History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

The Rise of Foreign Missions

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame

I. New Fields Opened to the Church.

Europe, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, had little more than traditional knowledge of the two great continents lying nearest her on the globe.

The victories of the Turks in the East, and their continual attempts to push their western front farther into the heart of the continent, deterred European peoples from making any effort to cross the lines of their dauntless foe and to explore the lands known to lie still farther east. The stories of the Polo family—the Venetians who, between 1254 and 1295, crossed Asia even to the Pacific shore—were almost the only sources of knowledge of that continent open to Europeans of the fifteenth century; and the maps constructed from their statements by the Nuremberg geographers are curious in the extreme, Asia being carried so far round the globe as to bring China within a measurable distance of Spain. These quaint maps are said to have inspired the attempt of Columbus to get to India by sailing west. Africa was known only for a short distance inland from the shores of the Mediterranean. Some mariners of Dieppe claim to have made a settlement on the Guinea Coast in 1364, and an Italian map of 1367 exists, showing the coast as far as Bojador. Had Arabic literature been available to Europeans, Africa might have been fairly well known, for, from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, the dark continent had been giving up its secrets to its Mohammedan masters. But, previous to 1492, America had no existence for the Old World, for though it is certain that Danes and Norwegians had been there before the close of the tenth century, all trace of the discovery had been lost.

Fifty years of exploration effected a revolution in geography that was only equaled by its results on the subsequent history of the globe. To Prince Henry the Navigator, son of John I. of Portugal, and grandson of John of Gaunt (1394-1460), is due the inauguration of the mighty movement. Gazing from his palace at Sagres across the ocean that lay unbounded before him, Henry felt the desire of finding the lands hidden beyond the horizon. He had served in the wars against the Moors of Morocco, and had seen and heard what had further excited his curiosity. He devoted himself to improving navigation, and, from 1433 to 1460, had a number of young nobles trained as mariners in a naval school attached to his palace. Thence he sent out expeditions, each of which distanced the achievement of the earlier ones, till the whole African coast to Sierra Leone was laid open, and the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde Islands were acquired. After the death of Henry the discoveries were continued, and trading relations were established along the whole coast. The Cape of Storms—now of Good Hope—was doubled by Bartholomew Diaz in 1487. Vasco Da Gama passed into the Indian Ocean ten years later, and sailed on to Calicut. Arab traders were monopolizing the commerce, and Da Gama had to fight his way out of the port. An attempt to found a colony in the newly-discovered land led to the opening up of South America also. Ocean currents carried the vessels out of their course, and the crews, under Cabral, landed on the coast of South America in 1500. The Portuguese, intent on settling in India, made no stay for the time being, but they took possession of the place, which, from its producing Brazil wood in abundance, was afterwards called by that name. Da Gama, treated at first with the neglect experienced by nearly all the great explorers of those days at the hands of their rulers and countrymen, succeeded in consolidating the power of the Portuguese in India by 1524. After a desperate struggle with the Mohammedan power in the East, they made many important settlements, and for a time they were practically masters of the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, for Diaz and Da Gama had placed Africa and Southern Asia in their hands, while Cabral had given them Brazil. It must not be forgotten that China was visited as early as 1516. Japan was opened to foreigners some thirty years later.

Christopher Columbus


But Cabral was not the first European to set foot on American soil. Columbus, a young and adventurous Genoese, had been voyaging, sometimes in the service of Rene of Provence, sometimes on his own account, and had sailed beyond Iceland, a hundred miles ahead, he says himself. Whether any traditions of the old connection between Iceland and a western land came to the ears of Columbus is not known, but the bold project of reaching India across the Atlantic had been conceived, and for seven years Columbus sought a sovereign who would give him the means of realizing it. John II. of Portugal, Henry VII. of England, the Spanish Dukes of Medina Sidonia and of Medina Coeli, all refused assistance. . Christopher Columbus at length secured the interest of Isabella of Spain, and with a tiny fleet of three vessels he dared to face the great unknown. After two anxious months of westward sailing, land hove in sight, most probably Watling Island in the Bahamas. Cuba and Hayti were visited, and Columbus set out to return. One vessel, the Santa Maria, had been wrecked, the other two parted company in a storm, but both arrived the same day at Lisbon, less than eight months from their departure. Three other voyages followed; the West Indian Islands were visited, the southern shores of the Mexican Gulf explored, and the Spanish flag was planted in several places. The story of these expeditions can hardly find place here. Spain was not grateful to her hero, who died in obscurity (1506).

