In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Comparative Essays
  • Religion in Africa
  • Religion in the Americas
  • Religion in Europe
  • Religion and Colonialism
  • Religious Encounters
  • Syncretism
  • Religion’s Relationship to Slavery
  • Popular Religion
  • Biographies
  • Women and Religion

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section

  • Ecology and Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Atlantic Literature
  • Science and Technology (in Literature of the Atlantic World)
  • The Danish Atlantic World
  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Atlantic History Religion
Carla Gardina Pestana
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0047


Religion shaped the early modern Atlantic world in many ways. Although Iberian expansion began before the Protestant Reformation, Europe soon divided between Protestant and Catholic, and this division created a context for European understandings of the purpose of expansion. With permission from the pope to evangelize outside the Old World, the Spanish and the Portuguese split the extra-European world between them; Spain was responsible for most of the Americas (excluding only the area that would become Brazil), while Portugal took Brazil and Africa (as well as Asia). Soon representatives of each kingdom were at work, conquering, colonizing, and evangelizing. Protestantism, although it arrived late in the contest for colonies and trade in this New World, was central to Spanish understanding of its work; evangelizing the native peoples of the Americas would add additional souls to the church, making up for those who had been lost to the Protestant Reformation. When Protestants finally became involved in colonizing the Americas and trading with Africa, they similarly understood their role as combating the reach and influence of their Catholic rivals. If in 1600 the European presence outside of Europe was overwhelmingly Catholic, by 1700 a map of the spread of Christianity showed varied results. Spain controlled the central area of the Americas, including much of South America and the Caribbean, all of Central America, and all the southern area of North America (from Florida and New Mexico south). Portugal had Brazil, while Catholic France held Quebec to the north and selected islands in the Caribbean. The Protestant presence was predominantly British, and included eastern North America between Quebec and Florida as well as some islands in the Caribbean. The Protestant Dutch also held island colonies and a South American outpost. West Africa and West Central Africa hosted trading forts controlled by most of these European powers, from which were shipped slaves as well as trade goods. The religious rivalries of early modern Europe had been effectively exported. Every faith represented along the shores of the Atlantic prior to contact would participate in the intermixing that occurred afterward. The history of religion in the Atlantic world therefore explores the variety of traditions within that world and the effects of the circulation, transplantation, and encounter of these various faiths.

General Overviews

Broad approaches to religion in the Atlantic world remain relatively rare. A few comparative treatments (Elliott 2006, Cañizares-Esguerra 2006) take a transnational comparative approach. Thornton 2012 similarly adopts a broadly transnational and intercultural perspective. Corrigan 2017 collects essays that consider the concept of space for organizing our study of religion across the Atlantic empires. Other studies (Boxer 1978, Pestana 2009a) look at religion broadly in only one empire or in one faith tradition (Greer and Mills 2007). Brown and Tackett 2006 surveys Christianity more generally, while Mills 2011 essays the question of how the Atlantic experience challenged religious verities. Berry 2015 rather examines the religious implications of journeying across the Atlantic for British travelers.

  • Berry, Stephen R. A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

    Excellent study of the interplay between religion and the transatlantic voyage. Focus on the experience of the crossing and its impact on beliefs foregrounds the Atlantic as an ocean barrier and a highway.

  • Boxer, C. R. The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion, 1440–1770. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

    These lectures present Portuguese religious expansion on a broad scale. Like a great deal of Boxer’s work, it is Atlantic or even global in its framework, although it was produced long before Atlantic history became fashionable. Explores the church and slavery, cultural interactions, and organizational challenges.

  • Brown, Stewart J., and Timothy Tackett, eds. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol. 7, Enlightenment, Reawakening, and Revolution, 1660–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521816052

    The bulk of this volume of essays concerns European Christianity, but about a third considers regions beyond Europe, especially the Americas. The treatment of the subject is broad, and each essay is accompanied by a bibliography.

  • Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503619654

    Argues for a similar concern with demonology in the Spanish New World and in New England, in pursuit of the laudable goal of bringing the two regions into a fruitful dialogue.

  • Corrigan, John, ed. Religion, Space and the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

    Collection of essays on a wide variety of subjects, all of which adhere to the central configuration of religion and space within the Atlantic world. Organized into four sections—Maps, Distance, Design, and Identities—the volume considers British, French, and Spanish topics.

  • Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    This work is the result of decades of reading in the scholarship of the New World empires of the two powers. Despite the fact that Spain launched its colonization project a century earlier than England, Elliott attempts a broadly comparative treatment. One of the areas of comparison is the religious aspect of empire, including the establishment of institutions and approaches to the conversion of subject populations.

  • Greer, Allan, and Kenneth Mills. “A Catholic Atlantic.” In The Atlantic in Global History, 1500–2000. Edited by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Erik R. Seeman, 3–19. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

    Initial survey of a “Catholic Atlantic,” organized around the topics of the European context of the Catholic Reformation, the Catholic idea of empire and imperium (and its application in this area), and the Christianization project. Calls for additional research and discusses why a paucity of studies deals with the Atlantic in terms of religion.

  • Mills, Kenneth. “Religion in the Atlantic World.” In Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, c. 1450–c. 1850. Edited by Nicolas Canny and Philip Morgan, 433–448. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Concentrating on a series of moments, this essay considers the transformative aspects of religious encounters. Mills uses both Spanish and British cases.

  • Pestana, Carla Gardina. Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009a.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812203493

    Places British expansion into the Atlantic world in a religious context, covering 1500 to 1830, employing themes of circulation, transplantation, and negotiation.

  • Pestana, Carla Gardina. “Religion.” In The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 69–89. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009b.

    Considers religion in an Atlantic framework, limited to the British case. Organized around the topics of the transfer of institutions, the impact of the Atlantic context, and the relation of religion and politics. First edition published in 2002.

  • Thornton, John K. A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250–1820. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139021722

    Based on a class on the topic, this overview takes a broad perspective, including not only rival Europeans, but also Africans and indigenous peoples. Thornton emphasizes the creative results of the encounters common to the Atlantic experience in religion as in other areas.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.