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Latin America

This is the commonly accepted term for the twenty-one republics located to the south of the United States together with assorted territories and islands of the Caribbean Sea. The original inhabitants of Latin America were American Indians, many of whom later mixed with colonizers from Spain and Portugal to form the large ethnic group called mestizos. The population of Latin America is approximately 300 million with a high annual growth rate of 2.8 percent. Major languages spoken are Spanish, Portuguese, Quechua, and French. The Latin American nations gained their independence from the Iberian conquerors in the early nineteenth century. Economic progress has been slow, with agriculture predominating and a wide gap between rich and poor in many areas. The two major rival political options are so-called developmentalism and Marxist-type socialism.

The Roman Catholic religion entered Latin America with the Iberian conquest in the sixteenth century. Spain at that time had just won back her territory from the Moors after almost 800 years of struggling, and the idea of imposing religion upon a people through military conquest was still strong in Hispanic mentality. In the New World, Catholic missionaries found three major civilizations, the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of Central America, and the Incas of South America, each with a form of animistic religion. The success of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and other missionaries in bringing the Indian peoples to true Christianity was spotty. In many cases the religious institutions of Spain were merely imposed alongside the political institutions, and a nominal Christianity resulted which in many cases could be described as “Christo-paganism,” or “folk Catholicism.” Outstanding among early missionaries were Bartolomé de Las Casas* and José de Acosta. Separation of church and state was unknown. The wars of independence in the early 1800s caused severe difficulties for the church until the Vatican was finally able to come to terms with the new independent governments.

Abortive attempts to plant Protestantism in Latin America were made by the French Huguenots in 1555 and the Dutch Reformed in 1624, both in Brazil and both effectively crushed by the Catholic Portuguese. The German Moravians settled permanently in British Guiana in 1735 and carried on successful evangelistic work among the Arawak Indians in Dutch Guiana. Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile received European immigrants in the nineteenth century, among whom were colonies of Lutherans, Scotch Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Italian Waldensians. Their religious influence was typically confined to their own ethnic communities. Most courageous of the pioneers of Protestantism in this period were the colporteurs of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society, such as James (Diego) Thompson (1788-1854), his convert, Francisco Penzotti (1851- 1925), and many more.

A milestone for Protestant missions was the founding of the Patagonian Missionary Society (later South American Missionary Society) by an Anglican sea captain, Allen Gardiner, in 1844. This was the first missionary of the aggressively evangelistic type. Under SAMS, Barbrooke Grubb (1865-1930) successfully planted churches among the Aracua Indians in S Chile. Presbyterian churches were planted by missionaries David Trumbull (1819-89) in Chile in 1868 and H.B. Pratt in Colombia in 1865. William Taylor (1821-1902), stressing self-supporting missions, was an outstanding pioneer of Methodist work particularly in Chile, Peru, and Central America. In 1882 J.H.L. Ewen of Great Britain, traveling through Argentina in a horse-drawn “Bible coach,” planted Plymouth Brethren assemblies there. Interdenominational work began when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent workers to Mexico between 1860 and 1880, and when C.I. Scofield founded the Central American Mission in 1890, pioneering the work in almost every one of the Central American republics. Lack of religious liberty and harsh persecution from Roman Catholics severely hindered Protestant missions during this period. By the year 1900, only approximately 50,000 Protestants could be located in Latin America.

The turning point in the Protestant advance in Latin America came with the convening of the Conference on Christian work in Latin America in Panama in 1916. The World Missionary Conference which met at Edinburgh in 1910 did not regard Latin America as a mission field, but this was corrected at Panama. Following the Panama Conference, the Committee on Cooperation in Latin America was organized under the leadership of Robert E. Speer (1867-1947) and Samuel Guy Inman. The CCLA convened subsequent conferences in Montevideo in 1925 and Havana in 1929. Latin Americans then assumed the initiative and convened the First Latin American Evangelical Congress in Buenos Aires in 1949, the second in Lima in 1961, and the third in Buenos Aires in 1969. In 1965 the CCLA phased out and became the Latin America Department of the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches, USA.

The end of World War II brought a great wave of conservative missionaries to Latin America, both from interdenominational missions and from the newer denominations. Easing of Catholic persecution of Protestants during the 1960s, combined with aggressive evangelism, has expanded the Protestant movement from the 50,000 of 1900 to over twenty million today, with some projections anticipating one hundred million by a.d. 2000. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) convened by Pope John XXIII produced a radical change in the Latin American Roman Catholic Church. An ecumenical spirit now prevails, Bible reading is encouraged, a social conscience has been awakened, the Mass is said in the language of the people, and new emphasis is being placed upon the laity. Modern innovations, however, have produced divisions, three of which have become quite sharply defined. A large number of Catholic leaders remain conservative, attempting to preserve the traditions of the past. Among the progressives, some have chosen to emphasize the social implications of Christianity, casting their lot with a form of radical Marxism, while other progressives have taken a more spiritual line, stressing a return to the Bible and biblical Christianity.

