AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN EL SALVADOR

By Clifton L. Holland

Last revised on 17 September 2008

 

This is the smallest of the Spanish-speaking countries in Central America, bordered by Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in the north, east and south, respectively. El Salvador, known as Cuscatlán ("Land of the Jewel") by the indigenous peoples, is a spectacular land of volcanoes, rolling hills and lakes, with a long uninterrupted beach along the Pacific coast. The total population in 2000 was estimated at 6,280,000.

However, most of the national territory has been deforested by centuries of agricultural development and soil erosion has affected over 50% of the country, causing El Salvador to have the most severely degraded environment in the region. Most of the nation's wildlife has disappeared due to the destruction of the primary and secondary forests as a result of the clearing of the land for pasture, coffee and cotton production, and the need for fuel for wood-burning stoves still used by most of the country's large peasant population, 70% of whom live in poverty.

By 1525, Pedro de Alvarado, one of the cruelest of the Spanish conquistadores, had subdued-- with extreme brutality--most of the indigenous population of Central America. The territory of El Salvador became part of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala during the Spanish colonial period, and for some time after independence was part of a federated Republic of Central America (1821-1838) until achieving its full independence in 1838. The nation experienced a series of political struggles, assassinations and revolutions until 1886, when Conservative rule brought about political stability for the next 45 years. During this period communal Indian lands were privatized, coffee became the main crop, and the coffee oligarchy consolidated its control of the country's political, economic and social life, dominated by the legendary "14 Families."

The oligarchy and the army--the National Guard was created in 1922--have historically stood behind the democratic facade that this country has erected based on a series of constitutions since Independence. Political competition among the elite and a series of brutal military dictatorships created a long history of repression by the army, which alienated members of the small middle class and generated decades of discontent among the masses. A series of popular uprisings during the 1930s resulted in the infamous "massacre of 1932" in which about 30,000 people were brutally murdered by the army during a peasant protest march to the capital of San Salvador. The history of corrupt elections, political misrule and repression of dissidents by the nation's "public security forces" continued unabated for decades. During the 1960s and 1970s opposition leaders began to organize a revolutionary movement that led to a bloody civil war, beginning in 1979, when the civil society in general rebelled against a despotic regime that was supported politically, economically and militarily by the U.S. government.

During this tragic period of civil war, in which an estimated 80,000 people died, over one million people were displaced within the country, and an estimated half-million left the country, the international press reported a series of massacres that shocked the nation and the world and that began to sway U.S. public opinion against its government's support of the repressive Salvadoran government, which needed continued U.S. assistance to win the war against the "Marxist-led revolutionary movement." More than a dozen seven Roman Catholic priests were killed by right-wing death squads or public security forces during the period 1977-1991, including priest Rutilio Grande (1977), Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (1980), and six Jesuit priests (1989) at the University of Central America, including the rector. Also, in 1980, four U.S. Catholic nuns and lay-workers were raped and killed by the military, which led to a temporary suspension of U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

During this time, government-sponsored death squads also assassinated numerous opposition leaders--politicians, businessmen, labor union members, land reform advocates, university professors and students--as well as newsmen. On the other hand, the revolutionaries--led by the Augustín Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)--retaliated by murdering government officials, policemen, U.S. military and civilian advisors, and other government supporters, as well as killing thousands of government soldiers in a decade of open warfare.

However, most of the massacres that occurred during the civil war were attributed to the Salvadoran public security forces, according to an investigation conducted by Human Rights organizations after the conflict ended in January of 1992 with the signing of a U.N.-sponsored Peace Accord. As part of the Peace Accords, the military and police were purged of those responsible for committing human rights abuses, but only a few of those responsible for torture and "extra-judicial executions" were actually brought to trial. After the civil war ended, the FMLM became a legitimate political party and was allowed to participate in a revived democratic process, including mayoral, legislative and presidential elections.

