When in 1521 Magellan landed in the central Philippines, he planted a wooden cross on a hill and so “took possession of the country in the name of Spain,” while Father Pedro de Valderrama said the first Mass. But serious Catholic missionary work did not begin until 1565, when five Augustinian missionaries arrived with the conquering Spanish army.

Muslim missionaries, however, had been at work for two centuries, and had established sultanates in the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu. What emerged was an “Islamized paganism,” with Islam superimposed on indigenous animism, spiritism, and polytheism. Similarly the Spanish friars achieved often little more than “Christianized paganism.” During the early years of the Philippines' colonial experience, Spain was discouraged by the small economic returns from the islands, but the church persuaded the state to remain because of the great potential of the islands for missionary work. Thus most of the colonizing was left to the friars, who in the early years stood against Spanish exploitation and did much for cultural development. But they had so much power that they soon became corrupt and exploitative. By the early seventeenth century the Augustinians had been joined by Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, and Recollects. And within a few years they could claim that most of the population had been baptized.

Because relatively few secular colonizers were prepared to go to the Philippines, the church became an integral part of the colonial government. The friars thus became very wealthy, receiving generous expenses from the state, and taking tribute, fees, food, free labor, and vast areas of land from the Filipinos. From the beginning there was strong prejudice against ordaining Filipinos. Various popes insisted on the need for a national clergy, but the friars successfully used the threat of mass resignation. Eventually, after pressure from the Spanish throne, the first Filipino priest was ordained in 1702. By 1750 about one-quarter of all the parishes were controlled by national priests, a process accelerated when the Jesuits* were expelled in 1768. The consequences were disastrous. Unprepared and unsuitable men were ordained. Resultant scandals led the king to issue a decree in 1776, suspending the secularization of the parishes and allowing Filipino clergy to become only assistants to the friars. Thus by the end of the nineteenth century, less than one-sixth of all parishes were controlled by Filipinos-and these were small, poor and in distant areas.

There were various Filipino protests and revolts against the corruption of the Spanish friars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was the nineteenth century that really produced the freedom fighters of the Filipino Church. In 1841 Apolinario de la Cruz* became the first martyr, executed as a subversive. The revolution in 1868 and subsequent short-lived republic in Spain resulted in a brief spell of liberalism in the colony; but with the restoration of the monarchy in 1870, censorship was revived, the Filipinization of the church was reversed, and demand for political reform was declared treasonable and punishable by death. This seems to have included the demand for Filipino leadership of the church. In 1872 three priests-Jose Burgos,* Mariano Gomez,* and Jacinto Zamora-were executed for precisely this “crime.”

But the friars could not reverse the clock. Filipinos had tasted liberalism. The Suez Canal had been opened in 1869, the telegraph had been invented, and new ideas were flowing quickly. A propaganda movement developed, with such inspiring writers as Jose Rizal* and Marcelo del Pilar daring to question traditional Catholic beliefs. They had been influenced by the rationalism and agnosticism of nineteenth-century Masonry, but were primarily opposed to foreign friars and their corruption, not to religion as such. Their writings paved the way in some measure for the arrival of Protestantism in 1899.

The revolution began in 1896; the Spanish-American war of 1898, when the U.S. Navy sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, enabled the revolutionaries to proclaim the republic. But the Treaty of Paris, without consulting the Filipinos, ceded their country to the USA. The Filipinos revolted and were eventually suppressed, but such political upheavals inevitably affected the church. The 1898 revolutionary government expelled the friars, confiscated their lands, and appointed Gregorio Aglipay*-the only clerical member of the revolutionary congress-as head of the Philippine Church. He called an assembly of national clergy to set up a provisional government of the church until the pope would name Filipino bishops. Their request to Rome was ignored. Thus the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) was born, with Aglipay somewhat reluctantly taking the leadership. In 1902 the U.S. Congress paid the friars $7 million compensation for the loss of their lands, and the PIC severed its moorings from Rome. Carrying the torch of nationalism, it drew some two million former Roman Catholics into membership; but in 1906 the supreme court ruled that all the churches they were using should be returned to the Roman Church. This devastating blow seriously weakened the new denomination. Under the theological leadership of Isabelo de los Reyes* the PIC adopted a Unitarian, rationalistic stance, but after his death in 1938 it returned to a more Catholic position and entered (1961) into intercommunion with the Philippine Episcopal Church, with which it now shares a seminary.

The friars, meanwhile, who had vast financial power, invested it in establishing schools and colleges. At first American bishops replaced the Spanish ones, but in 1905 Jorge Barlin was consecrated first Filipino bishop. The religious orders, with the exception of the Jesuits, are still dominated by foreigners. In 1960 Rufinos J. Santos became the first Filipino cardinal.

The first Protestant missionary to settle was James B. Rodgers, an American Presbyterian, who arrived in 1899. He was quickly followed by others, representing most major denominations. They early agreed on a policy of mission polity and divided the country accordingly. The Episcopalians were unwilling to evangelize Roman Catholics, and went only to the Muslims in the south, the Chinese, the Caucasians, and the animistic tribes. The Seventh-Day Adventists, arriving in 1905, refused to observe any comity agreements. The only non-American arrival was the British and Foreign Bible Society. They had already begun translation into the vernacular from Europe in the 1880s, but much more was to be done: the Catholics had attempted no Scripture translation, and there are at least seventy languages.

There has been a strong ecumenical movement from the beginnings of Protestantism. The early founding of the Union Theological Seminary in 1907 led eventually to the forming of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in 1948. But a stronger movement has been away from unity, aggravated by the militant nationalism of many Filipinos. Congregations often broke away from their too-foreign mother bodies. In 1909, for example, Nicolas Zamora, the first Filipino to be ordained by Protestants, led in the formation of a national independent Methodist Church. The picture is thus one of great fragmentation, seen notably in some seventy-five different Pentecostal groups.

The Philippines has produced its own cults, most significantly the Iglesia ni Kristo, or Church of Christ, founded in 1914 by Felix Manalo* and claiming a membership of several million. There are numerous smaller sects, like the Church of the Holy Savior, and a number of groups which venerate Jose Rizal as a “Second Christ.”

F.C. Laubach, The People of the Philippines (1925); G.F. Zaide, Catholicism in the Philippines (1937); D.E. Stevenson, Christianity in the Philippines (1955); J.L. Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines (1959); E.A. Hessel, The Religious Thought of Jose Rizal: Its Context and Theological Significance (1961); A.J. Sanders, A Protestant View of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (1962); R.L. Deats, Nationalism and Christianity in the Philippines (1967); D.J. Elwood, Churches and Sects in the Philippines (1968); G.H. Anderson (ed.), Studies in Philippine Church History (1969); P.G. Gowing, Islands Under the Cross (1969); A.L. Tuggy and R. Toliver, Seeing the Church in the Philippines (1972).