Ecumenical overtures on the part of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches have not found wide acceptance among Latin American Protestants, and Latin America remains for ecumenists the most difficult continent. Evangelicals (as Latin American Protestants call themselves) at the grass roots level are still largely converts from nominal Catholicism, and they tend to identify the Roman Church with spiritual emptiness and even idolatry. A decision taken by the United Bible Societies at their first Regional Conference of the Americas in Oaxtepec, Mexico, in 1968, to produce a “common Bible” approved by both Protestants and Catholics met with such widespread opposition that the plan was later dropped. The WCC has encouraged the development of the Committee for Latin American Evangelical Unity (UNELAM) as its chief Latin American arm.

Social conditions in Latin America have strongly influenced the development of Christian theology. Over four centuries of a semifeudal socioeconomic system, in which the church played an important supportive role, have, particularly within the past twenty years, been repudiated by a growing body of Latin Americans. The unjust distribution of wealth and the submission of the economy of many republics to foreign economic interests seem to many to be the central issue of life in Latin America. A group of theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, has rallied to the cause and is in the process of developing a “theology of liberation,” stressing the horizontal man-to-man or man-to- society dimensions of Christianity. Vatican II, papal encyclicals such as Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, the establishment of research centers in Chile (Centro Belarmino) and Mexico (Center of Intercultural Formation), the martyrdom of Marxist priest Camilo Torres, and the impact of outspoken advocates of liberation such as Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil and theologian Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru are all symbolic of the direction taken by a significant number of Catholic thinkers.

The Second Assembly of the Latin American Roman Catholic Episcopate (CELAM), held in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 perhaps marked the beginning of Roman Catholic theology of liberation. On the Protestant side, a vocal organization called Church and Society in Latin America (ISAL) was established in 1962 after a consultation in Huampaní, Peru, in 1961. It has become the rallying point for Protestant theologians of liberation, and its journal, Cristianismo y Sociedad, their principal mouthpiece. The two streams converged in 1972 in the first Latin American Congress of Christians for Socialism, held in Santiago, Chile. The close similarity between Catholic and Protestant approaches to the theology of liberation became apparent in Santiago.

Another significant group of Protestant theologians has been critical of the theology of liberation, at least in its more radical expressions. Disturbed by the questionable hermeneutics of the radical theologians and their failure to maintain the biblical emphasis on vertical reconciliation (man-God) and on the centrality of conversion and the pious life, these theologians met in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1970 to form the Latin American Theological Fraternity. This has given visibility to thinkers who are as aware of the social problem of Latin America as the ISAL group, but who have set to work to develop what they feel is a more biblical and balanced approach to the theology of liberation. The Fraternity is more representative of grassroots Latin America Protestantism than the ISAL theologians, although ISAL may be shedding some of its former élitism.

Until recently, theological education in Latin America has followed traditional North American and European patterns. Missionaries from the historic denominations tended to establish theological seminaries on the post-secondary school level, whereas missionaries from the interdenominational groups and newer denominations usually set up Bible institutes on lower academic levels. Outstanding among the seminaries taking more liberal positions are the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (formerly Union Seminary) of Buenos Aires and the Evangelical Seminary of Rîo Piedras, Puerto Rico. Equally high-level training with a more evangelical and evangelistic emphasis is given at the Latin American Biblical Seminary and evangelistic emphasis is given at the Latin American Biblical Seminary of San José, Costa Rica. The total number of institutions for training the Protestant ministry is estimated at 360.

Roman Catholic theological training has likewise followed traditional lines through a program of major and minor seminaries, although the present trend is to reduce the number of minor seminaries as such. The dual problems of reduction in the number of vocations on the part of Latin Americans themselves and the subsequent disproportionate number of foreign priests and nuns ministering in Latin America continue to plague the church. Between 1955 and 1969 the population of Latin America increased from 202,000,000 to 270,000,000 while the number of students in major seminaries increased only from 6,385 to 7,013.

An innovative type of ministerial training called theological education by extension originated in the Presbyterian Seminary of Guatemala in 1962. Faced with the inability of traditional approaches to theological education to keep up with the extremely rapid multiplication of Protestant congregations in Latin America, it was decided to restructure seminaries in order better to meet the needs of church leaders. Through the use of programmed instructional materials, seminary training is taken out to the students (typically mature people) rather than requiring residence, and it is adjusted to several different academic levels. After a consultation in Armenia, Colombia, in 1967, the method began to spread and by 1972 over 10,000 were taking theological training by extension in Latin America. Institutions in Africa and Asia were also adapting the Latin American system to their own conditions.

