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Essay/Term paper: Christianity

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to
observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even
to the end of the age."1 A simple directive spoken by God himself through Jesus
Christ in the Sermon at the Mount, this Great Commission has impacted a
countless number of lives throughout the years. The command given by Jesus at
that time was actually to act as a continuance of His ministry after his death.
Apparently this command continued to be fulfilled even far beyond His ascension
into heaven. The commandment sparked the beginning of Christianity and
throughout the years, its cultures, religions and beliefs poured out upon the
continents, including the New World. The intent of this report is to show the
transfer of Christianity from the Old World to the Americas; it is to outline
its beginnings and show its impact on the Indian people.

The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages played an all encompassing
role over the lives of the people and the government. As the Dark Ages came to a
close the ideas of the Renaissance started to take hold, and the church's power
gradually began to dwindle. The monarchies of Europe also began to grow
replacing the church's power. Monarchies, at the close of the Middle Ages and
the dawn of the Renaissance, did not so much seek the guidance of the church as
much as it sought their approval. However, the Church during the Age of
Discovery was still a major influence. The discovery of the New World and its
previously unknown inhabitants presented new problems in the Catholic Church in
the late 14th and early 15th century. When Spain's rulers and emissaries decided
to physically conquer and populate the New World, and not just trade with it,
the transplantation of Christian institutions followed.

The church established contact with the New World, and made it a goal to
establish the Catholic doctrines among the native population there. The Catholic
Church and the Spanish monarch, however, looked upon the native population in
the New World as souls to be saved. They did not consider or treat the Indians
as equals. To them, the population seemed to mean more than the individual's
spiritual standpoint. The implanting of Christianity in the New World, and the
treatment of the native population by the missionaries and Christian conquerors
was harmful or even destructive to New World. Through men such as Cortez and
Bartolome Las Casas, accounts of the conversions have been recorded. One of the
reasons for this was the alliance of the Catholic Church with the Spanish
monarchy. The status of the Indians was irrelevant and disregarded by the
Christian conquerors and missionaries who wanted to convert them. The
missionaries subjected them to violence and reduced them to a laboring
population. The Indians, however did not always respond in a negative way to the
work of the church.

The Catholic Church arrived in the New World immediately after
Christopher Columbus laid claim to it for Spain. After Columbus's discovery of
the new lands he wrote a series of treaties as to what the European purpose
there was. Columbus, in his writings, said that the purpose of the New World was
two-fold. He said that: (1) The gospel message of the church should be spread
globally beginning with his discoveries in the New World. and (2) Second, he
stated that the riches discovered in the New World should be dedicated to the
recapture of Jerusalem from the Moslems.2 Columbus saw the discovery of the New
World as a prophesy coming true. He saw the Indians that lived there as a labor
source that should be Christianized and used for the greater good of the church.
The implementation of his two fold plan had its difficulties; However, this did
not stop or discredit the use of this part of the plan as a prime directive of
the New World.

Two papal bulls or verdicts were issued in the year of 1493 that
established the Spanish position in the New World.3 They also established the
role that the church was going to play in the New World. The first bull was
issued on May 3 given the name Inter Caetera. It said that the lands discovered
by Spanish envoys not previously under a Christian owner could be claimed by
Spain. The bull also gave the Spanish monarch the power to send men to convert
the natives to the Catholic faith and instruct them in Catholic morals. The
second papal bull issued in the same year expanded on the meaning of the primary
bull. The bull fixed a boundary for Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence
in the New World. This boundary heavily favored Spain further showing the
alliance between Spain and the Church.

The history of the Catholic Church in the New World began in the year
after Columbus' first voyage. The Spanish monarchy sent the first missionaries
to establish Christianity there. The number of missions sent to the New World
accelerated in tempo and density until the final decade of the 16th century. The
crown paid for the sending of missionaries, and its officials kept track of the
many "shiploads" of religious personnel sent and of the expenses they incurred.
The records show that the Spanish dispatched missionaries to more than 65
destinations, ranging from Florida and California to Chile and the Strait of
Magellan.4 Between 1493, when the first mission left for Espanola, and Spanish
American independence (roughly 1821) more than 15 thousand missionaries crossed
the Atlantic under royal approval and support. 5

The Spanish, when choosing who to send as their principle emissaries of
the Catholic Church, disregarded the opinions of the Spanish bishops and clergy,
and called up friars belonging to several monastic orders. There were three
monastic orders of friars that came to the New World. These were the Franciscans,
the Dominicans, and the Augustianians.6 While other secular priests were not
discouraged from going to the New World, the Crown did not send them as
missionaries. "By sending friars instead of secular priests to convert the
Indians, Spain took advantage of an old evangelical strain in European
monasticism".7 If one looks back further, in the times before the Christianity
of Europe, monks wandered and roamed the countryside converting the rural
populations. The present monarchy reimplemented this obsolete idea as a primary
missionary tactic in the New World. The Spanish monarch also picked the monastic
orders to fulfill this task because they were among those who possessed an
education. Spain at this time lacked seminaries and religious education
facilities. The local priests were either undereducated or uneducated to the
point were they were seen as largely ignorant.

