Christianity “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in thename of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them toobserve all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, evento the end of the age.” A simple directive spoken by God himself through JesusChrist in the Sermon at the Mount, this Great Commission has impacted acountless number of lives throughout the years. The command given by Jesus atthat 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 ascensioninto heaven. The commandment sparked the beginning of Christianity andthroughout the years, its cultures, religions and beliefs poured out upon thecontinents, including the New World. The intent of this report is to show thetransfer of Christianity from the Old World to the Americas; it is to outlineits beginnings and show its impact on the Indian people.
The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages played an all encompassingrole over the lives of the people and the government. As the Dark Ages came to aclose the ideas of the Renaissance started to take hold, and the church’s powergradually began to dwindle. The monarchies of Europe also began to growreplacing the church’s power. Monarchies, at the close of the Middle Ages andthe dawn of the Renaissance, did not so much seek the guidance of the church asmuch as it sought their approval. However, the Church during the Age ofDiscovery was still a major influence.
The discovery of the New World and itspreviously unknown inhabitants presented new problems in the Catholic Church inthe late 14th and early 15th century. When Spain’s rulers and emissaries decidedto 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 toestablish the Catholic doctrines among the native population there. The CatholicChurch and the Spanish monarch, however, looked upon the native population inthe New World as souls to be saved. They did not consider or treat the Indiansas equals. To them, the population seemed to mean more than the individual’sspiritual standpoint.
The implanting of Christianity in the New World, and thetreatment of the native population by the missionaries and Christian conquerorswas harmful or even destructive to New World. Through men such as Cortez andBartolome Las Casas, accounts of the conversions have been recorded. One of thereasons for this was the alliance of the Catholic Church with the Spanishmonarchy. The status of the Indians was irrelevant and disregarded by theChristian conquerors and missionaries who wanted to convert them. Themissionaries subjected them to violence and reduced them to a laboringpopulation. The Indians, however did not always respond in a negative way to thework of the church.
The Catholic Church arrived in the New World immediately afterChristopher Columbus laid claim to it for Spain. After Columbus’s discovery ofthe new lands he wrote a series of treaties as to what the European purposethere was. Columbus, in his writings, said that the purpose of the New World wastwo-fold. He said that:
- The gospel message of the church should be spreadglobally beginning with his discoveries in the New World.
- Second, hestated that the riches discovered in the New World should be dedicated to therecapture of Jerusalem from the Moslems.
Columbus saw the discovery of the NewWorld as a prophesy coming true. He saw the Indians that lived there as a laborsource 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 didnot stop or discredit the use of this part of the plan as a prime directive ofthe New World.
Two papal bulls or verdicts were issued in the year of 1493 thatestablished the Spanish position in the New World. They also established therole that the church was going to play in the New World. The first bull wasissued on May 3 given the name Inter Caetera. It said that the lands discoveredby Spanish envoys not previously under a Christian owner could be claimed bySpain. The bull also gave the Spanish monarch the power to send men to convertthe natives to the Catholic faith and instruct them in Catholic morals.
Thesecond papal bull issued in the same year expanded on the meaning of the primarybull. The bull fixed a boundary for Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influencein the New World. This boundary heavily favored Spain further showing thealliance between Spain and the Church.
The history of the Catholic Church in the New World began in the yearafter Columbus’ first voyage. The Spanish monarchy sent the first missionariesto establish Christianity there. The number of missions sent to the New Worldaccelerated in tempo and density until the final decade of the 16th century. Thecrown paid for the sending of missionaries, and its officials kept track of themany “shiploads” of religious personnel sent and of the expenses they incurred.
The records show that the Spanish dispatched missionaries to more than 65destinations, ranging from Florida and California to Chile and the Strait ofMagellan.4 Between 1493, when the first mission left for Espanola, and SpanishAmerican independence (roughly 1821) more than 15 thousand missionaries crossedthe Atlantic under royal approval and support.
The Spanish, when choosing who to send as their principle emissaries ofthe Catholic Church, disregarded the opinions of the Spanish bishops and clergy,and called up friars belonging to several monastic orders. There were threemonastic orders of friars that came to the New World. These were the Franciscans,the Dominicans, and the Augustianians.6 While other secular priests were notdiscouraged from going to the New World, the Crown did not send them asmissionaries. “By sending friars instead of secular priests to convert theIndians, Spain took advantage of an old evangelical strain in Europeanmonasticism”.