Evangelism in Latin America was given new impetus in 1960 when Kenneth Strachan of the Latin America Mission initiated the nationwide program of Evangelism-in-Depth* in Nicaragua. This year-long program of intensive evangelism has since been repeated in over half of Latin American republics. It became the prototype of what is now called “saturation evangelism,” which is being applied in principle in a number of countries in Asia and Africa as well as in the United States. Evangelists under the Billy Graham Association and Overseas Crusades (SEPAL) have also enjoyed wide international and interdenominational ministries. The First Latin American Congress on Evangelization was held in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1969, drawing together 1,000 delegates from the entire continent.

The various branches of the Pentecostal church have been outstanding in their ability to bring large numbers of Latin Americans to a commitment to Christ. Approximately two-thirds of Latin American Protestants are Pentecostals. Particularly large Pentecostal movements have sprung up in Chile and Brazil, characterized by their indigenous qualities. Church buildings seating 16,000 and 25,000 respectively have recently been constructed. Studies showed that this growth is aided by a culturally relevant liturgy, concentration on the receptive working classes, the apprenticeship system of leadership training, the mother-daughter church planting scheme, and the encouragement of lay ministry.

A charismatic movement, not directly related to denominational Pentecostalism, has been growing in such countries as Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica among the more traditional churches over the past decades, and is currently gaining momentum. It has penetrated Catholic as well as Protestant churches, bringing fresh winds of renewal. Although the movement is unstructured, it has adopted a name, el movimiento de renovación, and some eighty of its advocates from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica held a consultation in Buenos Aires in 1972. The close fellowship of Catholics and Protestants in this kind of meeting is extraordinary in the Latin American historical context.

Although the Protestant educational and medical ministries which were important earlier in the century are being phased out as governments become better able to care for these needs, other specialized ministries continue to be significant. Radio station HCJB in Quito, Ecuador, pioneered missionary radio in 1931 and missionary telecasting in 1961. Now almost without exception, every Latin American republic enjoys an evangelical radio broadcasting station. These stations, as well as other related ministries, are coordinated by Difusiones Interamericanas (DIA) of San José, Costa Rica. Several substantial Protestant publishing houses such as Editorial Caribe, Editorial Vida, Editorial Moody, Casa Bautista de Publicaciones, Editorial Aurora, Editorial Libertador, and many others keep a steady supply of Christian literature flowing in Spanish and Portuguese. Major Protestant periodicals include Pensamiento Cristiano and Certeza, both from Argentina, and La Estrella de la Mañana from Venezuela. Both Campus Crusade for Christ and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students have active staff workers throughout Latin America for ministry on the university campuses. Wycliffe Bible Translators are working in some 200 Latin American tribes, reducing their languages to writing, and translating the NT.

J. Mackay, The Other Spanish Christ (1932); W.S. Rycroft, Religion and Faith in Latin America (1958); S.U. Barbiere, The Land of Eldorado (1961); W. Scopes (ed.), The Christian Ministry in Latin America and the Caribbean (1962); W.M. Nelson, A History of Protestantism in Costa Rica (1963); R. Wood, Missionary Crisis and Challenge in Latin America (1964); J. Bishop, Latin America and Revolution (1965); F. Houtart and E. Pin, The Church and the Latin American Revolution (1965); W.R. Read, New Patterns of Church Growth in Brazil (1965); J.L. Mecham, Church and State in Latin America (1966); J.B.A. Kessler, A Study of the Older Protestant Missions and Churches in Peru and Chile (1967); S. Shapiro (ed.), Integration of Man and Society in Latin America (1967); E. Willems, Followers of the New Faith (1967); C. Bennett, Tinder in Tabasco (1968); W.R. Read, V. Monterosso, and H. Johnson, Latin American Church Growth (1969); R.D. Winter (ed.), Theological Education by Extension (1969); M. Bradshaw, Church Growth Through Evangelism in Depth (1969); C.L. d'Epinay, Haven of the Masses (1969); J. Lara-Braud (ed.), Social Justice and the Latin Churches (1969); C.P. Wagner, Latin American Theology (1970) and The Protestant Movement in Bolivia (1970); T.E. Quigley (ed.), Freedom and Unfreedom in the Americas (1971); I. Illich, Deschooling Society (1971); A.W. Enns, Man, Milieu and Mission in Argentina (1971); R.R. Covell and C.P. Wagner, An Extension Seminary Primer (1971); L. Colonnese (ed.), Conscientization for Liberation (1971); Q. Nordyke, Animistic Aymaras and Church Growth (1972).