4.5K: Expansion and Change in Existing Religions


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 4K

Explain the similarities and differences in how various belief systems affected societies from 1450 to 1750.

Historical Development 1

The Protestant Reformation split the Roman Catholic Church and gave rise to Protestant Christianity.

Historical Development 2

Increased interactions between hemispheres expanded the reach of existing religions.

Historical Development 3

Increased interactions resulted in syncretic belief systems and practices. 

Key ideas

The Protestant Reformation split the Catholic Church and resulted in new forms of Christinaity.

Christianity expanded to new regions globally starting in the 15th century.

European colonization and the Protestant Reformation helped to spread Christianity globally.

Christinaity was most successful in the Americas where it integrated native beliefs and cultures. Natives also actively resisted forced conversion to Christinaity.

Christinaity successfully spread to the Spanish Philippines. Its adoption in other places, such as China, was limited.


The Catholic World Fragments: The Protestant Reformation

By the 15th century, the Catholic Church had been the center of the Western European Christian world for nearly 15 hundred years. That unity shattered when a Christian priest named Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) revolted against what he viewed as the corruption of the Church. His revolt launched the Protestant Reformation. This reformation would reshape Europe as Catholics and Protestant Christian groups fought and power and influence across the continent and the world.

The causes of the Protestant Reformation

Luther’s protestant reformation began in 1517 when he released a document called the 95 Theses. In this document, Luther laid out what he believed were the abuses and corruption of the Catholic Church. For speaking out against the Church, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther from the Church in 1521, and Luther and his followers set up a new church, the Lutheran Church.

Luther called out Church corruption: Luther rejected the Church’s selling of indulgences (tickets that people could buy to have sins forgiven). He also argued against the practice of simony (the sale of offices when the church bureaucracy).

Luther promoted theological differences: Calling out corruption and abuses within the Catholic Church was not new. Many people before Martin Luther had spoken out against Church abuses, and Luther’s challenge went much further. Luther also spoke out against Church theology (beliefs) and attacked some of the foundation beliefs and practices of the Church.

Changing Religions: The Protestant Reformation
Before the Protestant Reformation
After the Protestant Reformation
The Catholic Church dominated religious life in Western Europe. Most people practiced Catholocism. Most monarchs aligned with the Pope and the Catholic Church.
New denominations of Christianity, such as Lutheranism, developed in Europe. In Northern and Western Europe, many people and some monarchs left the Catholic Church and began to identify with protestant Christianity.

Christianity Expanded Out to New Continents and Distant Locations

The 16th century began a period of rapid Christian expansion. Over the next five centuries, Christianity would arrive in the Americas and forcibly convert two entire continents. Christianity would also spread to new Areas in Asia and Oceania and coastal portions of West Africa and across the southern half of the African continent. 

Causes of Christian expansion included the following. 

  1. The emergence of various European kingdoms as global powers 
  2. The technological strength of European states 
  3. The desire of missionaries to convert people Christinaity 
  4. The quest for religious freedom from some new Protestant groups in Europe 

The role of the Protestant Reformation in the spread of Christianity

The conflict between Catholics and Protestants encouraged European maritime expansion. Maritime expansion offered both Christian groups opportunities to spread geographically. 

Catholic role in European maritime expansion: Within a few decades of Christopher Columbus’ rediscovery of the Americas, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses launched the Protestant Reformation. With Catholicism under attack in Europe and losing followers to Protestant denominations of Christianity, Catholic expansion into new lands was important for growing the Catholic Church. Catholic Popes divided the globe between Portugal and Spain (both Catholic kingdoms); Portugal gained Africa to India, while Spain gained most of the Americas and Pacific Ocean region. Because both were Catholic kingdoms, the Catholic Church could expect Catholicism to spread along with the Portuguese and Spanish empires. 

Protestant role in European maritime expansion: While Portuguese and Spanish America were firmly under the control of Catholic colonizers, the Protestant English and Dutch colonized much of the East coast of North America and portions of the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries, spreading Protestant Christianity into these areas. 

The Puritans: The earliest successful colonists in what became British colonies were Protestant Christians. While both England and the Netherlands were protestant kingdoms, especially in England, people viewed certain Protestant groups as extreme and outside of mainstream Protestant views. One of those groups was the Puritans, who had escaped England to the Netherlands to escape religious persecution. The Puritans felt that their religious congregations would grow and flourish the best outside of Europe. The Puritans sailed across the Atlantic and arrived in modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, in November 1620.

