Local believers, foreign missionaries, and the creation of Guatemalan Protestantism, 1882-1944



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This dissertation examines how Guatemalan converts transformed missionary Protestantism into a locally contextualized religion in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Using archival materials from local religious groups and public archives in Guatemala alongside missionary documents from the United States, this research identifies how converts adopted certain missionary teachings but reinterpreted or rejected others. This selective application not only altered the definition of Protestantism in Guatemala but also affected the early growth of the movement by creating contextualized forms of Protestantism that attracted more interest than foreign versions.

The first section of the dissertation analyzes the theologies and goals that early missionaries brought to Guatemala and explains the intramural conflicts that created the first Protestant communities in the country. Between 1882 and 1921, five North American Protestant denominations and several independent missionaries entered Guatemala, each with particular ideas about how to improve the country both spiritually and materially. This internal diversity provided new converts with the ability to choose between multiple versions of Protestantism, but more importantly it also taught them how to carve out their own space between imported religious ideologies.

The second section of the dissertation analyzes how local believers reinterpreted Protestantism within those spaces by pursuing four important areas of innovation: theological primitivism, Pentecostalism, political involvement, and nationalism. Despite protests from many foreign missionaries, between 1920 and 1944 numerous Guatemalan Protestants adopted variations of these four themes in attempts to create a culturally and socially relevant religious product. As new converts opted for these new local communities over missionary-led options, these four themes became defining hallmarks of Guatemalan Protestantism, which by the twenty-first century was practiced by one-third of the country’s population. This dissertation argues that these contextualized challenges to missionary ideas in the early twentieth-century made Protestantism an attractive local product in Guatemala and sparked the movement’s growth. It also demonstrates how poor and working class Guatemalans in the early twentieth century used Protestantism as a tool to participate in national conversations about race, gender, and class.