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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 80–82 

Evangelicalism in Colombia: Stressful Times, Then and Now

Peter J. Loewen

“Discovered” by Europeans during the last decade of the fifteenth century, Colombia was conquered by the Spaniards, and simultaneously Christianized by representatives of the Roman Catholic church. For three hundred years this dominant religion remained unchallenged and the masses were left largely ignorant of the Scriptures.

In 1825, just a few years after Colombia gained its independence from Spain, James Thomson of the British and Foreign Bible Society visited the country. During his brief stay, Thomson was able to organize a national Bible Society with various government officials as prominent members, as well as arrange for a sizeable shipment of Bibles and New Testaments to its capital city, Bogotá. Only three years after Thompson left the country, Luke Matthews came to continue the work, but found that little result remained of Thompson’s noble attempt. Within a year of his arrival, on a trip to the northern coast, Luke disappeared and was never heard of again.

Philip Beckman Livingston was born on the Colombian island of Providencia to Scottish parents. After a tumultuous youth and his marriage to the first governor’s daughter, Philip was converted to the Christian faith on a trip to the USA. He was baptized and ordained as a minister of the gospel in a Baptist church before returning to the island. As a result of this beginning, today some ninety percent of the inhabitants of these islands are professing Baptists—a story so very different from that of the mainland.

Ramón Montsalvatge, trained as a monk in Spain and later converted, suffered shipwreck off the coast of Cartagena. Although he had lost all of his books and personal belongings, Ramón immediately began to preach the gospel in that noted city in 1855. A few months later, the first North American missionary to Colombia, Henry Barrington Pratt a Princeton {81} graduate, found Ramón in Cartagena and shortly thereafter enlisted his services in the distribution of Bibles for the Society. Pratt arranged for the first printing of the New Testament in Colombia in 1857, and in 1874 installed a modern printing press for the production of Evangelical literature in Bucaramanga.

In 1861 a member of the Supreme Court wrote a letter to the Presbyterian missionary McLaren, upon the request of the President, in which he expressed the desire that more Protestant missionaries come to Colombia. He offered them the use of Catholic installations that were not in use at that time. The first Presbyterian church was founded in Bogotá this same year.

Charles Chapman and John Funk, two pioneers of the Gospel Missionary Union, entered Colombia in 1908 and eventually founded a Bible Institute in Palmira.

Other missions which began work in Colombia subsequently include: the Evangelical Alliance Missions (TEAM, 1918) World Evangelization Crusade (1933), the Latin American Mission (1937), the Pentecostals (1938), the Wesleyan Methodists and Southern Baptists (1941), the Foursquare Gospel (1942), the Oriental Missionary Society and the Mennonite General Conference (1943). Besides planting many churches, the Southern Baptists built an International Seminary in Cali and the Oriental Missionary Society built one in Medellin.

In 1945 the Mennonite Brethren began work in one of the least evangelized departments, the Chocó, reaching both Indians and people of African descent. Subsequently their work has focused on larger urban centres such as Cali, Medellin, and Bogotá.

Beginning about the year 1948, the political turmoil in the country has been used as a cloak for the religious persecution of Evangelicals. In a period of eight years, some forty-six Evangelical church buildings were either burned or dynamited, hundreds of believers were tortured or killed, and many more were driven from their homes under threat of death, losing houses, farms, cattle and personal possessions. However, times have changed and today we rarely hear of such overt opposition to the gospel. Many of the churches all over the country are growing, some of them very rapidly.

The term “evangelical” in Colombia encompasses a wide {82} variety of doctrinal persuasions that are essentially non-Roman-Catholic. For this reason it is necessary to make some further distinctions. Of a national population estimated at thirty-five million, some two and a half percent to three percent would classify themselves as “Evangelicals.” From the latest available figures, if we discount groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Greek Orthodox, and reclassify the remaining ones, the breakdown is somewhat as follows: Evangelical Trinitarians (non-Pentecostal), 28.6%; Pentecostal Trinitarians, 29%; Seventh-Day Adventists, 16%; and Pentecostal Unitarians (Jesus Only), 26.4%.

The nature of issues facing Evangelical churches in Colombia today reflects a shrinking international community. Until the present, the country has known neither legal abortion nor legal divorce; the pressure is now on to legalize both. “Hot” drug money becomes a temptation when offered to needy churches. The corporate witness is marred when power or money-hungry leaders commercialize the gospel. Socio-economic pressures often call for a bi-vocational ministry. The proliferation of independent churches produces anarchy. Can any theology lead us to a just religious liberty? In a country where conscription has not been questioned, what happens if Christians object? Should believers seek to effect change by active political involvement?


  • Barrett, David B. World Christian Encyclopedia. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982.
  • Ordoñez, Francisco. Historia del Cristianismo Evangelico en Colombia. Tipografia Unin, Medellin, 1956?.
  • Turnage, Loren C. Island Heritage. Cali, Colombia: The Historical Commission of the Colombian Baptist Mission, 1975.
Peter J. Loewen, a veteran missionary with Mennonite Brethren Missions/Services, is a church planter in Cali, Colombia.

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