The Quakers: In the mid to late 17th century, English Quakers began moving to North America to escape religious persecution in England. In the 1680s, King Charles II gave Quaker William Penn an enormous land grant to pay off a debt owed to Penn’s family. Penn founded the state of Pennsylvania, and many Quakers began emigrating there from England and taking up positions within the Pennsylvania government. 

Christianity in Latin America and the Caribbean

The most successful Christian conversion of an entire geographic region took place in the Americas. The European political conquest of the Americas is also a story of Christian religious conquest. Before the arrival of Columbus at the end of the 15th century, there were no Christians in the Americas. Within 150 years, there were millions. Christian followers were gained as Europeans flooded into the Americas and forced conversion and cultural genocide perpetrated against American natives. 

Christianity in Spanish America

The Spanish viewed their conquest of the Aztec and Inca as evidence that god supported their expansion. Various Catholic religious orders (Dominicans, Jesuits, and the Franciscans) sent missionaries to Spanish America to convert the natives. By 1700, missionaries had baptized most American natives into Catholicism.

Conversion of the American natives:  Europeans claimed Christian beliefs as the one true universal truth and attempted to eradicate native religious traditions. 

  • Europeans destroyed, often violently, native peoples’ traditional religious sites and statues. 
  • Often Europeans turned these sites into new Christian churches, monasteries, or shrines. Corricancha was the most important temple in the Inca empire in the Inca capital of Cusco. The Spanish destroyed the temple and converted it into the Catholic Convent of Santo Domingo. 
  • Some Spanish missionaries patiently converted natives to Christian beliefs, while others used violence to destroy old traditions. In 1535, the Bishop of Mexico claimed to have destroyed 500 native shrines and 20,000 native religious statues. In the old Inca empire,  extirpation movements periodically destroyed traditional native religious images and statues. 
  • The Spanish also shamed followers of native traditions. People urinated on native religious statues, and officials held trials for those practicing the old ways. People who continued to practice traditional beliefs were also often paraded through the streets and humiliated.
Syncretic (blended) religious in the Americas

Native traditions blended with Christian traditions to create Christian practices unique to the Americas. 

  • Within some Christian communities in old Inca lands, women sometimes offered lama blood to local churches to strengthen those churches. 
  • Andean women also made shirts for a local statue of the Virgin Mary and traditional holy native statues or images of the same materials. 
  • The Catholic Church began creating Catholic saints that were unique to the Americas. The Church created America’s first saint in 1671 when Rose of Lima was declared a saint for her work in charity and, more importantly, her work in converting Andean people away from traditional gods and toward Catholicism. 
  • In Mexico, Catholic saints often began to fulfill the place of earlier gods and goddesses. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the most popular saint in Mexico today, and her shrine is the most visited Catholic shrine in the world. Her popularity grew under Spanish rule as she combined both the traditional Catholic and native ideas of motherhood. Often images depicted the Virgin of Guadalupe with dark brown skin tones that matched the local populations.  
  • Despite conversion to Catholicism, many Mexican Christians continued to take part in rituals from the past. These rituals included spells and charms to gods from those in search of good luck or fortune, ritual bleedings, offerings to the sun, or the use of hallucinogenic drugs in rituals. Wax candles traditionally used by Catholics started to appear in front of stone images of traditional gods. 

In the Caribbean and Portuguese America, syncretic (blended) religions developed as African slaves forced interactions with Christinaity. Several unique practices developed that heavily adopted traditional African beliefs and practices.

Vodun “voodoo” In Haiti:  Vodun developed in Haiti and included West African animist traditions brought to Haiti with captured slaves. These native African traditions adopted some Catholic practices from Haiti’s French colonizers.  Vodun centers around the vodun spirits that govern the Earth. These spirits range from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks. Vodun are the center of religious life. Perceived similarities with Roman Catholic doctrines such as the intercession (ability to act) of saints in the world of the living and angels allowed vodun to appear compatible with Catholicism and helped produce syncretic religions such as Haitian vodun. 

