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The Influence of Religion in Latin American History (March 2017): Home

By Joan E. Meznar


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Choice (volume 54 | number 7). 


This survey of literature on religion and Latin American history begins with the arrival of European Christians in the late fifteenth century. The essay addresses monographs on religion in colonial Spanish America and Portuguese America; on gender, ethnicity, faith, and resistance; on the growth of Protestantism in the twentieth century; and on the political consequences of the emergence of a theology of liberation following the Second Vatican Council. Over the course of the last half century, scholars have tapped a variety of archival sources that elucidate the actions of ordinary men and women, providing new insight into the place of religion in shaping Latin America’s culture and history. 


On March 13, 2013, Jorge Maria Bergoglio, a cardinal from Argentina, was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. The first Latin American and the first Jesuit to become bishop of Rome, Bergoglio also was the first to choose Francis as his papal name, signaling devotion to the beloved founder of the Franciscan order. The election of Pope Francis confirms that in the twenty-first century, Roman Catholicism is no longer primarily a European faith. It has grown most strikingly in the Global South: in Africa, in Asia, and, especially, in Latin America. The global expansion of the Church headquartered in Rome began with the European voyages of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The very year that Iberian Christians completed the long struggle to reconquer Spain from Muslim rule, Queen Isabella of Castile funded the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who dreamed of finding gold in the East in order to pay for a crusade to wrest Jerusalem from infidels. Instead, Columbus inaugurated an era in which Europeans, and their faith, expanded into the Americas. While Roman Christianity established a lasting presence in the New World, it splintered in Europe, as Christians questioned the authority of the Pope and formed Protestant churches. Thus, Catholic missionaries felt compelled to focus on orthodoxy as they brought converts into the Christian faith. The records produced by these missionaries have been mined to provide a view not only of the challenges they faced and the successes they claimed, but also of the cultures of those they sought to convert. The history of religion in Latin America contributes to a better understanding of the emergence of new, hybrid societies in that region.

Using historical chronology, this essay reviews the growing body of literature produced by scholars who chose religion as a lens through which to view the history of Latin America. The essay begins with the early contacts between Europeans and American Indians, followed by the implementation of colonial regimes, independence from European political control, and the emergence of new nations. Acknowledging the significant difference between Spanish and Portuguese colonies, colonial Brazil is discussed separately from Spanish America. The focus remains on history, both of Latin America and of scholarship, pointing to ways in which historians over the course of the twentieth century have tapped new archival sources and thereby enhanced political history, giving attention to the importance of gender and ethnicity in understanding the role of religion in shaping Latin American societies.

Recently published surveys offer a useful introduction to the scope of this scholarship. John Lynch’s New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America covers both space and time, with attention to Indigenous religious practices, the different variations and transformations of Christianity in Spanish and Portuguese America, the presence of Jews, the contributions of Africans to Latin American spirituality, the arrival of Protestant sects, and  political connections between church and state. Another comprehensive text is John Frederick Schwaller’s The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond. Also useful is the collection of fourteen essays edited by Lee M. Penyak and Walter J. Petry, Religion and Society in Latin America: Interpretive Essays from Conquest to Present.

Joan E. Meznar is a professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University.