Once in the New World the missionaries played an indispensable role in
conquering the Indian population for the Gospel, concentrating it in towns and
villages and taking charge of administration. Some times these settlements were
largely left in the hands of church officials because they were unreachable by
colony administrators. "Rural churchmen, in the frontier settings of the 16th
century acted in an atmosphere of independence which bordered on impunity".8
These missions were not always run in the best interest of the Indians. The
natives were often subject to harsh conditions, and they were not protected by
the missions. The missions instituted by the government were described this way,
"The church, with few exceptions, accompanied and legitimized the genocide,
slavery, ecocide, and exploitation of the wealth of the land. The mission left a
bitter fruit inherited by the descendants of the survivors of the invasion". 9

No country at this time conceived of setting up anything but a Christian
empire. "The monarch of Castile not only exercised supreme secular authority,
but he was also the head of the colonial church. Indeed, his laws of the Indies
began with the words, 'On the Holy Catholic Faith' ".10 The Church because it
was under the Spanish monarchy participated in the wrongs incurred in the New
World. The Church went along with the government in instituting the unfair
practices against the native population.

Las Casas writings about the treatment and conversion of the Indians are
some of the best that survive today. Las Casas was a Spanish bishop who late in
life became a renowned champion of the Indians. He was born in Seville in August
1474, and he first went to the New World in 1502. He became a priest and
participated in the acquiring of Cuba. He received land and slaves as a reward
for his contribution. In 1514 he experienced a radical change of heart and came
to feel that the native population had been unjustly treated by his countrymen.
He then became determined to dedicate the remainder of his life to their defense.
Las Casas was one of the notable authorities on the Indians, and was remarkable
because he realized the Indians should not be measured by the Spanish yardstick,
but must rather be understood with in the framework of their own culture. He saw
the Indians not as heathens and savages, but in a different stage of development
from Europe. Las Casas contended that the Indians had many skills and
accomplishments, and in fact possessed a culture worthy of respect.11

Las Casas writes about the treatment of the Indians upon being subjected
to the Spanish Christians. He accompanied the Spanish entourage on the
occupation of Cuba. In this venture he accompanied the expedition in the office
of Clerico. He stated that one of the chief cares of this office was when they
halted in any town or village, it was his job to assign separate quarters to the
Spanish and the Indians. This was to prevent violence from erupting between the
two peoples. His principle job; however was to assemble the children in order to
baptize them. This was a sad task for Las Casas because scarcely any of the
children remained alive a few months afterward. This was due to violence or the
disease that the Spanish brought with them. Las Casas on his travels also saw
the violence and horrors which the Indians were subject to. Las Casas describes
this scene upon entering the Indian village of Caonao: "The Clerico was
preparing for the division of the rations amongst the men, when suddenly a
Spaniard, prompted, as was thought, by the Devil, drew his sword: the rest drew
theirs; and immediately they all began to hack and hew the poor Indians, who
were sitting quietly near them, and offering not more resistance than so many

Las Casas then goes on to describe the scene as "heaps of bodies . . .
strewn about, like sheaves of corn, waiting to be gathered up".13 The
Spaniard's job was to convert the native population to Christianity, not use
them to test the sharpness of their swords which they had done in this case.

In Mexico, Hernan Cortez, the conqueror, recognized the need for
religious instruction among Indians. His instructions he received from the
Spanish monarchy and the Pope for his venture included the order to, "spread the
knowledge of the true faith and the Church of God among those people who dwell
in darkness,".14 Cortez followed these instructions very diligently. When he
encountered the Indians on the mainland of Central America, he undertook their
religious conversions. He explained the Christian religion to them, and wanted
the natives to renounce their idols and embrace the Christian religion. He and
the religious men with him preached against sodomy and human sacrifice to the
tribes that they encountered. In Mexico, like other Spanish colonies, numerous
Friars and priests came and worked to Christianize the native population.
However, this was largely ineffectual because the various Holy men could only
sow a few grains here or there. Cortez realized the need for order in the
Catholic Church in the New World to convert the native population. Cortez wrote
to the king of Spain, Charles V, about the need for missionaries to convert the
Indians. He asked for friars of the St. Francis or St. Dominic order who would
set up monasteries to instruct and convert the native population. There,
presently arrived in Mexico at San Juan de Ulua on May 13 or 14, 1524 the famous
mission of Twelve, who began the methodical conversion of the Indians.

