AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN MEXICO

By Clifton L. Holland

Last revised on August 10, 2001

 

The 32 United States of Mexico constitute one of the largest countries in the Americas, located geographically in North America between the USA in the north and Guatemala and Belize in the southeast. Mexico's population in mid-2000 was estimated at 99,639,000, third in population size after the USA and Brazil, and is composed of a diversity of ethnic groups: Mestizos (mixed Spanish-Indian blood who are native Spanish-speakers), 88%; Amerindians (239 living languages among 13 linguistical families), 9%; and others (including Caucasians, Afro-Americans, Middle Easterners and Asians), 3%. The predominant Indian languages are: Náhuatl, Maya, Mixteco, Zapoteco, Otomí, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Totonaco, Chol, Mazahua and Huasteco.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica in the early 1600s, they discovered some of the greatest cultures in the history of mankind, beginning with the Olmec civilization that began about 1,200 BC and continuing through the Aztec empire that dominated the central region of the country with its elaborate ceremonial and political center--Tenochtitlán--built on a man-made island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Explorer Hernán Cortéz and his army conquered the Aztecs in 1519-1520 and established Spanish rule on the ruins of the Aztec capital, renamed Mexico City, which today is one of the largest cities in the world (about 20 million people). At the time of the Spanish arrival, there were an estimated 25 million Amerindians in the territory known today as Mexico.

During the Spanish colonial period (1520-1821), there was a strict Church-State relationship in Mexico. However, it was easier to build a Catholic church on top of the ruins of an ancient Indian worship center than to impose a new culture, religion and government upon a civilization that predated Spanish rule by centuries. The persistence of Indian cultures and belief systems is a vital force in modern Mexican society, as seen by the prevalence of Animistic practices such as magic, herbal healing (curanderismo) and shamanism (bujería) throughout Mexico. The Catholic clergy attempted to bridge the gap between the Spanish and Indian cultures by establishing a chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac in 1555-1556, which later became the most sacred site for Catholics in Mexico. Future generations of clerics embellished the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so that by 1648 Mexican peasants considered the shrine to have supernatural significance and to be a sign of divine approval for regarding themselves as the new chosen people that God had selected through the agency of the Virgin Mary, who, according to the legend, miraculously appeared to a group of shepherds at Tepeyac in 1531.

After Independence from Spain in 1821, the Roman Catholic Church began to loose its place of privilege in Mexican society, because citizens were no longer obligated to pay tithes or to work for the Church as serfs in a feudal society. However, the Church did maintain its monopoly on religion in Mexico as affirmed by the Constitution of 1824, which declared that religion "will perpetually be Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman." Full diplomatic relations were maintained with the Vatican until broken in 1867, following the period of French intervention in Mexican politics.

From Independence to the Mexican Revolution (1821-1910), the Roman Catholic Church sided with the more Conservative political parties, but certain elements with the Church identified with the revolutionary struggle of the peasants against the landed aristocracy, such as Father Miguel Hidalgo and other liberal-minded priests like Father José María Morelos. For his efforts, Hidalgo was "excommunicated and his head left to rot outside the village church," according to Tom Barry in Mexico: A Country Guide. The historic division between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the grassroots church, the popular religion of the masses, has continued to the present.

During the rest of the 19th century, the Catholic Church was heavily involved in politics on the side of the Conservatives who opposed the Liberal movement and Freemasonry that gained popularity among the wealthy elite. The Catholic hierarchy opposed the reform movement led by Benito Juárez and welcomed the French occupation of Mexico in 1862 under Maximilian of Hapsburg. But the French imperial venture did not survive the stiff resistance of Mexican nationalistic forces and U.S. political pressure, and in 1867 Juárez returned to the presidency and counteracted the threat posed by the Catholic hierarchy after capturing and executing Maximilian. Although Church-State tensions eased considerably during the Conservative administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910), they flared up again after the Revolution of 1910. The Constitution of 1917 established a clear separation between Church and State, guaranteed that public education would be secular and humanistic, and prohibited the clergy from participating in the nation's political life and from owning property.

