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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Catholic Reformation in Spain, France, and Portugal
  • Catholicism in England
  • The Institutional Church in the Americas
  • The Inquisition in Spain and Portugal
  • The Inquisition in the Americas
  • The Evangelization of the Americas
  • The Eighteenth-Century Church
  • Popular Catholicism
  • Africans and Catholicism

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Atlantic History Catholicism
Allyson M. Poska
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0078


The Roman Catholic Church was the single largest institution of the early modern Atlantic world. Its reach extended from the Low Countries to West Africa on one side of the Atlantic and from Tierra del Fuego to the Hudson Bay on the other. Its parishes delineated the landscape, and its rituals marked the life cycles of millions of people. The early modern period was a time of extensive change for the Catholic Church. Responding to both internal and external criticisms, the church engaged in a process of institutional reform and clarification of the basic tenets of the faith. As a part of the Catholic Reformation, bishops worked to bring uniformity of belief and practice to their parishioners, and inquisitors struggled to root out heresy. Religious orders, both old and new, revived the faith of European populations and evangelized to the native peoples of Africa and the Americas. In fact the establishment of the Catholic Church in the Americas brought new challenges for both clerics and their racially and culturally diverse parishioners. Whether in compliance with or in opposition to it, Catholicism engaged nearly all the peoples of the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

Although no single work deals with all aspects of early modern Catholicism, there are a few basic introductions to different aspects of its history. Hsia 1998 takes the reader through a history of the early modern church with only a brief foray into the Atlantic world. O’Malley 2013 details the workings of the Council of Trent. Wiesner-Hanks 2000, a survey of sexuality and religion, devotes much more space to the world outside of Europe. The essays in Schwaller 2000 provide a good introduction to some of the key issues for the church in colonial Latin America, while the essays in Lippy, et al. 1992 discuss the Catholic Church in both Spanish and French America. Little has been written on Catholics in British America, but Noll 1992 helps place Catholicism in a broader American religious context. Finally, Armstrong 2007 provides an overview of the literature in Europe and the Americas and considers how scholars might study the Catholic Church transatlantically.

  • Armstrong, Megan. “Transatlantic Catholicism: Rethinking the Nature of the Catholic Tradition in the Early Modern Period.” History Compass 5.6 (2007): 1942–1966.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00483.x

    Overview of the state of Catholic studies on both sides of the Atlantic with an eye toward transatlantic work. Good recent bibliography.

  • Hsia, R. Po-chia The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    A clear introduction to the early modern Catholic Church, its debates, and its reformers across national boundaries. Includes a chapter on the Catholic Church in the Iberian empires.

  • Lippy, Charles H., Robert Choquette, and Stafford Poole. Christianity Comes to the Americas, 1492–1776. New York: Paragon House, 1992.

    Aimed at a general audience, the book includes separate discussions of the expansion of Catholicism in Spanish, Portuguese, and French America.

  • Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

    This textbook places the Catholic Church in North America in a broader context. Reprinted in 2000 and 2003.

  • O’Malley, John W. Trent: What Happened at the Council. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

    A detailed introduction to the Council of Trent.

  • Schwaller, John F., ed. The Church in Colonial Latin America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

    This collection for classroom use provides an introduction to the evangelization of the Americas and the formation of the colonial church.

  • Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Focused on sexuality issues; Wiesner-Hanks’s synthesis is useful for comparative work as it includes sections on both Protestant and Catholic traditions in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

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