Like most Western countries, Chile was far different in terms of religious culture and tolerance during the 19th Century. As an officially Roman Catholic country (as derived from the Chilean Constitution of 1833), and especially before 1865, “heresy” was officially prohibited: either in terms of holding Protestant and Evangelical services or in terms of permitting adherents of such faith to immigrate to Chile.

Until the early 20th Century, believers were not even allowed to “officially” bury their dead in major cities like Valparaíso, Quillota or Santiago. Protestant services for many years had to be held at night and hidden in order for leaders and adherents to avoid persecution.

Remember that the late 19th Century witnessed a lot of turmoil in Chile, too, as seen in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) against Perú and Bolivia, and the Chilean Civil War (1891) that pitted Army versus Navy, President versus Congress. The surge of Evangelical and Protestantism of the era, guided by libertarian principles, added to the mix.

Dr. David Trumbull

American Presbyterian Dr. David Trumbull had arrived in Valparaíso on Christmas Day 1845 and started preaching, becoming the pastor of the Union Church in Valparaíso. See the image above of the church building erected in 1869, which is now a national monument and has been the subject of an academic study. Accordingly, the Presbyterian Church in Chile was founded in Santiago in 1868 and currently has 36 churches.

Trumbull was an intellectual and a member of then classical liberal (now centrist) political party El Partido Radical, along with many other academics and thinkers of his day. Valparaíso was then, arguably, Chile’s most important city and strong trade between Britain and Chile led to greater tolerance of Protestantism. Like Punta Arenas, Valparaíso was a busy pre-Panama Canal port full of foreigners. Moreover, historians argue that Valparaíso was the most important port in the Pacific until at least 1860, if not until the building of the Panama Canal.

The first national newspaper, El Mercurio, was founded there, and Chile’s stock exchange started in the city as well. The city’s rich culture is still reflected in its English, French and Italian architecture (albeit nowadays mostly run-down and covered with graffiti), British fire station (with coat of arms still in English seen as one passes-by), trains and funicular elevators that run “on the wrong side,” the “Sporting Club” (horse racing track) and soccer teams with English names, etc.

Trumbull’s efforts generated tremendous conflict between the Roman Catholic Church in Chile and the State of Chile. As noted earlier, congregants had to meet in secret, more or less, and certainly were not allowed to publish meeting times or have a church sign in public view. After twenty years, legislation was enacted which permitted Protestants and Evangelicals to conduct services, with public signage, but with the restriction that the proclamation had to be in the language of the immigrants: in particular, English for Anglicans and Presbyterians, German for Lutherans.

Protestant Immigration in the Face of Persecution

Note that there are still English services in Providencia (Anglican) and Las Condes (Presbyterian), and German services in Vitacura (Lutheran). There used to be an English service in Viña del Mar (Anglican) that I think ended in 2000, and I have heard that the Union Church in Valparaíso still does (unconfirmed since I could not find any links to live services on the internet) along with German services in some Lutheran churches in south central Chile. The Lutherans had their own interesting history, with the first Evangelical Lutheran Church being formed in 1863 in Osorno by Karl Schmidt, with its first official Evangelical in a church building service in 1865 (just ahead of Union Church in Valparaíso).

Many Germans, like Dr. Friedrich Geisse and Karl Manns, had fled from persecution under growing centralist, interventionist and Marxist doctrines in Germany and Prussia. Rudolph Phillippi established a congregational council in 1863, just after another Lutheran church was formed in Puerto Montt. Lutheranism in Valdivia became more important after the turn of the 20th Century, as was true of the Lutheran congregation in Concepción (1904).

Germans led by pharmacist Karl Anwandter began arriving in Valdivia after the 1848 anti-monarchial unrest in Europe, specifically the German Revolution 1848-1849 that put smaller cantons of Germany under Prussian rule. The initial German immigrants (1850s) to Valdivia and Osorno tended to be classical liberals (Chilean Right) and that tradition still remains today. A smaller group had arrived already in 1846 and settled near La Unión after going through Valdivia. A bigger group of settlers arrived in Corral (near Valdivia) in 1852.

Most of the Germans who later came to Chile under President Manual Montt’s 1845 program (Ley de terrenos baldíos and Ley de inmigración selectiva) to populate and cultivate wilderness areas in the south, led by Vincente Pérez Rosales, were Lutherans. Apparently, Rosales brought 6,000 families to Chile, starting in 1853 but mainly after 1860 when his program really got going, under pretext of being “good Christians” and not accurately specifying their faith.

All of the immigrants were asked upon arrival if they were willing to abandon the faith of their fathers. Most would not. Evidently, Rosales had initially gone to Spain and then to the Catholic cantons of Germany, but as the story goes he found the inhabitants to be rather lazy and thus turned to Lutheran cantons to recruit settlers. When the government of Chile found out their true nature as Protestants, the few Catholics among them were allowed to stay near Puerto Montt (which eventually pushed up to Puerto Varas and the south side of Lago Llanquihue), while the mainly Austro-hungarian Lutherans were pushed into wilderness areas of the lakes region (mainly Puerto Varas–now predominantly Catholic, Llanquihue, Frutillar, Puerto Octay and Puerto Fonck), heavily wooded, thinking that survival would be difficult.

Many of these Lutherans had a somewhat Calvinist-pietistic flavor. The Lutheran church in Frutillar is pictured below. Santiago Lutheranism did not take hold until 1885 under the direction of Wilhelm Sluyter, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church did not erect its main building there until 1911.

