“God, gold and glory” was the rallying cry of the Spaniards who went to the new world. God was the motivator for many Jesuit missionaries, and that put them in conflict with those who came to take the gold and enslave those who needed God. The original inhabitants were decimated by European conquests and diseases in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1900, almost the entire Spanish-speaking population was considered Catholic; since then, however, changes have been dramatic—from narrow traditionalism with strong opposition to Protestant activity to freedom of religion and a rapid growth of evangelicals. Spiritism has grown rapidly in influence in many countries. The divinely ordered convergence in Latin America of greater freedom of religion, more open and accountable democracy and a series of military, natural and economic disasters which loosened the hold of traditional structures enabled many to come to Christ.
Today there has been a rapid growth and maturation of missions vision which has sparked numerous initiatives to the unreached. Among the twenty-one countries in Central and South America, ninety-nine least-reached peoples remain, from the 50.9% of the population of Guyana in five least-reached groups to the 15.4% of Brazil’s population in forty-six different people groups to the more than 600,000 Jews in Argentina, their remaining least-reached people.
- Cooperation, not competition. Request that God removes competition and imparts a sense of cooperation in every believer. Reflect on 1 Corinthians 3:8-9: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God’s building.”
- Releasing new leaders. Ask God that every new believer would exercise the gifts he has given him or her to encourage other believers and to share the gospel with others who have not yet heard. Reflect on Ephesians 4:16: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
- The Word in their own language. Request that God speed the Word to every least-reached people in their own language so they can grow. Reflect on Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
- Disciple-makers. Pray that every new believer immediately shares with those around him or her the hope in Jesus. Reflect on Proverbs 11:30: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.”
- Kings, leaders and all those in authority. Pray for God to place righteous leaders in power who rule justly and that God gives favor to believers trying to minister. Pray these believers may live quiet lives in all godliness and see his kingdom coming on earth.
- Resources to pray, to mobilize prayer and do outreach.
- Discover Central and South America’s ninety-nine least-reached peoples.
- Pray for the peoples of the Central and South America region.
- Obtain daily prayer guides for peoples of this region.
Latin America’s Gospel Potential
(by Wesley Kawato)
What do you think of when you hear the year 1492? Columbus sailed the ocean blue, right? But before that could happen, Spain, which would soon become a colonial power, had to shake off their own colonizers, the Moors. These North African Muslims had ruled all or part of the Iberian Peninsula (i.e., Spain and Portugal) since AD 711. The fight to eject the Moors from Iberia had religious overtones; after all, the Moors were Muslims and the Iberian peoples were Roman Catholic. Spain and Portugal charged their explorers to not only conquer Latin America politically, but to also conquer these new lands spiritually. Catholic priests often accompanied the explorers who colonized Latin America.
Christopher Columbus had a deep faith in God and we know from his extensive diary that he considered his voyages of exploration to be divine missions. He believed that the new lands he discovered would one day be used by God to bless all of humanity. Columbus was sponsored by Spain. Not to be outdone, Portugal also commissioned expeditions to the new world. In 1500, Cabral “discovered” Brazil and claimed the new land for Portugal. Soon, the Pope had to draw an arbitrary “Line of Demarcation” to keep the two Catholic powers from fighting one another in South America over their conquests. Portugal received a small toehold on South America, which later grew to become Brazil. The Spaniards put more of their efforts toward conquering powerful empires possessing gold. The Spaniards found that they could either take God to the conquered peoples, or take gold from them.
God and Gold On a Collision Course
Thousands of Spanish and Portuguese colonists poured into Latin America during the early 1500s, and with the exceptions of the Incan and Aztec Empires, they easily conquered the new world. Gold poured into Spain’s treasury. The governors sent by Spain and Portugal to rule their new colonies cared only about making a profit for the European rulers. White settlers enslaved many tribal peoples to work in mines and on plantations. Hard work and inadequate food led to disease and death for the Indians. The population of this vast region was drastically reduced. The harsh conditions of slavery sometimes led to revolts, which were brutally crushed. Within a century, many parts of Latin America had no large concentrations of Native Americans at all.
Attempts to take the gospel to the native peoples were dismal. Missionaries “converted” the conquered peoples en masse. But many of these conversions were superficial, because there were never enough missionaries to adequately disciple the tens of thousands of Native Americans being conquered each year. Often, pagan gods were given the names of Catholic saints, and the old religions continued.
