AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN GUATEMALA
By Clifton L. Holland
Written in 2002 and last revised on December 17, 2007
The Republic of Guatemala, the largest and most populous country in Central America, is bordered by Mexico (west and north), Belize (northeast), Honduras (east), and El Salvador (southeast). The country is divided geographically by the central highlands that stretch east and west. The magnificent scenery includes black-sand beaches and rolling hills and farmland along the Pacific coast; majestic smoking volcanoes, forested mountain ridges, dark-blue lakes, terraced hill-sides, and green-carpeted valleys of coffee bushes in the central highlands; tropical rain-forests in the northern lowlands; and large lakes and swamps in the Caribbean coastal region.
However, Guatemala, known as the "Land of Trees" and the "Land of Eternal Spring" has been steadily loosing much of its animal and plant life, particularly since the 1950s, due to the process of economic modernization. Environmental deterioration is now threatening human society and the economy, but the flora and fauna have long suffered from human activities. From the early hunter and gatherer groups of Amerindians that arrived about 2,500 BC, to the sophisticated Mayan civilization of 400-900 AD in the Guatemalan highlands and lowlands (as well as in adjacent areas of Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador), where more than a million inhabitants depended on large-scale agricultural production to sustain their dominance in the region, to the Spanish colonial period (1492-1832) and the modern period (1832 to date), the natural environment of Guatemala has suffered the accumulative effects of accelerated human occupation.
The Classic Mayan civilization, which was dominated by large city-states in the Valley of Guatemala (where Guatemala City is now located), Tikal in the lowlands of the Peten, Copan in northwestern Honduras, and Palanque in the Chiapas foothills, rapidly declined after 900 AD due to environmental changes (mainly drought), over-population, internal social and political disintegration, and competition with rival Amerindian empires (Toltec and Mixtec), according to many scholars. The center of Mayan civilization shifted from the previous city-states to new ceremonial centers in the central and northern Yucatan Peninsula in present-day Mexico, such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan, during the period 600-1,500 AD.
By the time the Spanish conquistadores, colonists and Roman Catholic priests arrived in the early 1500s, the Mayan civilization in Guatemala was in disarray and engaged in bitter rivalry with other major Amerindian groups, which facilitated Spanish domination. By 1650, disease, war and exploitation had greatly reduced the size of the Amerindian population in Guatemala, from about one million in 1500 AD to only about 200,000 in 1650. The Spanish and Creole (American-born of pure Spanish blood) elite ruled over the growing mestizo population (mixed Spanish and Indian blood) and the dwindling Amerindian population, which declined from 80 percent of the total population in 1778 to 65 percent in 1893, to less than half the population in 1973, according to government authorities.
Today, Guatemalan society is divided into two main categories: Indian and Ladino (non-Indians of Spanish descent). However, the major factors for determining the size of the Indian population by the government have been language and dress, rather than race, which tends to underestimate the strength of the Amerindian population. The Council of Mayan Organizations (COMG) claimed that about 65 percent of the Guatemalan population were Indian in 1990. However, Ladinos control the nation's political and economic life, as well as determining its social standards: "to be accepted outside one's own Indian community one has to look, act, and talk like a ladino," according to Tom Barry in Inside Guatemala (1992). Ethnic discrimination permeates Guatemalan life, and Indians must shed their traditional dress and language and assume a Ladino cultural identity to achieve social acceptance and to succeed in the dominant society.
According to Wycliffe Bible Translators' Ethnologue (1992), the population of Guatemala was about 9,340,000 in 1990, with 55 percent being Amerindian, 44 percent Mestizo, and about one percent other races. Fifty-two dialects are spoken in Guatemala among 23 ethnolinguistical groups, with Spanish being the dominant language (44%), followed by the principal Mayan languages of Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel and Kekchi. Spanish is the major trade language because most of the Amerindian languages are linguistically distinct, which hampers communication outside one's own ethnic group. About 100,000 Black Caribs (Afro-Amerindian) speak Garifuna in Central America, but only about 16,700 live in Guatemala, mainly on the Caribbean coast.
Additional ethnic components of the Guatemalan population include English-speaking, Afro-American West Indians on the Caribbean coast, Middle Easterners (mainly Lebanese and Jews), Caucasians (mainly Germans and U.S. citizens), Chinese and Koreans.
