American Church History:  The 1500s

Overview of major trends:

  • The development of New Spain:  Spanish Catholic conquistadors explore and attempt to colonize small parts of eastern present-day USA as well as portions of western present-day USA.  Catholic missionaries (mostly Franciscans and Dominicans) usually accompany them. 

  • The development of New France:  French explorers began exploring eastern present-day Canada and parts of eastern present-day USA.  The exploration included many Jesuits.  This area would not further develop until the next century

Contact Mark Nickens, Ph.D. in Church History, at  Questions, comments, and observations are welcome.


2011 Mark Nickens


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1492       Columbus "discovered" the "new world."

More info:  Among his other reasons to explore, Columbus also had a Christian desire.  To learn more, go here.


1493       In his second trip to the "new world," Columbus brought a Franciscan friar, Juan Perez.  Perez celebrated the first Mass in the Americas in this year.


The Big Picture:  Explaining why there are so many denominations

The discovery of America by Europeans laid the groundwork for the vast number of Christian denominations in existence today.  At this point in history in Europe, there was one church, the Catholic Church.  (Several tiny groups of Christians existed who had separated from the Catholic Church, but were vastly outnumbered by the Catholics and were in hiding.)  The 1500s experienced the Protestant Reformation, so that by the end of the 1600s five different Christian groups existed in Europe (Catholic, Lutheran, Anabaptist-related, Church of England, and Calvinist).  And if Christianity had stayed in Europe it would have remained around that number, but that changed when Christianity came to America, and mainly because of one difference:  the vast amount of land in America.  This is why:  Europe was settled and so when these new groups formed during the Protestant Reformation, they had to carve out an area of previously held Catholic land.  But in America, you could simply move to a new area and begin a new faith.  That is exactly what Roger Williams did in the mid-1600s:  the Puritans did not like his teachings in Massachusetts, so he simple moved beyond their control and started a Baptist church.  Multiply that times many people with many different ideas about Christianity and a huge uncharted territory (USA) to expand in, and it equals a large number of Christian denominations in this new America.  For a more detailed explanation, go here.


c. 1517       Bartolome de Las Casas became the first person to hold the title "Protector of the Indians."  The violence against the Native Americans had become so great by this point, that an advocate position was created in order for someone to speak on behalf of social concerns of the Native Americans.  He was a Dominican friar.


1521       The first Mass on the mainland of present day USA was held in Florida by priests accompanying Ponce de Leon.  He had led an expedition to Florida in order to develop a settlement.  The colony lasted less than a year.


1521       New Spain was created, with its capital in Mexico City.  Eventually Spain claimed most of the present-day USA west of the Mississippi River and land along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River to Florida, and included Florida.  This land was now officially Catholic.


The Big Picture:  Why did the explorers force conversion on some Native Americans?

The forced conversion of Native Americans came from the Spanish Catholic branch of Christianity.  This occurred for two reasons, which are interrelated.  First, when the Spanish Catholic explorers came to the "New World," they claimed land as part of Spain.  In essence, these lands were now an extension of Spain.  Second, Spain (which were going through the Protestant Reformation) strongly encouraged (even in some places of using the Inquisition) people to remain Catholic.  So it was important to be Catholic if you lived in Spain.  Tie these two together, and the result is that whenever new land was added to Spain, the inhabitants needed to become Catholic.  Therefore, the Native Americans now lived on Spanish land (according to the mindset of the explorers) and so needed to become Catholic.


1523       New Spain:  Charles V, king of Spain, gave Vasquez de Ayllon the charge to plant settlements on the eastern coastline of North America; this document includes a statement which highlights the evangelical aspect of the settlements.  (The colony of San Miguel, located either in Virginia or Georgia, lasted less than one year.)  To read part of the statement, click here.


1535       New Spain:  Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer in the New World, and three other men were the only survivors out of 300 men who had left Spain in 1527 and had landed in present-day Florida.  He led them through part of the southeast of present-day USA and into present-day Mexico, where they were rescued.  One of the three other men was Benitez, a Black man.  He is the first Black person known to have come to present-day USA.  In an odd twist of fate, the Indians several times made Cabeza de Vaca a slave.


1537       Pope Paul III issued the bull (official document) Sublimus Dei, which stated that the Native Americans are rational beings with souls.  He also denounced slavery for Native Americans.


1539       New Spain:  Franciscan Friar Marcos de Niza was the first European to visit present-day New Mexico. 


1540s       New France:  Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River, located approximately at the border of present-day USA and Canada.  This is the beginning of the development of New France.  Eventually New France will include territory through the middle of present-day USA to the Gulf of Mexico.

1543       New Spain:  Juan de Padilla, a Franciscan friar, became the first Christian martyr in America.  Read his story here.

1547       Japan:  Francis Xavier, Jesuit priest, arrived in Japan.  To learn more about Xavier, go here.

1565       New Spain:  St. Augustine, in present-day Florida, is founded by the Spanish.  It is the oldest city, in terms of European occupation, in the USA.  It became a center for Spanish missions throughout present-day Florida.

1583       China:  Matteo Ricci, Jesuit priest, arrived in China. 

1598       New Spain:  Juan de Onate, leading a force of 100 men plus women and children and 7000 cattle, entered present-day New Mexico with a mandate by the King of Spain to colonize the northern frontier of New Spain.  Within a few months, he had established a colony with administration plus divided the region into 7 mission districts, which were led by Franciscan friars.  By 1617 the missions included 11 churches and 14,000 Native American Christians.  In 1621 this number had grown to 16,000 Native American Christians led by 27 priests.

Primary Sources

From document granting de Ayllon permission to open settlements in the New World:  "Our principal intent in the discovery of new lands is that the inhabitants and natives thereof who are without the light of the knowledge of faith may be brought to understand the truths of our holy Catholic faith, and that they may come to the knowledge thereof and become Christians and be saved, and this is the chief motive you are to bear and hold in this affair, and to this end it is proper that religious persons should accompany you."  To go to timeline, click here.


Noll, Mark.  A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.  ISBN:  0802806511.  For Juan Perez