In Central and South America —an expanse two times as large as the continental United States—Spain and Portugal tried to build empires. Conquering so vast a continent seems an impossible enterprise. Only people of great ambitions could have the firmness of decision and the mystical push to face such a challenge.

The Spanish had that kind of firmness and mystical push. The Spain that sought political conquest also served as powerful patron of the Christian religion. Consequently, the vast expanse that saw cruelties of conquest and exploitation (which still affect Latin America) also witnessed heroic faith and spiritual zeal (which still cradle the popular piety and culture of these lands).

So this question puzzles us: How could one nation conquer the New World using both faith and violence, without apparent contradiction?

The Crusades Continued

The Crusades against Islam, begun in 1096, marked the first time the people of medieval Europe attempted to act together in a Christian cause. Most of the Crusades ended in defeat, however, and the eastern campaigns were interrupted about the year 1291.

But on the western borders of Christendom the conflict with Islamic power continued for two more centuries. On the Iberian Peninsula—home of modern Spain and Portugal—the battle against Islam had started in the eighth century and continued to the fifteenth century. During eight long centuries of struggle against the Muslims, military tenacity and religious zeal melted together.

This combination of elements—political and religious—rendered possible Spain’s conquest of the Americas. One writer put it this way: “The religious unity became a political program and national unity a religious passion.”

John A. Mackay, in his The Other Spanish Christ, adds this: “The new [world] crusaders were enlisted from knights and monks who thronged the Peninsula. The souls of those classic personages had so intermingled in the long wars against the Moor, … that the typical resultant was an ascetic paladin and a martial monk. There was a monk in every helmet and a knight in every cowl.”

With the same zeal and spirit shown in the Peninsula, then, these frontier fighters crusaded against the native empires of the Americas. Subduing pagan people was considered the necessary preliminary to converting them. “Who doubts that the gunpowder against the Indians is incense to the Lord?” said one sixteenth-century Spaniard.

Rugged Character

How could 180,000 Spanish explorers and conquerors skirt the shores from Greenland to Cape Horn to Oregon, explore large sections of both Americas, found more than two hundred settlements, and transplant bodily to more than half the New World their language, religion, social customs, and political institutions? These accomplishments can be understood only by comprehending the complex genius of those who came from the Iberian Peninsula.

As one scholar put it, “They brought the Spaniard’s intense awareness of his dignity as an individual, his quick appreciation of the dramatic and heroic, his keen sense of personal honor. They were on fire with an almost fanatical religious belief in divine mission and protection.… And they settled the New World with an imperial disregard for relative distances, perils, and hardships for which the modern world has no equal.”

The early arrivals to New England were ordinary citizens. The early arrivals to New Spain, besides priests, were usually Spanish soldiers, conquistadores. To understand these fierce soldier/explorers is to understand the nature of the conquest.

Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro led tiny bands of men against the huge Aztec and Inca empires. They could perform this incredible feat because they were unusually brave, resourceful, and religious. They were equally eager to spread the gospel, conquer new lands for their king, and to get rich. They had no difficulty combining these surprisingly different motives.

Love and Cruelty

Since the early years of the Conquest, Spanish action in the Americas has caused hard discussions. The issue remains complex.

For some historians, Spanish colonization was an enterprise of pillage, inflamed and inflated by religious fanaticism and martial vanity. Other scholars point to the humanitarian laws of the Indies, the merciful attitude of more than one conquistador, and particularly the self-denying service of many priests. They intend to prove the enlightened nature of the Spanish conquest and colonial system.

In the end, we must recognize in the Spanish heritage—and the dynamic individuals who incarnated it—the spirits of both war and compassion.

Dr. Pablo A. Deiros is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and director of post-graduate studies at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires. In 1992–93 he will serve as John A. Mackay Professor of World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.