In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evangelicalism and Conversion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Evangelical Movement
  • Individual Evangelicals

Atlantic History Evangelicalism and Conversion
Carla Gardina Pestana
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0024


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 fifteenth 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— 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 eighteenth 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 by British Protestants in the eighteenth 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 eighteenth century.

General Overviews

General works on conversion in the Atlantic world have often focused on missions, the meaning of which differs slightly depending on whether one looks at a Catholic expansion or Protestant efforts. In New Spain as well as New France, religious personnel (especially Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits) brought Catholicism to the inhabitants in missions that sometimes developed, especially in the Spanish case, into complex economic as well as religious institutions. A treatment of conversion as a general phenomenon can be found in Rambo and Farhadian 2014. Ricard 1966 provides a general overview of the Spanish effort, and Porter 2005 on a smaller scale for the British. Wade 2008 gives an updated survey of one large region within Spanish mission history, while González and González 2008 places that evangelization effort into a larger context. French missions were often created on a smaller scale, given the relation of the French to the native peoples in New France and the more mobile existence of the populace. Protestant missions were a bit more like the smaller-scale French efforts, although the plan to organize Christian Indians in New England into “Praying Indian Villages” bore some similarity to Spanish models. Essays exploring all these cases can be found in Cummins 1997. Evangelicalism has had a few general treatments as well; see Noll, et al. 1994 for articles on this movement, including its missionary component, and Ward 2006 for a general overview.

  • Cummins, J. S., ed. Christianity and Missions, 1450–1800. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Variorum, 1997.

    Reprints significant articles originally published from 1920 to 1988 on European missionaries throughout the early modern world. More than half are relevant to the Atlantic world. Most pieces cover Catholic examples, but a few Protestant cases are included as well.

  • González, Ondina E., and Justo L. González. Christianity in Latin America: A History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    A survey of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Provides a good introduction to the evangelization process of the first centuries.

  • Noll, Mark A., David W. Bebbington, and George A. Rawlyk, eds. Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1990. Religion in American Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    British and North American (including Canada) evangelicalism is covered in this collection of essays. Missionaries and their efforts make up a substantial theme.

  • Porter, Andrew. “An Overview, 1700–1914.” In Missions and Empire. Edited by Norman Etherington, 40–63. Oxford History of the British Empire Companions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    In a volume that concentrates on missions in the nineteenth century, this essay gives background placing earlier British missions in the longer-term context. Lessons learned in British North America about the relation of church and state shaped later approaches.

  • Rambo, Lewis R., and Charles Farhadian, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    This work considers conversion in its most general sense, as a subject of study across various disciplines and as a phenomenon shaping many faith traditions.

  • Ricard, Robert. The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain, 1523–1572. Translated by Lesley Byrd Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

    This classic study of the missionary work of the Dominicans and Franciscans in New Spain in the first decades provides much detail based on the early writings of the missionaries. Its encyclopedic nature makes it a basic and still useful source; originally published in French in 1933 (Paris: University of Paris).

  • Roeber, A. G., ed. Ethnographies and Exchanges: Native Americans, Moravians, and Catholics in Early North America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.

    This collection of articles on missions to Native Americans in North America includes many excellent pieces on either Moravian or Catholic (especially Jesuit) missions. Not explicitly comparative, but does include a section on Native American perspectives.

  • Wade, Maria de Fátima. Missions, Missionaries, and Native Americans: Long-Term Processes and Daily Practices. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.

    Surveys the history of missions in New Spain, from Florida to California and including northern Mexico. Conversion became synonymous with civilizing and working the native populations, creating burdens for missionaries and converts alike.

  • Ward, W. R. Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670–1789. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497315

    Somewhat broader than his first book (although not as much so as the “global” term implies), Ward’s history examines European and colonial evangelicalism. Largely intellectual history, but also good for the links that bound various elite men involved in the movement together.

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