The Evangelical Groundswell in Latin America

by Guillermo Cook

Guillermo Cook has lived for many years in Costa Rica. Argentine born, he is affiliated with the Latin American Mission and serves as associate general secretary of the Latin American Theological Fraternity.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 12, 1990, pps. 1172-1179. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Cook reviews three books which concern Latin American Protestantism, analyzing its recent explosive growth. Grand patterns in religious movements as well as grass roots phenomena are discussed. However, evangelicals cannot be neatly labeled. One emphasis in these articles is that Evangelicals’ emphasis on the family makes for stability and growth.


Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. By David Martin. Blackwell, 352 pp., $29.95.

Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. By David Stoll. University of California Press, 399 pp., $24.95.

Crisis in Latin America: An Evangelical Perspective. By Emilio A. Núñez C. and William D. Taylor. Moody Press, 439 pp., $19.95.


These three books share a common interest in Latin American Protestantism. The first two analyze its recent explosive growth, though from quite different perspectives. David Martin, the British author of A General Theory of Secularization, sets out to demonstrate grand patterns in religious movements, with a functionalist’s passion for social equilibrium. David Stoll, a graduate student in anthropology and the author of a critical study of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, focuses more specifically on grass-roots religious phenomena and presents a structuralist’s critique. Martin devotes less space to Central America—a principal focus of Stoll’s study—than to the larger nations in the region. While Martin centers more specifically on Pentecostalism, Stoll’s concern is the entire evangelical movement. Martin’s main sources are the enormous pool of available research on Latin American religious phenomena, while Stoll’s study relies to a great extent on his own field research and on unpublished documents. Martin’s approach is deductive, Stoll’s more inductive. Yet despite their different approaches, their conclusions come close at one key point (a point further explored by Emilio Núñez and William Taylor): the latent capacity for critical social awareness that resides in Latin American Protestantism.

For Martin, the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America is a logical extension of the centuries-old clash of two imperial visions, the result of which are the Hispanic and English civilizations. Today’s heirs of the Roman hierarchical tradition are confronted again—successfully, Martin believes—by Anglo-style voluntarism with its legacy of popular dissent. Meanwhile, an authoritarian Catholic Church finds it increasingly difficult to compete with egalitarian social ideals and with the wide variety of choices Protestantism offers. It has attempted three defensive strategies with ambiguous results: 1) church-state alignment and religious intolerance, 2) political alignments and indoctrination (Catholic Action and Christian Democracy), and 3) liberation theology and the base communities.

In his introductory chapters Martin traces through Northern Europe and North and South America the three over lapping waves of Protestant cultural revolution—Puritanism, Methodism (the Evangelical Revival) and Pentecostalism. These movements have arisen more or less at the periphery of the establishment. Surveying Latin America in four brief chapters, Martin argues for the role of early Methodism as a paradigm for understanding the social function of Pentecostalism as it takes root in Latin countries. He then discusses the social and religious implications of Pentecostal "reformations": spiritual communications (tongues and healings—vehicles of liberation within an oral tradition), conversions (personal and familial), and evolving attitudes toward economic and political involvement.

In Europe voluntarism stagnated and died, but it flowered in North America. The growth of Protestantism in Latin America is in part a function of the powerful and religiously motivated presence of the United States, Britain’s imperial successor. The author calls this the "Americanization of Latin American religion"—a fact which, he rightly points out, is resented by many Latin Americans. The other side of the coin is the creative "Latinamericanization of American religion." The role and potential of Pentecostalism is a function of both its past and present roots. Its origins lie in a differentiated society, where religion operated primarily at the level of culture. As it became rooted in a nondifferentiated world where voluntarism threatens the entire social order, Pentecostalism has had to adapt. While it allows for a variety of options ad intra, it guards itself from a hostile environment by a non-Methodist passivity and acceptance of the status quo.

Yet, says Martin, the transformational potential of the Pentecostal "social strike from society" (vs. the Marxist "strike against society") should not be underestimated. As they increase in numbers and maturity Pentecostals will become more secure and perhaps more aware of their social responsibilities. The author points out (as does Stoll) that while "sophisticated" Protestants may be more concerned about the poor, grass-roots Pentecostals are more successful with the poor. He reminds us that many of the ideals—women’s rights, world peace, rejection of capital punishment—that "radical" groups espouse today were incubated within the closed confines of religious sects" like the Bohemian Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, and Swedenborgians. These observations merit serious consideration.

Nonetheless there is a serious flaw in Martin’s methodology. Broadly generalized models of history, à la Spengler or Toynbee, inevitably run into contradictions. Such is the case here. To paint the English and Iberian worldviews in such black-and-white colors smacks of the same sort of cultural imperialism the author decries. And as Martin himself admits, "voluntarism" has also been coercive, as has been the case with U.S. dealings with oppressed peoples in Latin America and even within its own borders. Further, his model is too pat. Voluntarism is not an Anglo monopoly. The underside of Roman Catholic history is peppered with seditious sects that appeared long before the Protestant Reformation. The most recent instance of Hispanic voluntarism is the Catholic base communities—which the author mentions only once, and in a patronizing way. To dismiss them, as he does, as "incipiently Protestant . . . instruments" of the Catholic Church which also "threaten its structure" is to miss the point entirely. The base communities also present a serious challenge to Protestant authoritarianism and are a threat to U.S. hegemony. At times Martin gives the impression of trying to shoehorn diverse religious experiences—and the complexity of Latin America, the English Caribbean, South Korea and South Africa—into one neat package.

Martin’s approach to social conflict is typical of a functionalist analysis: systemic ills are seen more as dysfunctions to be decried and restored to proper balance than as fundamental ills to be redressed. This may explain why a pivotal event such as the 1932 peasant insurgency in El Salvador is mentioned only as it affected the Pentecostal churches’ "prosperity." He takes a similar approach to the "electronic church." In like manner, in discussing Protestant growth in Guatemala, he makes only passing reference to Protestant political polarization and to the endemic violence there. Again, in describing socioeconomic changes affecting Ecuadoran Quechuas as a result of Protestant missions, Martin barely alludes to Catholic Bishop Leonidas Proaño’s hardwon agrarian reform which made the changes possible. Neither does he mention the ambiguous role of North American missions and relief agencies such as World Vision, which Stoll discusses in some detail.

Martin’s overreliance on the research of others and on interviews with North American personnel has left him open to glaring factual errors and unfortunate omissions. The Latin American Mission, to which he attributes certain actions in Guatemala, does not even operate in that country. His information on dissident religious movements is incomplete and on occasion incorrect and simplistic. For example, he falsely ties the Confraternidad Evangélica of Guatemala to the guerrillas. To claim such a relationship is irresponsible, because it imperils lives. And at least at one point his logic fails him: the reversal from the highly mediated hierarchical church to a nonmediated Pentecostal "cell" requires, he says, the "unequivocal leadership" of a pastor, of "folds and safe enclosures." Are pastors and folds not mediations? Throughout Latin America, certain Protestant ministries are becoming, to quote a Spanish saying, "more popish that the pope." All of this notwithstanding, I suspect that Martin’s basic conclusion regarding the transformational potential in Pentecostalism may turn out to be entirely valid.

David Stoll challenges the fundamentalist stereotypes of both the left and the right. Though an avowed nonbeliever, he has a keen understanding of the Protestant evangelical ethos. A longtime supporter of justice causes, he can be as critical of liberation theology and of liberal stereotypes as of the shibboleths of the religious right. And lest conservatives take too much comfort in his predictions about Protestant ascendancy in Latin America, he suggests that the evangelicalism that is on the horizon may become more socially involved than its present image would indicate. He handles his topic with a good ear for the apt statement and with tongue-in-cheek irony, though at times he lapses into glibness.

Stoll has two objectives. First, he says, "for readers alarmed by evangelical growth, I want to provide a sense of its open-ended nature." Evangelicalism, he insists, "is a generator of social change whose direction is not predestined." To blame this growth on right-wing religious groups and U.S. imperialism—as many do—implies, he says, a profound distrust of the poor and of their ability to "turn an imported religion to their own purposes."

When he began his research, Stoll suspected that the conspiracy theory as the explanation of Protestant growth was exaggerated. The Iran-contra scandal disabused him. His second objective speaks to this issue. "For evangelicals, I wish to dramatize the danger of allowing their missions to be harnessed to United States militarism by the religious right." Accordingly, the initial chapters of Stoll’s work deal with the invasion of the sects and with the Catholic Church’s approaches to the various threats to its ancient hegemony—the Protestant onslaught in particular.

Stoll devotes almost half the book to a carefully nuanced discussion of the ideology, activities and historical context of the Protestant movements that have settled in Latin America, right up to the coming of the religious right. His typologies are helpful in untangling a complex maze of interrelationships. In three of his chapters he presents case studies of Protestantism in Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua) and Ecuador (the role of World Vision). His conclusion—a reinterpretation of "the invasion of the sects as an Evangelical Awakening"—is bound to raise hackles on both sides of the issue. It is here that Stoll states the questions that have dogged him throughout his research: "Why should a religion which appears to work against the interests of the people help them in their struggle for survival?" Why is conservative Protestantism more successful at attracting the masses than a theology that is so explicitly concerned for the liberation of the masses?

