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Christianity

Christianity

"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 sheep".12

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 II".15

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 sword.

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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