Christianity has been at the center of Brazil's national identity since 1500, when a naval commander staked Portugal's claim for what would become a nation of 3.3 million square miles. The first official act of the settlers, who called the land "Island of the Holy Cross," was to celebrate Mass. For Brazil's first 400 years, the state supported the Roman Catholic Church. This tight relationship discouraged any significant Protestant initiatives.

In the mid-1600s, the Dutch invaded Northeast Brazil, bringing with them the teachings of John Calvin. From 1822 to 1889, a Portuguese monarchy ruled Brazil and permitted freedom of religion. Many Anglican and Lutheran immigrants settled in the country. The first Baptist and Presbyterian missionaries arrived late in the 19th century, planting churches in the major cities. In 1891, the first republican constitution officially declared the separation of church and state.

The 20th century began with explosive charismatic growth. The Assemblies of God planted churches in every Brazilian state within 30 years after arriving in 1910. Other Pentecostal denominations also appeared and reached many in rural areas.

The charismatic movement shifted from rural to urban population centers after World War II. The working classes still made up most of the Protestant church in the 1970s, but the growing middle class, including managers and professionals, became a major focus for Protestant evangelism and church growth. As a result, new denominations, which Brazilian theologians labeled neo-Pentecostal, began to expand.

According to the latest census of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Protestants have grown from 9 percent of the population in 1991 to 16 percent in 2001. There are 27 million evangelical and charismatic Protestants in Brazil; of those, 18.9 million (70%) are charismatics. More than half of Brazil's Protestants are women; 86 percent live in urban centers.

Of the 8.1 million non-charismatic evangelicals, the Baptist Brazilian Convention is the largest, with more than 3 million members. The Assemblies of God is the largest charismatic group, with 8.5 million members.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Inheriting the Cracked Earth | In remote Northeast Brazil, evangelicals are extending their outreach despite extreme poverty.

Previous CT articles on Brazil include:

Evangelicals Grow as Political Force in Brazil | New interest in public policy fuels election wins. (Nov. 15, 2002)
Jesus for President | A Brazilian election judge sues Jesus for early campaigning. (July 22, 2002)
Brazil's Surging Spirituality | Churches of all stripes have been growing for decades, as have the controversies and challenges facing evangelicals. (Dec. 21, 2000)
Pie-in-the-Sky Now | Two scholars argue that Pentecostalism, especially in Brazil, is not so otherworldly as many think. (Nov. 27, 2000)

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