Stoll argues that the impressive Protestant growth, with allowances made for the "revolving door effect," cannot be ascribed entirely to the right-wing sects. The reasons are more complex. He hints strongly that the growing conservatism of Rome may be partly to blame, as Catholics find less and less room in their church for freedom of the spirit. Stoll further insists that "evangelicals provided an ideology, not just of political resignation, as so often noted, but of personal improvement." Indeed, evangelical conversion may have become for the masses a more peaceful outlet for revolutionary fervor than the political message of liberation. While liberation theology has raised people’s consciousness, it has also raised expectations beyond its proponents’ capacity to deliver. Meanwhile, Pentecostal churches and Protestant relief agencies are delivering more immediate material results without setting off unmanageable class and ethnic confrontations. Tactical errors by the insurgents in Guatemala during José Efraín Ríos Montt’s rule drove into the arms of right-wing churches entire Mayan villages that had first sought guerrilla protection from the army.

Stoll’s analysis is given more weight by a study recently issued by CEDI, a Brazilian ecumenical documentation and information center, which found that Catholic base community members in that country are joining Pentecostal churches in large numbers. Pentecostalism, the refuge of the masses? Perhaps, but Stoll hints that these new converts may not have entirely forsaken their radical awareness—and as Protestant growth collides with increasing impoverishment, more opportunities for radicalization arise. The gospel, defined "in terms of social justice as well as personal salvation, has the potential to appeal to the millions of evangelicals whose economic position is deteriorating." Indeed, grassroots Protestant congregations, says Stoll, may be going through the same process of awareness-raising as did the Catholic base communities in the ‘50s.

There are things to quarrel with in Stoll’s book. In dealing with Nicaragua, for example, he gives the same weight to all his sources, apparently without exercising "ideological suspicion." He strives to achieve objectivity by balancing off the consistent brutality of the right with the occasional excesses of the left. Moreover, his faith in the power of "enlightened self-interest" to transform individualistic autocrats into democrats has little substance. To his credit, Stoll acknowledges that he has spent less time studying radical Christian movements than he has conservative Christianity. His case for the existence of a more "open-ended" evangelicalism would have been stronger had he studied the scores of struggling grass-roots agencies that model themselves on the Radical Reformation. While he devotes more space to the Catholic base communities than does Martin, he is seemingly unaware of their influence on grass-roots Protestantism; nor does he understand their symbiotic relationship to liberation theology. As a telling instance of his misinformation, he calls the Catholic base communities "ecclesiastical"—i.e., institutional—rather than ecclesial—i.e., churchly in nature despite contrary ecclesiastical strictures.

Stoll’s comment that "liberation theology may be better at filling faculties, bookshelves, and graves than churches" no doubt will be celebrated by the enemies of that movement. But it is both callow and unfair, implying that this theology is primarily academic and elitist (though he may be partly right if he is referring primarily to a handful of dilettantish Protestants). If liberation theology were merely a classroom exercise, it would be no threat to the powers of church and state. Graves have been filled wherever downtrodden people have cried "Enough!" Liberation theology is more a product of this outcry than its cause. And because "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," there is also an underground evangelical church that is growing quantitatively. Neither Stoll nor Martin seems to be aware of this fact. To be sure, the numerical growth of Latin American Protestantism also builds upon the sacrifice of some early martyrs at the hands of Roman Catholics—an ugly chapter in Latin American history which could repeat itself in some fanatical enclaves.

Not all growth, however, should be celebrated. Nor is numerical success, as both Martin and Stoll seem to imply, the only criterion for assessing the impact of Protestantism on Latin American society. Ecclesiastical "poaching," the "revolving door effect," raises questions about the extent of that growth. There are also theological grounds for questioning numerical increase which is built upon a distorted understanding of the kingdom of God. The alarming growth of heretical "sects" (a term I use cautiously) also concerns responsible evangelicals. Indeed, rapid, superficial growth may backfire. In Costa Rica there is reliable evidence of recent retrenchment following a period of growth, with defections even to Catholicism.

