From the last decade of the 15th century, Europe would be welcome the discovery of a new continent, and with it the opportunity for the expansion of empire and Christendom. Those nations most immediately suited to seize this opportunity were the naval empires of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal. Both royal houses were firmly aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and assumed an imperial mandate to expand the authority of the church along with political and economic growth. The missionary endeavors which the Roman Catholic Church would embark upon in the formative years of European global exploration would set in place the foundation for overseas evangelization strategy and reverberate in the methods of other European nations and leave an indelible impact on global Christianity. Understanding the social context for this initial push in overseas missions can put into perspective the successive waves of zealous missionaries and their understandings of Christendom, imperial authority, and the sanctified use of military force which would come to mark the interaction of the church with the newly colonized lands.
The interaction between Iberian Europe and the American continent began in 1492 when Columbus encountered the islands of the northeast Caribbean Sea. Prior to this landing, however, the religious context of the European peninsula was changing. Once home to the empire of the Moors and a haven for the Jewish Diaspora, the year 1492 saw the forced expulsion of Jews from Spain and the annexation of Granada, a final stronghold of Muslim society. A second expulsion, this time of Muslims, was decreed by Isabella in 1502. (Duiker 2004:359) These events followed in the manner of the Castilian inquisition of the 1480’s which attempted to purge Jewish and Protestant influences from the region. The Iberian culture came under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church as its most prominent leader, Queen Isabella of Spain, influenced the region. As one historian, Adrian Hastings, writes, “the identity of Castile, as also of Portugal, had to a quite considerable extent been forged by the long ‘crusading’ wars which had little by little re-established Christian rule throughout the peninsula. The spirit of crusade, intolerant, aggressive, insistent upon a uniform political-religious orthodoxy triumphed above all under Isabella” (2000:328). Her zeal for her people to come under the authority of the Catholic Church would drive her both to acknowledge the citizenship of the people living in newly discovered lands and also to allow oppressive retaliation for withholding conversion.
The addition of the American territories to the geographic understanding of Europe was an unprecedented event which brought new religious and political crises. It had been established by the Pope Nicholas V in the Romanus Pontifex (January 8, 1455) that the areas of global exploration, at this time viewed as inland Africa and Asian territory, would belong exclusively to Portugal, with the right of any resources discovered, access to trade routes, and authority over people inhabiting the land (Ehler 1988:12). The westward edge of exploration at the time of the Romanus Pontifex was Cape Verde, of the coast of Western Africa. With the possibility of a new continent, Spain was given preference for imperial expansion and tasked with evangelization by a different Pope who was familiar with the Castilian royal family. This combination of political and religious responsibility was given in the hope that as additional peoples came under the authority of the Castilian court, they would, in turn, be subject to the authority and spiritual direction of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Alexander VI issued this document, known as Inter Caetera, on May 4, 1493, less than seven months from the first landfall of Columbus. This enlarged the Portuguese territorial claim, but solidified the right of the Spanish crown to occupy the Americas, own its resources, and evangelize its peoples.
After establishing a colonial presence in the Caribbean islands, two concepts would form the basis of both military engagement and missionary endeavors: the encomienda and the requerimiento. In the years preceding the encomienda, most colonial leaders had found justification in the Inter Caetera to enslave the indigenous people and had little oversight from superiors who would disagree with their practices. The encomienda was a social structure which aided the European expansion while maintaining the obligation to the pope to evangelize the indigenous populations.
Queen Isabel’s preference for the native peoples was that they been viewed similarly to free low vassals living in Spain. For this, the crown could expect a small tax and in turn provided land rights and legal protection to its citizens. The governor, Ovando, recognized this classification of the indigenous population as detrimental to his organization attempt and did little to implement it until ordered to do so. While the encomienda did expect colonists to pay the indigenous workers, it also established a precedent that allowed colonists to force indigenous people to work so that they could be influenced by the Europeans to accept matters of faith and practice. Isabella writes on December 20, 1503, “Therefore I order you, our governor, as soon as you see this letter, to compel and force these Indians to deal and converse with the Christians on that island and work in its buildings and gather gold and other metals and do farm work and maintenance for the Christians who live on that island…” (in Koschorke 2007:285). The hope of this edict was for the native population to live alongside the European settlers so that they would be influenced and educated to become strong subjects of the Catholic Church and the Castilian crown. Another concession made to Governor Ovando was that the taxes owed by the indigenous people be paid to the colonists rather than to the European capital. This perpetuated the lack of economic oversight and allowed the land-owning colonists to continue to oppress their servants (Meier 2001:5).
As the colonists expanded their territory in America, the encomienda was not sufficient to meet the economic and political needs of the Europeans. Yet since the indigenous peoples were citizens of the Spanish empire military action would instigate a civil war. This legality was amended, however, in 1513, when the concept of the requerimiento was instituted in cross-cultural political engagement. The requerimiento, or “notification” was ordered to be read aloud to inform the indigenous population of the divine right the Spanish held on the land and offered the subjected people an opportunity to lay down arms and accept their position. The edict described the authority that the pope had on earth and that he had given the territory to the royal Castilian house. This declaration absolved the colonists and Spain of the responsibility for military destruction (Meier 2001:8). To refuse Christianity was to refuse the authority of the royal house which had been established by Catholic Church. This refusal would, in effect, be seen as a declaration of war since the people were claiming possession of lands which had been granted the Spanish crown.
The context which produced these two concepts, the encomienda and the requerimiento would dictate the legal, societal, and religious interaction between the Europeans and indigenous people in the Americas for generations. In time, critical voices would speak out against the injustice suffered at the hands of the evangelizing empire. Progress would be made, although the societal rift between the groups would remain. The imagery of the conquering Christian empire would stain the reputation of the church for centuries and take its place among the actions of Inquisition, Crusade, and the African slave trade which peppered the era. The notion of Christendom and the absolution of a nation’s oppressive means to achieve conversion would come to mark the synthesis of evangelism and imperialism. From this context, however, would arise voices which spoke of a liberating gospel for all peoples and a desire to preserve the cultural heritage and dignity of the people of the Americas.
Duiker, William and Jackson Spielvogel. 2004. World History, Volume II: Since 1400. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group Publishing.
Ehler, Sidney. 1988. Church and State Through the Centuries. Cheshire, CT: Biblo-Moser Publishing.
Hastings, Adrian, ed. 2000. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing.
Koschorke, Klaus, ed. A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing.
Meier, Johannes. 2001. “The Beginnings of the Catholic Church in the Caribbean” Christianity in the Caribbean. Armando Lampe, ed. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.