Protestantism in Latin America

Stephen Dove

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Protestantism in Latin America

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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Although Catholicism continues to be the majority religion in Latin America, Protestantism has emerged as a significant spiritual alternative throughout the region. In the early 21st century, estimated rates of Protestant adherence range from less than 10 percent in countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay to more than 25 percent in places such as Brazil, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. In Latin America’s most Protestant country, Guatemala, more than one-third of the population identifies as Protestant. Several forms of Protestantism exist in Latin America including evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, fundamentalism, and movements that many Protestants consider to be on the edge of theological orthodoxy such as Mormonism and homegrown movements such as Luz del Mundo. However, the most pervasive form of Protestantism in Latin America is Pentecostalism, a religious system that emphasizes personal interaction with the divine and physical manifestations of spirituality such as healing and speaking in tongues. The earliest evidence of Protestantism in Latin America comes from the colonial period through the Inquisition trials of alleged Protestant heretics. After the independence movements of the early 19th century, most national governments decriminalized Protestantism, and a handful of missionaries and Bible salesmen from Great Britain and the United States entered the region. However, they had very little success. In the late 19th century, US missionary organizations began opening stations throughout Latin America, and, by the turn of the 20th century, missionaries had established churches in the major urban centers of each country. Still, conversion rates remained low, and missionaries seldom made inroads with nonurban populations. Around the middle of the 20th century, three trends changed the face of Latin American Protestantism dramatically. First, missionary organizations began shifting their focus to socially marginal populations, especially indigenous people who spoke languages other than Spanish or Portuguese. Second, previously peripheral Pentecostal missions began to grow faster than other types of Protestantism, and finally, many local converts began forming independent churches and denominations that consciously separated themselves from missionary oversight. These three trends resulted in a dramatic increase in conversion rates in the late 20th century and an identity shift within Protestantism toward nationalism and away from the foreign influences of missionaries. Most of the literature on Protestantism in Latin America addresses the movement’s growth and changes in the late 20th century, with special attention paid to the social aspects of conversion and the rise of Pentecostalism.

Article.  11007 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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