Cortez's envisions of monastic communities, where the native population
could be converted to Christianity, came true especially in Mexico. Huge
monasteries were built for the purpose of the conversion of the native
population. These monasteries built were of enormous size and decorated
ostentatiously. The monasteries included pomp and circumstance in their
ceremonies. The reason claimed for doing this was to keep the Indians interested
in Catholicism and away from their native religions. "On February 8, 1537,
Zumarraga wrote the Council of the Indies that beautiful churches helped in the
conversion of the Indians and strengthened their devotion. Twenty years later,
on February 1, 1558, Viceroy Luis de Velasco make the same observation to Philip

These churches, supposedly built for the benefit of the native
population, were built or supported by the native population. For them this was
a heavy burden, whether they built the churches themselves or had to pay workmen
to the labor. They had to do this at the cost of neglecting their fields or
trades. There were also accounts of the friars physically punishing the Indians
for their work or lack of it, "But one must accept with reserve the testimony
of the Indians who complained of abuses by the Dominicans during the
construction of the convent at Puebla, claiming they were exhausted from work,
and that one of the religious had loaded them with large stones and them beaten
them over the head with a stick".16

The missions set up by the church were also guilty of abusing the native
population. The Indians were supposed to benefit from these missions, but all
they received from them was more misery. The Indians in having to support these
new edifices and having to convert to Christianity suffered from a double edged

The native Americans had three responses to the thrusting of the
Christian religion upon them. One response was the incorporation of elements of
Christianity into their own religion, creating a new religious system. They took
the beliefs out of the Christian religion that agreed or make sense with their
religion and combined the two.

"Ancient rituals attached to Christian ones included a sweeping ceremony that
accompanied the bringing of the Eucharist to the sick, the lighting of fires on
the eve of the nativity, the extreme use of self-flagellation, the burning of a
traditional incense before images of saint, dedicating strings of ears or corn
to the Virgin".17 Some Indians outright rejected Christianity. An example of
this written by Thomas Giles was, "among the Incas of Peru, baptism was
considered subjection to the invader; some Incan chiefs killed those who
accepted the rite".18 The Indians largely could not accept Christian beliefs
because of the actions of the Christians themselves. The brutality and the lack
of concern or remorse that the Spanish showed to the Indians played a large role
for the rejection of the Spanish religion. The Indians did not want any part of
a religion that preached rape, slaughter, and cruel subjugation. The explanation
of a Mayan who objected to the behaviors of the Spanish was the following, "The
true God, the true Dios came, but this was the origin too of affliction for us:
the origin of tax, of out giving them alms; of trial through the grabbing of
cacao money, of trial by blowgun; stomping the people; violent removal; forced
debt, debt created by false testimony; petty litigation, harassment, violent
removal; the collaboration with the Spaniards on the part of the priests, . . .
and all the while the mistreated were further maltreated...but it will happen
that tears will come to the eyes of God the Father. The justica of God the
Father will settle on the whole world." 19

Not all the Indians rejected the Christian religion. Many of them
accepted it. They desired Christian friendships and to change their habits to
the ones of the Spanish. The reasons for the acceptance of Christianity vary,
but one of these is fear. Some Christian conquerors threatened lives if the
Indians were not baptized and did not actively participate in the Church.
Another reason for the conversion is that the Indians were in awe of the
conquers. The Spanish represented power and the Indians were in reverence of
their great amount of power they represented. Some accepted the religion because
the missionaries demonstrated boundless zeal, high morals, and great courage.
Not all of the missionaries sent by the Church were violent or corrupt. There
were some who worked for the benefit of the native population. The Indians saw
this and respected it.

The Catholic Church helped the Spanish monarchy administer to the native
population in the New World. The Church, by being subject to the Spanish
monarchy, is also to be held accountable to the numerous evils inflicted upon
the Indians in the Spainish colonies. In many cases they were forced to convert
to Christianity, and their views about god and religion were not taken into
account. The Catholic Church incurred a great injustice to the native population
in the New World. They were reduced to second class citizens, and forced to work
toward goals that they did not fully understand. Through the writings of Las
Casas, it is seen how the Indians were slaughtered needlessly, and how they were
baptized without regard to their feelings. Cortez paved the way for missions to
be founded in the New World supposedly for the good of the Indian population.
This, however, also turned against them. The Catholic Church role in the lives
of the native population was a negative one due to its alliance with the Spanish
monarchy and its forced conversion of the Indians.


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