The Cristero War (1926-1929) was an attempt by Conservative Catholic forces to invalidate certain anti-religious laws included in the Constitution of 1917, which were opposed by the Catholic bishops and their political allies. When attempts to amend the Constitution failed, Catholics in the states of Jalisco, Guerrero, Michoacán, Colima, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Puebla and Veracruz resorted to armed violence against the government of President Elías Calles. The war ended in June 1929 when President Emilio Portes Gil promised to end religious persecution and to respect liberty of conscience, which allowed the Catholic clergy to save face and resume their religious obligations in Catholic churches throughout the country.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) brought to power the leftist Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as PRI), which controlled national politics until 2001 when an opposition candidate, Vincente Fox, won the presidency under the banner of PAN, the National Action Party, with a center-right orientation.

After the Constitution of 1857 formalized the liberal reforms, which limited the power of the Roman Catholic Church and broadened individual freedoms, the systematic penetration of Protestant groups began in Mexico. By 1900, at least 15 U.S. Protestant denominations had entered Mexico, some of which began along the U.S.-Mexican border, others on the coastlands, and some in Mexico City and other major cities.

One of the first independent missionaries to began Protestant work along the border (in Brownsville, Texas) was Miss Melinda Rankin (1852), a Presbyterian who later joined the American and Foreign Christian Union and established Protestant schools in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (1862-1863), and Monterrey, Nuevo Leon (1866). The first Protestant church organized in Mexico City was a German Lutheran congregation in 1861. In 1862, an independent Baptist missionary, James Hickey, arrived in Monterrey from Texas and began the task of evangelizing and establishing a church (1864) that was later pastored by Thomas Westrupp. By 1870, there were two Protestant churches in Monterrey, one affiliated with the American Baptist Home Mission Society (Westrupp) and the other related to the American Cumberland Presbyterian Church, pastored by John Parks. In 1868, the Protestant Episcopal Church established a relationship with an independent Catholic church (non-papal), known as the Mexican Church of Jesus, which had been organized in 1859 in Mexico City. By 1870, there were 23 Episcopal-Church of Jesus congregations in the Valley of Mexico.

During the 1870s, many U.S. Protestant mission agencies began work in Mexico. The Society of Friends (Quakers) arrived in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in 1871, near the Texas border. Three missionary couples affiliated with the Northern Presbyterian Church arrived in Mexico City in 1872, and eventually began work in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Congregational Church) sent two missionary couples to Guadalajara in 1872, and in 1873 five missionary couples were sent to Monterrey to work with congregations formed by Melinda Rankin and Juan Sepulveda that grew out of the early Baptist and Presbyterian efforts. In 1872, both the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) began work in Mexico City, after purchasing from the government properties that formerly belonged to the Catholic Church. In 1874, the Southern Presbyterians began work in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. The Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church arrived in 1878, the Southern Baptist Convention in 1880, the Plymouth Brethren (also known as Christian Brethren) in 1890, the Seventh-Day Baptist General Conference in 1893, and the Christian Women’s Board of Missions (Disciples of Christ) in 1895.

Between 1900 and 1949, at least 30 Protestant church bodies or mission agencies were established in Mexico: the Young Men's Christian Association/YMCA (1902), Church of the Nazarene (1903), Peniel Missionary Society (1906, later known as Pilgrim Holiness), Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ (1914, the first Pentecostal group in Mexico and of "Jesus Only" tradition), Free Methodist Church (1917), Assemblies of God (1918), Swedish Free Mission/Philadelphia Swedish Pentecostal Churches (1919), Church of God-Seventh Day (1920), Wesleyan Church (1922), Mexican Union Conference of the Seventh-Day Adventists (1923), Reformed Church in America (1924), Spiritual Evangelical Christian Church (1926), Interdenominational Christian Church/Portales (1927), Movement of Independent Evangelical Pentecostal Churches/MIEPI (1929), Metropolitan Church Association (1930), America's Keswick (1934), The Salvation Army (1934), Wycliffe Bible Translators (1935, also known as Summer Institute of Linguistics), Pentecostal Apostolic Universal Christian Church of Jesus (1935), Church of God-Cleveland, TN (1940), Pentecostal Church of God (1942), International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (1943), World Mission Prayer League (1943), Church of God of Prophecy (1944), Churches of Christ in Christian Union (1944), Mexican Mission Ministries (1945), Evangelical Covenant Church (1946), Evangelical Methodist Church (1946), Church of God/Anderson-IN (1946), Mission Aviation Fellowship (1946), Pentecostal Holiness Church (1947), Christian Fellowship Union (1947), Missionary Revival Crusade (1949), and Air Mail from God (1949, later known as Trans World Missions).

