|Lecture 34: The Catholic Church and the Indians
When the early missionary friars arrived in the New World, they optimistically hoped to convert the Indian population within ten years. This optimism was based on their view of the Indian as a pure, blank slate--an innocent, open being, lacking all material acquisitiveness--and their desire to create a Christian utopia in the new land. These friars, Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits, known as “regulars,” began their work by learning Indian languages and seeking to convert native leaders, techniques that often resulted in mass baptisms.
The initial astounding successes often turned out to be illusory, however. Although the missionaries attempted to educate some Indians and recorded valuable ethnographic information, they were even more successful in disrupting traditional Indian life. The Indians’ temples, idols, and literature were destroyed, and Indians were often forced to settle in small agricultural towns overseen by missionaries. Traditional Indian practices were punished; Indian children were instructed to turn away from their native ways, sometimes even being called on to turn in members of their family as “witchdoctors” or “medicine men.” Despite the missionaries’ active opposition to using Indians as slaves, the mission settlements were sometimes ideal targets for slave raiders.
Missionary zeal waned when the friars realized that the Indians’ acceptance of Christianity was often only superficial. Missionary protection from slave raiders was an appealing reason for the Indians to convert, but their earlier beliefs often reappeared, shrouded in Christianity. Many Indians adopted only a few, palatable aspects of Christianity; if missionaries left the area, most of their Christian practices left with them.
I. The Early Church in the New World
A. The Spanish Church: Missionaries and priests arrived in the New World with the earliest
conquerors. They quickly undertook the conversion of the native population. For the
Indians Catholicism became one of the most significant dimensions of the invasions
(Gibson, Spain in America, pp. 70-77).
1. The Spanish church in the colonies was controlled by the crown. Papal bulls in
1501 and 1508 gave the monarchy power to appoint clergy in the colonies, “to
administer ecclesiastic jurisdictions and revenues and to veto papal bulls.” These
powers constituted Patronato Real (“Royal Patronage”) and made the church an
essential arm of the Spanish conquest (Gibson, Spain in America, p. 76).
2. The Catholic clergy included priests and other ecclesiastics, known as “seculars,”
and missionary friars--Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits--
known as “regulars.”
a. Seculars limited themselves to performing religious functions among the
b. Regulars converted, baptized, and trained the Indians.
3. The mendicant orders of Spain, particularly the Franciscans, were steeped in the
ideology of messianism and humanism.
a. The missionaries saw the innocence and openness of the Indians as an
opportunity to create a Christian utopia that would revive the primitive
simplicity of the early Christian church and begin the conversion of the
entire world. Essential to these hopes were the missionaries’ beliefs in the
imminence of the apocalypse and the sanctification of poverty. The
Indians’ apparent lack of material acquisitiveness seemed to prepare the
way for a millenial kingdom in the New World.
b. Erasmian humanism also emphasized the purity of the early church and the
corruption of sixteenth century Europe, noting the need for Christian
reform and classical learning, changes which the mendicants tried to
introduce into their work with the Indians.
B. Early Missionary Work in Mexico: Franciscans, Dominicans, and members of other
orders had labored in the West Indies, but their important missionary work began with the
conquest of Mexico. The Franciscans arrived there in 1523, the Dominicans in 1526, and
the Augustinians in 1533. The Jesuits did not reach Spanish America until 1572 (Haring,
pp. 171, 183; Gibson, Spain in America, pp. 72-73).
1. Small groups of missionaries usually began their in an area by converting the
native leaders, who were then used to influence the community as a whole. Mass
baptisms frequently followed a minimal amount of religious instruction.
2. Language was a barrier to both beginning and later missionary work, limiting the
degree of Indian comprehension and acceptance of Christian doctrine.
Undependable interpreters were soon replaced by the large number of
missionaries who learned Indian languages.
3. Missionaries destroyed much of the evidence of earlier Indian religion--temples,
idols, and, in many cases, valuable Indian literature. The new churches, which
were the first physical evidence of the Christian invasion, were frequently built on
the temple sites.
