Updated: January 27, 2023Published: January 19, 2023
Let’s say I ask you to guess only one predominant religion during the Spanish Colonization period. What would be your first answer?
It is easy to suppose that Christianity is the main one. However, Judaism was also practiced in small communities as of 1654. Still, the Christian religion was fully integrated into the life of the colonists and shaped their worldview. But how?
In this article, I’ll explain religion’s role during Colonization, how religion expanded in that era, and in which ways the conquerors managed to do it.
Let’s see if you can keep up with it!
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The Main Religion in the Spanish Colonies
Christianity was the main religion in Spain’s colonies (also known as Colonial America). However, small communities also practiced Judaism from the beginning of 1654.
The most important Christian denominations included Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Congregationalists, German Pietists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Quakers. Religion was fully integrated into the life of the colonists and shaped their worldview.
Role of Religion During The Spanish Colonization
Religion played a very significant role during the colonizing process since the conquest of Latin America and the Caribbean was inherently an evangelizing transformation. This meant the imposition of the religious beliefs that Spain already had and brought to those countries.
However, this colonization process can’t be understood without knowing the oppression to which the natives were subjected. We are talking about indigenous people “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, the most important traveler and servant of the Crown at the time.
It was Queen Isabella who granted support to Columbus for his expedition and got her approval. The Catholic Church also gave permission to conquer these lands under the commitment to evangelize all its inhabitants, to add to the Christian faith, and the Vatican power the inhabitants of the new lands taken.
This is why the invaders obtained the power to colonize and evangelize. It resulted in a mixture of the political-economic and the ecclesial.
Most historians agree that the religion imposed by the conquistadors was an entry into European culture for most natives of the New World. At the same time, it was also a mechanism for their conquest and domination.
For example, the “Encomiendas” was one of the few methods used to convert pagan Indians into Christians in exchange for their exploitation.
Priests and clerics were a force of pacification, modeling, and controlling those Natives. But what did the Clergy receive in exchange for these services performed in the name of God and the Crown?
Well, they received a lot of land for their maintenance, and these lands were very productive with the labor of the indigenous or black slaves. In addition, the Clergy received a “diezmo” (a kind of tax of 10%).
So, moving on with the question, the Catholic religion played a vital role in colonial life. A clear example was Hernán Cortés, conquer of México, obsessed with pulling down “idols” in the indigenous sanctums. He considered the beliefs of those Natives as “demonic representations” and replaced them with crosses.
Hernán Cortes, like many others, was convinced that he was fulfilling a divine mandate to convert those natives to Christianity. In exchange, they obtained gold from these lands, and the conquerors thought it was their deserved prize for their hard work.
But, in which ways was Chatholiscim manifested?
First, the cult of the Virgin Mary was very present. We can see it in the prayers addressed to her, the recitation of the Rosary, and the veneration of Marian’s sanctuaries. These are some of the main characteristics of the religiosity of the Spanish invaders. You can learn more information about these topics in the following articles!
We can still find traces of its importance in the numerous architectural works and religious art, both in the small villages of Latin America and in its large cities.
Some of the most important cultural landmarks are, in fact, churches and basilicas. (that I’ll explain later) For example, while visiting Hispanic American cities like Ciudad de México, we can quickly notice how the Virgin of Guadalupe lives intrinsically in Mexican culture.
In addition, some Colonizers were born in Extremadura, where the most important religious center was the sanctuary of Guadalupe. This is very curious since these traditions are now part of their society and were brought by the Spanish colonizers back in the 16th century.
Another example is the famous The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in the Colonial City of Santo Domingo. It is the first and oldest cathedral in the Americas and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary of the Incarnation.
Like this, we can find many other examples of important churches, monuments, statues, and sanctuaries representing Catholicism’s importance and relevance during Colonization.
Despite the abuses, there were voices within the religious entity against the cruel way the indigenous people were subjected. For example, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the most proactive enemies of the abuses committed against the natives on the island of Hispaniola, currently shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. —Where Christopher Columbus initially arrived.