In 1502, Father Bartolome de Las Casas arrived in Latin America and tried to make a difference for the gospel. He not only taught about Christ, but argued for the fair treatment of the various tribal groups. Few listened. Some missionaries were even martyred by the Iberians. Most Catholic priests only ministered to the white colonists. In 1542, Las Casas convinced Charles V, the King of Spain, to ban the enslavement of Native Americans in the new world. But these new laws were not always enforced, and the high death rates continued.
Las Casas inspired a new generation of Catholic missionaries to reach out to the tribal groups of Latin America. The most successful efforts involved gathering Native Americans into protected villages, where they were taught the gospel along with the Spanish or Portuguese languages. Some of these missionaries learned various Native American languages and began the work of Bible translation. One successful use of the protected village method of outreach was in Paraguay among the Guarani people group. This effort, led by the Jesuit monastic order, lasted from 1610 to 1773.
In 1773, the Pope disbanded the Jesuits and the Indians were either disbanded or killed. By 1773, ninety percent of all Latin American tribal peoples had been wiped out by European diseases or guns. Those who survived the devastation often intermarried with white settlers. This is why many Latin American countries have large mixed race populations today.
That same decade, a Jesuit missionary in Baja, California, wrote a book entitled Observations on Baja California, where he stated that the Protestants were not the true Church, because they had no desire to convert people. That situation would soon change.
Here Come the Protestants
The Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers kept out Protestant missionaries until after the countries of Latin America began gaining independence in 1815. Many of these new countries did not have a state religion during the early years of independence. Latin America’s first Protestant missionary was a former British naval officer named Allen Gardiner. In 1850, he led six coworkers to Tierra Del Fuego, an island near the southern tip of South America. The party of seven starved to death when a supply ship failed to arrive. Gardiner led no one to Christ, but his sacrifice inspired Protestants to reach out to the people groups of Latin America.
One of the people inspired by Gardiner was an American doctor named Robert Kelly, who began a work among the Catholics in Brazil in 1855. In 1856, American James Thompson became the first Protestant missionary in Colombia. Later, British Anglicans began working with the various tribal groups of Chile and Paraguay. By 1914, there were Protestant missionaries in every country of Latin America, and they had won half a million people to the Lord.
Pentecostalism Makes Inroads
Spiritual decay within the Catholic Church opened the door for further Protestant expansion. After 1914, American Pentecostal denominations became a dominant force among the missionaries working in Latin America. Meanwhile, liberation theology began making serious inroads into the Catholic Church of Latin America. Many priests blended Marxist thought with Roman Catholicism. Nicaragua was a prime example. During the 1980s, the pro-communist Sandinista ruling council counted three priests among its members. The Catholic abandonment of the gospel created a spiritual vacuum that the Pentecostals were all too happy to fill. Today, twenty to thirty percent of the Nicaraguans are evangelical.
Growth among Latin America’s Pentecostals exploded after 1960, when newly formed Latin American denominations learned how to conduct large-scale evangelistic crusades, a method that worked well in their cultures. Often, the evangelists were Latin Americans like Luis Palau, who conducted numerous crusades during the 1970s. By 1997, there were sixty-four million Protestants in Latin America, the majority belonging to the various Pentecostal denominations. Protestants have become a significant social force in Latin America. They make up eighteen percent of Guatemala’s population and nearly twenty percent of Haiti’s population. Brazil elected a Protestant president in 1974. However, this growth has been uneven. Evangelical Christians make up less than five percent of the populations of Colombia, Cuba, Uruguay and French Guiana.
During the last thirty years, Latin American Protestants have emerged as a mission sending force. There are Brazilian missionaries in southern Africa, and Spanish-speaking missionaries in northern Africa. Mission groups like COMIBAM and COMIMEX are mobilizing and sending Latinos to the unreached. Latinos are some of the world’s key intercessors. For example, more people are using the “Global Prayer Digest” in Spanish than in English, Korean or Chinese.
Let Us Pray!
Pray that God will multiply his efforts through Latin American missionaries to the unreached people groups during the twenty-first century. Pray that God will soon break the hold occult practices have in some parts of Latin America. Although there have been strong movements to Christ in Haiti and Brazil, Spiritism, Santeria and Voodoo still have a destructive hold on many. Ask God for a revival within the Catholic Church that will bring them to biblical truth.