Mexico was gained for Spain by Hernando Cortes. He landed at Vera Cruz in 1519, and after a long contest with the brave natives, and a desperate siege of the capital, found himself master of the wealthy and highly civilized Mexican Aztecs.

Peru was invaded by the five Pizarro brothers about 1532. They crossed the Panama Isthmus and sailed down the Pacific coast, taking possession and founding cities in the name of Spain. All the brothers eventually met their deaths in consequence of quarrels among the conquerors, who could not agree on their respective regions of influence. Paraguay was settled as a dependency of Peru by Mendoza in 1535, but Spanish supremacy was long opposed by the powerful Guarani Indians. Other adventurers extended their conquests in North America, and by 1540 Spain had, in America alone, fifty-seven viceroys governing the vast provinces which a half-century had added to her sway. Spanish vessels had also been crossing the Pacific. Magellan, a Portuguese who had been treated with disdain by his sovereign, offered his services to Spain, and, proceeding down the Atlantic, passed through the strait which since bears his name, sailed westwards across the great ocean, and discovered the Philippines in 1521. Magellan was killed there, but his ship was successfully navigated homewards, and, still sailing west, reached Spain—the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe. A rush for the new lands followed, and during the period of colonization the mastery of the seas changed hands.

As early as 1493 Portuguese and Spanish interests in the newly opened-up countries threatened to conflict. To prevent war, Alexander VI., by the Bull of Partition, settled the limits of the regions of influence of Spain and Portugal respectively. He decided that the former might operate up to the 37th degree of longitude counted west from the Cape de Verde Islands, while the latter should enjoy prescriptive rights up to the same line of demarcation—reached, however, by an easterly course. The famous map on which the Pope traced the boundary-line is still kept at the Museum in Rome. By the same Bull the Pope provided for missionaries being sent to heathen lands.

At first Spain and Portugal carried everything before them, but the Netherlanders, during their struggle with Spain, had developed a powerful navy. England determined to share in the new prizes, and strengthened her fleet also. In 1580 Spain and Portugal were united under one crown, and the power of the combined forces might well have seemed invincible. The defeat of the Armada (1588), however, threw the balance on the side of the Protestant Powers, and from that time the English and the Dutch began to gain the ascendancy. England had her East India Company in 1600, and the Dutch followed with theirs two years after. Twenty years later the two Protestant Powers were fighting it out between them, the Dutch winning the day at Amboyna (1622). The transference of the supremacy of the seas from Catholic to Protestant hands was most disastrous for the work of the missions.

In the northern part of the American continent England and France took shares as well as Spain. The Dutch and Swedes had their settlements also.

England claimed the right of settling by priority of discovery, the Cabots, under a charter of Henry VII., having been the first to sight Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island (1497). France made her first settlement on the St. Lawrence (1534), and took possession in the name of Francis I. Spain had seized on Florida in 1512, and after the conquest of Mexico pushed northwards and westwards. By the middle of the seventeenth century the three European nations practically divided the continent between them. England held, in the north, nearly all the land fringing Hudson Bay and Labrador (with a claim to what would now be called Hinterlands), on the east, a broad tract of land sloping towards the Atlantic seaboard, broken into, however, by the Swedish and Dutch possessions, and, on the west, a line of coast on the Pacific shores, together with the great island of Vancouver which it faced. The French possessions lay within the English, and occupying the broad prairie lands which form the basin of the Mississippi, stretched to the most outlying ranges of the Rockies. They had, however, three splendid outlets on the coast—the central portion of Hudson Bay, the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and the mouth of the Mississippi. Spain held the southern part of the continent, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico proper, with Florida an outlying province. The isthmus provinces, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, were also in Spanish hands.

Thus, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all the great continents were thrown open to Europeans, and a novel form of emigration had been set up—the race for new lands to be conquered and new fields of wealth to be explored. With few exceptions, the story of early colonization is marred by deeds of cruelty and injustice to the native populations, and the student of missionary enterprise knows too well that everywhere the spread of the faith was hindered, and the best efforts of heroic priests and religious thwarted, by the greed and cruelty of the adventurers from Christian lands.

Before attempting to sketch the outlines of the attempts made up to the close of the eighteenth century to convert the newly-discovered peoples, it may be well to give some idea of who they were: only thus can the magnitude of the task be estimated.