My objections notwithstanding, I find a number of Stoll’s conclusions to be substantially correct. Let me mention a few. Liberal institutions, stuck in their ivory towers, largely overlook the fact that the churches they lionize in Latin America—Protestant congregations that express their solidarity with the poor—are mainly evangelical in theology. It is not without significance that Stoll has found most of his cases of evangelical participation in social transformation in regions such as Central America, the Andean republics, Brazil and Chile, where conservative churches are strong, and not in those countries where liberal denominations are active.

Stoll makes reference to "the immense social power in those praying masses of believers." As early as 1980, Brazilian Marxist sociologist Carlos Rodrigues-Brandao, after in-depth field research,

pointed out (in Os Deuses do Povoß, or "The Gods of the People") the latent revolutionary potential in "small sect" Pentecostalism. This movement of "the poor of the earth," he suggested, was perhaps better prepared than the Catholic base communities to confront the evils of society because Pentecostals see themselves as engaged in a holy war, and are buoyed by a hope of "a final struggle that will recreate a social order." When Pentecostals become more politically aware, they can become a potent force for change. "Their active belief in supernatural forces is not escapism, but a source of hope in their struggle to change their environment." Brandao argues cogently that popular religion, of whatever kind, is not an apolitical phenomenon. "In its own way, it is a grassroots struggle to regain a degree of freedom from the domination of more structured religious forms."

On the basis of both firsthand observation and reputable sociological studies, Stoll, along with Martin, has found little evidence of upward social mobility among the rank and file of grass-roots evangelicalism. Whatever upward pull there may have been in the past is being canceled out by Protestant inroads among the impoverished masses. Quoting Lalive d’Epinay’s groundbreaking study of Chilean Pentecostalism, Stoll notes that the locus of Protestant growth and social involvement is the family, whereas Marxism focuses on the workplace. To the extent that the base communities fit into the latter model, this insight may explain a fact that has long troubled me: the short "shelf-life" of the base communities, compared to the continuity and numerical growth of Protestant congregations. When they seem to achieve the goals of their struggle, or when the issues become fuzzy during periods of political "distention" and "democratization," the base communities often experience a crisis of identity. On the other hand, the family orientation of evangelical churches makes for long-term stability and provides linkages for growth throughout extended family networks. I have written elsewhere on the Catholic base communities as the hope of the church. What I could not foresee is that the major beneficiaries of their vision of social transformation may turn out to be grass-roots Protestant churches and a new breed of ecumenical base communities. Their apologists have always insisted that the base communities were expendable: they should die and be resurrected as a new church of the poor. Is it conceivable that Pentecostal congregations will become a part of this new church, working toward the transformation of Latin America? Stoll asks, "Could the surprising evangelical groundswell affect the course of events in Latin America?" It is too early to make a definitive judgment.

Both Stoll and Martin are fairly bullish on evangelicalism/Pentecostalism. But the movement’s potential for social transformation will be achieved to the degree in which it allows itself to be leavened by base-church values. There are faint signs of hope throughout evangelicalism. A recent consultation convened by an institution hostile to liberation theology produced a document that expressed appreciation for the challenge of this movement to the evangelical faith.

The third book of our list is further evidence that evangelicals cannot be neatly labeled. Emilio Núñez, a Salvadoran theologian and the author of a book on liberation theology, and William Taylor, the son of missionaries, moved in conservative evangelical circles. Read with these facts in mind, their work may come as a surprise. It has already merited them criticism from the ultraconservative wing of their own constituency because of their irenic approach to liberation theology and their concern for justice issues. The book is, in fact, two treatises with an introduction and a conclusion. The authors evidence a degree of difference in their perspectives, perhaps because of their different national origins.

Part one is a mildly analytical description by Taylor of the social religious dimensions of the crisis in Latin America. Núñez devotes part two to a discussion of crucial issues that Latin American evangelicals must face. After a brief look at the "Hispano-American" religious ethos, he deals critically and sympathetically with postconciliar Catholicism’s search for renewal—liberation theology and the charismatic movement—and its resistance to change. He further addresses, theologically and historically, the growing evangelical search for gospel contextualization and the movement’s gradual awakening to social responsibility.

In a concluding essay, Taylor pleads for "a complete and integrated gospel that deals with the fundamental alienation of man from God, an alienation that splinters all the relationships man sustains: those to God, to himself and to others." Within the Latin American Theological Fraternity, to which Núñez, Taylor and I belong, most members would probably agree with the substance of this book. Others could wish that the authors had been more daring in their analysis. But that is just the point. Evangelicalism spans a wide spectrum. We are united primarily by our unswerving belief in the authority and transforming power of Scripture. Despite our differences, it is this fact that makes evangelicalism a social and religious force to be reckoned with in Latin America.