Baptists and Liberation Theology in South America

By Moreno, Pablo | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Baptists and Liberation Theology in South America


Moreno, Pablo, Baptist History and Heritage


South America in pre-Hispanic times was dominated by the Inca culture (Peru), with a tendency to expand into the Inca Empire (or Tahuantinsuyo in the Quichua language). Towards the North (Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela), the cultures it met were of the Chibcha family. Toward the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay), Inca expansion encountered the diversity of the Magellan peoples (Chile), the peoples of the Pampas (Argentina), and the Chaco cultures (Paraguay). In Brazil, there were two vast regions with their respective cultures, i.e., Eastern Brazil and the Amazon region.

In the sixteenth century, South America was dominated in the Spanish and Portuguese conquests, provoking a cultural shock as the sociopolitical organization was forcibly dismantled by a culture characterized by the dominating presence of Catholic Christianity. For some 300 years, the Catholic Church took root in the fibers of Latin American culture until it became a constituent of its being. This was not by decree; it was a process, slow and complex, by which means Catholicism became part of the culture of these lands.

In the nineteenth century, the Protestant insertion on the continent began. One of the pioneers of this process was Diego (James) Thompson, a Baptist colporteur of the British Bible Society, who reached Buenos Aires in 1818 to promote the Lancaster system of reading (1) which had achieved a measure of success in England. Diego Thompson also worked in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, founding in the last mentioned country the first Bible Society of Latin America in 1825.

Baptist presence in South America accompanied the process of planting carried out also by Presbyterians and Methodists, and after midcentury we find a continuous presence of Baptists on the South American continent. Currently, there are more than one million Baptists in some eight thousand local churches, (2) of which 80 percent belong to Brazil, which leaves about 200,000 Baptists in the rest of South America, of whom 60,000 are in Argentina. This panoramic view allows us to conclude that Baptists are a minority in most South American countries, even though their impact on the evangelical field has been significant.

Baptist work in this part of the continent was mostly developed by the Southern Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. In almost all of the countries of South America, the presence of the SBC Foreign (International Mission Board has been dominant and very influential in the formation of seminaries, churches and other educational institutions, elementary and secondary--as well as clinics and hospitals. Mission boards of other Baptist groups have also been present--the Baptist Missionary Conference, the Baptist Union of Canada, the Baptist Bible Fellowship International, the British Missionary Society of London, the American Baptist Churches, and other smaller groups.

Considering the general position of the Baptist missionaries in Latin America and their directive role in the different national unions and conventions, one can conclude at first brush that their relation with the Theology of Liberation (LT) and the impact it has will be minimal. Although social action has been present on the Baptist agenda, there has not been a contextual involvement with the poor and their aspiration for social transformation.

The position of South American Baptists has been similar in general terms to that held by the missionaries, but, as we shall see, there have been variations, ruptures, and divergencies. Taking the former into account, at least three reasons can be cited why the Baptist "people" have not experienced a dynamic and close relation with LT.

Ecclesiological. Among Baptists, there has not been an open relationship with other Evangelical churches and less with the Roman Catholic Church where LT reached an important development. Among Baptists, there has existed a sense of self-sufficiency: Baptist Seminary, Baptist Clinic, Baptist Book Store, Baptist Bibliography, Baptist Hymnbook. …

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