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The Protestant Reformer: Savior or Demon to the Amerindians of the “New Worl...

When Christopher Columbus first met the aboriginal occupants of the island of Guanahani in what we call the Bahamas, little did these Amerindians realize the enormous consequenc...
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When Christopher Columbus first met the aboriginal occupants of the island of Guanahani in what we call the Bahamas, little did these Amerindians realize the enormous consequences of this seemingly happy event in their lives. They did not understand the significance of the prayers, the claiming of the land for a faraway king and queen, the naming of their island San Salvador (Holy Savior) and the history behind the Crusade-like banners with their reminder of centuries of Christian military conquest. So far their encounter with these new and wonderful “men from the sky” was friendly.

Arthur Charles Dayfoot
The Shaping of the West Indian Church

       Until other nations established Protestant colonies in the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the socio-political, economic, and religious life of New Spain and much of the Western Hemisphere was held in monopoly by Iberian Christianity[1]. This institution was Roman Catholic in doctrine, Spanish by royal control, and alone in the absolute power it wielded over the lives and the affairs of the indigenous inhabitants of these newly conquered lands. And, like all entities throughout time and space that have had unchecked and unlimited power, it too became corrupt, arrogant, and abusive with atrocities following soon after.
       The Spanish and Papal thrones handed down edicts that established domestic and colonial standards of ethnic and religious purity. The Inquisition, justified by the powers invested in it to enforce these standards, sanctioned and overlooked slavery, genocide, and the exploitation of land and resources by the aristocrats, merchants, and political officials in the Viceroyalty of New Spain.[2] These inhumanities were committed in the name of and with the blessing of both queen and pope. With official approval for their wanton and callous mistreatment, the friendliness Columbus and his immediate followers had once shown the indigenous peoples quickly turned vile. At first sight of the gold and silver ornamentation worn by the natives, the selfish, cruel, and lustful tempers of the conquistadors were aroused and resulted in what David Stannard calls the “American Holocaust.” [3]
       In the “New World,” the control exerted by the Spanish Church, “a bulwark of Catholicism”(Dayfoot 16), was very strict and complete. Any challenges presented to its political and religious authority by the revolutionary new theological ideas of the Protestant Reformation were quickly dealt with and rebuffed [4]. “The inquisition” Dayfoot points out, “added Protestant heresy to its list of crimes and took care that it had no chance to spread… in the “New World” (16). Therefore, the domination of the Spanish Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere lasted from 1492 until the mid-to-late seventeenth century [5]. However, despite the Inquisition’s best attempts to control and suppress it, the Reformation, growing in Europe since the early 1400’s, finally expanded into the “New World.” Its principles infiltrated from areas outside of the control of the Viceroyalty and penetrated the iron curtain of Catholicism surrounding New Spain, not by open, forceful, and hostile attack, but through the “peaceful” colonization of Protestants moving into in the territories surrounding it [6].
       This wave of reformers brought with them a new Protestant hope. The Europe Christopher Columbus had left behind when sailing west was “a land of violence, squalor, treachery, and intolerance” (Stannard 57). Spain and Catholicism exported its pestilence and plague with him and infected, like an unchaste and promiscuous lover, the virgin and innocent Americas. Under the auspices of this Iberian and Papal syndicate, the disease continued to putrefy and grow. The emigration of the new dawning Protestant humanism with the colonists, however, offered the festering “New World” the prospects of a balm and healing salve (History of Religion in the New World 66).[7]
       The ecumenical worldview of the Protestants looked at these distant oceanic lands
to the west as a utopian paradise, a new “Eden” where humankind could rise from their fallen state and, once again, achieve salvation (Morse 23). Their religious leaders saw the indigenous peoples of the Americas as archetypal representatives of a recreated Adam and Eve and a second chance for Humanity. The Protestant clergy promised the colonists and missionaries “God’s favor should they successfully introduce the … ‘pagan innocents’ to the glory of his grace” (Stannard 65). God would redeem them, the Protestants believed, if they kept the naive and innocent Amerindians from falling to Satan’s whims as the rest of the world had done[8].
Therefore, the majority of the Protestant colonists, fearing for the indigenous peoples’ souls and honestly desiring their salvation, embarked for the Americas declaring their intention to “Christianize the Indians” (Morris 105). This, they believed, would open heaven for the indigenous peoples and bring them a new and better life on earth[9]. Ironically, however, despite these beliefs, “upon arrival in the New World,” Morris writes, “few cultivated that noble ambition” (105). So, just as television, the computer, and the World Wide Web have not, in our own age, lived up to all they had promised to be, regrettably, the Protestant movement too failed to deliver on the expectation of a new compassion, mercy, and justice for the Amerindian of the “New World”.
       Therefore, because of this failure, this author shall argue that the indigenous peoples of New Spain and the remainder of the Western Hemisphere faired no better under the Protestants than they did under the Spanish Catholics. This, I shall also argue, is because these reformers, instead of working to fulfill the promise they offered of a more equal and humane world, had and carried out other, more selfish and sinister religious agendas in the Americas. This paper shall support these argument by examining and discussing the following two points: First of all, that the Protestants viewed all those who had different religious ideologies as threats and therefore either had to be confronted and converted or persecuted and destroyed. And secondly, that the Protestants justified their thievery of indigenous lands in the America with their religious and ideological beliefs of personal industry and land productivity.