4. Outside of the urban areas, the friars sought more methodical evangelization and
isolation from negative white influences by concentrating the Indians in villages
under their authority. In the congregated communities, the actual work of religious
training went on.
a. The Indians spent part of each day studying Christian doctrine,
memorizing the catechism, and praying. Male children of the native
aristocracy lived and received instruction in convents. They became child
missionaries and were responsible for a large number of Indian
b. The missionaries also encouraged Indian labor, particularly agriculture. A
variety of industries, such as stock raising and silk culture, were
introduced in New Spain.
c. The friars also performed the sacraments, acting as parish priests in the
Indian communities they administered.
5. The missionaries maintained strict discipline among the Indians. Those who
refused to accept or later rejected Christianity were severely punished,
occasionally by death.
6. The training of an Indian intellectual elite and the ethnological study of Indian
cultures were two of the most significant accomplishments of the missionaries.
a. The humanistic training of Indians was intended to mold the children of
Indian nobility into a clerical and lay elite. Church opposition resulted in
the failure of the training (Gibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule, pp.
(1) The most notable example of this effort was the Colegio de Santa
Cruz at Tlatelolco (1536 to c. 1576), which successfully trained a
number of students in Latin, rhetoric, logic, music, and philosophy.
One of the school’s most important functions was the translation of
scripture into native languages.
(2) The Colegio de Santa Cruz and similar efforts to train a native
clergy ultimately failed because of widespread opposition to their
goals stemming from the belief that Indians were incapable of such
spiritual responsibilities. A synod in 1555 forbade the ordination of
Indians, mestizos, and blacks.
b. Ethnographic work was based on the feeling among the monastic orders
that they needed to understand Indian concepts and religions in order to
overcome these ideas and measure the degree of acceptance of
Christianity. A number of friars produced studies that eventually helped
preserve Indian tradition. Most of the important mendicant ethnographies
were produced in the sixteenth century. In later years, as missionaries
became more concerned with potential idolatry and heresy and less
enthusiastic and curious, ethnographic work was discouraged.
(1) Mexico produced many studies but the most important was the
encyclopedic work of the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagun titled
Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva Espana. This study of
Aztec civilization was written in Nahuatl; much of the labor that
went into it was done by Sahagun’s Indian students.
(2) No study as comprehensive as Sahagun’s was devoted to the Maya,
but Diego de Landa, also a Franciscan, produced a worthwhile
ethnography entitled Relaeion de las Cosas de Yucatan.
(3) The most important colonial study of Inca society was done by the
Jesuit Bernabe Cobo, who compiled the Historia del Nuevo Mundo
between 1612 and 1653.
C. The Catholic Church in Brazil: The conversion of the Brazilian Indians was largely in the
hands of the Jesuits, who arrived in 1549 (Hemming, pp. 97-118, 312-44).
1. The Jesuits had remarkable success at first because the Indians accepted them as
powerful protectors. Mass conversions and baptisms marked the early work.
2. The Jesuits soon saw that the early conversions were superficial and that the
Indians did not abandon aboriginal ways. They increasingly adopted methods of
forced conversion in alliance with civil authorities.
a. The Indians were concentrated in mission aldeias (“reductions”) in order
to force them to abandon hunting and seminomadic slash-and-burn
b. The Brazilian Jesuits, desiring the Europeans to serve as examples for the
Indians, encouraged the Indians to locate near European settlements.
c. Despite their considerable efforts against slavery, the Jesuits also accepted
the use of mission Indians as a labor pool for colonists.
d. Education was considered important; young boys were indoctrinated in
mission colleges to attack the Indians’ cultural conservatism.
e. When the Indian population of coastal Brazil was decimated by disease
and slavery, Jesuits moved into the Interior. Portuguese civilians aided
Jesuits in “descending” whole tribal groups to settlements and missions.
