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Research on Protestantism in Latin America: A Bibliographic Essay

Article excerpt

A generation ago John A. Mackay observed, "There was a time... when two illusions were current regarding the religious situation in Latin America. One illusion was that this region was the most solidly Roman Catholic of all the great areas of the world. The other illusion was that Latin America is an area where Protestant Christianity has little significance. Recent dramatic events have brought both these illusions to an end." (1)

Especially over the latter part of the twentieth century there has been an increasing awareness in the world Christian community of a vibrant and growing Protestant presence in the midst of Latin American society. Protestantism has achieved a new level of maturity in its understanding of the complex social and political realities of the continent and its place in that society. The following review of research on Protestantism in Latin America comes from an immense body of literature and is necessarily highly selective. (2) Whereas in the early years of the twentieth century serious research often fell to expatriate missionaries and scholars, in the last half-century much valuable research has come from scholars born, raised, and educated in Latin America. Considerable research has been done by recognized academics; other studies, often of equal value, have been produced by lay scholars. The most insightful research will always come from those whose personal destiny is caught viscerally in the subject of thei r endeavors.

Not until the early twentieth century was Latin America defined as a cultural and political entity rather than as merely geographic areas identified as South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. For many years it seemed that Latin America was not considered of great importance by world historians. Arnold Toynbee visited the region only once, making a brief stop in Puerto Rico. Though he wrote little about Latin America, he at least foresaw a time of increased importance: "There are things happening in Latin America today, things, that, in my judgment, could have the same historical significance as the Renaissance of the fifteenth century." (3)

Protestant Christianity in Latin America often was thought to lie outside the purview of Christian history; it was seen merely as an extension of Protestantism from North America, Britain, and Europe. This echoed the way that Roman Catholicism in Latin America was understood as a projection of Iberian Catholicism. Latin America as a world region and in particular the uniqueness of Latin American Protestantism were slow to be recognized.

Research from the Early Years

Since Protestantism arrived late in Latin America, much significant research did not begin until the mid-twentieth century when the burgeoning growth of evangelical Christianity caught the attention of the Christian world. Nevertheless, an early effort to place Latin American Protestantism in its proper context can be dated to 1900 and 1901, when Hubert W. Brown gave lectures at Princeton, Auburn, and Western seminaries that were published as Latin America: The Pagans, the Papists, the Patriots, the Protestants, and the Present Problem. (4)

Two indigenous interpreters of Latin American Protestantism in the first half of the twentieth century stand out: Erasmo Braga and Alberto Rembao. Braga, a Brazilian Presbyterian, wrote Pan Americanismo: Aspecto religioso (1916), (5) which opened the religious dialogue between the Americas. Rembao, a Mexican Congregationalist, followed a generation later with Discurso a la nacion evangelica; this work recognized the emergence on Latin soil of an authentic new religious community called los evangelicos. (6) Within this period appeared a cadre of outstanding writers such as Sante Uberto Barbiere (Argentina), Gonzalo Baez-Camargo (Mexico), and Santiago Canclini (Uruguay). There were also expatriate missionary authors: John A. Mackay, W. Stanley Rycroft, Reginald Wheeler, Webster Browning, and Kenneth Grubb. …