Between 1950 and 1985, another 110 Protestant mission agencies arrived in Mexico, and scores of new Mexican denominations came into existence.

In 1910, there were about 24,000 baptized Protestant church members in Mexico: Methodists (12,500), Presbyterians (5,700), Baptists (2,630), Congregationalists (1,540), Christian Churches-Disciples of Christ (900), and Quakers (670). However, by 1936, the total membership of these groups was only 22,882, which reflects some of the difficulties encountered by these denominations during the Mexican Revolution and the Depression years. Nevertheless, some of the newer denominations reported the following membership statistics in 1936: Assemblies of God (6,000), Adventists (4,000), Swedish Pentecostals (4,000), Nazarenes (2,000), Pentecostal Holiness (1,300), Pilgrim Holiness (1,200), and Mexican Indian Churches (560), for a total of about 19,000 members. These are partial statistics because other denominations (with about 6,000 members) existed in 1936 that were not included in the study published by the International Missionary Council in 1938. The total Protestant membership in Mexico for 1936 was estimated to be 48,000.

In 1962, there were about 276,000 Protestant church members in Mexico, according to a study by Dr. Donald McGavran. At that time, the largest denominational families were the following: Presbyterian (42,000), Methodist (33,000), Adventists (22,700), Churches of God (15,500), Swedish Pentecostals (15,000), Assemblies of God (15,000), MIEPI (10,000), and scores of other groups with under 10,000 members.

In 1960, the Mexican national census reported the Protestant population at 578,515, which was represented by about 40 denominations, 2,420 organized congregations, 1,622 mission stations and 2,470 Sunday schools, according to the Read, Monterroso and Johnston study, published in 1969. This study reported the total Protestant membership in Mexico to be about 430,000 in 1967, 64% of which were Pentecostal and 36% non-Pentecostal. Obviously, the number of Pentecostal church members was increasing faster than the non-Pentecostals in the 30-year period 1936 and 1966.

For 2000, Peter Brierly gives the following membership statistics for the larger Protestant groups in Mexico: all Adventists (383,000), all Anglican-Episcopal (11,900), all Baptists (88,030), all Lutherans (2,190), all Methodists (51,590), all Presbyterians (167,170), all Pentecostals (588,600), and all other non-Pentecostals (538,150). The largest denominations were the following: the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (383,000), Union of Independent Pentecostal Christian Churches/Swedish Pentecostals (368,000), Assemblies of God (207,000), National Presbyterian Church (155,000), Church of God in the Mexican Republic (86,900), National Baptist Convention (82,900), Movement of Independent Pentecostal Churches/MIEPI (55,000), Methodist Church (46,900), Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ (46,400), National Christian Church of the Assemblies of God (39,200), Church of God/Cleveland-TN (37,600), and the Church of the Nazarene (32,500). All other Protestant denominations had less than 20,000 members in 2000.

The size of the Protestant population in Mexico for 2000 was estimated to be 7,148,980 or about 7.2% of the total population, compared to 4.9% in 1990, 3.3% in 1980 and 1.8% in 1970, based on statistics from the Mexican national census. By comparison, the size of the Protestant population in Mexico is much lower than in the counties of Central America where Protestants are between 15-25% of the national population in each country.