El Salvador has witnessed progress toward greater economic and political stability during the 1990s and into the 21st century, despite the fluctuations of the world economy that have affected traditional exports (mainly coffee and textiles), the revitalized manufacturing sector, the balance of payments (trade deficit and international loans), tourism and other areas of the economy. One of the most important economic factors in the 1990s has been growth in the amount of remittances from relatives living abroad, which has helped Salvadoran families to survive the hardships and has boosted the nation's staggering economy.

Now, the perpetual problems of political stability, economic development, land reform, healthcare, education, public security, reconstruction and reconciliation are seeking to be addressed by the country's leaders in a peaceful manner, albeit in a society torn by historical animosities and conflicts between the wealthy elite and the masses of poverty-stricken peasants, and in a nation also plagued by natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, and seasonal droughts and flooding.

The country's religious landscape has also become divided since the early 1900s, with the arrival of scores of Protestant missionary agencies, mainly from the U.S., and the emergence of a strong national Evangelical movement, particularly since the 1960s, which have challenged the historically dominant position of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador.

However, since the 1920s, the Catholic Church has also been increasingly divided internally between those who have supported the status quo--the Conservative alliance of Church and State--and those who have supported a liberal and progressive agenda, based on defining the human rights of the marginalized sectors of society--called the "Preferential Option for the Poor" in the language of the II Vatican Council and the Medellín Council of Latin American Bishops, held in the 1960s. Also, the Catholic Charismatic renewal movement has presented a third option to many Roman Catholics, whose families have been torn apart by armed conflict and forced geographical relocation due to the civil war and by internal conflicts between Conservatives, Liberals and Progressives, both in the political and religious arenas.

The history of the Protestant Movement in El Salvador is distinct from other Central American countries, in that pioneer foreign mission efforts were directed toward the Spanish-speaking population from the very beginning. In other republics, the presence of English-speaking immigrants, largely West Indians, often served as a cultural and linguistical bridge for new missionaries from the U.S. in their evangelistic and church planting activities prior to engaging in ministry to the Spanish-speaking or Indian populations.

The earliest Protestant groups to enter El Salvador were the newly-formed Central American Mission (now known as CAM International, with headquarters in Dallas, Texas), whose first missionaries arrived in 1896, the California Friends Mission (Quakers) in 1902, the American Baptists in 1911, and the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1915, in addition to an independent Canadian Pentecostal missionary, Frederick Mebius, who arrived in 1904.

By 1936, these Protestant church bodies were well established in El Salvador and had achieved some notable success among the general population of Spanish-speaking mestizos (mixed Spanish and Indian blood) and the remnant of early native Americans who settled in the territory now known as El Salvador: the Pipil (Uto-Aztecan), the Lenca (Micro-Chibchan, the largest Indian group in the country), and the Kekchí (Mayan). The Quakers developed an extensive ministry among the Kekchí in a region known as the Three-Nation Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), which includes northwestern El Salvador. However, the Quakers have not prospered as well as other Protestant groups in El Salvador.

Despite numerous stages of growth and decline, the CAM-supported church association has become one of the largest non-Pentecostal denominations in the country. From the establishment of its first church in 1898 in Ilapango, near San Salvador, this independent fundamentalist denomination had planted 21 churches and 83 mission stations in eight of the country's 14 departments by 1936, largely due to the efforts of a team of U.S. missionaries and Salvadoran pastors. In 1935, the CAM-related churches were organized under a national council of leaders and became known as the Evangelical Church of El Salvador. In 1978, this association reported 83 churches, 32 missions and over 180 preaching points, with about 6,000 members.

The American Baptist Home Mission Society (formerly known as the Northern Baptist Convention) entered El Salvador in 1911, where it soon developed strong educational and church work, especially in San Salvador and Santa Ana. By 1936, a chain of 19 churches and 50 mission stations had been established with about 1,380 members. Many of the churches were completely under national leadership, and work had begun among the Pipil in the western coastal region, near Santa Ana. The Baptist Association of El Salvador was organized in 1934, but the development of trained national leaders was a slow process. In 1978, the association reported 41 churches with 3,665 members. In the 1970s, several other Baptist groups began work in El Salvador, but only two had more than 1,000 members in 1978: the Good Samaritan Baptist Churches with 15 congregations, the Miramonte Baptist Church with 16 congregations, the Bible Baptists, and the International Baptist Mission.

