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Missions During the Reformation

Watch Week Nine Day One

The American Colonies

You might think that during the divisive time of the Reformation, the church would have become so inwardly focused that it wouldn’t have had the energy to send out missionaries. But by God’s grace, instead, at this very time the church exerted a renewed energy to spread the gospel around the world. Two historical developments helped: discoveries of “new” land to the west and new trade routes to the east propelled European influence around the globe. Tagging along with these colonizers and traders were Catholic clergy who took the message and practices of the church with them. Today we’ll take a look at what this looked like in the colonies to the west. Tomorrow we’ll look at the missionary efforts in the east.

New Lands in the West

When they launched Columbus and his crew across the Atlantic, Spain’s royal couple Isabella and Ferdinand gave these instructions: “Diligently seek to encourage and attract the natives of said Indies to all peace and quiet, that they may willingly serve us and be under our dominion and government, and above all that they may be converted to our holy catholic faith.” When he landed, Columbus gave the natives some red caps and glass beads as gifts. When he saw how pleased they were by these novelties, Columbus wondered if it might be possible to convert them by love rather than by force. That Columbus even thought force was a valid way to try to introduce people to Christ rightly troubles us today. So does Isabella and Ferdinand’s initial instructions about enticing locals to serve them. Tragically, we’ll see that the church’s missionary efforts in the New World were sometimes destructive rather than loving, kind, or caring. But we will also continue to see, as we have throughout church history, that God is able to accomplish His good purposes despite human failure.

Speaking Up


ertainly the church was complicit with the less-than-Christlike behavior of the colonizers, who often abused the native residents of the Americas. But at times the church also served as a prophetic voice that suffered alongside them. The Franciscan and Dominican mendicants, whom we studied several weeks ago, were especially poised to take the side of the natives because of the orders’ commitment to poverty. For example, Spain allowed a policy called encomienda, or “commission,” which meant that Spanish settlers could in effect enslave the local natives in exchange for providing them with protection and instruction in the faith. But a Dominican named Bartholomew de Las Casas was convicted, while listening to a sermon, to end his own participation in encomienda. He spent the rest of his life speaking out against the practice in defense of the rights of natives. During his lifetime, he made fourteen trips across the Atlantic to urge Spanish leaders to put an end to the practice.His efforts resulted in more lenient colonization policies, and he was among “the first Europeans to think specifically as Christians about the implications of European contact with America’s indigenous peoples.”

Even if some of their intentions were inhumane and selfish, we can see how God used some European colonialists to grow his church. And we too should still ask questions like de Las Casas. How should we share Christ with others in a way that respects rather than manipulates the very people we are inviting into the family of faith? To our shame, Christians today are still liable to mistreat people outside the faith under the delusion that we are actually sharing it with them. Who, like Las Casas, is speaking up for these people? What policies in our government have led to injustices for the people in our country?


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Anno Domini

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