In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jesuits in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Overview
  • Encyclopedias, Manuals, and Historical Dictionaries
  • General Studies and Collections
  • Ethnohistory and Indigenous Agency
  • Borderlands and Frontier Missions Studies
  • Comparative Mission Studies
  • Utopias and Enlightenment
  • Ignatian Spirituality, Devotions, Sacraments, and Preaching
  • Science and Knowledge
  • Cartography and Spatial Organization
  • Visual Arts
  • Music and Dramatic Representation
  • Architecture and Urbanism
  • Daily Life, Violence, and Discipline
  • Economy
  • African Slavery
  • Demographics
  • Jesuits and Latin America’s Independence Movements
  • Expulsion, Exile, and Suppression/Restoration
  • Anti-Jesuitism and Enlightenment
  • Jesuits, Iberian Empires, and Global Networks
  • Government, Communications, and Bureaucracy
  • Colleges, Residences, and Universities
  • Biographies and Individual Jesuit Trajectories
  • Martyrdom
  • Women and Gender
  • Jesuit Writing
  • Journals and Periodicals

Latin American Studies Jesuits in Colonial Latin America
Guillermo Wilde
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0243


The Jesuits have impacted the history of colonial Latin America as have few other religious orders. Founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola and a group of companions, the Society of Jesus defined its profile from the beginning as an order devoted to apostolic activity, especially through missions, and education, which led it to promote new forms of preaching and teaching. Its expansion in the world coincides with the Catholic Counter-Reformation fostered by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), in which the Jesuits had a decisive participation. The growth and expansion of the order in Latin America was rapid and continuous. The first Jesuits arrived in Brazil in 1549, in Peru in 1568, and in Mexico in 1572, and they soon became involved in the main religious, social, economic, and political activities of each region. They founded numerous colleges and residences in the most important cities and dozens of missions, or reducciones, villages among the indigenous populations living on the so-called borderlands of the colonial domains of Spain and Portugal. The several Jesuit establishments in Latin America were territorially organized into provinces, which maintained constant and fluid communication with the headquarters of the order in Rome, where its highest authority, the superior general, resided. Demands by local governments, an increase in the number of operarios, and an expansion of the political and ecclesiastical jurisdictions led to the establishment of new Jesuit provinces in the 17th century, most especially that of Paraguay, which became one of the most famous in Latin America. Each province was staffed by both priests and coadjutor brothers (lay Jesuits who had not completed their training) from different European countries, mainly Spain, as well as Creoles and mestizos born in America. Both internally and externally, the writing of documents of different types served as a central instrument of communication and government of the various Jesuit establishments. This abundance of documents produced is why the corpus of research of the Jesuit order in Latin America is profuse.


The field of study of the Jesuit order in Latin America has grown considerably in the last fifty years. This growth is due to three important factors. First, it stems from the historiographical renewal that displaced traditional approaches of church history to evangelization, centered on the normative and institutional dimension, to an attention on cultural and spiritual practices and to subaltern actors such as indigenous peoples, women, and population of African descent. Second, the dissemination of hitherto unknown sources has revealed internal aspects of the Jesuit order´s administration and its response to local situations. Third, it stems from the displacement of national histories by regional and connected histories, which emphasize circulation and mobility in the continent and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On this point, studies on the internal bureaucracy and government of the Jesuit order in different parts of the world have become relevant. It should be noted that studies such as that of Markus Friedrich on the German province have proved highly influential in the development of studies on the organization of the order in South America. Until recently, most of the historiography of the Jesuits in Latin America was produced by members of the order themselves, and the approaches taken were limited generally to national borders. The growing interest of lay researchers has undoubtedly led to a shift in focus. A quick summary of recent historiography allows us to identify at least three trends of inquiry: (1) the more general studies on the role of the Jesuits in the expansion of the Iberian empires, among which Alden 1996, a pioneering work on the Portuguese assistance, continues to be influential. This trend has been reinforced in recent years by studies on global circulation and connections; (2) studies generically identified as Iberian borderlands studies, which provided numerous concepts for thinking about Jesuit missionary spaces, an overview of which can be found in Levin and Radding 2019; (3) studies on “Jesuit culture,” including literary, artistic, and scientific production, a line of research inaugurated in two important collections based on meetings held in the 1990s at Boston College (see the section General Studies and Collections). With few exceptions, the comparative study of the Jesuits in colonial Latin America has been insufficiently developed to date. It is possible that output in the coming years will be focused on comparative and global approaches.

  • Alden, Dauril. The Making of an Enterprise?: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond, 1540–1750. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

    One of the most influential works on the contribution of the Jesuits in building the Portuguese Empire in both Asia and the Americas.

  • Levin, Rojo Danna A., and Cynthia Radding, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Borderlands of the Iberian World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    This very important collection provides the most recent update on borderlands studies, including many studies on the Jesuit Missions of Latin America.

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