In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section South American Missions

  • Introduction
  • General or Comparative Monographs and Edited Volumes
  • Northern and Central Amazonian Frontier
  • Juan Santos Atahualpa
  • Bolivian Missions
  • Guaraní Missions
  • Brazilian Missions
  • Far Southern Frontier

Latin American Studies South American Missions
Cameron Jones
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0244


While it is certainly true that more academic studies have focused on the North American missions, in terms of their historical impact South American missions were just as important to the frontiers of Spain and Portugal’s American empires. The massive size alone of the frontier region, stretching from the upper reaches of the Amazon basin to the headwaters of the Paraná as well as stretching across the lower Southern Cone, meant numerous missionary enterprises emerged in an attempt to evangelize the peoples who inhabited these regions. While small handfuls of Dominicans, Mercedarians, and Augustinians would engage in such efforts, most missions were established by the Jesuits or Franciscans. Certainly, for the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus as they are properly known, American missions represented an extension of the Counter-Reformation for which they were created. Starting in the mid-16th century, this relatively new organization, founded in 1534, began in earnest to “reduce” the Indigenous peoples into their missions. These activities, however, abruptly ended when the Jesuits were expelled from both the Portuguese and Spanish empires in 1759 and 1767 respectfully. The much older Franciscan order had extensive experience in popular missions in Europe and was one of the first orders of regular clergy in the Americas. Franciscans, like the Jesuits, engaged in evangelizing activities throughout both North and South America from the colonial period to the present. The expulsion of the Jesuits, however, pushed them further to the forefront of missionizing efforts in the late colonial period. This acceleration of Franciscan missionary activity was aided by the establishment of the Apostolic Institute in 1682. The Institute created a pipeline of missionaries from Spain to come directly to frontier areas with funding from the crown. While this aided missionary efforts throughout South America, particularly in areas abandoned by the Jesuits, it embroiled the missionaries in the politics of the Bourbon reforms and their obsession with limited clerical power. Ultimately, while missionizing efforts continued into the Republican period, their association with the Spanish and Portuguese crowns led to widespread suppression and secularization following independence. The historiographical divide in the field tends to lie between usually older, Eurocentric histories by scholar-clerics which focus on the missionaries themselves, and newer studies carried out by more secular professional historians that examine how Indigenous populations were affected by the inherent imperialism of the missions, though exceptions abound.

General or Comparative Monographs and Edited Volumes

This section deals with books that do not necessarily fit into one geographic or thematic category. In doing so, they tend to draw conclusions that are meant to be apply more broadly. Most of these works are in English and written by North American scholars. This trend is most likely due to the tendency of scholarly publishing in Spanish to focus more on national narratives due to funding opportunities in their own countries. The exception of course is Saiz Diez 1992, whose author as well as being an established Franciscan scholar was a Spaniard who traveled widely as a result of his religious duties, and Hernández Palomo and Rodrigo Moreno 2005, whose authors, as affiliates of the Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, have a more imperial outlook due to the mandate of that particular institution. Several works draw direct comparisons between the North and South American missions such as Jackson 2005, Langer and Jackson 1988, and Radding 2006. This is logical given the greater tendency of North American scholars to have the funding opportunities to do transregional works. Similarly, most of the general or thematic histories are all North American in origin—including Langer and Jackson 1995, Rex Galindo 2017, and Weber 2005—although while Rex Galindo was trained in the United States he is from Spain and has taught in Chile. Furthermore, the diffusion of works produced in Latin America and how well they are covered in North American journals’ book reviews affects how often they appear in the historiographical debate.

  • Hernández Palomo, José Jesús, and Jeria Rodrigo Moreno. La misión y los jesuitas en la América Española, 1566–1767: Cambios y permanencias. Seville, Spain: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 2005.

    This is one of the few works that discusses missions in all of the Americas that is published in Spanish. As is prevalent in historiography on Latin America from Spain, the various chapters focus on the structural and cultural links between Spain and the Americas.

  • Jackson, Robert H. Missions and the Frontiers of Spanish America: A Comparative Study of the Impact of Environmental, Economic, Political, and Socio-Cultural Variations on the Missions in the Rio De La Plata Region and on the Northern Frontier of New Spain. Scottsdale, AZ: Pentacle Press, 2005.

    In this monograph, as the name suggests, Jackson compares the missions among the Guarani in South America with those in northern Mexico. One of this work’s important contributions is a continuation of Jackson’s work on infant mortality in the missions, which perhaps more than adult mortality led to the slow demographic collapse of the missions.

  • Langer, Erick D., and Robert H. Jackson. “Colonial and Republican Missions Compared: The Cases of Alta California and Southeastern Bolivia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30.2 (1988): 286–311.

    One of the few comparative studies after the end of the colonial period, this piece looks at the relationship between frontier missions in the 19th century and the nations where they were located, Mexico and Bolivia. Jackson and Langer argue that the missionaries set the tone for relations between these emerging republics and the native people whom they missionized.

  • Langer, Erick D., and Robert H. Jackson, eds. The New Latin American Mission History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

    This collection of essays served to highlight the emergence of ‘new mission history,’ which attempts to move away from more Eurocentric, clergy-produced histories to approaches that emphasize the stories of the native peoples in the missions. While this study does not completely abandon the examination of missionaries, it does highlight how new mission history brought balance to a mostly lopsided field.

  • Radding, Cynthia. Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

    Radding examines the “landscapes” of the Sonora desert and southeastern Bolivia (specifically among the Chiquitos people). Borrowing heavily from anthropology, this book incorporates the social and physical aspects of colonization through the concept of landscapes and shows how these landscapes were shaped by missionaries. Its use of anthropological approaches and the fact that it straddles the divide of the colonial and national periods makes it a unique study.

  • Rex Galindo, David. To Sin No More: Franciscans and Conversion in the Hispanic World, 1683–1830. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Oceanside, California: The Academy of American Franciscan History, 2017.

    Born out of a larger rebirth of Franciscan history that incorporates the methodologies of new mission history, Rex Galindo examines the Franciscan Colleges of Propaganda Fide through the Americas. He argues these colleges created a rebirth of Franciscan missionary spirit throughout the Spanish empire, but that the goal of these missionaries lay not in their desire to convert or save souls per se, but in their own desire for spiritual purity.

  • Saiz Diez, Félix. Los colegios de Propaganda Fide en Hispanoamérica. Lima, Peru: CETA, 1992.

    Typical of the works of cleric scholars, Saiz Diez’s account of the rise of the Franciscan Colleges de Propaganda Fide is mostly uncritical of the actions of the missionaries. The work, however, is a brief account that does a good job of introducing Franciscan missionary efforts in the late 17th and 18th centuries in the Americas.

  • Weber, David J. Bárbaros. Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Probably the best book currently available on the effects of the Bourbon reforms on frontier missions in Spanish America. While it focuses heavily on North American missions, it has important implications for all of the Americas.

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