Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Franciscans extended the Spanish conquest of the Americas by launching missions to educate and convert to Christianity the indigenous peoples of what is now Mexico.

Summary of Event

Immediately after Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico (1519-1521), the Spanish began the conversion of the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. This was in keeping with the militant Catholicism that had evolved in medieval Spain, during the Christians’ reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control. Missions;Franciscans in Mexico Franciscans;Mexico Motolinía, Toribio de Benevente Sahagún, Bernardino de Cortés, Hernán Gante, Pedro de Martín of Valencia Zumárraga, Juan de Cortés, Hernán Gante, Pedro de Martín of Valencia Motolinía, Toribio de Benevente Sahagún, Bernardino de Zumárraga, Juan de Diego, Juan

Cortés urged the monarchy to send friars to Mexico, and in 1523-1524, a few Franciscans arrived. They were the first wave of missionaries who carried out what historian Robert Ricard called “the spiritual conquest.” The friars baptized millions of Mexican Indians, making them at least nominally Christians, and established among them the institutional bases of Roman Catholicism.

The Franciscans were the first regular clergy to accept the challenge, the Dominicans and Augustinians arriving later (1526-1533). Two Flemish Franciscans reached Vera Cruz in 1523, accompanied by a lay brother, Pedro de Gante (allegedly the illegitimate half brother of Charles V). The two ordained friars soon died on Cortés’s expedition to Honduras, but Pedro de Gante stayed in Mexico until his death in 1572, a pioneer in virtually every Franciscan endeavor among the indigenous.

Twelve more Franciscans arrived in 1524, called the “Twelve Apostles,” led by Father Martín of Valencia. Among the twelve was Toribio de Benevente Motolinía, who was lame, ascetic, and became universally revered as Motolinía, “the poor little one.” A papal bull endowed them with remarkable power, including that of administering all the sacraments, and it also freed them from interference by other ecclesiastical authorities.

Early Franciscan missionaries came filled with millenialist fervor. Queen Isabella and her Franciscan confessor, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, had reformed the order into the Observant Franciscans only a few years before, emphasizing, among other things, a rededication to the ideal of poverty. Providing their own interpretation of the mystical predictions of Joachim de Fiore, a medieval Calabrian visionary, many Franciscans arrived in Mexico convinced that Christopher Columbus’s discovery and Cortés’s conquest had set the stage for the final task before the millennium: the conversion of the simple, poor, innocent indigenous peoples.

Believing their labors would bring the end of time, the Franciscans set about learning Nahua (the vernacular language), preparing catechisms, teaching the rudiments of Catholicism, and carrying out mass baptisms. Between 1525 and 1572, the friars established a network of chapels and monasteries across Puebla, Mexico City, Hidalgo, and Michoacán. The Dominicans and Augustinians who came later found the Franciscans occupying most of the important cities in central Mexico. They organized the countryside into doctrinas or indigenous parishes, with a main town (cabecera), where the Franciscan resided and the church was built; and the surrounding villages (visitas), which the friar toured on his ecclesiastical rounds.

They also set up schools and tried to teach Hispanic culture and religious doctrine. Pedro de Gante’s school in Tenochtitlán was the forerunner, while the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco Tenochtitlán (established 1536) taught Latin, writing, philosophy, and logic to boys from the indigenous elite (nuns eventually arrived to educate girls). At the Hospital of Santa Fe, Franciscans patterned a community on Thomas More’s Utopia (1516; English translation, 1551), hoping to re-create primitive Christianity. To assist their missionary labors, they compiled ethnographic information. Two invaluable sources on Aztec culture are Motolinía’s Historia de los indios de la Nueva España (wr. 1541, pb. 1858; History of the Indians of New Spain History of the Indians of New Spain (Motolinía) , 1950) and Bernardino de Sahagún’s Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (compiled 1576-1577, pb. 1829, 1831; General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex General History of the Things of New Spain (Sahagún) , 1950-1982).

The task of conversion posed a series of opportunities and challenges. Determined that conversion be an individual, informed decision, the friars insisted that the indigenous be taught the basic beliefs and prayers before baptism. Often they used the children to indoctrinate their parents. The nuances of Nahua linguistics and religious culture were difficult to master, and Nahua contained no equivalent terms for many Christian theological concepts. Communication between the missionaries and the indigenous was less precise and more confusing than the friars admitted or perhaps even realized. Despite these problems, the missionaries pushed ahead with baptism following rudimentary instruction about Catholic beliefs. Native Americans;Catholicism and

Although some of the indigenous, especially adult males, refused this overt sign of conversion, the Franciscans claimed to have baptized four million indigenous by 1537. According to Motolinía, they, along with their Augustinian and Dominican brothers, had baptized nine million by 1540. These were astounding results, achieved by a mere handful of friars. By 1559 in Mexico, there were only 380 Franciscans, 212 Augustinians, and 210 Dominicans.

