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Spanish Conquest The Propagation

It is a striking fact that the earliest monuments of colonial and
ecclesiastical antiquity within the present domain of the United States,
after the early Spanish remains in Florida, are to be found in those
remotely interior and inaccessible highlands of New Mexico, which have
only now begun to be reached in the westward progress of migration.
Before the beginnings of permanent English colonization at Plymouth and
at Jamestown, before the French beginnings on the St. Lawrence, before
the close of the sixteenth century, there had been laid by Spanish
soldiers, adventurers, and missionaries, in those far recesses of the
continent, the foundations of Christian towns and churches, the stately
walls and towers of which still invite the admiration of the traveler.

The fact is not more impressive than it is instructive. It illustrates
the prodigious impetuosity of that tide of conquest which within so few
years from the discovery of the American continents not only swept over
the regions of South and Central America and the great plateau of
Mexico, but actually occupied with military posts, with extensive and
successful missions, and with a colonization which seemed to show every
sign of stability and future expansion, by far the greater part of the
present domain of the United States exclusive of Alaska--an
ecclesiastico-military empire stretching its vast diameter from the
southernmost cape of Florida across twenty-five parallels of latitude
and forty-five meridians of longitude to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The
lessons taught by this amazingly swift extension of the empire and the
church, and its arrest and almost extinction, are legible on the surface
of the history. It is a strange, but not unparalleled, story of
attempted co÷peration in the common service of God and Mammon and
Moloch--of endeavors after concord between Christ and Belial.

There is no reason to question the sincerity with which the rulers of
Spain believed themselves to be actuated by the highest motives of
Christian charity in their terrible and fatal American policy. The
conversion of the Indians is the principal foundation of the
conquest--that which ought principally to be attended to. So wrote the
king in a correspondence in which a most cold-blooded authorization is
given for the enslaving of the Indians.[7:1] After the very first voyage
of Columbus every expedition of discovery or invasion was equipped with
its contingent of clergy--secular priests as chaplains to the Spaniards,
and friars of the regular orders for mission work among the Indians--at
cost of the royal treasury or as a charge upon the new conquests.

This subsidizing of the church was the least serious of the injuries
inflicted on the cause of the gospel by the piety of the Spanish
government. That such subsidizing is in the long run an injury is a
lesson illustrated not only in this case, but in many parallel cases in
the course of this history. A far more dreadful wrong was the
identifying of the religion of Jesus Christ with a system of war and
slavery, well-nigh the most atrocious in recorded history. For such a
policy the Spanish nation had just received a peculiar training. It is
one of the commonplaces of history to remark that the barbarian invaders
of the Roman empire were themselves vanquished by their own victims,
being converted by them to the Christian faith. In like manner the
Spanish nation, triumphing over its Moslem subjects in the expulsion of
the Moors, seemed in its American conquests to have been converted to
the worst of the tenets of Islam. The propagation of the gospel in the
western hemisphere, under the Spanish rule, illustrated in its public
and official aspects far more the principles of Mohammed than those of
Jesus. The triple alternative offered by the Saracen or the
Turk--conversion or tribute or the sword--was renewed with aggravations
by the Christian conquerors of America. In a form deliberately drawn up
and prescribed by the civil and ecclesiastical counselors at Madrid, the
invader of a new province was to summon the rulers and people to
acknowledge the church and the pope and the king of Spain; and in case
of refusal or delay to comply with this summons, the invader was to
notify them of the consequences in these terms: If you refuse, by the
help of God we shall enter with force into your land, and shall make war
against you in all ways and manners that we can, and subject you to the
yoke and obedience of the church and of their Highnesses; we shall take
you and your wives and your children and make slaves of them, and sell
and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take
away your goods, and do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as
to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord; and we
protest that the deaths and losses that shall accrue from this are your
own fault.[8:1]

While the church was thus implicated in crimes against humanity which
history shudders to record, it is a grateful duty to remember that it
was from the church also and in the name of Christ that bold protests
and strenuous efforts were put forth in behalf of the oppressed and
wronged. Such names as Las Casas and Montesinos shine with a beautiful
luster in the darkness of that age; and the Dominican order, identified
on the other side of the sea with the fiercest cruelties of the Spanish
Inquisition, is honorable in American church history for its fearless
championship of liberty and justice.

