European Missionaries and the Spread of Christianity, 1500-1750

Franciscans of the California missions wore gray habits, rather than the brown cassocks that are worn today. / Wikimedia Commons

Christianity spread around the world, largely due to the energy unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.


Missionaries have spread Christianity since the days of the Roman Empire. By the time Rome fell in 476 c.e., much of Europe was Christian. One famous missionary, Saint Patrick, had even brought the Christian faith to Ireland.

During the Middle Ages, Catholic monks carried Christianity to central and northern Europe. Missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought Orthodox Christianity to Russia.

In Asia, medieval missionaries made converts as far away as India and China. But Christianity soon died out in most of Asia. By the late 1400s, it was mostly a European religion.

The period between about 1500 and 1750 brought a dramatic change. During this time, Christianity became the first religion to spread around the world.

Why did this happen? One reason was the energy unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In particular, much Catholic missionary work grew out of the Counter-Reformation. Jesuits and other religious orders were dedicated to making converts to Catholicism.

The second major reason for the spread of Christianity was the Age of Exploration. By the 1500s, Europeans were traveling the seas to almost every part of the globe. Missionaries followed the European conquerors, traders, and colonists.

Most of the European missionaries during this era were Catholic. That was partly because two Catholic countries, Spain and Portugal, took the lead in exploration. Later, France also sent Catholic missionaries overseas.

Protestants were slower to start missions. Some early missionaries did follow traders and colonists from Protestant countries such as Holland and England. But in general, Protestant missions became much more active in the 1800s.

Let’s take a closer look at how missionaries spread Christianity during the early modern era. As you will see, the story follows the patterns set by European exploration and colonization.

Missionary Activity in Africa

Drawing of a group of Khoi women, made by a Dutch artist in the early 1700s / Wikimedia Commons

Missionary activity in Africa was limited during the early modern era. Some Catholic missionaries worked in Portuguese settlements on the coasts. Protestant missionaries came to the southern tip of the continent.

The Portuguese began setting up outposts on the coasts of Africa in the 1400s. In West Africa, Jesuits and other Catholic missionaries started a number of missions. Most of them had limited success.

One thriving mission was in the kingdom of the Congo. It made many converts. In the 1500s, the mission produced African priests and one African bishop. Eventually, however, this Christian community died out.

In 1652, the Dutch built a settlement called Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa. Cape Town was a stopping point for Dutch trading ships traveling to India and eastern Asia. In the 1700s, Protestant missionaries in Cape Town worked among local Africans. Protestantism continued to thrive in this area into modern times.

Missionary Activity in Asia


Christian missionaries were more active in Asia than in Africa. First came Catholics who worked in areas where Portugal and Spain controlled trade routes and colonies. In the 1600s, Holland became a leading trade power in Asia. Protestant missionaries worked where the Dutch started colonies and trading posts.

India and Ceylon

A painting of Saint Francis Xavier, held in the Kobe City Museum / Wikimedia Commons

In 1542, a Jesuit named Francis Xavier arrived in Goa on the west coast of India. Goa was the center of Portuguese trading in Asia. Xavier became known as “the Apostle of the Indies.” Over the next 10 years, he started many missions in India and other parts of Asia. Other Catholic missionaries worked in India through the 1700s.

From India, Xavier went to Ceylon, a large island off India’s southern coast. (Today it is called Sri Lanka.) Catholic missionaries worked in Ceylon until the 1600s, when the Dutch took over the island. The Dutch outlawed Catholic worship and worked to convert the local people to Protestantism.

In 1706, Denmark sent Protestant ministers to a trading post on the southeast coast of India. They started a Lutheran community that has lasted into modern times. Many more Protestant missionaries would come to India during the 1800s.

Japan, China, and Southeast Asia

Catholic missionaries followed Portuguese traders to Japan, China, and southeast Asia. Francis Xavier reached Japan in 1549. Catholic missionaries worked there until the 1630s, when the Japanese government ended contact with foreigners.

Many Catholic missionaries entered China by way of Macao. Macao was a Portuguese colony on China’s southeastern coast. One Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, started a mission in Beijing, the capital city of China. Catholics continued to make converts in China through the 1700s.

