Spreading Religion in the Age of Exploration

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  • 0:00 Age of Exploration
  • 1:09 The Spanish & the Pilgirms
  • 2:36 Other Sects
  • 3:53 Francis Xavier
  • 4:48 Spread in Africa
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

The Age of Exploration brought many European traditions to other places in the world. In this lesson, we'll talk about some of the ways that religion, and Christianity in particular, spread throughout the world during this time.

Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration took place between the 15th to 18th centuries and was characterized by European exploration and settlement of the New World, Africa, and Asia.

The European colonists who came to the Americas introduced a host of new things to the Natives: new animals (like horses), firearms, and cultural practices. The colonizers rarely adopted Native American religion. Instead it was the other way around. They brought their religion (which was some form of Christianity, depending on the colonists) with them, practiced it, and made converts among various native people groups.

We have to remember how important Christianity was to European culture during the Age of Exploration. Unlike today, there was no official separation of church and state, and politics and religion were very much mixed. So when explorers such as Columbus or Ponce de León or John Cabot claimed land in the name of a king, they were also claiming that land for God, with the intention of bringing their national religion to that region.

The Spanish

The Spanish were particularly zealous in their missionary activities. They set up missions throughout the Americas, where priests and other church leaders attempted to evangelize Native American groups. Roman Catholicism was the official religion of Spain, so Spanish explorers and soldiers, called conquistadors, sought to spread Catholicism throughout their colonies, in addition to accumulating wealth and power.

Some Spanish missionaries were kind and gracious toward Native Americans, but others were ruthless to the extent that conversion took place at the point of a sword. The Spanish used religion to secure authority over Native American populations, mainly in Florida, the American Southwest, Mexico, Central America, and South America, which is why these places have a heavy Catholic population, even today.

The Pilgrims

We all know the story of the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 in order to escape religious persecution under the Church of England. The Church of England or Anglican Church was a Protestant form of Christianity and the official religion of England. Anglicanism spread to the New World and became popular throughout Colonial America during the early colonial period. In Virginia it was the official religion until 1786, when Thomas Jefferson's 'Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom' was enacted.

Other Sects of Christianity

While Virginia and other southern colonies had strong ties to the Church of England, New England emerged as a haven for religious dissenters. This is not surprising. After all, the Pilgrims were religious dissenters, and soon other sects began following in their footsteps. Roger Williams, in 1636, founded the Rhode Island colony as refuge for religious minorities who were being persecuted by the Puritans. He also founded the first Baptist church in America.

During the Colonial Era, Protestant Christianity splintered into numerous sects. Popular denominations included Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers. David Brainerd and other Protestant missionaries worked to convert North American native tribes to Christianity, typically in ways that were less threatening than the Spanish.

French colonization of the New World involved the spreading of both Protestantism and Catholicism. Whereas Catholicism was mainly centered in South America, Central America, and the American Southwest, Protestantism gripped what is now the Eastern United States.

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