In 1915 the Seventh-Day Adventist Church sent a missionary couple to El Salvador, and in 1916 their first church was established in San Salvador. However, the Adventists only reported five churches and 325 members in 1936, an effort that was curtailed due to competition with the growing Pentecostal movement. By 1978, there were 61 Adventist churches and 59 mission stations in the whole country, with a total membership of 12,067. Two other Adventist-related bodies also exist in El Salvador: the Seventh-Day Adventist Reform Movement, founded in 1956, the Church of God-Seventh Day and the Israelite Church of God, founding dates unknown.

In 1904 Mebius began one of the first Pentecostal movements in Latin America, known as the Free Apostolic Churches. And this occurred prior to the world-renown Azusa Street Revival that began in Los Angeles, California, in 1906, which is considered to be the modern-day origin of the Pentecostal Movement. The Pentecostal doctrine preached by Mebius and his Salvadoran assistants became a source of great upheaval within the emerging Salvadoran Evangelical churches, and brought Mebius into conflict with leaders of the CAM-related churches, the American Baptists and the Adventists. Mebius and his helpers traveled throughout the countryside in an itinerant preaching ministry that eventually produced 25 loosely-organized congregations with about 750 baptized members by 1930. The work founded by Mebius became known as the Free Apostolic Churches, as compared to splinter groups that were formed among his early converts, such as the Apostolic Church of the Apostles and Prophets (1935) and the Apostolic Church of the Upper Room (1930s). Two other groups follow in this same tradition, the Apostolic Church of God in Christ (1950) and the Apostolic Church of the New Jerusalem (1977), as well as many independent congregations. In 1978, there were at least 50 independent churches with about 3,200 members within the Free Apostolic Movement, as well as 114 churches and 5,500 members among the organized Apostolic Church associations.

After the arrival of the Assemblies of God in El Salvador in 1929, efforts were made to bring some order to this assortment of  independent Free Apostolic Churches, but this attempt was only partially successful. In 1930, 12 of these churches became founding members of the Assemblies of God, whose missionaries had entered the country at the request of Francisco Ramírez Arbizu, one of the leading pastors in the Free Apostolic Movement. However, most of the Free Apostolic leaders did not want to submit themselves to the authority of the Assemblies of God in the U.S. or to its missionaries in El Salvador, consequently they remained independent with only fraternal ties among them. Nevertheless, under the guidance of missionary Ralph Williams, the initial groups of Assemblies of God were strengthened, advances were made toward self-support, and new congregations and preaching points were formed. By 1936, the Assemblies of God reported 21 churches and 14 mission stations, with 655 members and 965 adherents.

However, these advances were only the beginning of a phenomenal period of growth among the Assemblies of God in El Salvador, which has made this country a showcase for its mission work in Latin America. This solid growth is attributed to the employment of indigenous church principles during the administration of Ralph Williams and Melvin Hodges. There was a large spurt of growth between 1935 and 1945, when the total membership increased from 684 to 2,560, and then rapid expansion and growth followed. By 1955, the membership had reached almost 6,000 where it leveled off for a few years before increasing to 9,600 in 1970, and then an explosion of growth occurred: by 1978 the membership had risen to 22,477. At that time, the Assemblies of God reported 531 churches and 1,267 mission stations and preaching points, which made it the largest Protestant denomination in the nation.

In retrospect, the Assemblies of God have not been immune to schismatic movements, with several splits occurring during the 1960s. At least five church associations were formed by leaders who left the Assemblies of God and began their own organizations: the Pentecostal Evangelical Union (1954), the Evangelical Mission of the Holy Spirit (1960), the Garden of Eden Evangelical Church (1962), the Evangelical Mission of the Voice of God (1969, the largest of these groups), and the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of El Salvador (1974). These five associations had a total of 62 churches and 2,830 members in 1978.

