King's Evangelical Divinity School

1 February 2010

Excerpt 2, "Pentecostalism and Politics in Latin America"

A couple of days ago I posted some material for an M.A. module I produced exploring Pentecostalism and politics in Latin America, promising further excerpts from this study manual in the near future. Details of where this material originally appeared, together with part 1, can be found here. Find below part 2. Further excerpts to follow.

C. Arrival of Protestantism in Latin America

The exportation of the Inquisition to Spain’s colonies helped to ensure few cases of Protestantism in Latin America before the 1800s. The Reformation and Spain’s colonisation of the New World were contemporary events. Thus, Spain was not only motivated by religious zeal in its efforts to stamp out Protestantism across Latin America. Protestantism was also the religion of Spain’s maritime enemy, the English, and as was regarded as a highly subversive political ideology that threatened Spain’s hold over her colonies. David Martin, speaking of this longstanding Anglo-Hispanic enmity, speaks of a “clash between the Hispanic imperium and the Anglo-Saxon imperium”, which he regards as “one of the longest running of all wars.” For Martin the defeat of the Spanish Armada is symbolic of this longstanding ideological enmity between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. (4)  Another observer of Latin American Protestantism, Jean-Pierre Bastian, agrees: -
The struggle for maritime and commercial supremacy in the Atlantic… had a religious connotation inasmuch as on the seas the Catholic nations (Spain and Portugal) confronted Protestant nations (the Netherlands and England, principally). Within the Portuguese-Spanish colonial territories, therefore, Protestantism was conceived of as a heresy threatening the ideological and political integrity of a composite socio-political totality which had been established with Christianity as a model. (5)
Martin explains how Protestantism reflected strong liberal tendencies born out of radical Arminianism, which questioned the very basis of Spanish Counter-Reformation Catholicism underpinning colonial rule. As such, it simply could not be allowed into Latin America.

Yet by the early 19th century Latin America’s Liberal elites sought to shake off the shackles of colonial rule. They were keen to model their societies on Anglo-Saxon (especially U.S.) liberalism, which they regarded as a philosophy promoting progress and advancement. Thus, it was not long before most of the continent had seceded from Spain.

The new Latin American leaders now set about pursuing a Liberal agenda. Protestantism was especially considered a religion of progress, the religion of advanced Europe. Soon, Latin American Liberals encouraged Protestant immigrants with skills and technical knowledge to move to the continent, which required the decriminalisation of Protestantism. When the Catholic Church reacted violently, the next generation of Liberals, who regarded Protestantism as a societal rival to the Catholic Church, introduced full religious freedom. Nationals were now free to convert to Protestantism, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries Protestant missionary activity began in earnest across the continent.

Leftist commentators and Catholics regard Protestantism as an exogenous force that penetrated Latin America. Of course, this is true to a degree. But such an analysis ignores the role played by Liberal leaders who expressly invited Protestants into their countries for their own purposes. Thus, the arrival of Protestantism also owes something to endogenous factors.

When speaking of Protestantism in Latin America, most commentators today are referring to Pentecostals. This is because members of the movement outnumber, by far, non-Pentecostal Protestants, whether non-Charismatic Evangelicals or members of the historic Protestant denominations. This is especially so since about the early 1980s, when Pentecostalism experienced massive growth that has since dwarfed other Protestant groups across the continent.

D. Pentecostalism in 20th Century Latin America

Protestantism began to arrive in Latin America about the same time as the Pentecostal movement arose early in the twentieth century. Because of the way its pneumatology shaped its eschatology, classical Pentecostalism was a highly missionary-motivated religion, and it was not long before the movement began sending missionaries to what it considered an unevangelised Latin America. Missionaries began to arrive in small numbers, and reports of their work can be read in early Pentecostal publications such as Latter Rain Evangel.

Initially, growth was slow, often hampered by fierce, even violent Catholic resistance and persecution. There are various reports of Protestants, often Pentecostals, being confronted and denounced by mobs led by priests and nuns, who would hurl abuse and stones. Sometimes, even small explosive devices were left on church doorsteps. Occasionally, church leaders or converts were killed. Yet by the mid-20th century many of the small gains won at great expense were being consolidated. The 1950s and 1960s saw a period of mass evangelisation, radio broadcasts, campaigns, and so on, while persecution began to ease in response to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). As conversion to Protestantism was gradually de-stigmatised, Pentecostalism grew as new converts no longer feared losing their jobs. Consequently, the movement grew steadily across the continent in the 1960s, while the 1970s saw further growth. However, it was the 1980s that saw an explosion of Pentecostalism in Latin America. This phenomenal growth and its ensuing impact on the continent was instrumental in launching the current academic interest in Latin American Pentecostalism.

One further point ought to be mentioned. Much of Latin American Pentecostalism is classical in origin, as many early missionaries came via the Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. Yet some Latin American Pentecostal movements originated separately, notably Chile, which originally owed little of its origins and governance to close links with US Pentecostals. Meanwhile, although the Assemblies of God features strongly in Brazil, it is run by nationals and not an extension of its U.S. counterpart. In 1980s Guatemala, many Mayan Indians converted to Pentecostalism but forged their own indigenous, national version. In 1980s Nicaragua, too, there emerged a nationalist Pentecostal movement, though these were a minority representing about 30% of the movement, compared with the U.S.-influenced classical variety. Thus, it is important to differentiate between the history, beliefs, and practices of classical and national, indigenous (also known as autochthonous) Pentecostalism in Latin America. One should take great care, then, not to regard Latin American Pentecostalism as a great homogenous mass, which is far from the case. However, in an age of globalisation these various expressions of Pentecostalism are increasingly in contact with each other so that there is a vigorous cross-fertilisation of ideas. We should also note the influence of Pentecostalism and Charismaticism upon other religious expression so that, for example, some Catholics demonstrate similar practices and styles of worship. Timothy Steigenga has referred to this as `Pentecostalized religion’. (6)

Latin American Pentecostalism is dynamic and vibrant, drawing on local culture, so that in church services one might find a blend of revivalist hymns, choruses, salsa music, Latin dancing, and mariachi bands. In some countries, notably Central America, attendance is very high, with many people attending services nearly every night of the week, together with all-night prayer meetings once a week. Latin American Pentecostalism strongly emphasises holiness, though this is often employed by some adherents to measure the spirituality of others.


(4) David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 9-12.

(5) Jean-Pierre Bastian, `Protestantism in Latin America,' in Enrique Dussell, ed. The Church in Latin America, 1492-1992 (Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1992), 314.

(6) Timothy Steigenga, The Politics of the Spirit: The Political Implications of Pentecostalized Religion in Costa Rica and Guatemala (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001).
This slightly modified excerpt originally appeared in Pentecostalism and Politics in Latin America (Lampeter: University of Wales, 2007).

No comments: