Latin America was colonized by Spain and Portugal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the result that Catholicism became the established religion of the area. Immigration from Europe, particularly from Germany, led to small Protestant com- munities being founded in many parts of the continent during the nineteenth century. An Anglican church was established in Buenos Aires in 1821. Yet Protestants – referred to in this region using the Spanish term evangélicos – were generally seen as an elite minority, standing slightly outside the religious mainstream. They were never seen as a threat to the Catholic establishment, being content to retain their historic denominational beliefs and practices, usually imported from Europe, without attempting any form of outreach to the local population.
The rise of Pentecostalism in the region, which dates from the first decade of the twen- tieth century, has significantly altered its religious dynamics. A revival that broke out in a Methodist church at Valparaiso, Chile, in 1909 set the scene for a series of indig- enous Pentecostal phenomena throughout the region, now generally referred to as the “Revival” (Spanish: Avivamiento). Although this was assisted, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War, by missionaries from Pentecostal denominations in the United States, Latin American Pentecostalism has retained its own distinctive identity.
Why has Pentecostalism expanded so rapidly in the region? Sociological studies suggest that the accelerated transformation of Pentecostalism in Latin America has a number of causes, including its openness to adaptation to resonate with local cultural beliefs and values, and political issues. Yet the determining issue often seems to be accessibility. Whereas nineteenth-century Protestant movements represented a religion of the written word, Pentecostalism is essentially an oral religion that makes virtually no educational demands of its followers.
The rise of Latin American Pentecostalism has transformed the religious dynamic of the region. In Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Pentecostals now far outnumber all other Protestant groups, and on some projections may soon constitute the majority of the population. Pentecostals are also growing rapidly in areas adjacent to Latin America, such as the Caribbean, where Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Haiti have seen large increases in Pen- tecostal congregations.
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