Politically, Guatemala achieved its independence from Spain in 1821-1823, after nearly 300 years of Spanish colonial rule when the Captaincy-General of Guatemala became the United Provinces of Central America, and when, in 1838, the Republic of Guatemala was created under rebel leader Rafael Carrera (1838-1865). In 1852, Carrera signed a concordat with the Vatican, repealed the anti-clerical legislation established under the rule of Francisco Morazan (1829-1838), reinstated the Catholic religious orders, and allowed the Catholic clergy to operate the nation's few schools. However, after the death of Carrera in 1865, the Liberal Justo Rufino Barrios came to power (1871-1885) and the RomanCatholic Church was again subjected to harsh legislation, the Jesuits were again expelled, the archbishop and bishops were exiled, tithes were eliminated, convents and monasteries were closed, church property was confiscated, priests were prohibited from wearing clerical garb and were barred from teaching, religious processions were proscribed, and civil marriage was declared obligatory. These anti-clerical laws so crippled the Catholic Church in Guatemala that it has never recovered its former influence.
It was President Barrios, in 1873, who established freedom of speech and worship in Guatemala, and who was responsible for the official introduction of Protestantism into the country by inviting the Presbyterian Church in the USA to send missionaries to Guatemala in 1882, allegedly "to counteract the influence of the Catholic clergy" in its opposition to Liberal reform.
The Rev. John Clark Hill arrived in late 1882 to begin Presbyterian work in Guatemala, although Hill did not speak Spanish upon his arrival and his first activities were among 30-40 distinguished English-speaking foreigners who were already Protestants. Nevertheless, Hill and his successors succeeded in establishing Presbyterian churches and schools in a country that had expelled the first Protestant minister to arrive in Guatemala City in the 1840s, the Englishman and Bible colporteur Frederick Crowe, who was sponsored by the Belize Baptist Mission and the British Honduran Bible Society in Belize City.
By late 1885 Hill and his assistant Luis Canales had begun to preach and teach in Spanish, and had initiated a process that led to the formal establishment of the Central Presbyterian Church, under the ministry of the Rev. Edward M. Haymaker, in 1888, although the first sanctuary at the present site was not built until 1894, adjacent to the National Palace. Haymaker's ministry in Guatemala began in 1887 and did not end with his retirement in 1936 but with his death in 1944, at age 89. In addition to planting churches, the Presbyterians founded the American School in 1883, a hospital and nursing school in 1912, a bookstore in 1915, a girl's school in 1918 and an industrial training center in 1919. By 1935, there were 22 organized Presbyterian churches and 198 preaching points with 2,805 baptized members in Guatemala.
The English worship services in Guatemala City, begun by Hill in 1882, were continued by James R. Hosmer and a succession of other pastors. Today, the nondenominational Union Church, located in Plazuela Espana, traces its founding to that date. This is the oldest Protestant church in Guatemala.
Previously, other efforts had been made by Baptist missionaries and laymen in British Honduras to distribute the Scriptures among the inhabitants of a small British colony of the shores of Lake Isabel in eastern Guatemala, near the border of the two countries, between 1822 and 1835, under the auspices of the British Honduras Bible Society. It was during a similar journey by Frederick Crowe in 1841 from Belize City to Abbottsville, where he resided for two years as a missionary and school teacher, that the English Baptist colporteur began to make plans to travel to Guatemala City by way of Salama, a journey that he accomplished in 1843 with a cargo of Bibles and other evangelical literature. Crowe, although supported in his educational and missionary efforts in Guatemala City by a few Liberals, was opposed by the Catholic clergy and Conservative politicians, who forced his expulsion from Guatemala in 1846. Although no permanent organizational structure was established, the English Baptists have the distinction of being the first known Protestants to work in the Republic of Guatemala.
The third Protestant missionary organization to work in Guatemala was the Central American Mission (now known as CAM International, with headquarters in Dallas, TX), which sent Mr. & Mrs. Edward Bishop to Guatemala City in 1899, a city of about 70,000 inhabitants in 1900. The first CAM church established was located at a major intersection in the capital city and named the "Cinco Calles" Evangelical Church, built in 1903 and pastored by Bishop, which became the Mother Church to hundreds of CAM congregations throughout the country. In 1935, there were 63 organized churches and 185 preaching points with 4,031 baptized members and 13,224 adherents in CAM-supported work.
Not only has the Central American Evangelical Church Association (CAM-related), founded in 1927, become one of the largest Protestant denominations in Guatemala, but CAM has also had an important role in training pastors and lay leaders for the non-Pentecostal Evangelical movement, originally through its Central American Bible Institute (founded in 1926) and later through the Central American Theological Seminary (known as SETECA), created in 1965 by upgrading the Bible Institute program to a university-level program.
