The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America

From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond

328 pages

February, 2011

ISBN: 9780814740033



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John Frederick Schwaller is professor of history and president of the State University of New York, Potsdam. He is the author or editor of several books, including Origins of Church Wealth in Mexico and The Church in Colonial Latin America: A Reader.

All books by John Frederick Schwaller

One cannot understand Latin America without understanding the history of the Catholic Church in the region. Catholicism has been predominant in Latin America and it has played a definitive role in its development. It helped to spur the conquest of the New World with its emphasis on missions to the indigenous peoples, controlled many aspects of the colonial economy, and played key roles in the struggles for Independence. The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America offers a concise yet far-reaching synthesis of this institution’s role from the earliest contact between the Spanish and native tribes until the modern day, the first such historical overview available in English.

John Frederick Schwaller looks broadly at the forces which formed the Church in Latin America and which caused it to develop in the unique manner in which it did. While the Church is often characterized as monolithic, the author carefully showcases its constituent parts—often in tension with one another—as well as its economic function and its role in the political conflicts within the Latin America republics.

Organized in a chronological manner, the volume traces the changing dynamics within the Church as it moved from the period of the Reformation up through twentieth century arguments over Liberation Theology, offering a solid framework to approaching the massive literature on the Catholic Church in Latin America. Through his accessible prose, Schwaller offers a set of guideposts to lead the reader through this complex and fascinating history.


  • "Stimulating...Schwaller takes readers on an even-paced and informative journey through 500 years of Catholic history."

    —Matthew Butler, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

  • "Schwaller has produced a book that has long been needed in Latin American leaves reading [him] with vivid details rather than pre-digested summaries."

    —, Journal of Latin American Studies

  • "It is comprehensive, providing a good overview of its appreciates complexity and diversity within the Church."


  • "Schwaller provides a largely cohesive and authoritative narrative, which offers strong judgments about the church during each period under discussion, and seeks to highlight commonalities over regional differences."


  • "another fine work of synthesis that brings together more than a generation of rich scholarship in the field"

    Hispanic American Historical Review

  • “Schwaller’s book is ambitious, succinct, and well written; the author’s institutional focus is clear and the book is a good source for understanding the interplay between the Catholic religion and history during five centuries in Latin America, […] John Frederick Schwaller fearlessly and clearly champions the church’s role, hierarchy, history, and ‘divine purpose’ in Latin America.”

    H-Net Reviews

  • “What Professor Schwaller has accomplished is a rather pleasant review of the pre-Columbian civilizations—the classic Maya, the Aztec and the Inca—followed by the Iberian history of the late Middle Ages and the missionary endeavors of the early Spanish Franciscan and Dominican friars in New Spain and the vice-royalty of Peru and the Portuguese in Brazil…This is his area of specialization, and he tells the story well.”

    —Diego von Vacano, America Magazine

  • “As Latin America assumes the role of the world's most Catholic continent, it becomes all the more necessary for anyone interested in contemporary Christianity to understand its historical roots. Schwaller's well-written and thoroughly researched history serves as an excellent guide to Latin America's turbulent religious past, and its contemporary realities. This is a valuable book from a distinguished scholar.”

    —Phillip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity

  • “Schwaller captures the fundamental question of power in this heart?felt analysis of the Catholic Church in Latin America over five centuries. Both colonial and national political figures sought to instrumentalize the institutional Church while multiethnic and multiclass peoples re?imagined the faith within their own communities. How those tensions expressed themselves in time and place is the core of this contribution to the field of Latin American history.”

    —Douglass Sullivan‒González, author of Piety, Power, and Politics: Religion and Nation in Guatemala, 1821-1871

  • “Provides an essential account of the presence and influence of Catholicism in Ibero?America. From its colonial past to a future facing many challenges, the Church has a multifaceted story. Schwaller gives us the most comprehensive overview to date of a cardinal component of Latin American culture. This book will be of great interest to all fields across the social sciences and the humanities in Latin America.”

    —Diego von Vacano