Christian Missions in the 16th Century

As is often the case, the movement of God’s Spirit in our world can be difficult to discern when experienced beneath the layers of human impurity and sin continually cladding the vessels God chooses as His instruments.  Such was the case during the 16th century, as the Church – the bride of Christ – spread itself across international, social, ethnic, and racial borders, creating at times disastrous, even shameful, results while at other times leaving what seems to be the unmistakable thumbprint of a loving God in the hearts, lives, and lands of the nations of this world.

Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spain took action to reap the many rich benefits of the New World by establishing her own settlements and harvesting whatever the new land could offer.  Acting on the “enormous authority1” given by Popes Alexander VI and Julius II, the Spanish crown could nominate, and virtually appoint, bishops and other prestigious positions of religious power in the New World.  This “missionary” action created a distancing of control and power between the church in Rome and the Spanish-American churches that were being established.  Thus, the clerics who were sent to work in the New World were not as responsible as their European counterparts to the church in Rome.

With the exception of a few who faithfully served their parishes, the ecclesiastical appointees in Spanish America, who were in little more than political posts, had, for the most part, little regard for those in their charge.  But there were those who migrated to the New World, not for political or economic gain, but because they truly believed that they were under divine appointment.  These were the monks belonging to the orders of mendicant monasticism, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits.  They had an unquestionable heritage of concern for the poor, the outcast, and the echelons of society that were too often disregarded.  Living in poverty themselves, they were able to identify with, and minister effectively to, the poor, indigenous people who were being exploited by the conquistadors.  They could also see firsthand the terrible results of colonization attempts, and often spoke out on behalf of the native people who were in their care.

One result of Spanish conquest in the New World was the system of encomiendas.  Since Spain forbade the holding of the Indians as slaves, this system was developed instead.  In encomiendas, the Indians were “entrusted” to a settler who, in exchange for work, was supposed to teach Christian doctrine and provide guidance to the Indians.  The system provided an environment worse than slavery.  For, in slavery, the owner of the slave usually had a sense of “ownership.”  In the “entrustment” of Indians, there was no sense of investment in the people, and the Indians were often neglected.

The system of encomiendas resulted in one of the first public protests by a monk.  Dominican monk Antonio Montesinos openly preached against encomiendas in 1511.  His preaching apparently had an impact upon Las Casas, who had an Indian trust, and in 1514, seemed to have a radical change of heart.  Las Casas gave up his encomienda and openly proclaimed that the exploitation of Indians by the Spanish was not consistent with the Christian faith.  Las Casas sought legal legislation to end encomiendas, and to provide protection for the Indians.  Though he was not successful in ending Indian exploitation, he wrote books that caused many to question the morality of Spanish involvement in the New World.  Those who profited from the New World enterprise eventually prevailed and the exploitation continued. However, in 1542, laws were enacted limiting Spanish settler power over the Indians – as a result of the work of Las Casas, and others like him.  Sadly, these laws were largely ignored by those in the Americas.

Another “mission” of the 16th century was conducted by Cortez, who marched to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), destroying false idols along the way.  Described as a “sincere catholic2,” Cortez took with him two priests.  Seeing that this was not enough, he requested from Charles V that mendicant monks be sent to him.  He believed that the catholic priests would seek to live in luxury, and not be interested in the conversion of the Indians.  This might seem a noble request.  However, Cortez also believed that the mendicant friars, who would live in poverty, would set a good example for the Indians, and discourage them from aspiring too greatly.  Twelve Franciscans were sent and, in spite of the Indians’ resentment of the Spanish, the Franciscan monks, and their successors, were soon respected and loved because of the care and treatment offered by these devout Christian men.

Even though the monks and friars won converts to Christianity, they also stood in the way of the personal, and Christian, development of the conquered people.  For example, the Dominicans declared that the Indians should not be educated, and even the progressive Franciscans, though allowing the Indians to live in monastic communities, denied their ability to make vows, or become lay-brothers.  Not until a royal order given in 1588 did the Indians have access to priestly orders and monastic vows.  One cannot learn of these prejudices, and not think about the many women presently preparing themselves for priestly function outside the doors of the Roman Catholic church, waiting for the Vatican’s nod to begin the duties that they feel called by God to perform.  Will the same prejudice that caused the king in 1636 to bewail that there were too many “mongrels, bastards and other defective people3” in the ordained ministry, also pervade the thinking of the Roman Catholic papacy regarding women?

Missions continued to spread from Mexico into Baja California, and into the present-day state of California.  Justo González notes that missionaries had greater success in these regions than the colonizers and explorers4.  Again, it was the mendicant Christian who spread the cause of Christ to these regions so successfully.  Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit, established “a chain of missions5” from beyond the Spanish-held frontier, into present-day Arizona, and was planning a mission among the Apache Indians just before he died in 1711.  Franciscan missionaries were established in present-day California, and as Spanish exploration began to extend farther, Franciscan monk Junipero Serra joined the travels.  He was able to establish many missionaries far beyond the reach of Spanish rule, and became a defender of Indian rights.

Spanish attempts at conquest moved westward from Mexico, across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippine Islands.  Repeating the same policies of conquest as used in the western hemisphere, they were met with strong resistance.  The Spanish, however, prevailed.  The resentment the conquered people had toward their conquerors is understandable, and the difficulties that true western missionaries would have in sharing the love of Christ with these people was immense.

Spanish conquest moved south into Central America, and north into Cuba, and Florida.  Those who stood in the way of the conquistadors were violently defeated and then exploited.  Perhaps the conquerors believed they were triumphing for the cause of Christ, but winning converts by the edge of the sword can leave a sad impression of God’s love.  Thankfully, there followed in the wake of the swordsman, the mendicant monk, who labored to help those hurting, and to win converts by genuine affection.

