By Clifton L. Holland
Last revised on July 20, 2001 


Although the Republic of Panama, which is about the size of South Carolina, is now considered part of the Central American region, forming the narrowest part of the Isthmus and located between Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, until 1903 the territory was a province of Colombia.

Roman Catholic missionaries accompanied the early Spanish explorers and settlers, and this led to the establishment of the first Roman Catholic church in Panama in 1510, called Santa María la Antigua del Darién. This church became the seat of the first diocese to be formed on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere, when Bishop Quevedo arrived with Governor Pedrarias Dávila in 1514. Many of the colonial churches built by the Spanish were constant reminders of the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church in Panama and its temporal powers. One of these colonial treasures, the cathedral of Old Panama City, was ransacked and burned by Henry Morgan and his pirate band in 1671, but its ruins are still the centerpiece of Panamá Viejo and a major tourist attraction.

Historically, Panama has played an important role in world commerce, starting in the Spanish colonial period when mineral treasures from the Andean region were brought by ship to Panama and carried overland from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast for transshipment to Spain. During the California Gold Rush in the 1840s-1850s, would-be miners arrived by ship in the Caribbean port of Colón and walked or rode in wagons across the narrow isthmus to Panama City, located on the Pacific Ocean, where they boarded other ships to travel to the gold fields in northern California. In 1850, U.S. businessmen financed the construction of the Panama Railroad between these two major port cities in order to provide transportation for the growing numbers of people who were headed to California. Then, beginning in 1878, a French company acquired the exclusive right to build an inter-oceanic canal on the Isthmus of Panama. In 1903, the U.S. Government bought out the French interests and proceeded to complete the construction of the Panama Canal, which was opened to shipping in 1914. The U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Company operated the international waterway until December of 1999, when, under the provisions of the Torrijos-Carter Treaty of 1977, the Canal was turned over to the Government of Panama.

The Roman Catholic Church dominated the religious life of Panama until the U.S. Government took control of the Panama Canal Zone (PCZ) in 1903, which brought many U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals to the PCZ to work on the construction, administration and maintenance of the Panama Canal. The rapid influx of thousands of Protestant immigrants to Panama in the early 1900s led to the construction of many Protestant chapels for the largely English-speaking population of the PCZ, including many Afro-Americans from the British West Indies. The U.S. occupation of the PCZ provided an open door for many Protestant mission agencies to begin work in Panama, such as the Salvation Army and the Adventists (1904), the Southern Baptists (1905), the Methodist Episcopal Church-North (1906), the Church of God (Anderson, IN, 1906), and the National Baptist Church (1909). By 1911, about 10,000 residents in the PCZ were being served by 39 churches: Protestant Episcopal (13), non-denominational churches (8), Roman Catholic (7), Baptist (7), Methodist (3), and Adventist (1). Three additional groups arrived in the next decade: the Free Methodist Church of North America (1913), the Christian Mission of Barbados (1914) and the Plymouth Brethren (1918). Also, in 1914, the Union Churches of the Canal Zone were organized as non-sectarian, interdenominational community churches. In 1935, the population of the PCZ numbered 14,816 and was served by 54 congregations.

However, the first Protestants to arrive in Panama were a group of 1,200 Scottish Presbyterians, who attempted to build a commercial colony on the Caribbean coast of the Darien Peninsula in 1698, which was abandoned in late 1699. The next to arrive were Wesleyan Methodists who were among Afro-Caribbean immigrants that settled in the Bocas del Toro region of the Caribbean coast, beginning in the 1820s. The United Methodist Free Church of England (1870s), the Jamaican Baptists (1880s), and the Jamaican Wesleyan Methodists (1880s) also began work among West Indian immigrants in Panama. The Anglican Church arrived in the 1850s during the construction of the Panama Railroad, and company officials helped to finance the construction of the first permanent Protestant church building in Panama: Christ's Church-by-the-Sea in Aspinwal, now called Colón, built in 1864-1865. This was the second-oldest permanent Protestant church in Central America, with the first being St. John's Anglican Cathedral in Belize City, built in 1825. However, occasional Anglican-Episcopal worship services had been held in Panama since 1849, conducted by clergymen en route to the Gold Fields in California, which led to the establishment of the first Episcopal congregation in 1851 in the port town of Taboga. An official "Isthmian Mission" of the Anglican Church was established in Panama in 1853, although missionary work was sparce until 1883.

Present among the West Indian population were the Afro-Caribbean sects of Myalism (an Afro-Christian syncretic religion that appealed to all African ethnic groups in Jamaica), Obeah (a religion probably of Ashanti origin, characterized by the practice of sorcery and witchcraft, which had been outlawed in the British colonies during the slavery period) and the "revivalistic" sects of Pocomania and Cumina, in which spirit possession was a central feature.

