Spanish missions in the Americas

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The Spanish missions in the Americas were Catholic missions established by the Spanish Empire during the 16th to 19th centuries in areas extending from Mexico and southwestern portions of current-day United States to as far south as Argentina and Chile.



At the start of the Age of Discovery, European governments sent explorers to find trade routes to facilitate economic relations with Asia and Europe. During this time, these men found the new lands that could be used for the economic benefit of their home countries and their own. In order to understand these new lands and the resources that might be available, explorers fostered relationships with the native people. This led to the colonization of the Americas. The Catholic Church was an essential part of both the Spanish and Portuguese Empires so as the empires spread to new lands, it was the moral and unifying duty of the King to be sure Christianity was spread into the New World.

Often these empires used missions to teach indigenous people about Christian values that were practiced in Europe at this time. These values did not only include religious teachings but cultural aspects of life such as dress and behavior. Missions were formed in different ways across the Americas that have had a lasting impact on the culture of these areas. Catholicism is still a prevalent religion in both North and South America. The formation and implementation of the missions across the New World reflected the beliefs of the Catholic clerics who created and implemented the missions. In the Catholic church, monks, priests and other clerics take vows and are affiliated with a certain order. These orders, their religion emphasized aspects, and era can be linked to the way of life and teaching in the missions.

Despite extensive efforts and even successes in recovering the cultural history of the cultures colonized in the Americas, much of the evidence currently available comes from the colonizers themselves. Many of the cultures impacted by missionaries had no written language and were thus robbed of much of their oral history when the populations were decimated by Old World illnesses. [1] Cultures that possessed written languages, such as the Maya, often had their artifacts deemed sacrilegious and burned. [2] Therefore, much of the history of Christian missions comes from accounts of missionaries and—to a much lesser extent archaeological investigation, and should be handled with care. Readers should consider the ethnocentric and theocratic context in which accounts recorded by missionaries are presented.

Spanish colonialism


Catholic missions were installed throughout the Americas in an effort to integrate native populations as part of the European culture; from the point of view of the Spanish Kings, naturals of America were seen as Crown subjects in need of care, instruction and protection from the military and adventurers, most of them in the pursuit of gold, silver, land and nobility titles. The missionaries goal was to convert natives to Christianity, because diffusion of Christianity was deemed to be a requirement of the religion. Spanish Vice-royalties in America had the same structure as the Vice-Royalties in Spanish provinces. The Catholic church depended on the Kings administratively, but in doctrine was subjected, as always, to Rome. Spain had a long battle with the Moors, and Catholicism was an important factor unifying the Spaniards against the Muslims. Further, the religious practices of American natives alarmed the Spanish, so they banned and prosecuted those practices. The role of missionaries was primarily to replace indigenous religions with Christianity , which would also make possible the integration of the native populations into the Spanish colonial societies. [3] One symbolic example of this was the practice of constructing churches and cathedrals, such as Santa Domingo and Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption, on top of demolished native temples. [4] Establishment of missions was often followed by the implementation of Encomienda systems by the Vice-royal authorities, which forced native labor onto land granted to Europeans by the Spanish Crown and led to oppression.


Pedro de Gante was a European missionary who desired assimilation of Native American communities in order to further educational discourse amongst indigenous communities. He was so influential in his work, he became known as "The first teacher of the Americas". [5] Originally, Peeter Van der Moere, Pedro de Gante, came to New Spain, in 1523 also known as Mexico. A missionary, Pedro de Gante, wanted to spread the Christian faith to his native brothers and sisters. During this time, the mentality of the Spanish people was to not empower the indigenous people with knowledge because it would give them motivation to retaliate over their Spanish rulers. Nevertheless, Pedro de Gante saw the ritualistic practices being made by the indigenous, which traditionally had meade human sacrifices (specially from enemy tribes) , and as a missionary, saw the need for a change in faith. He decided in order to best approach theses indigenous communities he had to adapt to their way of life. He learned their native tongue and participated in their conversations and games. [6] Despite having a stutter, he was a successful translator of Nahuatl and Spanish. [5] Additionally, Pedro de Gante was a big advocate of education of the youth, where he established schools throughout Mexico to cater to the indigenous communities. [7] His influence spanned so wide, others like him followed by example. Of the future missionaries to come to America, at least three of his compatriots came. [8]

Fray Pedro de Gante Pedro de Gante.png
Fray Pedro de Gante
Pedro de Gante living quarters before expedition. Convent of Franciscan Friars in Ghent.png
Pedro de Gante living quarters before expedition.

Native revolts

In addition to the encomienda system, the aggressive implementation of missions and their forcible establishment of reductions and congregations led to resistance and sometimes revolt in the native populations being colonized. Many natives agreed to join the reductions and congregations out of fear, but many were initially still allowed to quietly continue some of their religious practices. However, as treatment of natives grew worse and suppression of native customs increased, so did the resistance of the natives.

The most notable example of rebellion against colonization is the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, in which the Zuni, Hopi, as well as Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Tano, and Keres-speaking Pueblos took control of Santa Fe and drove the Spanish colonial presence out of New Mexico with heavy casualties on the Spanish side, including 21 of the 33 Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico. The region remained autonomous under native control despite multiple non-violent attempts at peace treaties and trade agreements until 1692.

