AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN NICARAGUA
By Clifton L. Holland
Last revised on July 20, 2001

 

The Republic of Nicaragua is the second-largest country in Central America, bordered by Costa Rica to the south and Honduras to the north. Plagued by a humid climate, perpetual poverty and underdevelopment, natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), dictatorships and corrupt governments, civil wars and foreign military intervention, many Nicaraguans decided to abandon their country beginning in the 1970s to seek refuge in Costa Rica, Miami or Los Angeles. This mass exodus of Nicaraguan refugees caused families to be separated, but it has also generated millions of dollars of support from those living abroad to help their relatives in Nicaragua. Turmoil continues to plague the nation today as political factions wage unending verbal warfare against their opponents, while seeking to gain an advantage for the next elections.

In addition, Nicaragua has long been a nation divided due to its geography and ethnicity. A central mountain range divides the country from north to south, and there are few roads on the broad Caribbean coastal plain--over half of the national territory--that is dissected by hundreds of rivers and streams. Historically, the Caribbean coast and the central mountain region have been thinly populated, whereas the Pacific coastal region has been more heavily populated, originally by Native American Indians and later by Spanish settlers and their descendents. Ethnically, prior to Spanish colonization, the Caribbean coast was populated by Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians of Macro-Chibchan origin (the predominant group in Colombia) who lived in scattered fishing villages on the coast and along the inland waterways, whereas the Pacific coast was largely home to linguistical family groups that migrated south along the Pacific coast from present-day Mexico as early as 1,000 BC: Chontales, Chorotegas (Dirianes and Nagrandanos), and Nicaraos (Nahua-Náhuatl-Pipil speakers of Uto-Aztecan origins). Today, the descendents of these ethnic groups live in the region of Matagalpa (Misumalpan), León (Subtiaba) and Masaya (Monimbó). Overall, there were about 194,000 Native American Indians in Nicaragua in 1990, the majority of whom were Roman Catholics (Pacific coast) or Protestants (Caribbean coast, mainly Moravian Miskitos).

Christopher Columbus discovered the territory of Nicaragua in 1502, during his fourth voyage to the New World, when he sailed along the Caribbean coast and explored the area of Cabo Gracias a Dios at the mouth of the Coco River. But it was not until 1523 that Spanish colonists, led by Andrés Niño and Gil González Dávila, arrived on the west coast of Nicaragua from Panama to begin the arduous task of subjugating the Indians and converting them to Roman Catholicism, and of creating Spanish settlements in Granada, León and El Realejo. Although the Spanish conquerors were successful on the Pacific coast, their efforts were unfruitful on the Caribbean coast that was dominated by the Miskito people and smaller tribes. Later, the British established an alliance with the Miskitos, who became their intermediaries with the Spanish, and the British not only established trading colonies but also their military presence on the Miskito Shore for several hundred years. The first Roman Catholic church was established in Granada in 1524 by Franciscans, but most missionary work during the colonial period was done by the Jesuits.

Protestant missionary activity in eastern Nicaragua can be traced to Anglican efforts in the 1760s, although an Anglican influence was present as early as the 1620s among the scattered British trading settlements and logging camps on the Miskito Shore. The Wesleyan Methodists made a weak and unsuccessful attempt to establish themselves in the port of Bluefields in the 1830s, mainly among the Creoles (English-speaking Afro-Americans from the British West Indies). But serious efforts to evangelize the Creoles and Indians in eastern Nicaragua did not begin until the arrival of the German United Brethren (Moravian Church) at Bluefields in 1849. From their base in Bluefields, the Moravians began evangelizing the Miskitos, Sumos, Ramas, Garífunas (an Afro-Caribbean people deported by the British from the Island of St. Vincent to the Caribbean coast in 1789), and Creoles (concentrated in the port settlements). The Jamaican Baptists were active in the Corn Islands of Nicaragua during the 1850s, and the Anglicans renewed their efforts on the Miskito Shore during the 1880s.

Prior to 1900, few Protestant attempts had been made among the Spanish-speaking population of western Nicaragua, either in the Pacific coastal region or in the central highlands. However, several successful missionary efforts had begun to produce fruit among the Hispanicized population by 1940. The independent Central American Mission began its labors in 1900, independent Pentecostals in 1910 (Edward Barnes), the American Baptists (Northern Baptist Convention) in 1917, and the Assemblies of God in 1919 building on the work begun by Bruno Schoneich (or Shoneckey) in 1912. The Seventh-Day Adventists, who initiated mission work on the Caribbean coast among the Creoles in 1904, did not begin to expand their efforts to western Nicaragua until the 1940s.

