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Christopher Columbus: Christian Hero?

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was a good explorer. No, he was a great explorer. Consider, out of all the explorers of the "new world," he is the only one who is recognized with a national holiday. He was not the first to believe the world was round, but he was the first to put his beliefs to feet. But let’s pull back a bit and look at the whole man. Certainly he had the steel will to barter with nobility, to drive three ships into the unknown, and to see his vision to the end, but what about other aspects of his life? And since this is a church history column, how well did he integrate his Christian faith in his exploration? That is a complex question, and the answer is left to the reader.

One reason for his westerly route to India (as he thought) was to find a more direct route than going East. This was centuries before the Suez Canal, and Europeans who wanted to travel by boat to the East had to first circumnavigate Africa. But, as everyone knows, Columbus did not discover a shorter route to India, but previously unknown lands. All told, Columbus sailed to the Americas on four different occasions, in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502.

In the log from his first journey in 1492 (in the first paragraph!), Columbus reveals another reason for going to India: "…respecting the countries of India and of a Prince, called Great Can, which in our language signifies King of Kings, how, at many times he, and his predecessors had sent to Rome soliciting instructors who might teach him our faith, and the holy Father had never granted his request." Therefore, Columbus wrote that the King and Queen of Spain "determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith."

So, Columbus desired to go to India for the purpose of discovering a new (and perhaps faster) route and to share Christianity with the people of India.

But the spiritual motives of Columbus should not be confused with a present-day missionary. Whereas contemporary missionaries tell and teach about Jesus in order to convert others, mission work was viewed differently during Columbus’s day. All of Columbus’s travels occurred before the Protestant Reformation, that breaking away of many Christians in Europe to form new religious groups. Therefore, Columbus lived during a time when all of Europe was Catholic (except for some scattered dissenters). Literally, almost everyone was Catholic. To be viewed as a loyal Englishman, Spaniard, German, Italian, etc. meant to be a Catholic.

This meant that as soon as the "new lands" in the Americas were claimed as property by the Europeans, the people who lived in these "new lands," frequently islands, needed to become Catholic. And because of this, they needed to be baptized and taught. Since these peoples were now part of Spain, and Spain was Catholic, the Indians would only be viewed as loyal if they were Catholic also. So they were baptized as Catholics both for themselves (to become Christians) and for the good of the nation (to be considered loyal).

So, although Columbus did introduce Christianity to many of the natives, it was one wrapped in the Spanish flag.

©2005 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved