Latin American Studies Protestantism in Latin America
Stephen Dove
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0087


Although Catholicism continues to be the majority religion in Latin America, Protestantism has emerged as a significant spiritual alternative throughout the region. In the early 21st century, estimated rates of Protestant adherence range from less than 10 percent in countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay to more than 25 percent in places such as Brazil, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. In Latin America’s most Protestant country, Guatemala, more than one-third of the population identifies as Protestant. Several forms of Protestantism exist in Latin America including evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, fundamentalism, and movements that many Protestants consider to be on the edge of theological orthodoxy such as Mormonism and homegrown movements such as Luz del Mundo. However, the most pervasive form of Protestantism in Latin America is Pentecostalism, a religious system that emphasizes personal interaction with the divine and physical manifestations of spirituality such as healing and speaking in tongues. The earliest evidence of Protestantism in Latin America comes from the colonial period through the Inquisition trials of alleged Protestant heretics. After the independence movements of the early 19th century, most national governments decriminalized Protestantism, and a handful of missionaries and Bible salesmen from Great Britain and the United States entered the region. However, they had very little success. In the late 19th century, US missionary organizations began opening stations throughout Latin America, and, by the turn of the 20th century, missionaries had established churches in the major urban centers of each country. Still, conversion rates remained low, and missionaries seldom made inroads with nonurban populations. Around the middle of the 20th century, three trends changed the face of Latin American Protestantism dramatically. First, missionary organizations began shifting their focus to socially marginal populations, especially indigenous people who spoke languages other than Spanish or Portuguese. Second, previously peripheral Pentecostal missions began to grow faster than other types of Protestantism, and finally, many local converts began forming independent churches and denominations that consciously separated themselves from missionary oversight. These three trends resulted in a dramatic increase in conversion rates in the late 20th century and an identity shift within Protestantism toward nationalism and away from the foreign influences of missionaries. Most of the literature on Protestantism in Latin America addresses the movement’s growth and changes in the late 20th century, with special attention paid to the social aspects of conversion and the rise of Pentecostalism.

Regional Analyses

Few scholars have attempted to analyze Latin American Protestantism on a continental level, and most of those who do readily acknowledge that the internal diversity of the movement makes this task difficult. Stoll 1990 and Martin 1990 are two of the most influential regional studies of Protestantism, and these publications drew significant attention to the topic from both scholars and the public. Both focus on demographic growth and large-scale processes that influence Protestant conversions. Bastian 1997 also focuses on demography and provides a detailed sociological explanation for Protestant growth. Míguez Bonino 1997 is written from an insider’s perspective and turns the conversation away from demography and toward describing the diversity within Protestantism. Piedra 2000 is also written from within Latin America and looks beyond demographic descriptions. This book focuses on the intellectual history of Latin American Protestantism, a project taken up in even more detail in Mondragón 2010, which provides the first regional analysis of Protestant social thought as a single unit. Freston 2001 and Chesnut 2003 both apply regional analyses of Protestantism to even larger projects. Freston 2001 situates Protestant demographic growth and increasing political involvement in a global context by comparing Latin America to Africa and Asia. Chesnut 2003 stays within Latin America, but the author explains Protestant growth in terms of its relationship to other religions in the region.

  • Bastian, Jean Pierre. La mutación religiosa de América Latina: Para una sociología del cambio social en la modernidad periférica. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.

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    Comprehensive work by the most prolific sociologist of Latin American Protestantism. Uses demographic data and case studies to explain the relationship of Protestantism to large social structures. Unlike most recent studies, argues that Protestantism reproduces hierarchical forms of social organization that channel involvement through interest groups rather than individuals.

  • Chesnut, R. Andrew. Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Using an economic framework, the author examines the development of religious pluralism in 20th-century Latin America and explains how three new options—Pentecostalism, Charismatic Catholicism, and African-derived religions—have managed to challenge Catholicism by attracting new converts. Sets Protestantism in a larger socioreligious context.

  • Freston, Paul. Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511487705Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Country-by-country comparative study of Protestant political involvement in the developing world. Establishes a basic framework for understanding how Protestantism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shares certain characteristics while also drawing attention to the differences in each country and region. Excellent undergraduate resource.

  • Martin, David. Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. Cambridge, MA: B. Blackwell, 1990.

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    One of the most geographically thorough analyses of the movement. Argues that the voluntary ethos of Protestantism introduced by missionaries combined with the local social changes of economic development in the 20th century to break the Catholic monopoly in Latin America. Differs from most works by focusing on macro-processes rather than individual actors.

  • Míguez Bonino, José. Faces of Latin American Protestantism: 1993 Carnahan Lectures. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997.

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    Originally published in Spanish in 1995. Identifies and discusses the diversity within Latin American Protestantism in four parts: mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and ethnic immigration. Argues that these four “faces” operate as overlapping influences rather than competing forms of Protestantism.

  • Mondragón, Carlos. Like Leaven in the Dough: Protestant Social Thought in Latin America, 1920–1950. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010.

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    Analyzes the writings of leading Protestant leaders from the first half of the 20th century. The author argues that local Protestants and missionaries contributed to Latin American intellectual history in areas such as justice and national identity. Challenges assumptions about Protestantism as a tool of US cultural imperialism.

  • Piedra, Arturo. Evangelización protestante en América Latina: Análisis de las razones que justificaron y promovieron la expansión protestante, 1830–1960. 2 vols. 2d ed. Quito, Ecuador: Consejo Latinoamericano de Iglesias, 2000.

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    A Latin American perspective on the history of North American and European Protestant missionary activity in the region. Analyzes missionary roots in secular ideologies such as pan-Americanism and US imperialism as well as in Protestant theologies such as Biblicism and social reform.

  • Stoll, David. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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    Influential study that was responsible for drawing scholarly and popular attention to the demographic growth of the movement. Argues that Protestantism resonated with the poor more than Liberation Theology did. Makes strong connections between US evangelicalism and Latin American Protestantism that have been challenged by later works.

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