A most inspiring account of God’s love erupting into the bleak depredation of the day, is found in the life of a Jesuit missionary, Pedro Claver.  Born in 1580, he came to the seaport town of Cartagena, Columbia, in 1610.  The city was a port for black slave traders, giving Claver an opportunity to witness the slaves’ suffering.  When he took his vows in 1622, he added one additional vow – becoming “Petrus Claver, aethiopum semper servus – Pedro Claver, forever a servant to blacks6.”

In a time when a black slave was considered subhuman, Claver rushed to their aid, seeking to relieve and comfort them.  As slave ships came to port, Claver met them and tried to access the slaves in the hold of the ship.  If not there, he then met them in the barracks where they were sent.  He fed and clothed them.  He established a hospital, and treated their sick bodies.  He carried out the dead for burial, and embraced the slave diseased with leprosy, or infected with smallpox.  His care for the black slaves was not limited to meeting only their physical needs; rather, Claver shared with them the fundamentals of his faith, and explained Christ by using meaningful metaphors and examples from their own lives.  How greatly his Christian love contrasted the indifference and racism of his day.

Spain alone did not receive the Roman Church’s support; rather, the pope also apportioned to Spain’s neighbor, Portugal, sections of the non-Christian world.  First looking to Africa, where Portugal had already been active, Portuguese colonies were established in the Congo of West Africa.  The Manicongo, who controlled the slave trade in the south Congo (present-day Angola), became allies of the Portuguese, and gave the Portuguese slave traders advantage in the area.  Missionaries were sent, and the Manicongo were baptized into the Christian faith.  However, over the years, relations began to break down between Portugal and their Manicongo friends, and the Portuguese began their own expansion into Angola.  Churches existed in Angola, but these were mostly for the Portuguese.

On the east coast of Africa, violence erupted as the Portuguese colonizers discovered Moslem inhabitants.  Fighting took place, and by 1534, the entire eastern coast of Africa was beneath Portuguese control.  Portuguese priests arrived, but mostly to serve as chaplains to the Portuguese garrisons.  Some Christian movement toward the interior of Africa was made, but not from the priests of the Roman church.  It came instead by the faithful work of some Jesuits and Dominican monks.

Portugal also received, as her apportionment from the pope, the entire Orient.  But it became clear that Portugal could not subdue the vast territories and population of the Orient.  Instead, Portugal sought to control by trade.  Ports to service ships carrying trade were established in India, and along the coast to China.  Some of these ports were taken by force, but not with the intent to conquer.  Instead, the ports were established to promote trade, and control seafaring traffic to the Orient.

King Joao III of Portugal called for Jesuit priests to be sent to the Orient.  One priest who was dispatched, Francis Xavier, served in Goa, India, with great success as he learned to draw in children, and teach them the catechism.  They responded by showing their parents what they learned, and many more converts were won.  Xavier moved on to another port town in India and continued evangelizing.  He was under such demand to preach that he trained some of his converts to preach, and sent them throughout India.  In 1546, Xavier left India and visited Japan, where he established what became a flourishing church.  He desired to visit China, and believed that he would do so, but the Chinese government would not permit it.  Xavier died just outside Chinese borders, waiting with expectation for the land to be opened to him and the Gospel of Christ.

Xavier’s hopes for China were not in vain.  Following his death, a group of Jesuit priests settled at the borders of China, and devoted themselves to study.  They eventually earned the respect of the Chinese intellectuals, and were granted permission to settle, but not travel out of, Chaochin.  Once inside of China, the Jesuits continued to attract the respect of the Chinese with their mathematical, geographical, and other natural science learning.  One priest, Matteo Ricci, won many converts in China by seeking out small group meetings, and earning friends. He did not build any churches, but by the time of his death, had left a legacy of Christian believers.

The Portuguese also expanded into Brazil, though not because they were apportioned the land by the pope.  Rather, the coast of Brazil was accidentally discovered by Portuguese sailors.  Exploration of the land revealed brazilwood.  This was deemed worth their investment, and so trade with the Indians began for the dye-making wood.  When the wood became scarce, attention was turned toward sugar cane.  But harvesting sugar for a profit required vast quantities of cheap labor.  Slavery became the obvious solution.  The Portuguese quest for slavery incited wars among the Indians, and eventually brought black slaves from Africa.

When Brazil was made a Portuguese colony, the first Jesuit priests arrived.  The missions they established sadly did not discourage Indian slavery, nor treat Indians with respect.  The blacks and Indians took the Christianity showed to them, and mixing it with their own ancestral beliefs, developed a cult-like form of religion.  The French, who competed with the Portuguese for brazilwood, brought in Protestant ministers.  These factors only led to more violence and senseless bloodshed.  The attempts at colonizing Brazil brought about disastrous consequences that would take many years to begin to overcome.

It would be hard to imagine that the Apostle Paul had in mind the kind of colonial expansion of the 16th century, authorized by the Church, when he wrote that whether Christ be preached out of selfish ambition or good will, he will rejoice7.  Yet the greed, violence, and racism that marked the era, while unspeakably abhorrent, provided for an environment that inspired very godly people to do wonderfully God-like things.  And God, who out of the darkness commands light to shine, even now as then continues to shine through the blackness created by the darkened hearts of humankind.


1 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (© 1984 HarperSanFrancisco), pg. 381.

2 Ibid., pg. 384.

3 Ibid., pg. 386.

4 Ibid., pg. 387.

5 Ibid., pg. 388.

6 Ibid., pg. 392.

7 Based on Philippians 1:15-18 (NKJ).



Leave a Reply