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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Theologies of Colonization
  • Sephardi Jews and Colonization

Atlantic History Religion and Colonization
Susanne Lachenicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0311


For the process of European expansion and the colonial endeavors from the late 15th century to the 19th, historians of the Atlantic world have more often than not identified the imperial states as the most powerful players: the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English (later British). From these empires’ perspectives, colonization was also about converting the “heathen” to, first, Catholicism, and then, with the Reformation and the rise of different varieties of Protestantism, to other denominations as well. Colonization in the early modern period was as much about religious missions, about “the harvest of souls,” as it was about expanding territorial boundaries and economic resources (Lachenicht, et al. 2016, cited under General Overviews). What Lauric Henneton has dubbed the “spiritual geopolitics” of the Atlantic world (Henneton 2014, cited under Puritan Colonization Schemes) is an important feature in the conquest and colonization of the Atlantic world. While Catholic and Protestant institutions supported the imperial powers’ colonization schemes, the former had agendas of their own, which at times clashed with more worldly colonization schemes. Among the most powerful of these religious enterprises, we find next to the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Capuchins a number of Protestant churches and communities. This is especially true for the later 17th and 18th centuries with so-called evangelical Protestantisms: Quakers, Halle Pietists, Moravians, and others. Many of these religious orders and communities had not only Atlantic but global networks that stretched from European to African, American, and Asian worlds—in the 19th century also to areas within the Pacific including Australia and New Zealand. In the early modern period, many religious minorities were heavily persecuted for their faith. Forced to migrate, a number of imperial states decided to “make use” of these religious minorities to populate their overseas colonies, to strengthen their might and prosperity. Tolerance, then, was about “suffering” the “religious other”—and about utilitarian motives that included colonization schemes (Lachenicht 2017, cited under General Overviews). Not only Sephardi Jews but also Huguenots, Quakers, Moravians, and others became—as Jonathan Israel has put it for Sephardi Jews—“agents and victims of empire” (Israel 2002, cited under Sephardi Jews and Colonization).

General Overviews

While very few studies deal with the topic of religion and colonization in a holistic or comprehensive perspective (Muldoon 2004), more recent research has emphasized the role of religion and theology in Atlantic colonization schemes and imperial politics at large, be it for the British Empire (Armitage 2000; Noll, et al. 1994; Pestana 2009), the Spanish (González and González 2008, Wade 2008), or the Dutch (Zijlstra 2014). Some edited volumes and articles on early modern diasporas, such as Lachenicht, et al. 2016, also draw on the role of persecuted religious minorities for empire-building in the Atlantic world, emphasizing their internal and external networks (Freist and Lachenicht 2016) or utilitarian motives for refugee accommodation (Lachenicht 2017).

  • Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511755965

    This monograph describes the foundations of the first British Empire and its colonization schemes, which were—among others—staunchly Protestant.

  • Freist, Dagmar, and Susanne Lachenicht, eds. Connecting Worlds and People: Early Modern Diasporas. London: Routledge, 2016.

    This collection of essays looks into early modern religious minorities’ internal and external networks and how these shaped these communities, commerce and trade, and empire-building.

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

    Introduction to the missionary efforts of the Catholic church in Latin America.

  • Lachenicht, Susanne. “Refugees and Refugee Protection in the Early Modern Period.” In Special Issue: History of Refugee Protection. Edited by J. Olaf Kleist. Journal of Refugee Studies 30.2 (2017): 261–281.

    This article looks into early modern states’ motives behind the settlement of religious minorities and negotiation practices of the latter in a European and Atlantic perspective.

  • Lachenicht, Susanne, Lauric Henneton, and Yann Lignereux, eds. Special Issue: The Spiritual Geopolitics in the Early Modern World. Itinerario 40.2 (2016).

    This collection of essays links imperial, economic, and religious history—with a special focus on Atlantic history—to explore the multifaceted connections between religion and colonization.

  • Muldoon, James, ed. The Spiritual Conquest of the Americas. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004.

    Places the conquest and colonization of the Americas in the context of Catholic and Protestant ideas of and practices for the conversion of the “heathen.”

  • 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 America Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Draws on Protestant evangelical endeavors to missionize North America.

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

    Emphasizes the role of Protestantism in the colonial ventures of the first British Empire.

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

    Overview of the Catholic missions in New Spain, that is, Florida, California, and northern Mexico.

  • Zijlstra, Suze. “Competing for European Settlers: Local Loyalties of Colonial Governments in Suriname and Jamaica, 1660–1680.” Journal of Early American History 4 (2014): 149–166.

    DOI: 10.1163/18770703-00402005

    Looks into Dutch and British endeavors to find settlers for their Atlantic colonies.

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