In 1990, about 37% of the Protestant population in Mexico was concentrated in the southeastern region of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Veracruz; 22% in the central region of the Federal District and the states of Mexico, Puebla and Morelos; and 19% in the northern border region of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahila, Chihuahua, Sonora and Baja California (North and South). The individual states with the largest Protestant population were: Chiapas (16.3%), Tabasco (15%), Campeche (13.5%), Quintana Roo (12.2%) and Yucatán (9.3%).

Overall, Mexico continues to be dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, with 89.7% of the total population identifying with Catholicism in the 1990 census, but other religious groups, such as the Protestants with about 5% of the population in 1990, have grown also. In 1990, the Jewish community in Mexico, one of the largest in Latin America, numbered about 64,500 or .08% of the national population, with over 22,000 Jews in Mexico City. Other religious groups registered 1,175,225 adherents, or about 1.4% of the total population. About 3.9% claimed to have "no religion" or refused to answer the question.

Although some of the non-Protestant Christian groups were probably included in the "Protestant-Evangelical" category in the 1990 census, the following such groups were present in Mexico in 1996, according to the National Office of Religious Affairs: Jehovah's Witnesses (with 1,349,998 adherents in 1993, second in size to JWs in the U.S.), Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints/Mormons (with 659,000 members in 1990), Christian Science, Voice of the Cornerstone (a Branham-related group from Puerto Rico), Mita Congregation (also from Puerto Rico), Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (from Brazil), Growing in Grace Churches (Miami, FL), Children of God ("The Family"), and the Prophet Elias Movement (at least four registered church associations). Another religious tradition, founded in Monterrey in 1926 by Eusebio Joaquín González (known as the Prophet Aarón), has blended Mexican mysticism with Pentecostal fervor to create the Light of the World Church (since 1952 with headquarters in Colonia Hermosa Provincia, Guadalajara, Jalisco), which grew from 80 members in 1929, to 75,000 in 1972, to 1.5 million in 1986 and to about four million members in 22 countries in 1990.

Non-Christian religions in Mexico include at least 60 organizations among the following: Judaism, Islam, Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikh, Shinto, and Ancient Wisdom-Psychic-New Age groups (including Scientology, Unification Church, Theosophy, Spiritualists, Universal Gnostic Christian Church, New Acropolis Centers and the Grand Universal Fraternity). Also present are native Amerindian religions (Animist), which have been mixed with elements of Catholicism to create the nation's unique blend of popular religiosity. Another religious tradition (about more than 30 registered groups) blends Catholicism with Spiritualism (communication with the dead through the use of mediums and seances): the Marian Trinitarian Spiritualist Church.

The Inter-Religious Council of Mexico was founded in Mexico City in 1992 with representatives from the following traditions: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mormon, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Sufi-Muslim. In 1999, the coordinator of the council was Jonathan Rose, the Jewish representative.

Clifton L. Holland

Sources:

Barry, Tom, editor. Mexico: A Country Guide. Albuquerque, NM: The Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1992.

Bastian, Jean-Pierre. Protestantismo y Sociedad en México. Mexico City: CUPSA, 1983.

Blancarte, Roberto. Historia de la Iglesia Católica en México. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992.

Brierly, Peter, editor. World Churches Handbook. London: Christian Research, 1977.

Giménez, Gilberto, editor. Identidades Religiosas y Sociales en México. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1996.

Grimes, Barbara F., editor. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twelfth Edition. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992.

Larson, Peter. El Uso Evangélico del XI Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 1990. Mexico City: VELA, 1993.

McGavran, Donald, editor. Church Growth in Mexico. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963.

Poole, Stafford. Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

Read, William R., et al. Latin American Church Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969.

Scott, Lindy. Salt of the Earth: A Socio-Political History of Mexico City Evangelical Protestants (1964-1991). Mexico City: Editorial Kyrios, 1991.

Scheffler, Lilian. Magia y Brujería en México. Mexico City: Panorama Editorial, 1994.