Protestant church growth was slow in Nicaragua prior to the mid-1960s. In 1937, only seven Protestant mission agencies had begun work on either coast; however, by 1965, 26 Protestant denominations were active in Nicaragua and, by 1978, 46 new denominations had arrived. In 1980, there were at least 72 Protestant denominations in Nicaragua with about 1,500 organized congregations that were being served by over 300 ordained national pastors, 760 unordained lay workers, and 83 foreign missionaries (up from 41 missionaries in 1973). In 1936, 75% of the Protestant church members were Indians and Creoles on the Caribbean coast, and only 25% were Hispanics on the western seaboard. In 1980, the situation was reversed: 70% of the Protestant membership lived on the Pacific coast (including the central mountain region) and only 30% on the Miskito Shore, which represented a drastic shift in the strength of Protestantism in Nicaragua during the previous 44 years.

The main Protestant denominations in Nicaragua in 1980 were:  the Moravian Church (12,950 members), Assemblies of God (8,500), the Seventh-Day Adventists (6,073), Church of God-Cleveland, TN (5,250), American Baptist Convention (4,659), Baptist International Mission (3,040), Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ ((3,600), the independent United Pentecostal Evangelical Mission (3,004), and the Free Apostolic Church (3,000). Pentecostals represented 45% of all Protestants, the Adventists 7.8%, Liturgical groups (Episcopals and Lutherans) 2.4%, other non-Pentecostals 44.2%, and unclassified groups 0.6%.

By 1995, there were 220 Protestant church associations and at least 113 independent churches in Nicaragua, for a total of 4,402 churches with a Protestant population of 534,284 or 12.2% of the national population (1995 Census). The largest denominations were the Assemblies of God (603 churches with 65,315 members); the Moravian Church (144 churches with 52,274 members); Church of God-Cleveland, TN (363 churches with 21,308 members); United Pentecostal Evangelical Mission (273 churches with 19,200 members); Pentecostal Church of God, International Mission (211 churches with 12,529 members); Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ (187 churches with 12,122 members); Church of God of Prophesy (170 churches with 11,870 members); Baptist Convention (112 churches with 10,158 members); Association of Christian Churches (98 churches with 8,321 members); Pentecostal Mission of Christian Churches (117 churches with 6,024 members); Free Apostolic Churches (90 churches with 5,727 members); Church of the Nazarene (98 churches with 5,066 members); Seventh-Day Adventists (75 churches with 4,946 members); independent Churches of Christ (37 churches with 4,718 members); Convention of Mennonite Churches (83 churches with 4,306 members); Fraternity of Central American Churches (102 churches with 4,257 members); Baptist International Mission (38 churches with 4,080 members); Brethren in Christ (90 churches with 3,682 members); Foursquare Church (55 churches with 3,198 members); and Faith and Hope Lutheran Churches (25 churches with 3,081 members).

Marginal Christian groups in Nicaragua include Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Light of the World Church, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, God is Love Church, Voice of the Chief Cornerstone, and Growing in Grace Churches.

Non-Christian groups include Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Myalism-Obeah, Garífuna and Native American Indian (animistic) religions, Hare Krishna, Baha'i, Yoga, Unification Church (Moonies), and the Grand Universal Fraternity (a Gnostic group from Venezuela).

According to the National Census of 1995, religious affiliation in Nicaragua was as follows: Roman Catholic, 77.5%; Protestant, 12.2%; other religions (including Margin Christian), 1.9%; and none/no response, 8.4%. In addition, a 1998 public opinion poll on religious affiliation of the population in the capital city of Managua by IDESPO revealed the following: Roman Catholic, 56%; Protestant, 30%; other religions or no religion, 12.6%; and no response, 1.4%. The 1998 Evangelical Church Directory, produced by INDEF, listed 1,182 Protestant congregations in Managua, which had a population of 1,093,760 in 1995. The total estimated population of Nicaragua in mid-2000 was 5,074,000.

Sources:

CIEETS. Revista de Historia del Protestantismo Nicaraguense, September 1993. Managua, Nicaragua: CIEETS.

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

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

INDEF. Directorio de las Iglesias Protestantes en Nicaragua, 1996-1997. Managua, Nicaragua: Departamento de Investigaciones Socio-Religiosos, Instituto Nicaraguense de Evangelismo a Fondo, 1998.

Matamoros Ruiz, Bartolomé. Historia de las Asambleas de Dios en Nicaragua. Managua, Nicaragua: Distribudora Vida, 1984.

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