The arrival of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) in El Salvador in 1940 brought the Rev. H. S. Syverson, the General Overseer of the Church of God in Central America, in contact with Mebius, who agreed to work together under the auspices of the former, although there were some obvious doctrinal differences between the two church traditions. Nevertheless, Mebius worked with the Church of God for several years, until his death in 1944 at an advanced age. Other the Church of God sent a number of short-term missionaries to assist Syverson in El Salvador during the 1940s and early 1950s, it was not until 1953 that additional missionaries were assigned to the country. Growth over the next 20 years shows a consistent pattern of expansion and development in the Church of God in El Salvador. By 1970 there were 117 churches and 78 mission stations with about 4,300 members; and by 1978 the work had grown to 170 churches and 50 missions with 9,850 total members.

Additional Pentecostal denominations also began work in El Salvador in the period 1950-1980. The Pentecostal Church of God of New York and the Pentecostal Church of God of Puerto Rico, both with historical ties to the Assemblies of God, arrived in 1966. The Prince of Peace Evangelical Church from Guatemala began work in the early 1960s. The Elim Christian Mission from Guatemala arrived in the late 1970s. The Church of God of Prophecy arrived in 1950, but this denomination, called the Universal Church of God of Prophecy in El Salvador, has had several divisions: Church of God Holy Zion (1952), Church of Prophecy Fountain of Life (1969), the Fundamental Church of God of Prophecy (1972), the Holy Zion Church of God of Prophecy (1974), and the City of Zion Church of God of Prophecy (also in 1974). The total membership of these splinter groups was 9,871 in 1978 with 175 organized churches, whereas the parent body reported only 38 churches and four missions with 1,726 members.

The Oneness ("Jesus Only") Pentecostal Movement is represented in El Salvador by two denominations: the Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ (1948) and the United Pentecostal Church (1975). The former had 33 churches, 25 missions and 600 members in 1978, while the latter had 47 churches and missions, 372 preaching points, and 2,400 members.

Other non-Pentecostal denominations in El Salvador include the following: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1953), the independent Churches of Christ (1963), the Church of the Nazarene (1964), the United World Mission, the Plymouth Brethren, the Evangelical Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, and several smaller groups.

Also, several new Protestant denominations have been founded in El Salvador that have experienced significant growth during the past 20 or 30 years, including the following:  Elim Christian Mission of El Salvador (a Pentecostal church founded by Sergio Daniel Solorzano Aldana in 1977, which now claims to have about 115,000 members; now led by Pastor General Mario Vega since 1997), "Friends of Israel" Bible Baptist Tabernacle (founded by "Hermano Toby," Edgar Lopez Bertrand, about 1978; claims to have about 10,000 members and is affiliated with Baptist International Missions), Iglesia Cristiana Campamento de Dios (founded as an independent Charismatic church by Juan Manuel Martinez in 1990; Martinez is also the President of the Evangelical Alliance of El Salvador), International Revival Tabernacle (founded by Carlos H. Rivas in 2001; claims to have 15,000 members), among others.

In addition to the rapid growth of Evangelical denominations during the past few decades, El Salvador has also witnessed the emergence of numerous Marginal Christian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons from the U.S.; the Light of the World Church from Guadalajara, Mexico; Mita Congregation and Voice of the Cornerstone from Puerto Rico; the God is Love Church and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God from Brazil; the Growing in Grace Churches founded by Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda (Miami, FL); the Unity School of Christianity and the Christadelphians from the USA, among others.

Also, a few non-Christian groups have also appeared, adding to the historical presence of the Jewish community that arrived from Spain during the colonial period or from other European countries, mainly in the aftermath of World War I and II. Other non-Christian religions in El Salvador include Islam (mainly among Palestinian Arabs), Buddhism (mainly among Chinese immigrants) and several Hindu-related groups: the Sawan Kirpal Ruhani Mission (Science of Spirituality), the Master Ching Hai Meditation Association, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (known as Hari Krishnas).