By 1935, other Protestant mission agencies were working in Guatemala. The Church of the Nazarene traces its origins to work begun in 1901 in Coban and Zacapa by missionaries affiliated with the Pentecostal Mission of Nashville, Tennessee, which later became part of the Church of the Nazarene in 1915, a holiness non-Pentecostal denomination. In 1902, the California Friends Mission (Quakers) began its ministry in the southeastern part of the country, near the border with Honduras and El Salvador, with headquarters in the Department (province) of Chiquimula. The Seventh-Day Adventists arrived in 1908 and began work in Guatemala City and Quezaltenango, the nation's second-largest city. The Christian Brethren, known in Guatemala as the Free (Plymouth) Brethren, were established in 1924 through the ministry of Carlos Kramer in Quezaltenango.
In 1916, Thomas Pullin and Charles Furman of the United and Free Gospel Missionary Society (Turtle Creek, PA) arrived in Guatemala to begin an itinerant evangelistic ministry in El Quiche, Totonicapan and other western departments, but they returned to the USA in 1920 to strengthened their base of support. When Furman and his family returned to Guatemala in 1922, he was affiliated with another holiness denomination, the Primitive Methodist Church (PMC). Later that year, the PMC absorbed the work begun by independent holiness missionary Albert Hines in Totonicapan in 1912, which was then under the supervision of the Rev. Amos Bradley. In 1926, the PMC acquired the property owned by independent medical missionary Dr. C. F. Secord in Chichicastenango, who had begun work there in 1900, and Secord continued his ministry under the auspices of the PMC.
In 1934, while on furlough in the USA, Furman joined the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) and returned to Guatemala to become that denomination's first missionary in the country. He proceeded to visit PMC churches and encourage the leaders to join him in the ranks of the Church of God, which resulted in 14 PMC churches switching their affiliation to the Church of God. By 1980, this denomination had grown to 664 churches and 234 missions with 34,451 members.
The Assemblies of God began work in the Department of Jutiapa in 1937, as an extension of its ministry in El Salvador. Following a healing campaign by T. L. Osborn in Guatemala City in 1953, the work began to grow more rapidly in the central highlands, and by 1980 churches had been established throughout the country. In 1960, there were 95 churches and 3,300 members; in 1970, 315 churches and 11,000 members; and in 1980, 748 congregations with 35,909 members.
The Prince of Peace Evangelical Church Association was formed in 1956 by Jose Maria Munoz in Guatemala City, among a group of believers that had left the Central Assembly of God. Many of the early members of this new denomination had been members of other Evangelical churches, but were drawn to Munoz' ministry because of his popular radio ministry and powerful Pentecostal preaching. From a group of 100 in 1956, membership grew to 4,500 in 1967 and to 29,130 in 1980 with 567 congregations.
The Elim Christian Mission began as a house church in 1962 in Guatemala City, led by a well-known medical doctor and radio personality, Dr. Otoniel Rios, who became an Evangelical during the Evangelism-in-Depth campaigns in 1961. In 1973, Rios decided terminated his medical practice to devote himself to a full-time pastoral ministry and building up a large central church, which grew to 3,000 members in 1979 after the congregation moved into a new auditorium. By 1980, the ministry of Elim included 147 congregations (churches and missions) with a total membership of 15,290, with a growing association of sister churches in El Salvador.
Other Evangelical denominations that began work in Guatemala prior to 1960 were the following: the National Evangelical Mission (1923), National Association of Baptist Churches (1926), German Lutheran Church (1929), Emmanuel Church Association (1940), Interdenominational Evangelical Mission (1944), Baptist Convention of Guatemala (1946), Spanish American Inland Mission (Calvary Churches, 1947), Church of God-Anderson (Galilee Church of God, 1947), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1947), Church of God of Prophecy (1950), United World Mission (1952), Defenders of the Faith (1952), Bethesda Church of God (1952), Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ (1953), International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (1956), Palestine Pentecostal Church (1956), the Missionary Church of God (1957), and the independent Churches of Christ (1959).
During the 1960s and 1970s, additional Protestant groups initiated ministry in Guatemala: the New Jerusalem Church of God (1960), Assembly of Christian Churches (1962), Episcopal Church (1962), Holy Spirit Evangelical Church of the Sanctuary of Mount Zion (1962), Door to Heaven Pentecostal Church (1963), Christian & Missionary Alliance (1963), Evangelical Mennonite Church (1964), Pentecostal Church of God of America (1965), Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (1968), Mount Bashan Evangelical Churches (1968), Voice of God Evangelical Church (1968), Springs of Living Water Church (1972), Pentecostal Church of God of New York (1972), Bethany Evangelical Mission (1972), the Word Christian Church (1976), Center of Faith, Hope and Love (1978), Christian Fraternity (1979) and the Jesus Christ is Lord Church (1980).
