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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Historiography and Bibliography
  • Journals
  • Atlantic Continuities
  • Sociology of the Mission
  • Missions and Knowledge
  • Economy and Political Thought
  • Mediation and Colonial Interaction
  • Gender and Missions
  • African Missions
  • Missionaries and Slaves
  • Missions and American Frontiers
  • Iberian America
  • North America
  • European Missions

Atlantic History Missionaries
Aliocha Maldavsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0123


In the early modern Atlantic world, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the main agents of Amerindians, Africans, and Afroamericans’ conversion to Christianity and European civilization. They simultaneously attended to the revitalization of European religion on both sides of the Atlantic from the 16th century on during the Catholic Reformation and later during the 18th century’s Protestant “great awakening.” In 16th-century Central and South America, missionary history was first the history of the Iberian Militant Church, which argued for the justification of the conquest of the Americas. In early-17th-century North America and the Caribbean Islands, the French set up a scheme to convert their Amerindian allies to Christianity, while some English and Dutch ministers worked with mixed results on the conversion of their own allies. On the Catholic side, both in Europe and in America, the religious orders—members of the Mendicant tradition and the Jesuits—provided the main missionaries whose missions gained royal support; later in the 17th century they were relayed by the secular clerics. On the Protestant side, the missions were led in America by individuals who fought the reluctance of the civil authorities. In Europe, the Church of England worked hand in hand with the Crown to tame the “wild Scot and Irish,” and the Lutheran missions, founded by absolute rulers, overtook the Scandinavian countries. In Africa both confessions, Catholics and Protestants, used conversion to Christianity to legitimize the slave trade. And women everywhere played key roles as missionaries, benefactors, or missionized. Most of the time, the missionaries were the first to establish contact with indigenous peoples, whose traits and characteristics they extensively researched in order to convert them more easily and to give a European frame and grammar to their languages. The extensive documentation—letters, “relations,” linguistic works, and so forth—is often the only information left to historians and ethnohistorians to better understand the diverse type of encounters. A bibliography of the missionary phenomena is thus polyglot, not only because of the large linguistic diversity of actors and primary sources but also because of the worldwide academic research. One can say that the globalization of European colonial expansion in the 1500–1900 Atlantic world mirrors the universalism of the Christian church. Historical interest for global, Atlantic, and local scales gives a particular relevance to the study of international institutions, such as religious orders. Early-21st-century research stresses reciprocal influences and colonial interaction at a local level as well as missionaries’ contribution to the formation of Western knowledge in early modern times and continuities on both sides of the Atlantic.

General Overviews

For a general overview on religious contexts in both sides of the Atlantic, see the Oxford Bibliographies Online articles Religion, Catholicism, Protestantism, African Religion and Culture, and Evangelicalism and Conversion. European Atlantic powers and their missionaries’ diversity imply a fragmented synthetic historical literature. Boschi 1998 and Guimarães Sá 2007 are two approaches on the lusophone world in and beyond the Atlantic. Gould 2005 and Porter 2005 give updated reflections about missions in the British Empire from the 17th to the 19th centuries. González and González 2008 summarizes the Latin American context, whereas Deslandres 1997 is a comprehensive account of the entire continent. Gagliano and Ronan 1997 and Marzal 2007 deal more specifically with Jesuit missionary activities and show the different orientations of early-21st-century historiography.

  • Boschi, Caio. “As missões no Brasil. ” In História da Expansão Portuguesa. Vol. 2. Edited by Francisco Bethencourt and Kirti N. Chaudhuri, 388–418. Lisbon, Portugal: Círculo de Leitores, 1998.

    A synthetic article about missions in the context of the Portuguese expansion to Africa, America, and Asia. It does not escape from the historiographical paradigm of domination and resistance to evangelization. See also “As missões na África e no Oriente” in the same volume.

  • Deslandres, Dominique. “Le christianisme dans les Amériques.” In Histoire du Christianisme. Vol. 9, L’âge de raison (1620–1750). Edited by Jean-Marie Mayeur, Charles Pietri, Luce Pietri, André Vauchez, and Marc Venard, 615–736. Paris: Desclée de Brower, 1997.

    Iberian, French, and English American state of Christianity in America—that is, the colonist churches and missionary scenes—are studied in their institutional Christian framework, with a specific account of the policies of conversion of deported Africans in America and their beliefs. Rich bibliography up to 1997.

  • Gagliano, Joseph A., and Charles E. Ronan, eds. Jesuit Encounters in the New World: Jesuit Chroniclers, Geographers, Educators, and Missionaries in the Americas, 1549–1767. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1997.

    This set of articles deals with activities of the Jesuits in the entire American continent. Educational policy toward the local elites, problems of missionary vocation, the production of knowledge, and the study of indigenous adaptation to the missionary institutions are the main issues studied.

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

    A textbook about the church in Latin America. Five chapters about the first three centuries.

  • Gould, Eliga H. “Prelude: The Christianizing of British America.” In Missions and Empire. Edited by Norman Etherington, 19–39. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Brief and suggestive chapter on early British America that takes into account 21st-century historiographical developments.

  • Guimarães Sá, Isabel dos. “Ecclesiastical Structures and Religious Action.” In Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800. Edited by Francisco Bethencourt and Diogo Ramada Curto, 255–282. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Synthetic article about the church in the early modern Portuguese world. Updated bibliography and historiographical developments.

  • Marzal, Manuel, ed. Los jesuitas y la modernidad en Iberoamérica. Lima, Peru: Fondo Editorial de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú Universidad del Pacífico and Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos, 2007.

    This huge collection of thirty-nine essays is a combination paper and electronic publication (a book and a mini-CD), providing an extensive bibliography on Jesuits in colonial Peru. It deals with the multifaceted interaction between the Jesuits and Iberoamerican societies, with one section especially devoted to the expulsion.

  • Porter, Andrew. “An Overview, 1700–1914.” In Missions and Empire. Edited by Norman Etherington, 40–63. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Synthesizes the relationship between missions and political power in the British Empire.

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