Santeria in Cuba:  Santeria is an African diasporic religion that developed during the late 19th century. It arose as the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa blended with the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. Santería is polytheistic and revolves around deities called orisha. These orishas derive their names and attributes from traditional Yoruba divine beings. Followers often equate various orisha with Roman Catholic saints. Followers also believe that each human has a personal link to a particular orisha who influences their personality. 

Candomble in Brazil: Candomblé is an African diasporic religion that developed in Brazil during the 19th century. It arose through syncretism between several of the traditional religions of West Africa, especially that of the Yoruba, and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. Candomblé involves the veneration of spirits known as orixás. These orixas get their names and attributes from traditional West African gods. Followers of Candomble often equate these gods with Roman Catholic saints.

Resistance to the spread of Christianity

Early conversions were often not complete conversions. In public, people would accept Christian baptism but in private continued to practice native traditions. The various American syncretic beliefs described above are examples of resistance to complete Christian conversion.

Taki Onqoy movement: Taki Onqoy was an indigenous movement of political, religious, and cultural dimensions which arose in the Peruvian Andes during the 16th century (c. 1564 – c. 1572) in opposition to the recent Spanish arrival. The movement consisted of traveling dancers who made predictions about the overthrow of the Spanish and the Spanish god by the Huaca (native gods) would return with all their might. The Spanish suppressed the revolt harshly, with women participants imprisoned in Catholic convents and others fined for participating.

Christianity Also Spread to Asia with Limited Success

Aside from the Spanish Philippines, Christianity spread much less successfully in spreading across Asia. The limited success of Christianity across Asia resulted from the different social and political contexts that existed in Asia. Whereas American natives had been defeated and subjugated by the Europeans, most Asian societies were strong and prosperous. And while many would come under European occupation in the late 18th through 20th centuries, for now, most Asian societies’ social and religious institutions could withstand Christian missionaries’ attempts to spread the religion.

Christianity in the Philippines

Christianity did successfully spread throughout the Spanish Philippines. The Philippines ranked as the 5th largest Christian-majority country in 2010, with about 93% of the population identifying as Christian.  As of 2019, it was the third-largest Catholic country in the world (the first two being Brazil and Mexico) and one of two predominantly Catholic nations in Asia. 

  • Like in the Americas, the Philippines had a fragmented society of tribal leadership, which made it easier for Spain to conquer the Philippines with their superior weapons technology and for missionaries to spread Christianity.  
  • Native traditions in the Philippines suffered a similar fate as the Americas, with natives shamed for practicing their traditional polytheistic belief systems that consisted of spirits, creatures, and men that guarded the streams, fields, trees, mountains, and forests.

Christianity in China

Missionaries had limited success with Christian conversion in China. After 250 years of missionary activity, only 200,000 to 300,000 Christian converts were in China, out of a population of 300,000,000.

Chinese missionary activity in China differed from missionary activity in the Americas and the Philippines

The actions of missionaries in the Americas and the Philippines and missionaries in China varied.

Missionaries in the Americas
Missionaries in China
Missionaries sought to convert the masses
Missionaries worked to convert the elite
Missionaries rejected natives traditional values and belief systems
Missionaries became familiar with Confucian values and texts
Missionaries forcibly converted natives in some situations
Missionaries often dressed like Confucian scholars
Missionaries shamed people who continued to follow the traditional values and belief systems
Missionaries viewed Confucianism not as a religion but as a secular governing philosophy
Missonaries sought to highlight the similarities between Confucianism and Christianity
Reasons Christianity did not successfully spread in China
  1. Elites already had Confucianism, and established traditions, including Daoism, Buddhism, and the worship of local deities practiced by the masses. 
  2. China had a multi-belief and multi-faith tradition, and Christinaity required complete devotion to one faith. 
  3. Catholics viewed sacrifices to Confucius and veneration of ancestors as idolatry (worshiping a statue or item as if it were a god). 
  4. Many educated elites viewed Christianity as superstition and thought that the holy communion was ritual superstition. 
  5. The Chinese saw Christian powers taking over the Philippines and saw Christian powers’ warships in the Indian Ocean, leading to intense suspicion of missionaries and their motives. 
  6. By the 18th century, the Pope claimed authority over Chinese Catholics. The Chinese emperor viewed this as a challenge to his authority and expelled many missionaries. 
  7. China was powerful enough to resist forced Christian conversion.