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

amestown, 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 coöperation 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]