Prior to the 1950s, Protestant missionary activities were largely centered in the PCZ, where most of the English-speaking people were concentrated. However, over time some of the Protestant denominations began to evangelize and establish churches among the Spanish-speaking population, mainly in the canal region and in the western provinces of the country. Prior to the 1940s, Southern Baptist work in Panama was largely limited to the PCZ and the port cities of Panama City and Colón, among North Americans and West Indians. In the 1940s increased efforts were made by the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board to began work in Spanish-speaking communities, and in the 1950s among the Kuna Indians on the Caribbean coast of Northeastern Panama. Protestant efforts among the Kunas began in 1913, led by British and American independent missionaries under the sponsorship of the San Blas Mission. During the 1950s, the independent New Tribes Mission and several Mennonite groups began work among Native American Indian groups in Panama, as well.

Pentecostal work in Panama began with the arrival of the Arthur Edwards family in 1928, sent out by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel with headquarters in Los Angeles, California. Early evangelistic efforts by Edwards and his helpers proved quite successful among the Spanish-speaking population during the 1930s and 1940s, especially following revival meetings in the PCZ town of Frijoles where supernatural "signs and wonders" were reported for several years in the mid-1930s. The mother church of the Foursquare movement was founded in 1937 in Panama City, called the Calle Q Foursquare Church, which became a training center for missionary efforts throughout the country. The Foursquare Bible School was established there in 1938. By 1981, the Foursquare Church had grown to about 21,700 baptized members, 206 organized congregations and 201 preaching points in all nine provinces, and about 97% of the membership was composed of Spanish-speaking Panamanians. At that time, the Foursquare Church was not only the largest Pentecostal denomination in Panama, but it was also the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

Other Pentecostal denominations in Panama include the Church of God of Cleveland, TN (1935), the Evangelistic Doctrinal Church of Puerto Pilón (an independent group, founded in 1940), the Church of God of Prophecy (1946), the International Evangelical Church Soldiers of the Cross (1950), the Apostolic Assembly of Faith in Jesus Christ (1960), the Church of God in Christ (1964), the New Life Evangelical Church (1967, a split from the Foursquare Church in the Province of Chiriquí), the Assemblies of God (1967), the World Wide Missionary Movement (1973) and Missionary Advance (1973) from Puerto Rico, and the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ (1974).

Small, non-Pentecostal Protestant denominations include the following: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1942), the Central American Mission (1944), the independent Churches of Christ (1945), the New Tribes Mission (1952), the Gospel Missionary Union (1952), the Church of the Nazarene (1953), the Society of Bible Churches (1958), the Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services (1958), the Church of the Brethren (1958), the United Gospel Church (1961), the Evangelical Mission of Panama (1961), Baptist International Missions (1961), the Association of Lutheran Churches of Panama (1963), and the Free Will Baptist Church (1964).

In 1980, the largest Protestant denominations in Panama were the Foursquare Church, the Episcopal Church, the Adventist Church, and the Baptist Convention. However, by 2000, the Assemblies of God had become the largest denomination in Panama as a result of 20-years of strenuous evangelistic and church-planting efforts throughout the country.

Marginal Christian groups include the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, and Voice of the Chief Cornerstone (followers of William Soto Santiago of Puerto Rico).

Other religious groups include traditional Native American Indian religions (animistic practices among the Kuna [two linguistical groups], Guaymí [Ngabere], Chocoes [Waunana and Embera], Teribe and Buglere or Bokotá), traditional Chinese religions (Tao, Confucianism and Buddhism), Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Greek Orthodox Church, Baha'i Faith, Sawan Kirpal Ruhani Mission (Science of Spirituality), Master Ching Hai Meditation Association, Superjet Light Doctrinal Church, and the Parish of Divine Mercy and Mary the Mystical Rose (Spiritualist).

According to a January 1996 public opinion poll conducted by the CID-Gallup company, the religious affiliation of the Panamanian population was as follows: Roman Catholic, 86.4%; Protestant, 7.3%; other religions, 2.1%; and none/no response, 4.2%. However, Evangelical sources in Panama reported the Protestant population at about 15%.

In 2000, the total population of Panama was estimated at 2,855,700, of which about 80% were Spanish-speaking, about 9% were Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, East Indians and Arabs), 8.3% were Native American Indians (speakers of seven languages), and 3.7% were English-speaking (West Indians and North Americans). The literacy rate was 90.8%.


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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.

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