The First Mexican Protestant Loved the Bible
For centuries, the Catholic church was the only religious presence in the Spanish colonies. In the British colonies, which soon became the United States, Protestant leaders prioritized evangelizing settlers, assuming their work would prove futile among Mexicans. In fact, it took nearly 100 years after the founding of the US for Protestantism to gain its first convert and a foothold in what is now New Mexico. As the 19th-century Methodist missionary Thomas Harwood explained:
New Mexico should have credit for commencing the [Mexican Protestant] Missionary work first of any other. Let us recapitulate … The first [Protestant] sermon ever preached in Spanish, especially in North or South America, was in New Mexico. The first baptism was in New Mexico. The first Methodist church building ever erected in the Spanish work was in New Mexico. The first martyr was in New Mexico. The first Mexican [Protestant] convert, Don. Ambrosio Gonzales, was in New Mexico.
While few details are known about the life of Ambrosio Gonzales, Harwood knew him personally. His two-volume History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions, which covers the decades between 1850–1910, portrays a man who was radically transformed by the power of the gospel and spent his life trying to help his community come to know the Lord as he did. Although he had no formal theological training, Gonzales’ vibrant faith and deep concern for the Bible empowered him to make an impact in Peralta, New Mexico, and its surrounding communities. In this way, he blazed a trail for other Mexican men and women to follow his footsteps of faith.
The Southwest’s Political Mess
Ambrosio’s conversion is best understood in the context of the mid-19th-century geopolitical tensions that beset what is now the southwestern United States. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the new country extending to what is now the northern borders of California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, with the Pacific Ocean serving as its western border and Texas its eastern.
But in 1836, Texas declared independence from Mexico. Less than 10 years later, in 1845, the US annexed Texas. This action, in turn, provoked a war between Mexico and the US. When the US won, it overpowered Mexico and forced it to surrender what is now Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Suddenly, about 100,000 Mexican sons and daughters whose families had lived on these lands for generations, who spoke Spanish and identified as Catholic, now were “foreigners” in their own homes.
Roughly a decade after Mexico declared its independence from Spain, American Protestant missionaries, like Presbyterian minister Sumner Bacon, began passing out Spanish Bibles in Mexico. These Spanish Bibles and Spanish New Testaments were mass-produced by the American Bible Society for evangelistic efforts throughout the country, according to historian Paul Barton’s Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in Texas. However, Bacon and others testified to how difficult the missionary endeavors were in Mexico. Regardless of the missionaries’ intentions, many Mexicans saw the English language, the Protestant faith, and the US idea of manifest destiny as uncomfortably connected. Thus, retaining their native land also meant rejecting the Protestant faith. The Mexican-American War only further hardened these beliefs. For Mexican families to convert to Protestantism, they would have to align with the faith of those who had taken their land through military conquest.
‘A Charm to Me’
In 1850, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church sent out Enoch Nicholson and his family from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Three years later, Nicholson met Ambrosio Gonzales in the town of Peralta, a community 100 miles south of Santa Fe. Upon meeting Gonzales, Nicholson gave him a Bible. Gonzales later recounted receiving this life-changing gift in a conversation with Harwood:
It was the first Bible of any kind I had ever seen. … The book was a charm to me. When the rest retired, I sat up and read the good book. I read nearly the whole book of Genesis. I then turned to the New Testament and read several chapters in Saint John. One chapter was the fourteenth— ‘Let not your heart be troubled, etc.’— It was to me a new book. I read until the chickens were crowing for day. I laid down on a lounge in the same room and soon fell asleep. When I woke the sun was shining through the window into my face. The Sun of Righteousness was shining brightly in my soul. I have been a Christian and a Protestant ever since.
While Gonzales had spent his entire life in a Christian nation, he had never encountered a written copy of the Scriptures. The Bible engaged his spiritual taste buds to the extent in which he consumed the entire Book of Genesis and other Scriptures in one night. From that day, Gonzales and his family treasured the Scriptures in general, and the Bible given to him from Nicholson became known as the “Peralta Bible.” According to Harwood, “That was the starting point of the Protestant work in Peralta, if not in the entire territory.”
In 1855, the Methodist church sent Dallas Lore to examine the situation in Peralta, New Mexico, and give a report of its condition, according to Presbyterian missionary Robert Craig’s 1904 book, Our Mexicans. In the three years since Gonzales had become a Protestant, Lore saw that the convert had not kept his faith a secret. In fact, 14 Mexican converts, seven men and seven women, were meeting at his home. “There is no reason to doubt as to their sincerity. They have a good man for their leader, Ambrosio Gonzales, and there is much to hope for from them,” wrote Lore in a letter. Before departing Peralta, Lore organized them into a church and appointed Gonzales as the leader.
From that point, few details of the history in Peralta remain until Harwood reached New Mexico in 1869. To the delight of many, “the little band of 14 had increased to 42, the missionary noted.” Harwood officially licensed Gonzales upon that visit and testified, “I found no other organization in any other place in New Mexico where the Mexican people held religious services.”