Religious Influence on Colonial Architecture
Spaniards left their legacy and mark over Hispanic Countries since they were their first founders that brought language, customs, and religion to these lands. After years and years of work, they have grown as independent countries with their own cultures and traditions.
But architecture remains there as a legacy and reminds people about their history.
These colonies also received influence from Portugal, France, and other countries that wanted to expand and gain those territories. Therefore, not all architecture in Hispanic America is the same. The Caribbean, Central America, and South America have their own touch, and each adopted the new culture in a different way.
Also, most works of colonial architecture belong to the 18th century. Consequently, the baroque style has been prevalent in some cities since it was booming in the middle of the 17th century, especially in México, Guatemala, and the Peruvian cities of Cuzco and Lima.
This way, Hispanic countries were conceived as a symbol power of the kings. They were structured around a center consisting of a large square, the main square, and were distributed in blocks and wide streets with a grid layout.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral.
On this basis, the colonizers adapted the large indigenous centers for their own purposes and founded new ones.
On the other hand, urbanism arose after the conquistador’s arrival. The urban architecture of these cities characterizes by massive buildings with wide walls and low towers to withstand the telluric activity of the area, as well as the “quinchas” or lattices of reeds tied together with mud.
Another essential thing to mention is that coastal cities must be protected from invaders. For this reason, they were built with a defensive character following the tradition of military fortifications like walls and castles prepared for defense. For example, Havana, Cartagena de Indias, San Juan de Puerto Rico, and Veracruz have these characteristics.
5 Interesting Facts About Religion in Spanish Colonies
1. A never ending debate
The missionaries who arrived in America had different positions about the conquest and the treatment of the indigenous people. This debate also took place in Spain. At first, the violence was not questioned. But, after 1511 with Fray Antón de Montecinos, the Church was divided into two currents:
- People who justified the conquest by considering it a “just war.”
- People focused on the defense and evangelization of indigenous people as a previous step before dominating.
2. Christianization in Mexico, one of the most religious countries in Hispanic America
Around 1524, the twelve apostles —Franciscans of “New Spain” arrived at Ulúa in México. They began a methodical evangelization of the Indians that were already conquered by Hernán Cortés.
By 1559, the Franciscans had 80 houses in Mexico and 380 religious people. They baptized the Indians and preached to them in their language or through interpreters, thus carrying out a massive Christianization. And these original cults were eradicated by force.
3. The decline of the Hispanic dominion in America
Around 1700 to 1808, the decline of the Hispanic dominion in America began in the last stage of Colonization. The various independence struggles and the scarcity of missionaries were every time more evident. By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Spain and Portugal no longer possessed sea power. Little by little, Holland and England replaced the Hispanic power. (read more)
4. Independence processes and the Catholic Church
Most independence and liberation processes in Latin America and the Caribbean began between the 19th and 20th centuries. And the Church allied with the conservative oligarchy that gave rise to these processes. But Catholicism was still very present in the vast majority of these Hispanic Countries.
5. Leading Catholic groups in Hispanic countries:
The leading Catholic groups that arrived in the Hispanic countries were:
Franciscans: arrived in 1524.
Dominicus: arrived in 1526.
Augustinians: arrived in 1533.
Jesuits: arrived in 1572.
Order of Discalced Carmelites: arrived in 1585.
As we can see, Spain’s colonies had Catholicism as the main religion in the Colonization era. This resulted in a mix of culture and traditions that make every Hispanic country unique. If you want to learn more about it, read the next article:
Inigo Navarro is a seasoned travel writer with a deep understanding of Spain's cities, culture, people and language. Born and raised in Spain, he has spent years exploring the country and is currently one of the most-read Travel Bloggers about Spain. Inigo is also an experienced digital marketer, a father to 4 beautiful children and a huge Real Madrid Fan. ¡Hala Madrid!