In recent years, the growth of the evangelical movement in Latin America has made headlines. But Colombian historian Daniel J. Salinas has been more surprised by just how long its taken for the movement to truly take hold.

Protestant missionaries first arrived in Latin America around 150 years ago in the 1870s. Today in Brazil and Guatemala, the evangelical population is at 41 percent and 31 percent respectively. These countries are outliers to the slow growth of evangelicalism experienced by most of Latin America, which has been historically Catholic.

“The main factor that has challenged that power of the Catholic church hasn’t been Protestantism but secularism,” he said. “If you talk to anybody in Latin America, they will say they’re Catholics, even though they have never gone to church. Most people follow the rituals of the predominant religion, but there is no commitment to the doctrine of that religion. They are baptized as infants, go through confirmation, and will marry at the church, but that’s all.”

Salinas grew up attending a Pentecostal church in Bogota, Colombia. After working as a mechanical engineer, he believed God had called him to do more with his life and served as a missionary in Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Currently, Salinas teaches at a number of seminaries, including Fundación Universitaria Seminario Bíblico de Colombia in Medellín. He is the author of Taking Up the Mantle: Latin American Evangelical Theology in the 20th Century, which was released with Langham Global Library in 2017.

Salinas recently spoke with Geethanjali Tupps about his journey as a missionary in Latin America, the historic and present tensions between Protestants and Catholics in the region, and the impact of 20th century South American political history on the church.

What type of impact did Protestant missionaries have when they began arriving in the 1870s?

The early missionaries—Presbyterians and Methodists who arrived during the late 1800s and early 1900s—opened clinics and schools, many of which are still open and well-respected today. After the 1930s and 1940s, however, most of the missionaries only opened churches. Nothing else. The initial social interest was lost.

During this era, missionaries from the United States going to Latin America were seen primarily not as people who wanted to spread their faith but as those who were trying to make Latin Americans more accepting of the United States. In fact, you can find books written by Catholics claiming that Protestant missionaries are spies of the CIA or are workers sent by the United States to change our way of life and change our culture.

Article continues below

Overall, it was a slow growth and a very difficult situation. Many of them probably went to be with the Lord without seeing the results of their efforts. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, the evangelical church was still very small.

How have Latin American governments responded to the evangelical movement?

It was not easy for the missionaries that came to Latin America at the turn of the 20th century. Liberal governments were open and very inviting to missionaries because they thought Protestantism would help develop their country. But as soon as more conservative presidents came to power, they closed their borders.

Flash forward to the early 1900s: Some countries started to recognize freedom of religion and freedom of worship. For years, many constitutions stated that the official church of the country was the Catholic church. Argentina and Colombia didn’t even remove the requirement that the president be Catholic until the 1990s.

Today, very few times do you see evangelicals being invited by the governments to be part of conversations that will define policies or help the country. The only time when you see them approach evangelicals is before elections, because they are now realizing that the evangelical vote can make a difference for them.

Back when we served in Cochabamba, Bolivia, as missionaries in 1998, we looked for a place to celebrate the 40th anniversary of IFES [International Fellowship of Evangelical Students] in Latin America. One Catholic school had a beautiful meeting place we were interested in using, and they rented that place out to different groups. But when we went to ask for that school, they said no, because we are not Catholic.

What groups did the protestant movement reach most effectively?

As early as the 1900s, the educated classes and those who were wealthy or had political power had abandoned religion completely, even though the Catholic church was the one that was blessing the president and congress.

Historically, lower class people have been more receptive to the gospel. One of the reasons for this was rapid urbanization. People were leaving their secure and safe places in the countryside where they grew up to find new opportunities in the cities. But they arrived in the city without a social network, so one way for them to connect with people was to find an evangelical church, which often offered a network of neighborhood support.

Article continues below

By the 1970s, evangelical churches began to grow. Leadership in these congregations was growing more local and less foreign, making it easier for people to see themselves there. Most churches didn’t have any connection with any foreign agency or mission.