Conversion or Persecution

The Catholics attempted to maintain their dominance over the Christian
religion by persecuting, like they themselves had been a millennium earlier, those individuals and sects promoting the ideals and beliefs of the Reformation. Much of the success the Protestants had in establishing themselves as an ideology, in spite of this oppression, was due to religious excessiveness, zealotry, and exuberant intolerance of its adherents. Within the movement, non-belief was considered to be equivalent to anti-belief and the toleration of any skepticism of Protestantism or its tenets was seen to diminish the source of that belief itself. Non-believers and non- Protestants were seen as weakening and bringing about the death and destruction of the reformer’s God, religion, and lifestyle (Hernan Cortes 263). Hence, once coming into a position of significant influence and power, the Protestants turned the intolerance, torment, and oppression that they had received in earlier years against others. They made war against the Catholics; they accused all those who looked, believed, and behaved differently of being witches, sorcerers, and idolaters, and, because few were regarded as non-Protestant and anti-believers as the Jews and pagans were, they persecuted these groups leaving them the choice of conversion or genocide.
       The Jews suffered numerous atrocities at the hands of the Protestants, especially those of Nordic descent. However, that discussion lies outside of the bounds of this current paper and so will be left for now within the volumes of history. The pagans— in our current context, the indigenous peoples of the America— however, are another matter. Stannard states in his work that unlike the Spanish Catholics, the Protestant colonizers “had little use for Indian servitude” (247) Therefore, he continues, they slandered the Amerindian as being “Satan’s helpers, …lascivious and murderous wild men of the forest, … bears, ….wolves, … vermin” (247) and made them out to be “beyond conversion to Christianity or to civil life” (247). Mass killing, then, was deemed the only thing to do with the indigenous peoples and the Protestants looked toward some “Christian authority” to justify their genocide. Martin Luther provided it for them as he wrote that pagans and Jews were “evil, poisonous, … a devilish lot, … children of the devil, …and a brood of vipers” (Luther 265-292). He strongly recommends that “their treasures of silver and gold [in the “New World”] be taken from them” and that they be burned. This, he advises, should be done “so that no man will ever again [have to] see a stone or cinder of them” and so they will “leave our government, our country, our faith, and our property, much more leave our Lord the Messiah, our faith, and our church undefiled and uncontaminated with their devilish tyranny and malice” (Luther 265-292). The Protestant contempt for the non-believer and non-Protestant is evident here in Luther’s statements. Similar sentiments as these were used by the Protestant colonists, after purposefully eliminating even conversion as an option, as a justification for mass slaughters necessary to get what they really wanted— the indigenous inhabitants land [10].