Catholic missionaries from various countries also worked in southeast Asia. In the 1660s, a group of French priests formed the Paris Society for Foreign Missions. The society started missions in modern-day Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

The East Indies

A 1606 map of the East Indies / Wikimedia Commons

To the south of the Asian continent lies a vast archipelago, or group of islands. Europeans referred to these islands as the East Indies. The modern country of Indonesia is part of this area.

As in other parts of Asia, Catholic missionaries were the first to reach the East Indies. Francis Xavier started a number of missions there in the 1540s. Other Catholic missionaries worked out of Portuguese trading posts. Some traveled south from the Philippine Islands, which were controlled by Spain.

Late in the 1500s, the Dutch arrived. They soon drove the Portuguese out of most of the archipelago. Under Dutch rule, Protestant ministers built churches and schools, and made many converts.

The Philippines

In the 1560s, Spain began its conquest of the Philippine Islands. The Philippines became Spain’s only colony in Asia. The Spanish started a number of missions to convert the native people to Catholicism. By 1750, they counted over a million Catholics in the islands.

Missionary Activity in the Americas


Christianity’s largest expansion during the early modern era came in the Americas. Spain, Portugal, and France all brought Catholicism to their vast possessions. In English colonies, most missionaries were Protestant.

The West Indies

Peter Lotharius Oxholm’s map of the West Indies in 1780 / Public Domain

Europeans called the islands of the Caribbean Sea “the West Indies.” Spain took control of most of the West Indies following Columbus’s first voyage in 1492. The arrival of Europeans was a disaster for the native people of the islands. Most soon died from disease and mistreatment. They were replaced by white colonists and African slaves. Catholic missionaries worked to baptize the slaves and often tried to improve their treatment.

Beginning in the 1600s, the British took over part of the West Indies, including the large island of Jamaica. The Church of England sent missionaries to work among the colonists and African slaves. Later, other Protestant churches also established themselves in the British West Indies.

South America

Portugal and Spain created vast colonies in South America in the 1500s. Portugal claimed most of eastern South America. Spain claimed the western part of the continent as well as much of the northern coast. The largest settlements were in Brazil (Portugal) and Peru (Spain). Catholic missionaries worked in all these Spanish and Portuguese possessions.

New Spain: Central America, Mexico, Florida, and the American Southwest

Spain’s empire in the Americas included a vast region called “New Spain.” It included Central America, Mexico, Florida, and much of the southwestern part of what became the United States. Catholic priests built missions in all these areas to convert Native Americans. In California, Junipero Serra began a chain of missions in the 1700s that stretched from San Diego to San Francisco Bay. The famous Alamo in Texas was built as a Franciscan mission in 1722.

French Canada and the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys

1869 portrait of Jacques Marquette / Wikimedia Commons

In the 1600s, France claimed eastern Canada as well as a huge part of the future United States. The French explored the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. French Catholic missionaries roamed this vast wilderness, seeking to convert Native Americans. One of them, Jacques Marquette, started missions in present-day Michigan. He was also among the first Europeans to travel the Mississippi River.

The English Colonies

The 13 English colonies in North America were largely Protestant. Missionaries from various Protestant churches came to the colonies from Great Britain, Germany, Holland, and other countries.

Most of the missionaries came to minister to the colonists. Some, however, worked among Native Americans and African slaves. In time, there were missions to the Indians in all 13 colonies.

One famous Protestant missionary was an Englishman, John Eliot. In the 1600s, he became known as “the Apostle to the Indians.” He wrote a catechism (a work of religious instruction) to teach Native Americans. It was the first book printed in a Native American language. He also published a Native American translation of the Bible.

By 1750, missionaries had spread Christianity to every inhabited continent. Often, Europeans exploited native peoples even as they tried to convert them to Christianity. They believed that they were bringing a superior culture and religion to other parts of the world. Missionaries believed this as well, and they have been criticized for their part in the destruction of native cultures. At the same time, a number of missionaries protested the mistreatment of non-Europeans and tried to improve their lives.

Originally published by Flores World History, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.