped the Spanish monarchy administer to the native

population in the New World. The Church, by being subject to the Spanish

monarchy, is also to be held accountable to the numerous evils inflicted upon

the Indians in the Spainish colonies. In many cases they were forced to convert

to Christianity, and their views about god and religion were not taken into

account. The Catholic Church incurred a great injustice to the native population

in the New World. They were reduced to second class citizens, and forced to work

toward goals that they did not fully understand. Through the writings of Las

Casas, it is seen how the Indians were slaughtered needlessly, and how they were

baptized without regard to their feelings. Cortez paved the way for missions to

be founded in the New World supposedly for the good of the Indian population.

This, however, also turned against them. The Catholic Church role in the lives

of the native population was a negative one due to its alliance with the Spanish

monarchy and its forced conversion of the Indians.

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