II. Peoples of Newly-Found Lands

Very little change had taken place in the distribution of the various races inhabiting Africa since the Portuguese landed. Then, as now, there were two strongly-marked branches of the human family dividing its broad surface between them, Caucasic in the north and Ethiopic in the south. The former are represented by the Hamites, a people divided into many sub-families, but all having some features in common. They are tawny, dark-haired, sometimes lithe and active, sometimes strongly built, and very hardy and enduring. They are the descendants of the original inhabitants of Africa, and are addicted to warfare. Once masters of and inhabiting the whole of the northern portion, they still occupy an extensive area, including part of the south-western shores of the Mediterranean, the vast interior of the Sahara, Egypt, part of Abyssinia, and the adjacent provinces of Kaffir, Galla, and Somali. The Tuaregs are the most powerful representatives of this section. Between the Hamite territories and the Mediterranean for the greater part of its length, down the west coast of Africa and across the Soudan—forming, as it were, a fringe around the Hamites—are the Arabs, another Caucasic people, but of the Semitic branch, brown in complexion, hardy, muscular and enterprising in character, nomadic in habits, and the slave-dealers of the world. There has been considerable intermingling of these two northern peoples, who, where they touch the great southern race, the Ethiopic, are often found to share their characteristics also. The Arabs are far inferior to the other races in number; but much restricted as is the area of their supremacy now, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was felt over the whole continent.

The Ethiopic people are of two very dissimilar types, the Soudanese negroes and the Bantu races. The former are confined to regions north of the equator, and are the African negroes proper. They dwell in the hottest part of the continent from Guinea and Senegambia across the Soudan to the Nile Valley, but north of the Congo Basin. The slave people of America and the West Indies are mostly derived from this stock. The Bantu races occupied almost the whole of the southern part of the continent when Europeans first landed on their coasts. They are a wonderful group, showing by their speech a common origin, and though there are many varieties among them, they are a fine people, capable of civilization, and far superior to the true negro in their characteristics. They often form large and powerful states, and exhibit military genius in no small degree. The south-western half of the peninsula south of the Torrid Zone was, and still is, where whites have not penetrated, inhabited by blacks of a lower type, Hottentots and Bushmen, the former supposed to be the last survivors of an earlier people, the latter belonging to a very curious type, the so-called Pygmies. There are other Pygmies in different parts—tiny people—sometimes black, sometimes brown like the Aruwimi found by Stanley in 1888-89.

All the northern group—Arabs, Hamitic races, and many of the Soudanese negroes—were Mohammedans when the Portuguese landed. A few schismatic Christians were known to exist in Egypt and Abyssinia, and attempts had been made from time to time to win them back to the unity of the faith, but without success. All the Bantu tribes were, as they still are, Nature worshippers: fetishism and witchcraft form prominent features of their religious system.

The two Americas, when discovered, were inhabited by a remarkable race of men, absolutely of the same type from one end of the continent to the other, the Eskimo alone being of a different origin. Unlike in minor characteristics, there is a remarkable sameness in these people as they are described by their conquerors. They are spoken of as brave, hospitable, enduring, tractable when kindly treated, capable of civilization—of culture almost—fine of form and feature, warm complexioned and extremely agile, though physical stamina seems to have been wanting. Injustice and cruelty made them vindictive, treacherous and irreconcilable enemies of the white man. Most of the enormous expanse thrown open to European influence was fairly thickly populated. Some tribes still subsisted on the produce of the chase alone, and these formed the lowest grade in a long ascending scale of civilization which reached its culminating point in Mexico and Peru, where the invaders found an organized government and large cities, with buildings of architectural merit and beauty. Agriculture was in high perfection; mining and working in metals were practised, and schools existed where the youth of both sexes learned reading, writing, and some form of calculation. Poetry was not unknown, and astronomy had made some advances. It is now usual to consider the American Indians as a great off-shoot of the Mongolic stock. They worshipped many gods, mostly impersonations of natural phenomena, and had a clear belief in a future state.