A series of public opinion polls between 1988 and 2008 that included information about "religious affiliation" in El Salvador give us a clear picture of what has taken place in this nation. Between 1988 and 1995 two studies revealed that no significant changes had taken place in religious affiliation since the mid-1980s. The first was conducted in 1988 by researchers at the Central American University in San Salvador, which revealed that 67.1% of the total population were Catholics, 16.4% Protestants, 4.8% other religions, and 14.7% no religion/no response. The second was done in 1995 by CID-Gallup and showed that Catholics were 67.8% of the population, Protestants 16.8%, other religions 2.3% and no religion/no response 13%.   However, between 1995 and 2004, new polls showed a marked increase in the size of the Protestant population, from 16.8% to 25.0% (CID-Gallup September 2000, UT-COP October 2003 and IUDOP-UCA March 2004), with a corresponding decrease in those affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church:  from 67.9% in 1995 to 56.5 in 2004, a decline of 11.4%.  All of these studies had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5-3.0%.

This trend continued between 2004 and 2008, with the Protestant population increasing from 25.0% to 34.4% while the Catholic population declined from 65.5% to 50.9% (IUDOP-UCA June 2006, November 2006, November 2007 and May 2008; UT-COP October 2006; and CID-Gallup June 2007). Whereas an Evangelical study published in 1993 claimed that the Protestant population was then over 30% of the total population (with more than 4,200 congregations and 514,286 baptized members), in reality this did not happen until the end of 2007 (29.5% in November 2007, according to IUDOP-UCA).

On the other hand, the size of the population segment grouped together as "other," "none" or "no answer" has fluctuated in the polls taken between 1988 and 2008, with a high of 24.3% in September 2000 to a low of 14.7% in May 2008.  One the latter date, the respondents were listed as follows:   "other religions" 1.1% and "none"/"no answer" 13.6%.

Overall, between 1988 and 2008 (about 20 years), the Roman Catholic population declined from 67.1% to 50.9% (-16.2%), the Protestant population increased from 16.4% to 34.4% (+18.0%), and those in the combined category "other," "none" or "no answer" declined from 19.5% to 14.7% (-4.8%), which means that during the past 20 years there has been a significant increase in the size of the Protestant population to the determent of the population segments listed as "Catholic" and "none/no religion." 

It appears that of the consequences of an end to the nation's civil war in 1992, followed by a period of relative peace and prosperity after decades of political violence and bloodshed, was a radical shift in religious affiliation from Catholic to Protestant (along with a slight decline in those who previously were religiously indifferent, agnostic and/or atheist) and a trend toward greater civic and political participation by Evangelicals (most were previously apolitical publically) who have lost their fear of expressing their political views and becoming involved in social justice and human rights issues in the national context of free and democratic elections and a decline in political violence. 

Sources:

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

CID-Gallup. Encuestas de Opinion Publica.  San Jose, Costa Rica:  CID-Gallup, May 1995, September 2000 & June 2007.

CONESAL. Despertar '93: El Desarrollo de la Iglesia Evangelica 1982-1992 y los Desafios para el Ano 2000. San Salvador, El Salvador: CONESAL, 1993.

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

IUDOP-UCA. Encuestas de Opinion Publica. Informes Nos. 17, 111, 112, 114 and 116. San Salvador, El Salvador: Instituto Universitario de Opinion Publica, Universidad Centroamericana, 1988-2008.

Internet:
Friends of Israel Bible Baptist Tabernacle: http://www.tabernaculo.net/
Iglesia Cristiana Campamento de Dios: http://www.campamentodedios.org/  
Mision Internacional Elim:  http://www.elim.org.sv/
Tabernaculo de Avivameinto Internacional: http://www.tabernaculodeavivamiento.org/

PROLADES:  http://www.prolades.com/cra/regions/cam/els/els_polls_1988-2008.pdf

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

Sobrino, J. et al. Companions of Jesus: the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990.

Wilson, Everett A. "Sanguine Saints: Pentecostalism in El Salvador." Church History 52 (June 1983): 186-198.