AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN COSTA RICA
By Clifton L. Holland

(Last revised on July 20, 2002)

 

Called the "Switzerland of the Americas," Costa Rica is located in Central America, between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. This largely mountainous country, about the size of West Virginia, is home to about four million people (March 2001), two-thirds of which live in the fertile Central Valley.

Costa Rica was discovered by Christopher Colombus in 1502 during his fourth voyage to the Americas, when he sailed from Honduras to Panama and anchored briefly off the Caribbean coast of a land that was later called the "Rich Coast" due to its lush tropical vegetation. However, it was on the Pacific coast that the Spanish conquistadores first explored the territory of Costa Rica: Gáspar de Espinosa, accompanied by Hernán Ponce de León and Juan de Castañeda, in 1519; and Gil González Dávila en 1522. Participating in the later expedition was the Spanish Roman Catholic priest, Diego de Agüero, who became the first foreign religious worker to visit present-day Costa Rica and Nicaragua. After exploring the Nicoya Peninsula (northwestern territory), the Spaniards established a temporary settlement among the Chorotega Indians, where the priest claimed to have converted and baptized about 6,000 people--although neither the Spaniards nor the Chorotegas understood each other's language. The first Roman Catholic church in Costa Rica was built in 1544 in the village of Nicoya during the administration of the first governor, Diego Gutiérrez.

In addition to the Chorotegas, Costa Rica was inhabited by several other ethno-linguistical groups: the Huetares in the Central Valley and Caribbean coast, and the Bruncas in the southern region along the Pacific coast. Although scholars disagree about the size of the indigenous population in Costa Rica at the beginning of the Spanish Conquest, some early records (1569) indicate that there were probably no more than 30,000 Chibchan-speaking peoples present in 1502. Many of the Indians later died of disease or warfare at the hands of the Spaniards, which led to a decline in the total population. By 1611, the entire population of Costa Rica was reported as 15,000, including Indians, Spaniards and mestizos. Today, the descendants of these animistic tribal peoples number about 40,000 and are known as Cabécares, Bribris, Guaymí, Borucas, Téribes, Guatusos and Huértares.

Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion of Costa Rica and the official state religion, the growth of the Protestant Movement during the 20th century--especially since the 1960s--has led to the current situation of "religious pluralism." According to a public opinion poll by CID-Gallup in July 1999, the Catholic population was 74%, Protestants 16%, other religions 3%, and no religion (or no answer) 7%. In mid-2001, Protestants were estimated to be 18-20% of the national population.

The earliest Protestant missionary efforts in Costa Rica took place in the 1880s among English-speaking West Indians (Afro-Caribbean peoples), who came from the British West Indies to work on the construction of a railroad (1870-1890) between the capital city of San José in the Central Valley and Port Limón on the Caribbean coast. Many of these laborers remained on the Caribbean coast to work in railroad maintenance, agriculture (cacao and banana plantations), fishing and other endeavors; and they brought their own belief systems with them: Myalism (an African adaptation to Christianity), Obeah (witchcraft), and Protestant Christianity. The Jamaican Baptist Missionary Society sent its first worker to Costa Rica in 1887, the Wesleyan Methodists in 1894, the Anglicans in 1896, the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1903 and the Salvation Army in 1907.

The first Protestant worship services were conducted in San José, the nation's capital, in the 1840s among English-speaking foreigners, mainly Americans, British and German citizens. The first Protestant chapel, Church of the Good Shepherd, was constructed in San José in 1865 to serve the expatriate community. Although this church was founded as a non-denominational worship center, in 1896 it became part of the Anglican communion.

The activities of the British and Foreign Bible Society, beginning in 1845, and the American Bible Society (1890s) in San José and other major cities helped to promote Bible reading among Costa Ricans, and to strengthen the resolve of early Protestants to maintain their faith in an environment of religious intolerance by Roman Catholics.

The first Protestant mission agency (non-denominational) to work in the Central Valley of Costa Rica was the Central American Mission (now CAM International), founded in Dallas, Texas, by Dr. C.I. Scofield and three friends "to do something for the introduction of the Gospel into Central America" (The Central American Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1891). The first CAM missionary couple was the Rev. and Mrs. William McConnell, who arrived in Port Limón on February 24, 1891, and located in San José with "a vision to evangelize the nation's 280,000 souls." This work progressed very slowly and with great difficulty.

By 1950, at least 15 Protestant mission agencies had begun work in Costa Rica, including those mentioned previously. Five missionary societies concentrated on the West Indians along the Caribbean coast, and the other societies dedicated their efforts on the Spanish-speaking population, largely in the Central Valley. The Methodist Episcopal Church arrived in 1917, followed by independent Pentecostal missionaries in 1918 (work now under the Pentecostal Holiness Church), the Latin American Evangelization Crusade (now known as the Latin America Mission, founded by Mr. and Mrs. Harry Strachan, Scottish Presbyterians) in 1921, the Church of God (Anderson, IN) in 1939, the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) also in 1939, the Southern Baptists in 1943, the Assemblies of God in 1944, the Pentecostal Church of God (from Puerto Rico) in 1945, and the American Baptist Association in 1946.

Between 1950 and 1985, at least 28 additional Protestant mission agencies started work in Costa Rica, and numerous church bodies came into existence as the result of the nationalization of missionary efforts, as a reaction to missionary domination, or as a result of independent efforts.

The latest survey of Protestant churches in Costa Rica (2000-2001 by PROLADES) reveals at least 210 church associations with 2,550 local congregations distributed as follows: Non-Pentecostal groups (1,055 or 41.5%) and Pentecostal (1,495 or 58.5%). Total Protestant church membership (over 15 years of age) was estimated at 257,000 and the total Protestant population at about 608,000 (or 16% of the national population).

About three percent of the population belonged to "other religions," which in the context of Costa Rica includes Marginal Christian Groups (Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Unity, Mita Congregation, Voice of the Cornerstone, Light of the Word Church, Christadelphians, God is Love Church, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, etc.) and non-Christian religions (about 80 distinct groups), including the following: Native American Animistic religions (7), Baha'i Faith (3), Judaism (3), Islam (2), Buddhism (5), Hinduism (at least 25 groups), Chinese religions (10), Ancient Wisdom (6) and Psychic-New Age groups (about 15). In addition, Obeah and Myalism are still practiced among some of the West Indians on the Caribbean coast.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by IDESPO, a research institute of the National University, showed that between 1995 and 2001 about 8% of the population of the San José Metropolitan area (population 1.1 million) had changed their religion: Catholics declining and Protestants increasing, as well as those with "No Religion" (10.8%).

The total population of Costa Rica (3,810,179 in May 2000) was composed of the following ethnic groups: Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans, 77.7%; Spanish-speaking and Miskito-speaking Nicaraguans, 13.8%; Other Spanish-speakers (Central and South Americans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans), 2.8%; Native American Indians, 1.1%; Asians (Chinese, Koreans and Japanese) 1.0%; Afro-Americans (English-speaking), 2.0%; Caucasians (USA, Canadians, Europeans, Jewish), 2.0%.  Also, there is a small Middle Eastern presence--Lebanese Christians and Palestinian Arabs. The literacy rate was 95%.

Note:  an earlier version of this article was published in Religions of the World:  A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, by J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann, editors (Santa Barbara, CA:  ABC CLIO, 2002).

Sources:

Biesanz, Mavis Hiltunen de, et al. Los Costarricenses. San José, Costa Rica: EUNED, 1979.

Holland, Clifton L., editor. World Christianity: Central America and the Caribbean. Monrovia, CA: MARC-World Vision, 1981.

Holland, Clifton L. "Religion in Costa Rica" documents posted on the PROLADES (Latin American Socio-Religious Studies Program) website at: www.prolades.com

Nelson, Wilton M. A History of Protestantism in Costa Rica. Lucknow, India: Lucknow Publishing House, 1963.

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