How Did Native Americans Respond to Christianity?
An enterprising European official sailed to the Central American mainland in 1514. He hoped to settle large numbers of Spaniards there, to find gold, and to convert natives. He and his men adopted a simple approach.
They traveled by night, stopping at midnight outside a chosen village. Before they entered, they declared loudly: “Princes and Indians, there is one God, one pope, and one king of Castile, who is lord of this country. Come at once and render him obedience, or we shall make war on you, kill you, and put you into slavery.”
Of course, Europeans introduced their faith in other ways. Many missionaries lived in poverty among native peoples and presented the Christian message gently.
How did the indigenous peoples respond to these widely varied missionary efforts? What did they think of the Europeans’ faith—and its emissaries?
The accounts below offer firsthand glimpses into three common responses.
Holding to the Ancient Faith
When native Americans were confronted with Christianity, some incorporated elements of Christianity into their own beliefs, creating a new, syncretistic system. Others resisted the faith of their conquerors and held fast to traditional beliefs. Among the Incas of Peru, for example, baptism was considered subjection to the invader; some Incan chiefs killed those who accepted the rite.
Opposition, however, did not always take violent forms. Soon after the fall of his people’s capital (Tenochtitlán), an Aztec priest spoke in response to the evangelistic efforts of Franciscan missionaries:
Our revered lords, sirs, dear ones,
take rest from the toil of the road, …
Out of the clouds, out of the mist,
out of the ocean’s midst you have appeared.
The Omneity [God] takes form in you,
in your eye, in your ear, in your lips.
The speaker of the world sent you because of us.
Here we are, amazed by this.
You brought his book with you, his script,
heaven’s word, the word of god.…
that we don’t know
the Omneity of heaven and earth.
You say that our gods are not original.
That’s news to us
and it drives us crazy.
It’s a shock and a scandal,
for our ancestors came to earth
and they spoke quite differently.
They gave us
and they believed,
they served, and they taught the honor among gods;
they taught the whole service.
That’s why we eat earth before them;
that’s why we draw our blood and do penance;
that’s why we burn copal [a tree resin] and kill the living.…
We don’t believe, nor do we mock.
We may offend you, …
for here stand
the trustees and rulers of this entire world.
It is enough that we have done penance,
that we are ruined,
that we are forbidden and stripped of power.
To remain here is to be imprisoned.…
This is all we have to reply,
This Aztec priest had seen his capital destroyed and his empire crushed. He was forced to accept a military conquest, but he refused to accept a spiritual one. For generations this religious leader and his people had honored and served their gods. They would not readily renounce that faith.
Rejecting “Christian” Behavior
It was not always the natives’ disbelief that impeded their conversion to Christianity. In many instances, they were open to learning more about the Spaniards’ God. They were even willing to accept the Christian faith. However, a number of other factors often stood in the way.
(See “Tying Their Own Hands.”)
By far, the greatest impediment to successful evangelization was the brutality of the European settlers. In many instances, the conquistadores employed violence to force natives to accept baptism. But often this brutality only provoked dogged resistance and outright rejection of the soldiers’ beliefs.
In a letter in 1601, Brother Juan de Escalona laments, “We cannot preach the gospel now, for it is despised by these people [the natives of modern day New Mexico] on account of our great offenses and the harm we have done them.”
Countless Indians lost their lives through slaughter, mass suicides, and European diseases. Those who managed to survive times of war were subjected to cruel mistreatment in mines. Or they were placed under the encomienda system, a form of virtual slavery.
A Mayan objected to the behavior of the Spaniards: “The true God, the true Dios, came, but this was the origin too of affliction for us: The origin of tax, of our giving them alms; of trial through the grabbing of petty 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 justicia of God the Father will settle on the whole world.”
In some cases, the Spaniards’ brutality provoked Indians to seek revenge. On the frontier, in areas of what are now the United States (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia), many missionary friars were killed as soon as they lacked the protection of Spanish arms.
Don Gonzalo, a 70-year-old Nicaraguan Indian, writes his opinion of Spaniards he had known: “Ultimately, it turns out that one must conclude that Christians are by no means good.… Where are the good ones? To be sure, I myself have certainly not yet known any good ones, only bad ones.”
It comes as no surprise that many Indians rejected Christianity not for Christianity’s sake, but for the examples of those who called themselves Christian.
What about those Indians who responded positively to the Christian faith?
