Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Expansion of Protestantism in Mexico: An Anthropological View

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Expansion of Protestantism in Mexico: An Anthropological View

Article excerpt


In the last three decades of the twentieth century, many people in Mexico and Central America turned to Protestantism as a new religion. The greatest increase has been in rural and Indians areas. This article shows that Protestantism in these areas is not a reaction against the Catholic Church as much as it is a reaction against traditional Indian cargo systems generating political and economic power. These people are farmers who live in tight-knitted, closed communities that dominate their lives. It has been difficult for scholars of religion to understand these cultures because the communities are closed to outsiders and many of the people speak Indian languages. Anthropologists have been more successful than historians at finding the data and discovering why the people are converting. [Mexico, Protestantism, Catholicism, religion]


This article shows how Protestantism has grown recently in Mexico and how its appeal to Indian people has been a major factor in its growth. It has opposed the power generated by traditional cargo systems and has helped Indian communities shift from an agricultural subsistence economy to an economy based on labor migration and trade.

The point of view taken here is one of cultural materialism (Harris 1974, 1979; Rappaport 1967) which sees the underlying causes of religious change in the material relationships that people have with their environment and each other. Harris (1979) called this infrastructural determinism. This point of view does not deny the idealist aspects of religion. Symbolism and emotional commitment are ever present. It simply sees them as the artifacts of religious change not its cause. We should ask why did Evangelical Protestantism grow very rapidly in the last three decades of the twentieth century and not in the early part of the century when it had also been present? Something other than its emotional appeal must have stimulated its growth at this critical time. This paper proposes that the cause of the growth was a change in the underlying material circumstances of life.

The Growth of Evangelical Protestantism from 1970 to 2000

Although the recent growth of Protestantism in Mexico and Central America is undeniable, there is still some difficulty in quantifying it. Many Protestant churches make an effort to tabulate the numbers; however their tabulations are subject to inflation because the Evangelical churches have a strong desire to show that their proselytizing efforts have been successful. David Stoll explains how some Evangelical advisers have made their estimates.

To arrive at their figures, church-growth experts first added up the memberships reported by all the denominations in a country. Then they multiplied that figure by another number, to account for unbaptized children, converts attending services but not yet baptized, and so forth. The multiplier was usually 2.5, 3, or 4, depending on "sociological factors," whatever those were construed to be. The result was supposed to be the total Evangelical community (Stoll 1990:125).

For example, Everett Wilson (1997), a historian, estimates that there were 835,000 Evangelical Protestants in Guatemala in 1993; whereas, Clifton Holland1 (1997), an Evangelical social scientist, estimates that there were 2.8 million there in 1995. These figures are barely compatible, because the addition of two million Protestants in two years is difficult to imagine. In another example, he estimates that there were 5.5 million Protestants in Mexico in 1995; whereas the Mexican national census (INEGI 1992:96-97) recorded only 3.4 million in 1990. These estimates imply an annual growth rate of 10%, which is hard to imagine.

Fortunately for the social scientist, the advance of Protestantism in Mexico has been objectively documented by the Mexican census. Quite unlike the U.S. census, the Mexican census records the religion of everyone in the entire country. …

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