Evangelicalism and Conversion

Carla Gardina Pestana

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Evangelicalism and Conversion

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  • History of the Americas
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Conversion was a frequently cited reason for European expansion into the wider Atlantic world. All colonizing powers justified their presence in the New World with reference to their mission to bring Christianity to the inhabitants, and indeed a papal bull divided responsibility for those conversion efforts outside Europe between the Portuguese and the Spanish in the late 15th century. Later, as other European states became involved, they used the same justification. The Protestants among them also cited the need to counteract the Roman Catholic efforts—especially those of the Spanish—in order to rescue the natives from what they deemed false religion. Conversion was, at least in theory, central to the creation of an integrated early modern Atlantic world. On the ground, actual efforts put into the conversion project varied widely, with Roman Catholics relying on religious orders to invest energy in the effort and Protestants doing far less in that direction for the first century or so after they entered the Atlantic world. When conversions did occur, Christian missionaries expected native peoples who converted to change drastically and completely, and they tended to judge anything less than a radical alteration as a false conversion. Much recent scholarship, however, has revealed that Native Americans negotiated between their traditional faith and the new one offered to them by Europeans, making sense of the new by relating it to the old. Conversions to Christianity among America’s first inhabitants were a focal point of European efforts, but they were not the only cases that occurred. Europeans also attempted to convert their African slaves—again more readily among Catholics than Protestants—and one another. By the 18th century, newly founded Protestant missionary organizations often concentrated on the conversion of other Europeans within the wider Atlantic world. Partly as a result of their efforts (but also due to other causes) religious revivals swept the Protestant community during the 1730s and 1740s. “Evangelicalism” refers to those Protestants who emphasize conversion and often expand their numbers through revivals. The term “evangelical” was favored by Protestants on the continent of Europe from the beginning to link their religious movement to the early Christian church. The term was taken up the British Protestants in the 18th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, to refer to their efforts to revive their churches, returning them to their scriptural roots. Evangelical Christians focus on the Bible and on the importance of the conversion process, and they helped to reshape the Protestant Atlantic through their missionary work and their revivals in the 18th century.

Article.  6910 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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