The first entrance of Spanish Christianity upon the soil of the United
States was wholly characteristic. In quest of the Fountain of Youth,
Ponce de Leon sailed for the coast of Florida equipped with forces both
for the carnal and for the spiritual warfare. Besides his colonists and
his men-at-arms, he brought his secular priests as chaplains and his
monks as missionaries; and his instructions from the crown required him
to summon the natives, as in the famous Requerimiento, to submit
themselves to the Catholic faith and to the king of Spain, under threat
of the sword and slavery. The invaders found a different temper in the
natives from what was encountered in Mexico and Peru, where the
populations were miserably subjugated, or in the islands, where they
were first enslaved and presently completely exterminated. The insolent
invasion was met, as it deserved, by effective volleys of arrows, and
its chivalrous leader was driven back to Cuba, to die there of his

It is needless to recount the successive failures of Spanish
civilization and Christianity to get foothold on the domain now
included in the United States. Not until more than forty years after the
attempt of Ponce de Leon did the expedition of the ferocious Menendez
effect a permanent establishment on the coast of Florida. In September,
1565, the foundations of the oldest city in the United States, St.
Augustine, were laid with solemn religious rites by the toil of the
first negro slaves; and the event was signalized by one of the most
horrible massacres in recorded history, the cold-blooded and perfidious
extermination, almost to the last man, woman, and child, of a colony of
French Protestants that had been planted a few months before at the
mouth of the St. John's River.

The colony thus inaugurated seemed to give every promise of permanent
success as a center of religious influence. The spiritual work was
naturally and wisely divided into the pastoral care of the Spanish
garrisons and settlements, which was taken in charge by secular
priests, and the mission work among the Indians, committed to friars of
those regular orders whose solid organization and independence of the
episcopal hierarchy, and whose keen emulation in enterprises of
self-denial, toil, and peril, have been so large an element of strength,
and sometimes of weakness, in the Roman system. In turn, the mission
field of the Floridas was occupied by the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and
the Franciscans. Before the end of seventy years from the founding of
St. Augustine the number of Christian Indians was reckoned at
twenty-five or thirty thousand, distributed among forty-four missions,
under the direction of thirty-five Franciscan missionaries, while the
city of St. Augustine was fully equipped with religious institutions and
organizations. Grave complaints are on record, which indicate that the
great number of the Indian converts was out of all proportion to their
meager advancement in Christian grace and knowledge; but with these
indications of shortcoming in the missionaries there are honorable
proofs of diligent devotion to duty in the creating of a literature of
instruction in the barbarous languages of the peninsula.

For one hundred and fifteen years Spain and the Spanish missionaries had
exclusive possession in Florida, and it was during this period that
these imposing results were achieved. In 1680 a settlement of Scotch
Presbyterians at Port Royal in South Carolina seemed like a menace to
the Spanish domination. It was wholly characteristic of the Spanish
colony to seize the sword at once and destroy its nearest Christian
neighbor. It took the sword, and perished by the sword. The war of races
and sects thus inaugurated went on, with intervals of quiet, until the
Treaty of Paris, in 1763, transferred Florida to the British crown. No
longer sustained by the terror of the Spanish arms and by subsidies from
the Spanish treasury, the whole fabric of Spanish civilization and
Christianization, at the end of a history of almost two centuries,
tumbled at once to complete ruin and extinction.

The story of the planting of Christian institutions in New Mexico runs
parallel with the early history of Florida. Omitting from this brief
summary the first discovery of these regions by fugitives from one of
the disastrous early attempts to effect a settlement on the Florida
coast, omitting (what we would fain narrate) the stories of heroic
adventure and apostolic zeal and martyrdom which antedate the permanent
occupation of the country, we note the arrival, in 1598, of a strong,
numerous, and splendidly equipped colony, and the founding of a
Christian city in the heart of the American continent. As usual in such
Spanish enterprises, the missionary work was undertaken by a body of
Franciscan friars. After the first months of hardship and
discouragement, the work of the Christian colony, and especially the
work of evangelization among the Indians, went forward at a marvelous
rate. Reinforcements both of priests and of soldiers were received from
Mexico; by the end of ten years baptisms were reported to the number of
eight thousand; the entire population of the province was reckoned as
being within the pale of the church; not less than sixty Franciscan
friars at once were engaged in the double service of pastors and
missionaries. The triumph of the gospel and of Spanish arms seemed
complete and permanent.