Despite differences of tradition, doctrine and practice, many of the leaders of the respective Protestant denominations in Guatemala met together periodically, although informally, to discuss common problems and resolve conflicts during the period 1909-1935. However, a formal structure was organized in 1935 to facilitate interdenominational cooperation, the Synod of the Evangelical Church in Guatemala, although it was not until 1937 that member organizations formally ratified the agreement. In 1951, the Evangelical Synod was restructured and its name changed to the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala (AEG).
It was under the auspices of the AEG that a vast interdenominational evangelistic campaign was conducted in 1961-1962 throughout the country, under the banner of "Evangelism-in-Depth" (EVAF), a program designed by missionary and national leaders of the Latin America Mission (LAM) in Costa Rica. Led by the LAM's Kenneth Strachan, EVAF was hailed as a great success by the AEG and missionary leaders, due to more than 20,000 reported "professions of faith" that took place during the citywide campaigns and house-to-house visitation efforts.
During the week of January 23-27, 1962, an interdenominational leadership retreat was held in Guatemala City, sponsored by AEG and World Vision International (Monrovia, CA), with the participation of about 1,500 pastors and missionaries from throughout Central America. During the opening ceremony for this event, on January 23, the President of Guatemala, Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, and the Mayor of Guatemala City, Dr. Luis Fernando Galich, addressed the audience of about 3,000 and welcomed the participants, which was the first time in history that a Guatemalan president had participated in a Protestant rally. This singular event and the two-year EVAF program was a symbolic turning point for Evangelicals in Guatemala, who lost their fear of being known as Evangelicals in public and began to openly evangelize their communities and aggressively plant new churches throughout the country.
This was a significant turning point in the history of the Protestant Movement in Guatemala and signaled a new era of rapid church growth in most areas of the country. Between 1960 and 1964, the total number of Protestant congregations increased from 1,156 nationally to 1,611; or in terms of national membership, from 36,928 to about 72,500, which represents a membership increase of 18.3 percent annually--the highest period of growth in Guatemalan history. The second-highest growth period was 1973-1978, when the total membership growth increased by 17.5 percent annually -- from 127,778 to 286,130. By mid-1980, there were 6,448 Protestant congregations in Guatemala with 334,453 baptized members, and a Protestant community of 1,003,359 or about 13.8 percent of the national population of 7,262,419 (June 30, 1980).
When the National Directory of the Protestant Movement in Guatemala was published in 1981, the largest denominations were the following: the Association of Central American Churches (809 churches and missions with 38,480 members), Assemblies of God (748 congregations with 35,909 members), Church of God-Cleveland (898 congregations with 34,451 members), Prince of Peace Evangelical Church (567 congregations with 29,130 members), Seventh-Day Adventist Church (216 congregations with 17,207 members), National Presbyterian Church (295 congregations with 16,263 members), Elim Christian Mission (147 congregations with 15,290 members), and the Church of the Nazarene (129 congregations with 11,349 members). All the other denominations had less than 10,000 members in 1980, but Pentecostal groups had 53.2% of all the Protestant church members in the country, compared to 5.4% for the Adventists, and 31.6% for the Separatist Tradition (Free Church origin). Of the ten largest Protestant denominations in 1980, only four were Pentecostal.
During the period 1960-1980, Guatemala became a "showcase" for the growth of the Protestant Movement in Latin America, but the enthusiasm of Evangelical leaders regarding continued high rates of church growth in Guatemala often exceeded the reality. A series of public opinion polls taken between 1990 and 2001 in Guatemala helped to correct some of the erroneous growth projections made by Evangelical leaders: the CID-Gallup company reported that the Protestant population was 26.4 percent in May of 1990 and 25 percent in April of 1996. Early in 2001, SEPAL conducted a public opinion poll in Guatemala that showed Protestants to be 25.3 percent of the national population. Therefore, it seems clear that the size of the Protestant population has not changed in Guatemala in more than a decade, although the number of Protestant congregations has continued to increase: from about 6,450 in 1980, to 9,298 in 1987, to about 18,000 in 2001. It seems logical to assume that if the number of Protestant congregations has grown by 258 percent between 1980 and 2001 that the total membership has probably increased by a similar rate of growth. So why has the size of the Protestant population remained stable? At this moment, this is an unsolved mystery that awaits further investigation and analysis.
