For centuries, European missionaries traveled to the farthest reaches of the globe with a singular purpose: to spread the Christian faith. But why was the expansion of Christianity so important to Europeans?
What motivated them to invest huge amounts of time, money and human resources to convert indigenous peoples across Asia, Africa and the Americas?
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Europe wanted to spread Christianity for a mix of religious, political and economic reasons. Christian leaders felt compelled to convert others for religious salvation. European rulers supported missionary efforts to expand empires.
And missionaries paved the way for merchants to gain new markets.
In this detailed article, we’ll explore the complex motivations behind Europe’s drive to spread Christianity worldwide.
Religious Motivations to Save Souls
European missionaries and colonists in the 15th-18th centuries were motivated to spread Christianity for several religious reasons. Many believed it was their sacred duty to convert indigenous peoples to save their souls.
Christian Mandate to Evangelize
Most Christians at the time believed in the Great Commission, Jesus’s injunction to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Catholic missionaries in particular took this as a call to bring salvation to all humanity.
They hoped to save the souls of indigenous peoples by baptizing them and teaching them the Gospel.
Salvation for Christian and Non-Christian Alike
According to Christian theology of the time, faith in Jesus Christ was the only path to salvation. Without converting to Christianity, indigenous peoples would be eternally damned. Missionaries sincerely believed they were saving people from hellfire by bringing them into the Church.
As one 17th century Jesuit missionary in Canada wrote, “The salvation of a single soul is worth more than the conquest of an empire.” Missionaries endangered their lives in hopes of baptizing just a few more souls.
Opposing Indigenous Religions and Cultures
Missionaries considered indigenous spiritual beliefs and rituals to be the work of the devil. They sought to demolish local religious practices and objects they deemed idolatrous. Some even forcibly suppressed cultural activities like dances, viewing them as sinful.
As Christian minister John Eliot wrote of 17th century New England tribes, the goal was to “civilize them, and move them from their restless wanderings and unsettled habitation” to a Christian way of life. Most missionaries believed they had to erase indigenous culture to save souls.
Political Motivations to Expand Power
Winning Converts’ Loyalty to Europe
During the age of exploration and colonialism, European powers saw converting indigenous peoples to Christianity as a way to gain their loyalty and obedience. By converting native populations to Christianity, the Europeans aimed to reshape the cultural and political landscape of colonized lands in their own image.
Missionaries worked closely with colonial governments, and newly converted Christians were often considered more loyal subjects of European rule. This enabled greater control and extraction of resources. Some deals even exchanged conversion for trade goods or protection.
Ultimately, missionaries justified colonialism as a “civilizing mission” – bringing European religion, customs and loyalty to their empires.
Beyond loyalty, Christianity provided moral and legal justifications for imperialist policies. According to doctrines like the Doctrine of Discovery, Christian nations had a divine right to claim lands and peoples yet “undiscovered” by Christians.
Lands deemed “empty” despite indigenous inhabitants were fair game. When indigenous peoples did not willingly convert, missionaries called for more aggressive tactics. Christianity stereotyped native cultures as primitive and savage, making military conquest and forced assimilation seem benevolent by comparison.
Rumors of human sacrifices and devil worship in places like the New World were utilized to portray native peoples as threats requiring Europe’s “civilizing” influence. Regardless of the reality, these stereotypes rationalized the often brutal means of empire building.
Cultural Domination of Indigenous Peoples
While some indigenous elites willingly adopted Christianity for political motives or trade access, most conversion was an tool of cultural domination. Rituals, social customs, dress codes and gender norms were strictly regulated by missionaries and colonial authorities.
Speaking native languages and practicing traditional faiths were often outlawed entirely. Corporal punishment and public shaming were used to compel conversion and obedience. Indigenous cultural sites and objects were destroyed as pagan idolatry.
Children were removed from communities and forced into missionary schools to be assimilated. The trauma caused by this cultural erasure remains painful across many indigenous communities today. While missionaries felt they were saving souls, their agenda was also highly political – remolding indigenous societies to be loyal reflections of Christian Europe and erasing obstacles to colonial resource extraction.
Economic Motivations for Material Gain
Opening Doors to Commerce
One major reason European powers spread Christianity was to open doors for trade and commerce. By establishing missions and converting native peoples, they gained footholds in regions rich in natural resources and trading opportunities.
For instance, the Portuguese set up trading posts along the African coast while also sending missionaries inland to convert tribes. This allowed them to funnel valuable African commodities like gold, ivory, and slaves back to Europe.
Similarly, the Spanish used Catholic missions in the Americas as an infrastructural backbone to extract silver and other riches. In essence, religion provided a moral justification for European powers to muscle into foreign lands and access their wealth.
Exploiting Natural Resources
Aside from trade goods, Christianity allowed European nations like Britain, France and Belgium to tap into foreign natural resources. After converting native peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas, they were able to exploit lumber, oil, rubber, diamonds, tin and other minerals for economic gain.
For example, Belgium was notorious for using force and violence to compel Congolese tribes to collect rubber in the late 1800s. The priests who converted them also dragooned tribes into mining copper and diamonds.
So while spreading the faith, empires ruthlessly despoiled developing regions of vital resources.
Statistics show that European powers drew vast income from their colonies. By the early 20th century, France received over 40% of its entire national revenue from its foreign territories. Clearly, extractive economic policies went hand-in-hand with religious conversions.
Forcing Labor Service
As Christianity took root around the world, so did European concepts of property ownership and human capital. Indigenous people who converted were often forced into labor service without traditional land rights.
For example, Spanish settlers in Latin America set up the encomienda system which gave colonists rights over native labor and produce. French Jesuit priests also compelled converted Huron and Iroquois tribes in New France (Canada) to relinquish their communal property and supply fur pelts.
Such forms of economic exploitation strained native social fabrics and traditions. And the cultural damage was immense in some areas – for instance, Jesuit missionaries pressured and induced over 40,000 Native Americans to resettle into dedicated mission reserves in California during the 18th century alone.
There, European priests and colonists commodified their labor and imposed Old World values.
So in many cases, spreading Christianity provided ideological justification for empire building, resource extraction, and cultural suppression. Yet its legacy is complex, with some missionaries opposing such abuses of indigenous groups.
In summary, Europe’s centuries-long campaign to spread Christianity worldwide stemmed from a mix of religious zeal, political strategy and economic opportunity. Christian leaders sent waves of missionaries to fulfill a religious mandate and save souls.
European rulers supported missionary efforts to gain loyal subjects and justify their growing empires. Merchants followed missionaries into new territories to exploit resources and markets. While the motivations were complex, the effects were simple: Christianity became the world’s largest religion as indigenous cultures were dramatically transformed by European contact.