The Tepehuan Revolt was likewise stirred by hostilities against the missionaries, which arose due to the concurrent and explosive rise in disease that accompanied their arrival. [9] The Tepehuan associated the rise in death directly with these missionaries and their reductions, which spread disease and facilitated exploitative labor to encomanderos and miners. [10] The revolt lasted from 1616 to 1620 with heavy casualties on both sides, during which time the Spanish abandoned their policy of "peace by purchase (tribute)" in favor of "war of fire and blood". [11]

Epidemics in Missions

With resistance and revolts, the native population dropped drastically with the introduction of Spanish missions. However, the main factor for the overwhelming losses were due to epidemics in the missions. Despite being affected before the introduction of missions, the buildings allowed rodents to infiltrate living areas and spread disease more rapidly. Many natives were living in cramped spaces with poor hygiene and poor nutrition. This led not only to high mortality rate, but to low fertility rates as well. It is estimated that every 20 years or so, a new epidemic would wipe out the adult population of natives in many missions, giving no chance for recovery. [12]

Cultural Changes

In converting natives, missionaries had to find various ways of implementing sacramental practices among them. Some sacraments, like Baptism, were already similar to the Nahuatl rituals during birth, usually performed by a midwife. Many missionaries even allowed for natives to keep some aspects of their original ritual in place, like giving the child or newborn a small arrowhead or broom to represent their future roles in society, as long as it complied with Catholic beliefs. Other sacraments, like Matrimony, were fairly different from native practices. Many natives were polygamous and to perform the sacrament of marriage, Franciscan friars would have a husband bring his many wives to the church, having them all state their reasons for being the one true wife. The friars would then decide based on the testimony who was his wife and perform the sacrament. [13]

In addition to religious changes, Spanish missionaries also brought about secular changes. With each generation of natives, there was a gradual shift in what they ate, wore and how the economy within the missions worked. Missionaries introduced adobe style houses for nomadic natives and domesticated animals for meat rather than wild game. The Spanish colonists also brought more foods and plants from Europe and South American to regions that initially had no contact with nations there. Natives began to dress in European-style clothing and adopted the Spanish language, often morphing it with Nahuatl and other native languages. [14]

Catholic Orders


Franciscan missionaries were the first to arrive in New Spain, in 1523, following the Cortes expeditions in Mexico, and soon after began establishing missions across the continents. [15] [16] In addition to their primary goal of spreading Christianity, the missionaries studied the native languages, taught children to read and write, and taught adults trades such as carpentry and ceramics. The first missionaries to arrive in the New World were Franciscan friars from the observant faction which believed in a strict and limited way of practicing religion. Because the friars believed teaching and practicing can only be done through "meditation and contemplation", Franciscans were not able to convert as many people as quickly as the Spanish would have liked. This caused strain between colonial governments and Franciscan friars, which eventually led to several of the friars fleeing to present day western Mexico and the dissolution of Franciscan parishes. Other issues also contributed to the dissolution of Franciscan parishes including the vow of poverty and accusations made by the colonial governments. However, Spanish missions often used money provided by the King to fund missions. Having friars taking money proved to be a controversial issue within the church. In addition, the colonial government claimed missionaries were mistreating indigenous people who were working on the missions. On the other hand, the Franciscan missionaries claimed that the Spanish government enslaved and mistreated indigenous people. Present day efforts are to show where Franciscan missionaries protected the indigenous people from Spanish cruelties and supported empowering the native peoples. [17]


The Jesuits had a wide-spread impact between their arrival in the New World about 1570 until their expulsion in 1767. The Jesuits, especially in the southeastern part of South America, followed a widespread Spanish practice of creating settlements called "reductions" to concentrate the widespread native populations in order to better rule, Christianize, and protect the native populace. [18] The Jesuit Reductions were socialist societies in which each family would receive a house and field, and individuals were clothed and fed in return for work. Additionally, the communities would include schools, churches, and hospitals as well as native leaders and governing councils to be overseen by two Jesuit missionaries in each reduction. Like the Franciscans, the Jesuit missionaries learned the local languages and trained the adults in European methods of construction, manufacturing, and, to a certain extent, agriculture. [19] Spanish settlers were prohibited from living or working in reductions. This led to a strained relationship between Jesuit missionaries and the Spanish because in surrounding Spanish settlements people were not guaranteed food, shelter, and clothing. [20]

Another major Jesuit effort was that of Eusebio Kino S.J., in the region then known as the Pimería Alta – modern-day Sonora in Mexico and southern Arizona in the United States. [21]


The Dominicans were centralized in the Caribbean and Mexico and, despite a much smaller representation in the Americas, had one of the most notable histories of native rights activism. Bartolomé de las Casas was the first Dominican bishop in Mexico and played a pivotal role in dismantling the practice of "encomenderos",these laws were intended to prevent the exploitation and mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by the encomenderos , by strictly limiting their power and dominion over groups of natives, with the establishment of the New Laws in 1542. [22]

See also

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[[Category:History of Catholicism in South America]