Juan Bautista Canut de Bon

Another very important Evangelical in Chilean history is Juan Bautista Canut de Bon from Spain, who went to Argentina as a Jesuit missionary first and then made his way to Chile, arriving on April 30, 1871. He withdrew from the Jesuit order shortly thereafter so that he could devote himself to further study. He settled in the town of Los Andes in 1872, married and had three children. While in the train station in Quillota in 1876, he found a New Testament in Spanish and as he read it, he confessed that he heard the gospel for “the first time.” Note that all Roman Catholic services were in Latin, largely unintelligible, and the few Protestant services in Chile at the time were conducted in English or German, languages that he did not know.

In 1880, he sat under the preaching and discipleship of Presbyterian missionary preacher Robert MacLean (in neighboring San Felipe), and afterwards Canut de Bon became the first Evangelical preacher in Chile whose native tongue was Spanish. He used to sit and wait for masses to end and as the people were leaving he would present the Gospel to them: “You did not understand anything of the Latin Mass, now let me show you what the Bible says about salvation in your own language” and things along those lines. He was remarkably successful.

He also used the tumultuous event of the War of the Pacific to preach revival throughout Chile, having much success in Concepción (which had its own Evangelical magazine, El Republicano, from 1879). He influenced La Serena and Coquimbo in 1890 with Evangelical Methodism. Since the era of Canut de Bon, Chilean Evangelicals have been dubbed canutos (canutas) as a term of derision, a nickname which has has stuck until the present day. Some Evangelicals are offended by the term but most accept it as descriptive much as the term gringo is used to describe white foreigners.

Canut de Bon became a Methodist bishop in 1890, under the influence of missionary William Taylor. He died in Santiago on November 9, 1896, and was buried in the Patio de los Disidentes, which had been established 1854 as a despised burial grounds for Jews and Protestants (mainly British and Germans).

The Catholic leadership had buckled under international pressure to give some place for non-Catholics to bury their dead. This Patio, which had been authorized on November 30, 1819 by Liberator Bernando O’Higgins himself (who did not approve of mingling Catholic religion with the state), was separated from the rest of the Santiago cemetery by a wall seven meters high and three meters wide in order to prevent it from “contaminating” the rest of the cemetery.

O’Higgins had also brought Jame Thomson to Chile in 1821, granting him citizenship in 1822, with the goal of helping out the Chilean educational system. The fact that Thomson was a Baptist from the British and Foreign Bible Society, who was really on a mission, was kept secret. O´Higgins certainly showed himself to be a classical liberal as well as a liberator.

The Spread of Evangelicalism in Chile

According to Juan Ortiz Retamal’s (Universidad de Concepción), Historia de los Evangélicos en Chile 1810-1891, José Manuel Ibáñez Guzmán founded the first Evangelical church in Santiago in 1870. He had been born in San Felipe but was converted to Protestantism while studying in California. The six most important Chilean pastors were present at the inauguration, and they went on to found churches in places like Concepción, Talca and Copiapó. Anglicans in Valparaíso had been conducting worship services since 1825, under the guidance of Rev. Thomas Kendell. The first Anglican cathedral, St. Paul’s, was completed in 1858 in Valparaíso. The Anglicans attempted mission outreaches to Indians in the Bio-Bio region, Chiloé, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, with the most successful one being established in Araucanía en 1895.

Episcopal Methodists started in 1878 but were not fully established until 1906. In 1891 (Retamal, pp. 67-68), there were 4,500 Anglicans in Chile, 6,000 Lutherans, 900 Presbyterians (including Union Church) and 500 Methodists. According to the 1900 Census, Protestants made up between 1% and 2% of the population in 1895 in (a) the extreme northern part of Chile (Arica, Iquique and Antofagasta), (b) Valparaíso, and (c) the south central region from the provinces of Malleco (Angol and Temuco) to Llanquihue (Puerto Montt). The figure was a whopping 9.3% in (d) the sparsely-populated Magallanes region (which contains the principal Strait of Magellan port, Punta Arenas, full of foreign influence much like Valparaíso). Thus, it is clear that the early Evangelical churches had a significant impact on Chilean society and culture. Baptists and Christian and Missionary Alliance churches did not begin in Chile until the 20th Century.

Besides Santiago, one might say that Chilean Evangelical Christianity started along the Aconcagua River (a hour north of Santiago), which passes to the west through the towns of Los Andes, San Felipe, Quillota and ends in Concón (just north of the other hot spots in Valparaíso and eventually Viña del Mar). The Aconcagua River region felt the influence of Presbyterians and Anglicans, and in the south central section of Chile was affected by missions efforts of these same groups along with Lutherans.

One also cannot overlook the prominence of Evangelicals in Punta Arenas and the Magallanes region, on account of foreigner influence and missionary efforts. In the late 19th Century, Punta Arenas was an important city for both Argentina and Chile; it was the first city to be electrified, too.

Retemal notes (in chapter 4) that Protestant and Evangelical religion, especially from the second half of the 19th Century, surged along with classical liberal ideas. He says that the preachers were guided by an Anglo-Saxon classical liberal “prism,” which transformed them into socio-political modernizers in Chile. Thus, later conflicts like that of the Allende-Pinochet era, had ideological forerunners a century earlier.

And the roots of Chilean Evangelicals was clearly libertarian-leaning, and thus anti-Marxist by nature. Therefore, Chileans should not be surprised when they see a pro-Right undercurrent among Evangelicals today. It is shame to see some modern Evangelicals lose their way and support interventionist and socialist candidates and politicians.



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