Christian History Home > 1992 > Issue 35 > Why Did Columbus Sail?
Why Did Columbus Sail?
What your history textbooks may not have told you
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Columbus felt that Almighty God had directly brought about his journey: “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible … and he opened my will to desire to accomplish that project.… The Lord purposed that there should be something miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies.”
There may be many things we don’t know about history’s most famous mariner. We don’t know exactly what Columbus looked like. We don’t know the precise design of his three ships. And most bizarre of all, we don’t know—and will probably never know—the spot where he came ashore.
But we know beyond doubt that Columbus sailed, in part, to fulfill a religious quest. Columbus’s voyages were intense religious missions. He saw them as the fulfillment of a divine plan for his life—and for the soon-coming end of the world. As he put it in 1500, “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev. 21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it.”
Columbus was visibly and verbally “an exceptionally pious man,” writes historian Delno C. West. “Throughout his journals and letters, we find him constantly in prayer, invoking the names of Christ, Mary, and the saints and solemnly giving praise to God.”
It was typical for Spanish crewmen daily to recite the “Our Father” and other prayers. Columbus’s men did, too. But Columbus went far beyond conventional practice.
His son Ferdinand wrote, “He was so strict in matters of religion that for fasting and saying prayers he might have been taken for a member of a religious order.” He knew his Vulgate Bible thoroughly, and he probably took it (or a collection of Scriptures) on his voyages. Whenever he faced a storm, a waterspout (tornado-like whirl of seawater), or rebellious crewmen, he made vows to God. “Religion was always his first refuge in adversity,” writes Columbus scholar Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
A main source for information about Columbus is his contemporary Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas fearlessly criticized many fellow Spaniards, yet he did little but praise the mariner: “He was calm and serious, friendly to strangers, gentle and kind to his family.… In nearly everything he undertook to plan or to accomplish, he would begin with ‘In the name of the Holy Trinity I will do this or look to that.’ … He fasted most observantly on all the fast days of the church; he participated frequently in confession and Communion; he prayed at all the daily canonical hours, just as the priests and monks; … He was extremely zealous for the honor and glory of God; with deep longing he yearned for the evangelization of these peoples and for the planking and flourishing everywhere of people’s faith in Jesus Christ.”
The overwhelming evidence has led Delno C. West to conclude that Columbus “is best viewed as an ‘evangelical’ Christian—not in the modern sense of the word ‘evangelical’ but in the sense of the Catholic tradition and church of the times.”
Evangelical? In 1501 Columbus wrote, “I am only a most unworthy sinner, but ever since I have cried out for grace and mercy from the Lord, they have covered me completely. I have found the most delightful comfort in making it my whole aim in life to enjoy his marvelous presence.” He constantly associated with reform minded Franciscans and spent perhaps five months at the white-walled monastery of Santa María de La Rabida. He may have been a member of the Franciscan Third Order (for lay people). At least once he appeared in public wearing a Franciscan habit and the order’s distinctive cord.
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