Catholic Christianity came to Nicaragua in the 16th cent. with the Spanish conquest of the western and central parts (completed by 1524). Because Nicaragua was at the periphery of the Spanish Empire, its colonial institutions—and the RC Church—were relatively weak, but in the early years after its emergence as an independent republic (1845), the Church proved one of the nation's most durable institutions. Although anti-clerical legislation in the mid-19th cent. reduced its political influence, in the western, central, and northern parts of hispanic Nicaragua Catholicism retained a strong institutional and spiritual authority. In the mid-1960s the Nicaraguan Church was influenced by, and contributed to, Liberation Theology. The support of radical Catholics helped the Sandinista rebels to overthrow the regime of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. On a visit in 1983 John Paul II castigated priests for excessive politicization; a subsequent division between the ‘popular’ and ‘official’ Church lasted until 1989.
The Atlantic or eastern coast (sometimes called Mosquitia or the Mosquito Coast) is predominantly Protestant. In the late 18th and mid-19th cents., Britain colonized the Atlantic coast, introducing Black workers, the English language, and Protestantism. The SPG began work in 1742, but with little success until the British began to import Black labourers from Jamaica in the early 19th cent. Only in 1896 was the foundation laid in Bluefields for the first permanent Anglican church in Nicaragua. Responsibility for the Nicaraguan Anglican Church was transferred from the C of E to the Episcopal Church in the United States of America; it is now part of the Anglican Church of the Central American Region.
The largest Protestant body is the Moravian Church, which sent missionaries to Bluefield in 1749. Working initially among the Miskitu and Creoles, it expanded rapidly. It now has an active presence in nearly every village on the Atlantic coast and sends missionaries to the USA and Europe. In hispanic W. Nicaragua, the main Protestant groups include Pentecostals and Baptists.