A Growing Ministry
One of the first people who embraced Protestantism under Gonzales’s ministry was Juan Chavez. Chavez was a poor man who was known to be “rich in faith,” even as he was persecuted for his faith at different times, presumably by his Catholic neighbors after breaking “from the bondage of Rome.” He was bedridden as he approached death, and his family prayed for him and took Communion with him. He told those at his bedside, “My soul has perfect peace.” One woman in the room, seeing his intense pain, remarked, “How I wish you had a good physician,” to which he replied, “My physician is in heaven.” Chavez died the next morning.
Ambrosio Gonzales and his wife raised a young girl, Luisa Sedillo, in their home for eight years. During this time they raised her as a Protestant even though her family remained Catholic. Sedillo sadly passed away while she was still young. As with Chavez, the church gathered around her bedside while ill to sing and pray with her. The prayers of the church made her feel, “mucho mejor” (much better). The Peralta church also sang with her a Spanish rendition of the hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”
Jesus mi amo es el Rey, (Jesus my love is the king)
No hay mas rey que el (There is no greater king than he)
Sacad las diademas ya, (Bring out the diadem)
Y coronad a El (And place the crown on him)
The church family that was with her those final days testified to the vibrancy of Sedillo’s convictions—a faith that was nurtured in the Gonzales household.
Many within and outside of Peralta viewed Gonzales as a spiritual leader and pastor. He would travel to nearby mountain villages preaching the gospel and performing various pastoral duties. One family that lived a day’s journey away from Peralta later told Hardwood how Gonzales had baptized some of their children. On a different occasion, Gonzales traveled with a Methodist missionary to the village of Tijeras. There they found a woman who had been Catholic for 50 years but had recently converted to Protestantism after visiting friends in Peralta. There she heard “the Scriptures read, and the way of salvation explained, and, under the power of God’s Word, her life-long prejudice [to the Protestant faith] gave way, and she was converted to Christ.”
These conversion stories did not take place without opposition, primarily from Roman Catholics. Many Protestants had their lives threatened, were attacked with stones, were shot at, and some were even killed. Harwood’s work recounts at least nine different incidents of anti-Protestant persecution in New Mexico from 1875 to 1891.
Gonzales died in his Peralta home in 1884 at the age of 72. He had led dozens to faith in Jesus, preached many sermons, and was persecuted for his beliefs. Like others he influenced, Gonzales’ faith remained fervent to the end. Writing in 1908, Harwood, who corroborated Gonzales’ claim that he was the first Protestant convert, reflected on his life, “Brother Ambrosio has long since passed away. But he was always a decided Christian.”
The Latino Church Today
Ambrosio Gonzales came face-to-face with the God of the Bible in his reading of the Scriptures. The new life that he experienced in Christ became the message he preached. Despite his lack of formal theological education, Gonzales planted and shepherded a church in Peralta and witnessed the church increase from 1 to 42 believers over an 18-year period. By 1900, New Mexico had at least 87 churches established with a total membership of 2,487. In fact, by “1900 there were 5,572 active members in 149 Latino congregations in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California,” according to Juan Francisco Martinez’s Origins of Protestantism Among Latinos in the Southwestern United States (1836–1900).
The Latino church in the United States remains a growing church with about 7.5 million people that self-identify as evangelical/Protestant. Today’s Hispanic Protestants not only have Mexican ancestry but also have Caribbean and Central and South American backgrounds.
Ambrosio Gonzales’ conversion from Catholicism to the Protestant faith remains a common experience for many Latinos. In Juan Francisco Martinez’s Los Protestantes, he describes how Hispanic Catholics continue to convert to Protestantism—over 80% of whom do so because they are searching for a “more direct, personal experience with God,” according to 2003 and 2007 studies by the Pew Hispanic Center. While this personal experience involves a variety of religious expressions, a key one is Bible reading. Just as Ambrosio’s life was transformed by reading the Bible, Cuban American church historian and theologian Justo L. González observes a similar phenomenon is his book Mañana:
The great appeal to Protestantism was in Scripture itself, which the Catholic Church had taught us to respect but not to read. For many Hispanics, both in the United States and in Latin America, the experience of hearing the Word for the first time, of being able to study Scripture in new ways, was revolutionary and liberating. After this, they could no longer understand how anyone could remain tied to a church that either forbade or discouraged the reading of Scripture, and they made every conceivable effort to bring other Hispanics to the same realization.
The Latino Protestant church in America is a growing one, with a rich legacy that needs further exploration. More stories like Ambrosio’s remain to be told. Indeed, more stories like his have yet to take place. As the gospel spreads among Hispanics in America, men and women from various Latino backgrounds will continue to come to saving faith in Jesus and say as Ambrosio Gonzales did, “the Sun of Righteousness was shining brightly in my soul.”
Eric Rivera (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is lead pastor of The Brook in Chicago and author of Christ Is Yours: The Assurance of Salvation in the Puritan Theology of William Gouge (Lexham, 2019). He and his wife, Erikah, are also conference speakers with FamilyLife's "Weekend to Remember" getaways.