Many Europeans came to the New World motivated by a sincere desire to spread their faith. Missionaries to the Americas—especially the earliest ones—often demonstrated boundless zeal, high morals, and great courage. Their charity—particularly in contrast to the conquistadores’ inhumanity greatly encouraged acceptance of Christianity.
One church official asked Indians the reason why they liked one group of friars better than the others. The Indians replied, “Because these go about poorly dressed and barefoot just like us; they eat what we eat; they settle among us; and their intercourse with us is gentle.”
In their efforts to expose the native Brazilians to Christianity, the Portuguese authorities and the Jesuit fathers brought them from the interior to the coastal region and concentrated them in mission villages. The following letter, written by an anonymous Jesuit missionary, describes this work: “From far away, they [the Indians] send requests for priests to indoctrinate them because they want friendship with Christians and to change their habits for ours. In this way four large settlements are already constructed for them.…
“Those of São Paulo, the first settlement built, are all Christians—that is, the children up to 14 years of age—and every day more are baptized because those who are born again bring others for baptism, and there are more than two hundred of these.”
Even some of the most violent conquistadores came to the New World with at least modest concern for winning souls. Despite the unspeakable violence they witnessed during the conquest, some Indians accepted the faith of their conquerors—ironically because it was the faith of their conquerors. It seemed clear that the Christian God had defeated their gods. Many natives willingly accepted baptism, hoping to garner the favor of the more powerful Christian God.
Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés talks with the people of Tlaxcala. (His native interpreter, Marina, stands in the middle.) The conquistadores’ brutality alienated many native peoples from the Christian faith. Yet Cortés preached to some natives, pleading with them to convert.
As Hernando Cortés and his men marched toward the Aztec capital (Tenochtitlán, present-day Mexico City), they were welcomed by the people of Texcoco, who had long resented Aztec domination. Below is an indigenous account, preserved in the Codex Ramirez, of the conversion of Prince Ixtlilxochitl of Texcoco.
“At the request of Ixtlilxochitl, Cortés and his men ate the gifts of food that had been brought out from Texcoco. Then they walked to the city with their new friends, and all the people came out to cheer and welcome them. The Indians knelt down and adored them as sons of the Sun, their gods … The Spaniards entered the city and were lodged in the royal palace.…
“Cortés was very grateful for the attentions shown him by Ixtlilxochitl and his brothers; he wished to repay their kindness by teaching them the law of God, with the help of his interpreter, Aguilar. The brothers and a number of the other lords gathered to hear him, and he told them that the emperor of the Christians had sent him here, so far away, in order that he might instruct them in the law of Christ. He explained the mystery of the Creation and the Fall, the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and the mystery of the Passion and the Resurrection. Then he drew out a crucifix and held it up. The Christians all knelt, and Ixtlilxochitl and the other lords knelt with them.
“Cortés also explained the mystery of baptism. He concluded the lesson by telling them how the Emperor Charles grieved that they were not in God’s grace, and how the emperor had sent him among them only to save their souls. He begged them to become willing vassals of the emperor, because that was the will of the pope, in whose name he spoke.
“When Cortés asked for their reply, Ixtlilxochitl burst into tears and answered that he and his brothers understood the mysteries very well. Giving thanks to God that his soul had been illumined, he said that he wished to become a Christian and to serve the emperor.… The Spaniards wept with joy to see their devotion.
“The prince then asked to be baptized. Cortés and the priest accompanying him said that first they must learn more of the Christian religion, but that persons would be sent to instruct them. Ixtlilxochitl expressed his gratitude, but begged to receive the sacrament at once because he now hated all idolatry and revered the mysteries of the true faith.
“Although a few of the Spaniards objected, Cortés decided that Ixtlilxochitl should be baptized immediately. Cortés himself served as godfather, and the prince was given the name Hernando, because that was his sponsor’s name.… The other Christians became godfathers to the other princes, and the baptisms were performed with the greatest solemnity. If it had been possible, more than twenty thousand persons would have been baptized that very day, and a great number of them did receive the sacrament.”
Making Crucial Decisions
As these accounts demonstrate, Christianity was not simply thrust on an uncritical indigenous population. Native Americans viewed Christianity through a variety of experiences. They compared it to their own beliefs and saw it practiced by the people who brought it to their world. They then made crucial decisions whether to accept the new faith.
Many Indians did accept it. The fact that native Americans came to know the Christian God is testimony to more than the immense firepower of the conquistadores. It shows also the power of a faith that was able to reach people despite tremendous obstacles—not the least of which were produced by Christians themselves.
Thomas S. Giles is project editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 1992 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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