Fourscore years after the founding of the colony and mission the sudden
explosion of a conspiracy, which for a long time had been secretly
preparing, revealed the true value of the allegiance of the Indians to
the Spanish government and of their conversion to Christ. Confounding in
a common hatred the missionaries and the tyrannous conquerors, who had
been associated in a common policy, the Christian Indians turned upon
their rulers and their pastors alike with undiscriminating warfare. In
a few weeks no Spaniard was in New Mexico north of El Paso. Christianity
and civilization were swept away at one blow. The successful rebels
bettered the instruction that they had received from their rejected
pastors. The measures of compulsion that had been used to stamp out
every vestige of the old religion were put into use against the new.

The cause of Catholic Christianity in New Mexico never recovered from
this stunning blow. After twenty years the Spanish power, taking
advantage of the anarchy and depopulation of the province, had
reoccupied its former posts by military force, the missionaries were
brought back under armed protection, the practice of the ancient
religion was suppressed by the strong hand, and efforts, too often
unsuccessful, were made to win back the apostate tribes to something
more than a sullen submission to the government and the religion of
their conquerors. The later history of Spanish Christianity in New
Mexico is a history of decline and decay, enlivened by the usual
contentions between the regular clergy and the episcopal government.
The white population increased, the Indian population dwindled. Religion
as set forth by an exotic clergy became an object of indifference when
it was not an object of hatred. In 1845 the Bishop of Durango, visiting
the province, found an Indian population of twenty thousand in a total
of eighty thousand. The clergy numbered only seventeen priests. Three
years later the province became part of the United States.

To complete the story of the planting of Spanish Christianity within the
present boundaries of the United States, it is necessary to depart from
the merely chronological order of American church history; for, although
the immense adventurousness of Spanish explorers by sea and land had,
early in the sixteenth century, made known to Christendom the coasts and
harbors of the Californias, the beginnings of settlement and missions on
that Pacific coast date from so late as 1769. At this period the method
of such work had become settled into a system. The organization was
threefold, including (1) the garrison town, (2) the Spanish settlement,
and (3) the mission, at which the Indian neophytes were gathered under
the tutelage and strict government of the convent of Franciscan friars.
The whole system was sustained by the authority and the lavish
subventions of the Spanish government, and herein lay its strength and,
as the event speedily proved, its fatal weakness. The inert and feeble
character of the Indians of that region offered little excuse for the
atrocious cruelties that had elsewhere marked the Spanish occupation;
but the paternal kindness of the stronger race was hardly less hurtful.
The natives were easily persuaded to become by thousands the dependents
and servants of the missions. Conversion went on apace. At the end of
sixty-five years from the founding of the missions their twenty-one
stations numbered a Christian native population of more than thirty
thousand, and were possessed of magnificent wealth, agricultural and
commercial. In that very year (1834) the long-intended purpose of the
government to release the Indians from their almost slavery under the
missions, and to distribute the vast property in severalty, was put in
force. In eight years the more than thirty thousand Catholic Indians had
dwindled to less than five thousand; the enormous estates of the
missions were dissipated; the converts lapsed into savagery and

Meanwhile the Spanish population had gone on slowly increasing. In the
year 1840, seventy years from the Spanish occupancy, it had risen to
nearly six thousand; but it was a population the spiritual character of
which gave little occasion of boasting to the Spanish church. Tardy and
feeble efforts had been instituted to provide it with an organized
parish ministry, when the supreme and exclusive control of that country
ceased from the hands that so long had held it. The vineyard was taken
away, and given to other husbandmen. In the year 1848 California was
annexed to the United States.

This condensed story of Spanish Christianity within the present
boundaries of the United States is absurdly brief compared with the vast
extent of space, the three centuries of time, and what seemed at one
time the grandeur of results involved in it. But in truth it has
strangely little connection with the extant Christianity of our country.
It is almost as completely severed from historical relation with the
church of the present day as the missions of the Greenlanders in the
centuries before Columbus. If we distinguish justly between the
Christian work and its unchristian and almost satanic admixtures, we can
join without reserve both in the eulogy and in the lament with which the
Catholic historian sums up his review: It was a glorious work, and the
recital of it impresses us by the vastness and success of the toil. Yet,
as we look around to-day, we can find nothing of it that remains. Names
of saints in melodious Spanish stand out from maps in all that section
where the Spanish monk trod, toiled, and died. A few thousand Christian
Indians, descendants of those they converted and civilized, still
survive in New Mexico and Arizona, and that is all.[15:1]

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