Around this time, many countries also suffered military dictatorships. One thing that is still unclear to me is what type of effect these governments had on Catholic and Protestant churches. While many people grew disillusioned with the Catholic church, which was an ally to many of these regimes, evangelical churches were also silent. Both Catholic and Protestant churches did not really denounce injustice with military dictatorships but just stood aside while the dictatorships’ power got worse.

To what extent are Latin American evangelicals finding their own identity?

In the early years when missionaries came, the Catholic church was saying, We are Latin Americans and Latin America is Catholic. If you are Latin American, you are Catholic. When the evangelicals came, they didn’t realize how closely this was tied to people’s identity.

It took a long time, more than a century, for that strong connection of Catholicism and Latin Americanism to break and for someone to feel that they could be Latin American and evangelical without feeling like a foreigner.

How have women shaped Latin American theology?

In many places, women were the first ones to accept the gospel, and many of the churches were organized by women and led by women. With regard to church involvement, women have always been part of it, but in the production of theology, that’s a recent development. You find a couple of names in the 1970s and then a couple of names in the 1980s. Beatriz Melano Couch (1931–2004) from Uruguay is the first-known Protestant woman in Latin America to earn a doctorate in theology.

Other scholars that I am familiar with are Elsa Támez, who is from Mexico and was a professor of biblical studies at the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana, and Nancy Bedford, currently a professor at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, who was born in Argentina.

In the Langham scholarship group, we have at least four women who have finished a PhD in theology, missiology, or different aspects of theology.

Article continues below

Do you believe that the evangelical movement has addressed social needs and concerns for indigenous people in Latin America?

That’s even more recent.

Indigenous theologians have been very instrumental in how we tell the story of the conquest and how we understand the invasion of Spaniards. There hasn’t been an organization getting the indigenous groups to work together. Instead, different indigenous Christians are expressing their understanding of Christian faith without much contact with other indigenous groups. This is also reinforced by geographic and linguistic factors.

What role has immigration played in terms of understanding the evangelical movement or other forms of religion?

Our countries are a melting pot of many cultures. In Colombia, for example, we received in the 1800s a lot of Lebanese and Turkish people. Some people completely blended in with the population, though you can still tell by their last names.

On the other hand, if you go to southern Chile, there are many churches that are still in German. You go to some churches in southern Argentina and the language is English. There are still some of the churches that came from France. They are in the southern corner of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay.

Uruguay has a lot of Germans, especially Mennonites, who were initially expelled from Germany because they didn’t want to get involved in military service. They went to Russia, and then the Bolshevik Revolution happened. There are a number of Mennonite colonies in Paraguay and southern Brazil and southern Chile, and a couple of big ones in Argentina.

The influence or the effect of immigration on the gospel is a complicated issue, because many Christians who came were Mennonites, who have historically been closed-off communities to the rest of the country. They moved to Latin America because they wanted protection, to teach their children as they wished, and to use their own language. It’s just recently that they sort of started to become more open.

I have a friend who works in the Japanese Presbyterian Church in São Paulo, Brazil. It’s a big, big church and ministry, and they work with the second- or third-generation Japanese that are Brazilians now, but they have an early service for the older generation that’s in Japanese.

In Uruguay when I was a missionary, I lived near an Armenian family. Their church still had services that the parents attended in Armenian, while the children went to church in Spanish.

Article continues below

How do you see Latin American countries taking a more active role in missions?

I was recently in Kenya for SIM International’s Global Assembly. I met a Bolivian family from Cochabamba working in northern Kenya with Somalians, a family from Mexico City working in Kathmandu, Nepal, and another Mexican worker in India.

Brazil is a big country sending a lot of missionaries everywhere, and I know Costa Rica and Colombia are also countries that have sent a lot of missionaries. We have the same problems that many missions have, like attrition, and a lot of missionaries come back to their countries completely exhausted. But we also have stories of things that are happening, so it’s encouraging to see that.

[ This article is also available in español and Português. ]