The Missiological Significance of Latin American Protestantism

By Escobar, J. Samuel | International Review of Mission, November 2011 | Go to article overview

The Missiological Significance of Latin American Protestantism


Escobar, J. Samuel, International Review of Mission


Abstract

Latin American Protestants were totally absent at Edinburgh 1910. This article explores different interpretations of why they were excluded, especially because Latin America was seen as a "Christian land" already, thus off limits for missionaries. The author discusses what has happened in the aftermath of this exclusion, and how and why evangelical Protestantism has grown significantly since then. Different, sometimes conflicting, interpretations are considered, and attention is given to how the relationship with Catholicism has evolved, and also the emergence of post-denominational Christianity.

Moving beyond exclusion

Latin Americans had been overlooked and totally excluded from Edinburgh 1910. Now the centennial celebrations of Edinburgh 1910 have brought new readings of the significance of the event and its missiological challenges.

Soon after the 1910 Edinburgh conference, American Protestant missionary enthusiasts formed a committee of cooperation in Latin America and sponsored the first continental gathering of Latin American Protestants in 1916, known as the Panama Congress on Christian Work. With a programme patterned after the model of Edinburgh 1910, this congress became a milestone for Protestantism in Latin America.

The Panama congress was preceded by a careful study of the advance of Protestantism in Latin America, based on reports sent by correspondents throughout the continent. The three volumes that sum up the studies of the congress provide a clear sense of the scope of Protestant missions there and their results in the second decade of the 20th century. The congress also reflected the self-critical attitude of those who recognized the flaws in their work and were looking for new forms of cooperation and coordination. (1)

The legitimacy of Protestant missionary presence in Latin America was acknowledged at the 1928 meeting of the International Missionary Council in Jerusalem. The Brazilian Erasmo Braga, one of the pioneers of ecumenism in Latin America, wrote, "It is no easy task to pass on to a community scattered over an area larger than that of the United States the message from the Jerusalem meeting. A safe estimate of the number of persons who constitute the Protestant Christian community in Brazil is about one million including children and adherents." (2) He went on to add: "the inclusion of Latin America in the International Missionary Council has given us the sense of being no longer isolated, small organizations engaged in a local or regional struggle, but a part of the great Christian world movement." (3)

A more polemical interpretation of the exclusion of Latin American Protestants from Edinburgh 1910 came some years later from Gonzalo Baez-Camargo, a respected Mexican ecumenist, journalist and Bible scholar, who interpreted this exclusion as a sign of the prevailing mind-set among European Protestants, which in 1910 was still shaped by Victorian-era complacency and paternalism. (4) They divided the human race into a "Christian world" that included Europe and the Americas and a "non-Christian world" of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific islands. On the one side were civilized Christian "sending" countries, and on the other, uncivilized non-Christian "receiving" mission fields. (5) Baez-Camargo believed that this global classification was too naive and had paved the way for blatant inconsistencies, such as placing Latin America in the first bloc and excluding from Edinburgh Protestant missionaries who had been working there for over a half century.

   Briefly, Latin America was then regarded by influential Protestant
   leaders of both sides of the Atlantic (especially in Europe) as the
   exclusive private hunting-ground of the historic Church that has
   been predominant to the south of Rio Grande for over four hundred
   years. Thus, recognition was denied to the struggling and growing
   Protestant minority in that part of the world. … 

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