In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Spiritual Conquest of Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Evangelization and Education
  • Frontier Missions
  • Conversion Dilemmas
  • The Word Translated
  • The Word Transformed
  • Indigenous Christians, Confessions, and Wills
  • Everyday Christian Practices
  • Indigenous Christianities In Performance
  • Censure, Discipline, and the Inquisition
  • The Public Punishment of Indigenous idolatry
  • Selected Editions of Primary Sources

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Latin American Studies The Spiritual Conquest of Latin America
David Tavárez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0219


The notion of a “spiritual conquest,” as opposed to a military conquest by Spanish forces and indigenous allies, was developed in detail in Robert Ricard’s eponymous 1933 work. While the metaphor of a “spiritual conquest” is broadly understood and used, many recent historical works eventually turned their attention to a close analysis of distinct processes and tendencies in terms of the methods, practices, and dynamics of colonial evangelization in Spanish and Portuguese America. The topical sections below address important work in this area of inquiry published in the last twenty-five years, with occasional references to earlier foundational works.

Foundational Works

The term “spiritual conquest” was occasionally employed as a description and metaphor in colonial times (see Ruiz de Montoya 1993, cited under Selected Editions of Primary Sources). Nonetheless, Robert Ricard’s 1933 seminal treatise, which reached a variety of publics after being translated into English (Ricard 1966), was the first contemporary analysis to deploy the notion of spiritual warfare and domination as a general descriptor for the various projects and methods embraced by Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians in early colonial Mexico. Decades after the publication of Ricard’s work, other important monographs focused on Franciscan ideology and millennialist tendencies (Phelan 1970) and Franciscan education enterprises (Kobayashi 1974).

  • Kobayashi, José María. La educación como conquista: Empresa franciscana en México. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1974.

    Kobayashi’s study was among the first to be devoted exclusively to the study of Franciscan missionary methods in New Spain. It addresses Franciscan approaches to catechesis and teaching, with particular attention to the emergence and development of the Colegio de Santa Cruz at Tlatelolco.

  • Phelan, John Leddy. The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

    A celebrated work that made convincing connections between the millennialist thought of theologians such as Joachim da Fiore, and the beliefs and motivations of Franciscans in the Americas. Phelan notes how influential Franciscans in New Spain believed that the mass indoctrination of native peoples in the Americas and in Asia was proof that the Age of the Holy Spirit had arrived. This age had been preceded by the Age of the Father, and the Age of the Son, two stages divided by the arrival and teachings of Jesus.

  • Ricard, Robert. The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain: 1523–1572. Translated by Lesley Byrd Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

    Ricard addresses the complexity of missionary endeavors in Central Mexico with a focus on Franciscans as demiurgic figures, but also reflects sagely on the limits and contradictory results the friars had achieved by the late 16th century. English translation of La “conquête spirituelle” du Mexique: essai sur l’apostolat et les méthodes missionnaires des ordres mendiants en Nouvelle-Espagne, de 1523–24 à 1572 (Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, 1933).

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