Since Columbus, Roman Catholicism has dominated the history and culture of Latin America. Protestantism was virtually unknown in the region until last century, and then only in a marginal way.

But beginning in the 1940s, Protestantism began mushrooming in Latin America. In 1938 Protestants totaled about 600,000. A decade later they had multiplied five times to 3 million. Another explosion has occurred in the last twenty years—from 15 million to more than 40 million.

To understand the historical causes of this extraordinary transformation, Christian History sat with Samuel Escobar, Thornley B. Wood Professor of Missiology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Christian History: What did religious life in a typical Latin American town look like 400 years ago?

Escobar: In the 1600s, the life of the town would be determined by the church. The Spanish planted their churches in the main square, right beside the government building. The church’s presence was felt nearly everywhere.

For instance, people kept time by the church bells. When the bells rang in early morning, you knew it was just before six—time for morning mass. When they rang at late afternoon, it was about four—time for prayer.

The calendar was also governed by the church. In addition to Easter week and Christmas, elaborate festivities were held in each country (and many cities) to honor its patron saint. In Peru, it was Santa Rosa on August 30, and in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 6.

The intellectual life was also thoroughly controlled by the church. Every book read and every teaching offered would be checked. The Catholic church controlled nearly every sphere of life.

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