If one looks back further, in the times before the Christianityof Europe, monks wandered and roamed the countryside converting the ruralpopulations. The present monarchy reimplemented this obsolete idea as a primarymissionary tactic in the New World. The Spanish monarch also picked the monasticorders to fulfill this task because they were among those who possessed aneducation. Spain at this time lacked seminaries and religious educationfacilities. The local priests were either undereducated or uneducated to thepoint were they were seen as largely ignorant.
Once in the New World the missionaries played an indispensable role inconquering the Indian population for the Gospel, concentrating it in towns andvillages and taking charge of administration. Some times these settlements werelargely left in the hands of church officials because they were unreachable bycolony administrators. “Rural churchmen, in the frontier settings of the 16thcentury acted in an atmosphere of independence which bordered on impunity”.
These missions were not always run in the best interest of the Indians. Thenatives were often subject to harsh conditions, and they were not protected bythe 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 abitter fruit inherited by the descendants of the survivors of the invasion”.
No country at this time conceived of setting up anything but a Christianempire. “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 Indiesbegan with the words, ‘On the Holy Catholic Faith’ “.10 The Church because itwas under the Spanish monarchy participated in the wrongs incurred in the NewWorld. The Church went along with the government in instituting the unfairpractices against the native population.
Las Casas writings about the treatment and conversion of the Indians aresome of the best that survive today. Las Casas was a Spanish bishop who late inlife became a renowned champion of the Indians. He was born in Seville in August1474, and he first went to the New World in 1502. He became a priest andparticipated in the acquiring of Cuba. He received land and slaves as a rewardfor his contribution.
In 1514 he experienced a radical change of heart and cameto 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 remarkablebecause 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 sawthe Indians not as heathens and savages, but in a different stage of developmentfrom Europe. Las Casas contended that the Indians had many skills andaccomplishments, and in fact possessed a culture worthy of respect.
Las Casas writes about the treatment of the Indians upon being subjectedto the Spanish Christians. He accompanied the Spanish entourage on theoccupation of Cuba. In this venture he accompanied the expedition in the officeof Clerico. He stated that one of the chief cares of this office was when theyhalted in any town or village, it was his job to assign separate quarters to theS panish and the Indians. This was to prevent violence from erupting between thetwo peoples. His principle job; however was to assemble the children in order tobaptize them. This was a sad task for Las Casas because scarcely any of thechildren remained alive a few months afterward. This was due to violence or thedisease that the Spanish brought with them.
Las Casas on his travels also sawthe violence and horrors which the Indians were subject to. Las Casas describesthis scene upon entering the Indian village of Caonao: “The Clerico waspreparing for the division of the rations amongst the men, when suddenly aSpaniard, prompted, as was thought, by the Devil, drew his sword: the rest drewtheirs; and immediately they all began to hack and hew the poor Indians, whowere sitting quietly near them, and offering not more resistance than so manysheep”.
Las Casas then goes on to describe the scene as “heaps of bodies . . . strewn about, like sheaves of corn, waiting to be gathered up”. The Spaniard’s job was to convert the native population to Christianity, not usethem to test the sharpness of their swords which they had done in this case.
In Mexico, Hernan Cortez, the conqueror, recognized the need forreligious instruction among Indians. His instructions he received from theSpanish monarchy and the Pope for his venture included the order to, “spread theknowledge of the true faith and the Church of God among those people who dwellin darkness,”.
Cortez followed these instructions very diligently. When heencountered the Indians on the mainland of Central America, he undertook theirreligious conversions. He explained the Christian religion to them, and wantedthe natives to renounce their idols and embrace the Christian religion. He andthe religious men with him preached against sodomy and human sacrifice to thetribes that they encountered. In Mexico, like other Spanish colonies, numerousFriars and priests came and worked to Christianize the native population.
However, this was largely ineffectual because the various Holy men could onlysow a few grains here or there. Cortez realized the need for order in theCatholic Church in the New World to convert the native population. Cortez wroteto the king of Spain, Charles V, about the need for missionaries to convert theIndians. He asked for friars of the St. Francis or St. Dominic order who wouldset 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 famousmission of Twelve, who began the methodical conversion of the Indians.