One possible explanation is that there may have been "a great falling away" (desertion or exodus) of Protestant adherents in Guatemala during the 1980s-1990s due to discouragement about the performance of Evangelical politicians, such as Gen. Efrain Rios Montt (military dictator during 1982-1983) and Jorge Serrano (president during 1990-1993), as well as disillusionment over the financial and sex scandals regarding popular Evangelical TV personalities, such as Jim and Tammy Bakker (1987) and Jimmy Swaggart (1991). It is easier for "adherents" to desert the church when things go badly, but it is harder for committed baptized church members to abandoned ship during stormy weather, so it may be true there was "a falling away" of the less committed churchgoers during these hard times in Guatemala.
Another major factor that must be considered during the period 1962-1996 was the political and social upheaval caused by a brutal and bloody civil war between the "public security forces" of the Conservative government and a series of Marxist-led revolutionary forces, which at the time of the Peace Talks in late-1996 were led by the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (known in Spanish as the URNG). The 36-years of armed conflict caused an estimated 200,000 deaths and the forced exile to Mexico of about 250,000 people from conflictive zones, mainly among Indigenous peoples in the central highlands, and about one million internal refugees.
However, it was the counterinsurgency campaign launched by dictator Gen. Rios Montt (a self-declared Evangelical) and carried out by the military and the Civilian Defense Patrols in 1982-1983 that strongly polarized Guatemalan public opinion against the military-controlled government, and that caused civil rights organizations to begin a worldwide campaign against military aid to Guatemala, mainly from the U.S. government. The Guatemalan military was accused of genocide because of its program of systematic extermination of the Amerindian population. In November of 1986, a series of Peace Talks were held in Esquipulas, Guatemala, with representatives from most of the countries of Central America in an effort to bring peace to the convulsed region, but it was not until December of 1996 that a final Peace Accord was signed between the Guatemalan government and rebel forces.
During the 1980s, Evangelical public opinion was divided for and against support for Gen. Rios Montt, who offended many people--Catholics and Evangelicals alike--by his public radio messages that blended anti-Marxist rhetoric with Evangelical sermons. The leadership of the Evangelical Alliance, which represents most Evangelical organizations in Guatemala, decided to back off from publicly supporting Rios Montt and to distance themselves from his government to avoid a possible negative backlash and persecution of Evangelicals should the General be overthrown. After alienating business, military and political opposition leaders, as well as the Catholic Church, Rios Montt was overthrown by Defense Minister Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia in August of 1983. Although Evangelicals were not persecuted after the ousting of Rios Montt as head of State, there is no doubt that the public image of Evangelicals did suffer. Consequently, there was a growing erosion Evangelical strength as the less committed adherents stopped attending Evangelical worship services and either drifted back to the Catholic Church or stopped going to church altogether, thereby joining the growing ranks of those with no religious affiliation.
In 2001, the estimated size of the largest Protestant denominations in Guatemala was as follows: the Assemblies of God (139,000 members), Prince of Peace Church (93,700), Church of God-Cleveland (90,000), Association of Central American Churches (86,000), Calvary Church (59,400), Seventh-Day Adventist Church (46,400), Voice of God Church (44,500), Evangelical Mission of the Holy Spirit (38,700), Elim Christian Mission (36,600), Christian Brethren (33,800), and the National Presbyterian Church (30,100).
According to the SEPAL study in 2001, Catholics were 58% of the nation's population, Protestants 25%, other religions 3%, and none/no response 14%. Other religions included native Amerindian religions (Animist), Garifuna religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (about 67,500 members), the Jehovah's Witnesses (about 14,100 members), Light of the World Church (Guadalajara, Mexico), Voice of the Cornerstone (Puerto Rico), Children of God (The Family), United Church of Religious Science, Christadelphians, Growing in Grace Church (Miami, FL), Judaism, Baha'i Faith, Islam, Buddhists, Chinese religions, Hindus, Gnostics, and Psychic-New Age groups. The total population of Guatemala in 2000 was estimated at 11,385,300.
Note: an earlier version of this article was published in Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, by J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann, editors (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2002).
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Holland, Clifton L., editor. World Christianity: Central America and the Caribbean. Monrovia, CA: MARC-World Vision International, 1981.
Holland, Clifton L. "Expanded Status of Christianity Country Profile: Guatemala" (unpublished manuscript: first draft October 1982, last revised October 2007. Note: originally this document was Chapter 3 of "A History of the Protestant Movement in Central America, 1750-1980," a Doctor of Missiology dissertation for the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA).
Read, William R., et al. Latin American Church Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969.
SEPAL Reporte Preliminar: El Estado de la Iglesia Evangelica en Guatemala, 2001. Guatemala City: Servicio Evangelizadora para America Latina (SEPAL), 2001.
Zapata, Virgilio A. Historia de la Iglesia Evangelica en Guatemala. Guatemala City: Genesis Publicidad, 1982.