Asia presents a great contrast to both Africa and America as regards its inhabitants. The cradle of the human race, the centre from which the great invasions of the rest of the globe had radiated, and which had been re-entered and partially conquered by each in turn of the dominant western races—Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arabian—its peoples were numerous, strongly marked in their differences of character, civilization and religion, but all adverse to the coming among them of strangers, possibly through reminiscences derived from the experience of their ancestors. The three main stocks are represented, each having numerous varieties. Some very ancient tribes are still to be found inhabiting, as the last remains of an early people generally do, the extreme points of the most outlying peninsulas, or the summits of their mountain chains. The affinities of these are not well established. The Caucasic type is well represented by the highly intelligent Hindus, the warlike Afghans, Beluches, Kurds, and Armenians, and the indolent Persians and Caucasians, who all form part of the Aryan group. Kin to these are the Slays of Russia and the Samoyedes of Siberia. In and round Palestine and Arabia there is a thick sprinkling of Semitic people—Jews, Arabs, Syrians. But the majority of the myriad inhabitants of the massive continent are of the Mongolic type. The Turko-Tartars of Central Asia, the Mongols proper of East China, the Manchurians of North-west China, the Tunguses and Yakuts of the Arctic shores, form a very prominent group. The Central Chinese, the Japanese, and the Coreans are three distinct varieties of another family, with kindred branches in Thibet, Burma, Siam, and Annam, the monosyllabic character of their language distinguishing them from the other races of the same stock.

It is beginning to be considered certain that the Oceanic Malay population belongs to the Mongolic stock, strongly modified by admixture with Ethiopic races. The pure black type is found only among the Papuans, but the inhabitants of Australia, of Melanesia, and of Tasmania (the last now extinct), are Ethiopic in characteristics. This last-named group was unvisited by the earlier explorers.

Four centuries ago the same religions were practised in Asia as at the present day, though there have been modifications in the belief and form of worship, and in the races following them. One of the most ancient was Brahminism, which arose among the Hindus when, some time previous to 1000 B.C.—that is, during the days of the Hebrew Judges—the Aryan immigrants settled in India. They were already, civilized, and had a definite form of worship described in their sacred books, the "Vedas." It is supposed that gradually they split up into castes, the highest consisting of priests only (the Brahmins), the next of warriors, and the third of traders. These original castes at first numbered none but Hindus among them, but later on marriages outside that race must have taken place. A fourth caste, the Sudra, lower than the others, was made up of aborigines, the subject race; while outside the castes—literally the outcasts of all—were the Pariahs. The different castes are still strictly inclusive, marriages taking place within each section, but not outside its limits, and intercourse between them, even for necessary matters, being as restricted as possible. Later on a network of castes grew up within each section, so that there is now a species of strongly-marked clanship dividing the people into closely hemmed-in sets. The old Vedic traditions and practice having become obscured about 250 B.C., a reform took place, which developed into Buddhism. It made rapid progress, but did not take firm root among the Hindus proper, though the Greek settlers, who remained behind after Alexander the Great's invasion, were among those who adopted and retained it. Hence there are still Buddhists in India, though Brahminism revived again, and became much stricter than before, each village gradually forming a unit by itself, a complete little state, shunning intercourse with outsiders. During this period of renewed activity the ruling powers erected magnificent temples, a system of cramping superstition with degrading sacrifices was inaugurated, and, what is without doubt, demon-worship was set on foot.

For four hundred years, beginning about A.D. 1000, Mohammedan invaders overran India. They established the Mogul Empire, which lasted on, at least nominally, till the middle of the nineteenth century the subject States preserving, however, some kind of independence. In the eighteenth century the States began to recover a larger freedom, the Mogul Empire gave place to four Mohammedan kingdoms, one or other of which in turn laid claim to the older title. No strictly Mohammedan State remains except Bengal, though the religion is very widely spread. It cannot be said that the Hindus were converted, but Moslem colonies planted among them have largely affected their views on religious questions.