The Jesuits thus cooperated, wittingly or unwittingly, in replenishing the
civilians’ shrinking labor pool, an action that conflicted with the goal of
3. In the seventeenth century the Jesuit father Antonio Vieira acted as the Brazilian
Indians’ Las Casas. He worked continually to free the Indians from slavery and
other colonial abuses.
II. The Missionary Frontier
A. Organization and Function: On the frontiers of Spanish occupation, the mission became
the dominant institution. In the late colonial period, it came to serve the civil purpose of
introducing the Spanish lifestyle to the Indians, playing a strategic role in holding the
frontier against hostile Indians and competing European powers and the religious purpose
of spreading Christianity (Gibson, Spain in America, pp. 194-98).
1. The missionaries believed that congregation of the Indians into villages was a
necessary element in converting and “civilizing” them. These mission villages
were known as reductions.
a. Frequently using transported Christian Indians from the population centers
as examples and teachers, the missionaries introduced Spanish community
life to previous1y nomadic or seminomadic groups.
b. Indian houses were laid out in an orderly pattern around workshops,
granaries, and stables, with a church dominating the other structures.
c. Under missionary authority the Indian village was organized into a
political unit with officers and institutions modeled after the Spanish form.
The friars selected favored Indians to hold political office, frequently
bypassing traditional Indian lines of authority. Traditional Indian
leadership, however, often continued surreptitiously as a “shadow
2. A similar revolution in economic life was sought. The ultimate mission goal was
the creation of a self- sufficient economy.
a. The missionaries considered agriculture an essential tool of civilization.
They introduced plows, stock raising, European plants, and new
b. Mission schools taught the Spanish language, basic learning skills such as
reading and writing, and manual trades. New crafts were introduced,
occasionally to the detriment of traditional native crafts.
B. Mission Frontiers (Hennessy, pp. 54-60)
1. The frontier mission came into its own with the northward advance of New Spain.
The Franciscans led the way into northern and northeastern Mexico.
a. In 1598 the Franciscans accompanied Onate to New Mexico. There,
among Indians who were already sedentary, they were primarily concerned
with religious matters, leaving social and economic life to civil officials.
b. In 1769 Franciscans led by Friar Junipero Serra reached California.
Although twenty one missions were eventually established and thousands
of Indians were converted, missionary success was largely limited to
southern California and the California coast.
c. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Franciscans spread
into Texas as part of the Spanish reaction to French threats in that region.
2. The Jesuits dominated missionary work on the north central plateau and in
northwestern Mexico after their arrival in 1572. In the early eighteenth century,
they pushed into Baja California and Arizona.
3. In the early seventeenth century, Jesuits led the Spanish expansion east of Quito
into the Amazon basin. After 1638 they moved down the Maranon the Amazon
rivers, congregating and baptizing thousands of Indians. In the late l600s, the
Portuguese were moving upriver to challenge the Spanish intrusion. By the early
eighteenth century, Portuguese and Indian resistance forced the Jesuits to limit
their borders. The culminating event in Jesuit consolidation was the messianic
revolt of forty thousand Indian converts on the Ucayali River in 1742.
4. The most famous and elaborate Jesuit missions were in Paraguay among the
a. In 1610 the Jesuits established fifteen missions in Guaira on the eastern
drainage of the Parana River. Slave-raiding bandeirantes from Sao Paulo
soon began raiding the concentrated Indians. After making numerous
attacks, three thousand bandeirantes raided the reductions and drove out
the Jesuits in 1629.
b. The Jesuits retrenched farther south, founding missions on the Uruguay
and Parana rivers. Following new attacks from the Portuguese, they armed
their converts in 1641 and defeated the bandeirantes at the battle of
c. The Paraguayan reductione became almost independent, paternalistic
states. The Jesuits governed the missions strictly, severely restricting
contact with the outside world and regulating all Indian activities.
III. The Church in Late Colonial Times and the Impact of Catholicism on the Indians
A. The Later Church and the Indians: Once the initial conversions had been made and
clerical enthusiasm had waned, missionary protection and concern for the Indians tended
to decline. Only on the frontiers did the work continue at levels similar to those of the
early years (Gibson, Spain in America, pp. 80-89).