Cortez’s envisions of monastic communities, where the native populationcould be converted to Christianity, came true especially in Mexico. Hugemonasteries were built for the purpose of the conversion of the nativepopulation. These monasteries built were of enormous size and decoratedostentatiously. The monasteries included pomp and circumstance in theirceremonies. The reason claimed for doing this was to keep the Indians interestedin Catholicism and away from their native religions. ”
On February 8, 1537,Zumarraga wrote the Council of the Indies that beautiful churches helped in theconversion of the Indians and strengthened their devotion. Twenty years later,on February 1, 1558, Viceroy Luis de Velasco make the same observation to PhilipII”.15These churches, supposedly built for the benefit of the nativepopulation, were built or supported by the native population. For them this wasa heavy burden, whether they built the churches themselves or had to pay workmento the labor. They had to do this at the cost of neglecting their fields ortrades.
There were also accounts of the friars physically punishing the Indiansfor their work or lack of it, “But one must accept with reserve the testimonyof the Indians who complained of abuses by the Dominicans during theconstruction 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 beatenthem over the head with a stick”.16The missions set up by the church were also guilty of abusing the nativepopulation. The Indians were supposed to benefit from these missions, but allthey received from them was more misery. The Indians in having to support thesenew edifices and having to convert to Christianity suffered from a double edgedsword.
The native Americans had three responses to the thrusting of theChristian religion upon them. One response was the incorporation of elements ofChristianity into their own religion, creating a new religious system. They tookthe beliefs out of the Christian religion that agreed or make sense with theirreligion and combined the two.
“Ancient rituals attached to Christian ones included a sweeping ceremony thataccompanied the bringing of the Eucharist to the sick, the lighting of fires onthe eve of the nativity, the extreme use of self-flagellation, the burning of atraditional incense before images of saint, dedicating strings of ears or cornto the Virgin”.
Some Indians outright rejected Christianity. An example ofthis written by Thomas Giles was, “among the Incas of Peru, baptism wasconsidered subjection to the invader; some Incan chiefs killed those whoaccepted the rite”. The Indians largely could not accept Christian beliefsbecause of the actions of the Christians themselves. The brutality and the lackof concern or remorse that the Spanish showed to the Indians played a large rolefor the rejection of the Spanish religion. The Indians did not want any part ofa religion that preached rape, slaughter, and cruel subjugation.
The explanationof a Mayan who objected to the behaviors of the Spanish was the following, “Thetrue 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 ofcacao money, of trial by blowgun; stomping the people; violent removal; forceddebt, debt created by false testimony; petty litigation, harassment, violentremoval; the collaboration with the Spaniards on the part of the priests, . . . and all the while the mistreated were further maltreated…but it will happenthat tears will come to the eyes of God the Father. The justica of God theFather will settle on the whole world.”
Not all the Indians rejected the Christian religion. Many of themaccepted it. They desired Christian friendships and to change their habits tothe ones of the Spanish. The reasons for the acceptance of Christianity vary,but one of these is fear. Some Christian conquerors threatened lives if theIndians were not baptized and did not actively participate in the Church.
Another reason for the conversion is that the Indians were in awe of theconquers. The Spanish represented power and the Indians were in reverence oftheir great amount of power they represented. Some accepted the religion becausethe missionaries demonstrated boundless zeal, high morals, and great courage.
Not all of the missionaries sent by the Church were violent or corrupt. Therewere some who worked for the benefit of the native population. The Indians sawthis and respected it.
The Catholic Church helped the Spanish monarchy administer to the nativepopulation in the New World. The Church, by being subject to the Spanishmonarchy, is also to be held accountable to the numerous evils inflicted uponthe Indians in the Spainish colonies. In many cases they were forced to convertto Christianity, and their views about god and religion were not taken intoaccount.
The Catholic Church incurred a great injustice to the native populationin the New World. They were reduced to second class citizens, and forced to worktoward goals that they did not fully understand. Through the writings of LasCasas, it is seen how the Indians were slaughtered needlessly, and how they werebaptized without regard to their feelings. Cortez paved the way for missions tobe 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 livesof the native population was a negative one due to its alliance with the Spanishmonarchy and its forced conversion of the Indians.