Buddhism, before its decay in Hindustan, began an active propaganda in the neighbouring nations with such success that, in some form or other, it was adopted by nearly all the Mongol peoples: in fact, at the present day, five hundred millions, out of the one thousand four hundred million inhabitants of the globe, are said to be Buddhists. Its originator was Gautama, of whom many extraordinary stories are told. After long study and prayer, he is supposed to have discovered that existence is the Curse of mankind, and that extinction is supreme happiness. This he endeavoured—and such of his followers as have the courage to follow him to the bitter end endeavour—to obtain by crushing out everything in themselves that contains the germ of a hope or a desire, since, according to their tenets, to desire is to live. For death is not extinction to the Buddhist—only the passage into another form of life, lower or higher, as the life in the human form has been tending upwards or downwards. This is the doctrine of transmigration of souls. They have no notion of God, and no word to express the notion. The duty of man, they say, is to tend to elevate himself by cultivating right thoughts, right feelings, right words, and so on; the end of which course of action will free him from pain, from life, from existence, and he will find his perfection when he is landed in nothingness. Those who strive to follow Gautama's teachings to the full form a kind of religious Order, and these are regarded as being on the road to that state of final bliss. As to the others, it is supposed that in some later incarnation they may get to the point when they too will be of the elect: until then endless transmigrations have to be gone through. Buddha, though figured in what are often called idols, is not a god, but an ideal man —the man who has succeeded in realizing his last beatitude, so that more than one Buddha is represented; neither are the prayers and homage paid before these statues petitions or worship, properly so called: they are not paid to the deified man or his image, but are rather elevations of self—at least, this is what advanced Buddhists profess. There seems little doubt, however, that in many of the sects idolatry, pure and simple, is practised.

In China Buddhism has mingled with the system of morality taught by the sage Confucius, who died in the fifth century B.C. China was distracted by wars between its petty sovereigns, and Confucius strove, but without success, to unite them by common interests into one great Empire. He collected the ancient traditions of the country, and wove them into a system of religion and government which, after his death, attracted great interest, and caused him to be revered with almost Divine honours as the greatest of Chinese. In Japan, Buddhism, broken up into numberless sects, claims the adherence of the greatest part of the population, though the State religion—Shintoism —is practised side by side with it, and not infrequently by the same persons.

In Western Asia there were still a number of Christian peoples, most of which were schismatical. These were principally the Maronites, Armenians, and Syrians, who in belief were either Nestorians or Monophysites.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame


Century  Country or Nation
I.   Palestine, Arabia, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy (Rome).
II.   Gaul, North Africa, Spain, Britain.
III.   Persia, Italy (Milan), North France.
IV.   Britain, Armenia, Switzerland; (Goths), etc.
V.   Persia, Ireland, Scotland; progress in France.
VI.   England (Saxons); Flanders, North Scotland.
VII.   England (Angles), Holland.
VIII.   Westphalia.
IX.   Scandinavia, Sweden, Bohemia.
X.   Russia, Denmark, Poland.
XII   Norway, Persia.
XIV.   China (Pekin).
XV.   Canaries, Congo, Cuba, Hayti, etc. (Columbus).
XVI.   Mexico, Central and South America, Japan, China, India, Cochin China, Siam.
XIX.   Soudan, North Africa, Tasmania, New Zealand, Uganda, Central Africa, Australia, South Africa, Oceania.

III. The Work of the Missioners

Such was the field of labour thrown open to the zeal of the Catholic missionary by the discoveries of the sixteenth century. The full significance of the conquests made is only recognized when the dates marking them are set beside those giving the contemporary facts of European history. It is startling to find great defections from the true faith in the Old World set off by the foundation of dioceses and colleges, conversions and martyrdoms, in the New World, or in the newly opened-up parts of the eastern continent. Such are the compensations God Himself provides for the Church in the days of her deepest distress.

It would be a mistake, however, to forget that the Church was missionary before the sixteenth century. Her Divine Founder is the Archetype of Missionaries. His Apostles followed in His footsteps. The first preachers in every land, to every race, whether in Rome, Ireland, or Bulgaria, to Saxon, Hun, or Icelander, were missionaries. Every age has had its apostles, who abandoned their own people to carry afar the tidings of salvation; but it was when naval enterprise crossed the watery barrier that had so long kept Europe shut up within her own restricted area that the Church could fully realize the scope of the command she had received to teach all the nations.

The missionaries were mainly drawn from the religious Orders—Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits. The two first named were only developing the spirit of their respective founders: St. Francis of Assisi himself and some of the earliest of his sons had started to convert the Moslem; St. Dominic's Order had been established for the conversion of heretics. The Augustinians took up a new task, but the Jesuits made labours among infidel peoples one of their distinctive works from the very first.

One of the most striking features of the conversion of the heathen in these times is the rich outpouring of grace which showed itself, not only in the intrepid heroism of the new apostles, but in the gifts of tongues and miracles which many of them shared, and in the vast multitudes that entered into the fold of Christ. When there are exceptions to the rule, this nearly always occurs in places where European greed and licence caused the unfortunate neophytes to draw the contrast between the words of the Christian preacher and the deeds of his flock.