The conquest itself had discredited the power of indigenous deities, and the Spanish sword blocked the continued open practice of Aztec religion, particularly its frequent human sacrifice and military campaigns to capture sacrificial victims. Nevertheless, indigenous religion Religion;Aztec Empire permeated the culture that the friars confronted. Fearful the indigenous might revert to their old ways, the friars destroyed idols and temples, burned manuscripts, and persecuted Aztec priests. In their efforts, they found an able ally in Father Juan de Zumárraga, who as first bishop of Mexico (1528-1548) was also a Franciscan. They also criticized the increasingly popular cult of Guadalupe, Guadalupe, cult of rejecting claims that the Virgin had appeared in 1531 to a native Indian, Juan Diego, on a hill previously associated with worship of Tonantzín, an indigenous goddess. Nor did they leave it up to the baptized native Indian as to whether he or she attended mass and participated in Catholic religious life. The friars sent out assistants to gather the reluctant and indifferent for services. They whipped or otherwise punished those who refused to comply. Native Americans;cruelty against


Most of the indigenous of central Mexico were baptized within two decades following the military conquest, and Motolinía claimed the missionaries had cleansed Mexico of indigenous idolatry by 1540. Yet it is by no means clear that the indigenous were fully converted to Catholicism. Some of the indigenous undoubtedly became Christian in the full sense of conversion, possessing a clear understanding and commitment to Catholic theology. Others, perhaps most often in rural areas, clung to the ancient ways.

The vast majority probably fell somewhere in the middle, their superficial Catholicism colored to a greater or lesser extent by pre-Hispanic beliefs and practices. Some believed themselves Catholics but did not understand the Church’s doctrines. Many participated in Catholic public ritual while privately continuing indigenous practices. Often this reflected religious syncretism; sometimes it was nepantlism (a state of confusion about, or an indifference to, both religious traditions).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browne, Walden. Sahagún and the Transition to Modernity. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Study of Sahagún’s work with the Mexican Indians, arguing that the father, far from being a precursor of modernity, was caught up in the disintegration of medieval forms of knowledge amid the difficult transition to modern thought and modern forms of knowledge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burkhart, Louise M. Before Guadalupe: The Virgin Mary in Early Colonial Nahuatl Literature. Albany, N.Y.: University of Texas Press, 2001. Study of the introduction of Marianism into Nahua culture together with a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century Nahua texts discussing the Virgin Mary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burkhart, Louise M. The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth Century Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989. Analysis, by an anthropologist, of the linguistic and conceptual difficulties encountered as friars attempted to translate Catholic moral teachings into Nahua.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519-1810. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964. A masterful summation of Spanish colonialism’s effects on indigenous Mexico. Chapter five focuses on religion, including Franciscan conversions, territorial organization, land ownership, and church building.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockhart, James. The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. Based on post-Conquest documents written in Nahua, Lockhart assesses the extent to which indigenous culture survived or was modified by colonialism. Chapter 6 deals with “Religious Life.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Molina, Alonso de. Nahua Confraternities in Early Colonial Mexico: The 1552 Nahuatl Ordinances of Fray Alonso de Molina, OFM. Translated and edited by Barry D. Sell. Berkeley, Calif.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2002. Reproduction of and commentary upon the religious ordinances set forth by a Franciscan missionary to the Nahua in the mid-sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Motolinía (Toribio de Benevente). History of the Indians of New Spain. Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1951. One of the most important sixteenth century Franciscans recounts, with some optimistic exaggeration, the friars’ efforts. Also includes ethnographic observations about indigenous peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phelan, John L. The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World. 2d ed. 1970. Reprint. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint, 1980. Examines the mysticism and millennial fire of the Franciscans, especially as expressed through the writings of Jeronimo de Mendieta, the sixteenth century missionary author of Historia eclesiástica indiana.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ricard, Robert. The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain, 1523-1572. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. The classic study of Mendicant efforts in Mexico, it is especially strong on the friars’ methods but too optimistic in its evaluation of their results.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sahagún, Bernardino de. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. 13 vols. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research, 1950-1982. A great ethnographic treasure, partly derived from information obtained through interviews with the Mexican Indians who lived prior to or during the conquest.

Beginning c. 1495: Reform of the Spanish Church

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition

Categories: History