Productivity and Land Use

       Almost as a counter reaction to the indecent and decadent amounts of wealth accumulated by the Church during the individual-denying, theo-centric Medieval years, the Protestants, in turn, strongly promoted the concept of private ownership as being one of the major signatures of civilization. This belief grew very strong and was promoted heavily by the Protestants during the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, one of the forefathers of the Reformation, contended that “the possession of private property was an essential difference between men and beasts” (Hemming 351). Calvin, Melanchthon, and other significant Protestant leaders concurred with Luther. The movement echoed Sir Thomas More’s Utopian ideals that all land should be owned in common and that it could justifiably be taken from “any people [who] holdeth a piece of ground void and vacant [and put it to] no good or profitable use” (More 45). This idea was very popular with the Protestants and became grounds for seizing land owned by the Church.
The Protestants colonists settled in families and were engaged primarily in tillage and farming whereas the Spanish Catholics and, to a lessor extant the French Catholics, were single males employed as soldiers, trappers, miners, and administrators. The demographics of this latter group do not put the same kinds of pressures upon the land as the former does so, therefore, it was evident that the Protestants, with their emphasis on families and farming, would eventually come into competition and conflict with the Amerindians over the use of the land (History of Religion in the New World 164). Sir Thomas More stated that “wherever the natives have much unoccupied and uncultivated land,” the settlers are justified “in driving the natives from the territory they carve out for themselves. If they [the indigenous peoples] resist, [then the settlers should] wage war against them” (More 76). More’s policy, known as vaccum domicilum was appealed to enthusiastically as justification for seizing the common lands of the indigenous people in Mexico, the American Northwest, Central, and Southwest that the Protestants had decided were not being put to “good or profitable use”[11] (Jennings 82,135-138).
       To take their lands from them, the Protestant settlers waged war against the Amerindian on two fronts. The first of these was through open, forceful, and hostile attack. Stannard writes “hundreds of Indians were killed in skirmish after skirmish. Other hundreds were killed in successful… mass poisonings…. they were hunted down by dogs… and their villages and agricultural fields burned to the ground. Starvation and the massacre of non-combatants…[was] the preferred approach to dealing with the natives” (106). It was the expressed desire of the colonists to exterminate the Amerindians and root them “out from being longer a people upon the face of the earth” (Charlevoix 33-34)[12]. As expressions of this desire, the settlers in a single raid would destroy corn sufficient to feed four thousand people for a year or would cut down 800 defenseless Indian men, women, and children in a village. Scenes such as these were repeated throughout the Americas but this paper has concentrated its focus on the areas where the Protestant settlements bordered New Spain as in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida. However, no matter how and where these slaughters occurred, they claimed no where near as many lives as this next weapon the colonists used to wage war against the Amerindian.
       The second front on which the colonists fought to take land from the Amerindian was biological. It was stated earlier that when Columbus landed in the Americas, he brought with him “pestilence and plague.” He, his men, and those that followed from the cesspool that was Europe were carriers of a deadly assortment of diseases that had not developed naturally in the Americas.[13] This included the Protestant colonists who settled amongst the indigenous peoples on the same lands. The effects of this intermixing were devastating. The indigenous people had had no exposure to these diseases and, therefore, their bodies had no natural defenses against them. Millions of peoples died. Stannard provides some shocking statistics. He writes:
       In Baja, California up to 60,000 Indians were alive at the end of
the seventeenth century; by the middle of the nineteenth century there were none. Further north in California, the Tolowa people’s population had collapsed by 92 percent after fifty years of Western contact. In less than half a century, between 1591 and 1638, two out of three people in northwestern Mexico died. In western Arizona and eastern New Mexico, within fifty years following European contact at least half of the Zuni, two thirds of the Acoma, and eight percent of the Hopi people had been liquidated… They [were] being destroyed by induced epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, measles, … influenza… and by the lethal gifts of syphilis and tuberculosis (129).
       The figures cited here are from the territories of New Spain bordering the regions of Protestant settlement. If all the Protestant colonies in continental America were included here, the total number of deaths of the Amerindians from disease would be staggering. The settlers had unknowingly created their own form of Biological warfare to assist their systematic extermination of the indigenous peoples.
       Ironically, the Protestant settlers, whose immune systems resisted many of the diseases they had spread, saw the sickness and death that they had brought upon the indigenous peoples as confirmation that their systematic extermination of the Amerindian and the colonization of their land was ordained and blessed by their God. A governor of one of the Puritan colonies, after a breakout of smallpox, wrote:

In all about four thousand souls and upward, were in remarkably good health: through the Lord’s special providence… there hath not died above two or three grown persons and about so many children all the last year, it being very rare to hear of any sick of agues or other diseases… as “for the natives, they are all near dead of the smallpox, so as the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess (Letters from New England 115).

        So, despite the humanistic ideology, Protestant reformers believed raised God’s esteem for humankind and which, in a sort of divine Information Superhighway, established an open and direct communication link with all of them, this paper has shown that the Amerindians suffered just as badly under the Protestant’s colonization as they did under the Spanish Catholic’s. The reason for this, it was argued, was because, like Darth Vader, the Protestants turned away from all that was best about Christianity and, instead, were lured to its dark side and then dealt with the indigenous peoples in a sinister and selfish way. The Protestant agenda of thievery, persecution, and genocide, it was shown, flowed from just two of these dark beliefs—that anyone who believed differently than they did, the Jew, the pagan, the eccentric, or non- believer was dangerous as they, like vampires, drained their religion of its life force and, that they- the Protestants- were entitled and justified by God, to take from the Amerindian any acreage that they deemed, according to their standards, were not being utilized up to the land’s full economic potential. It was these two beliefs that caused the most pain and suffering to the Amerindians at the hands of the Protestant colonists.


Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1975.

Hernan Cortes. Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by A.R. Pagden. NewYork:
Grossman Publishers, 1971,

Christianity Divided: Protestant and Roman Catholic Theological Issues. Daniel J.
Callahan, Heiko A. Oberman, and Daniel J. O’Hanlon, S.J., ed. New York: Sheed
and Ward, 1961

Dayfoot, Arthur Charles. The Shaping of the West Indian Church: 1492-1962. Miami, FL
USA: University Press of California. 1999.

De Charlevoix, Pierre. Journal of a Voyage to North America London 1761. Excerpted in
James Axtell, ed. The Indian People of Eastern America. New York : Oxford University Press, 1981.

History of Religion in the New World. “Studies Presented at the Conference on the
History of Religion in the New World during Colonial Times”. Reprinted from
The Americas, Vol. XIV, No. 4. Washington, D.C.: Secretary to the Conference,

Hemming, John. Conquest of the Incas. New York: Harcourt , Brace and Javanovich,

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of
Conquest Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Letters from New England. John Winthrop to Sir Nathaniel Rich, May 22, 1634, In
Everett Emerson, ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Franklin Sherman, ed. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971

Mead, Sidney M. The Old Religion in the Brave New World: Reflections on the Relation
Between Christiandom and the Republic. London, Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1977.

More, Thomas, Sir. Utopia. Edward Surtz, ed. New Haven: Yale University, 1964.

Morris, Jarvis M. American Beginnings: Highlights and Sidelights of the Birth of the
New World. Washington D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1952.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

[1] The terms Protestant and Protestant colonists shall, in this paper, refer to the followers and refugees of the Reformation movement in Europe and shall be deemed to include the sub-sects of it including the Calvinists, Puritans, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, Presbyterians and several German groups such as the Moravians.
[2] Dayfoot writes: Pope Alexander VI in 1493 issued four bulls that gave to Spain missionary responsibilities and territorial rights across the western ocean… [The] political consequences [of these bulls were]… wars… enslavement… physical cruelty, … and… Christianization. Implementation was in the hands of officials who were under strong pressure from the colonists whose fortunes depended upon forced labour (22).
[3] He writes, in his remarkable work, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, that “Columbus and his followers, in the name of God, were responsible, for causing the death of some 13 million natives within the first ten years of his initial landing at Hispaniola” (94 - 95).
[4] The Protestants differed with the Catholics in their beliefs of inherent salvation and grace rather than earned, ascension of the soul through belief and being rather than by deed and indulgence, biblical vs. titular authority, and direct vs. intermediate intercourse with God (Christianity Divided 3-5).
[5] Robert Thompson, an English merchant in Mexico City during this period, showed how little chance there was for Protestant ideas to spread to [New Spain] through … individual contacts. In a household conversation… he incautiously expressed some thoughts on the futility of saint’s images, and the availability of direct access to God. He was promptly accused of Lutheran heresy before the Episcopal inquisition… He was condemned… and… deported for imprisonment in Castile [Spain] (Dayfoot 45).
[6] See Footnote 3.
[7] Stannard states that “the Christian Religion was founded on the idea of war in the spiritual realm— the titanic war of Good against Evil, God against Satan (174). This concept transmuted into the external reality of the Christian manifesting the early Roman persecutions, the Crusades against the Infidel, the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Wars of late Medieval Europe, the American holocaust, the Jewish Holocaust, and a host of other scrimmages and massacres too numerous to mention.
[8] Adam and Eve, the Protestants believed, were “pagan innocents” and naked in paradise, the same state as the Amerindians, when they were tempted by Satan. This put the souls of the indigenous peoples at great risk. Their only hope for salvation was through conversion (Mead 123).
[9] Richard Hakluyt was a geographer and clergyman who supported Protestant colonization of the New World. In a letter he writes to Queen Elizabeth promoting this enterprise, he states “ [it is] necessarie for the salvation of those poore people which have sitten so longe in darkenes and in the shadowe of deathe, that preachers should be sent unto them” (Dayfoot 47)
[10] Jonas Stockam, a Protestant clergy and representative of the Protestant belief of the day stated that “there was little hope of bringing the Indians to conversion by means of kind persuasion (Dayfoot 62)
7 One of the first formal expressions of the justification for the expropriation of land— known officially as the principle of vacuum domicilum—was published in 1622. In it the author, a British Protestant colonist, states the “lawfullness of removing out of England into parts of America”:

This then is a sufficient reason to prove our going thither to live lawful: their land is
spacious and void, and they are few and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have they art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc. As the ancient patriarch therefore removed from straiter places into more roomy, where the land lay idle and wasted and none used it, though there dwelt inhabitants by them… so is it lawful now to take a land which none useth and make use of it (Hemming, 1978, page 139).
[12] Sacvan Bercovitch writes that “the Puritans, despite their missionary pretenses, regarded the country as theirs and its natives as an obsticle to their destiny as American. They could remove that obstacle… by extermination” (141).
[13] Stannard states that “the great plagues that arose in the Old World and that brought entire Asian, African, and European societies to their knees— smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, and more—never emerged on their own among the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples and did not spread to them across the oceans barriers until 1492 (53).

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