1. Royal support of the missions had stipulated a ten year period for conversion of
the Indians, after which religious functions were to be turned over to the secular
clergy. Although this did not occur as scheduled in all places, the gradual
tendency was to give control to the seculars, who were considerably less
concerned about Indian matters than the regulars.
2. The church’s position eventually allowed it to become the largest landowner in
the Americas. Increased concern with its economic interests gradually diverted its
attention away from the Indians.
3. The Jesuits became particularly powerful, both economically and politically.
Increased criticism of their position led to their expulsion from the Portuguese
empire in 1759 and from the Spanish empire in 1767. Although the Franciscans
and others took over the Jesuit missions in many areas, Indians in other regions
either returned to former ways or were at the mercy of the civilian population.
B. The Impact of the Church on the Indians: Where conversion was largely successful,
Catholicism became the focus and cement of the Indian community. However, the new
religion disrupted Indian traditions, destroying old ways and isolating the Indians from
the rest of the national community.
1. In many areas the symbols, rituals, festivals, and organizations of Catholicism
became the center of community life, providing a framework for the continuation
of the most enduring element of Indian life, the small community or village.
2. The missionary-created isolation of Indian communities made the Indians
perpetual minors under the guardianship of the friars. When the missionaries left,
the Indians were unprepared for and incapable of participation in national life.
3. The missionaries effectively dismantled entire cultures. Social relationships,
native traditions and beliefs, and aboriginal economies were permanently
disrupted. The missionaries’ role in Indian deculturation was perhaps more
effective than any of the actions of the Spanish conquistadores.
4. The missionaries also unwittingly contributed to Indian population decline. By
concentrating Indians in large groups, eliminating traditional means of support,
and forcing converts to adopt unfamiliar clothing and diets, they made their
charges more susceptible to new diseases.
C. The Survival of Indian Religion: The conversion of the Indians was rarely more than a
partial success. Christianity was only a thin surface under which Indians native traditions
survived. Indians also adapted the new religion to old beliefs, creating a syncretic
cosmology (Wolf, pp. 165-75).
1. Among peoples such as the Pueblos, the old religion remained strong. Practiced in
secret while the missionaries did their work, it returned to the open when they
2. Many Indians found familiar ideas in Christianity, making its adoption more
palatable. As a result, many of their traditional beliefs and symbols survived in the
a. The Aztecs could find parallels between Quetzalcoatl and Christian
redemption and between local gods and peasant saints. There was also
common ground between religions in the elaborate rituals and symbols and
the concepts of self-denial, priestly organization, and redemption through
b. Likewise, the Incas were familiar with the idea of a creator-god,
Viracocha, and with a hierarchy of priests.
c. Although missionaries generally hoped to create a clean slate by
obliterating Indian traditions, some felt that the similar beliefs had
prepared the way for Christianity and should be used. Regardless, they
were unable to keep the Indians from acting on the basis of such parallels.
3. The most common Indian response to missionary pressure was to add Christianity
to their pantheon of preexisting beliefs. When Christian doctrines were
compatible with old religion and seemed to accomplish desired ends, the Indians
accepted them enthusiastically. When they did not, the Indians felt free to return
to the religion that had served their ancestors.
a. In New Spain the Virgin of Guadalupe, a distinctly Indian version of the
mother of God, became a symbol of Indian nationalism.
b. In many areas native “Christian” cults became symbols of native resistance
and cultural revival. One example among many was the Santidade cult in
Bahia, Brazil, in which an Indian pope promised messianic relief from
Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821. Histories of the American
Frontier, edited by Ray Allen Billington. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians in the Valley of Mexico,
1519-1810. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964.
___________ Spain in America. The New American Nation Series, edited by Henry Steele Commager
and Richard B. Morris. New York: Harper and Row, University Library, Harper Torchbooks,
1966. Chapters 4, 9.
Haring, C. H. The Spanish Empire in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1947. Chapter