AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN BELIZE

By Clifton L. Holland
Last revised on July 20, 2001

 

Known as British Honduras until 1973, Belize is located on the southeastern part of the Yucutan Peninsula on the Caribbean coast of Mexico-Central America, bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. Its climate is subtropical (dry and wet seasons), and it is hot and humid. Annual rainfall ranges from 60 inches in the north to 200 inches in the south. The terrain is largely flat, with a swampy coastline and low mountains in interior. However, the Caribbean coastal waters of Belize contain one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, which is a major tourist attraction.

This small nation of 8,867 square miles (about the size of Massachusetts) has more historical ties to the Caribbean than to the rest of Central America. It was settled by British buccaneers in the mid-1600s who used its sheltered cays and coves as hideouts from which they could prey upon Spanish shipping. British influence continued to grow along the Caribbean coast of Central America, while the Spanish neglected the area. During the 1700s, British colonists and their African slaves came to Belize from other British-controlled islands of the Caribbean to exploit the forests for lumber and dyes, as well as for agricultural development. Belize has evolved as an English-speaking Caribbean culture and is part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, although it achieved its independence from Britain in 1981. Nevertheless, Guatemala has continued to insist that part of southern Belize belongs to the Republic of Guatemala, and maps of that country have historically included Belize as part of its national territory.

Because of its British influence, Belize is the only country in Central America where English is the national language and Protestantism has been the dominant religion. However, due to the large-scale immigration of Spanish-speaking peoples from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador during the 19th and 20th centuries, the size of the Spanish-speaking population has notably increased to about half of the nation's total population of 240,200 in mid-2000.

Most Belizeans are of multi-racial descent. About 46.4% of the population is of mixed Mayan and European descent (Mestizo); 27.7% are of African and Afro-European (Creole) ancestry; about 10% are of Mayan descent; and about 6.4% are Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remainder, about 9.5%, include European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern (mainly Jews and Lebanese), and North American groups. The European population includes many Mennonites of Swiss-German descent who arrived in the 1950s-1960s by way of Canada and Mexico. There is a sizeable community of East Indians whose ancestors came to Belize as indentured servants to work on the sugar plantations in the 1880s. There is also a small community of Jews and Arabs (mainly Lebanese Christians) in Belize.

Geographical distribution of major ethnic groups. Most of the Creoles are concentrated in Belize City (the principal port, commercial center and former capital), where about two-thirds of them live. The Mestizo population is located mainly in the northern part of Belize, the Garifunas in the south (Stann Creek and Toledo Districts), and the Mennonites (about 7,100 in 1990) in the central region of the country, specifically in the districts of Cayo and Orange Walk. The Mayan population is located in the northern, west-central and southern areas of Belize, with the Yucateco-Maya (about 6,000) mainly in the north, the Itzá-Maya in the central region, and the Mopán-Maya (about 6,000) and the Kekchí-Maya (about 20,000) in the south.

Religiously, about 60% of the population is Roman Catholic and Protestant groups account for most of the remaining 40%. The East Indians in Belize are traditionally Hindus, and the Lebanese are traditionally Maronite Christians (Eastern Rite believers who recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome). Many of the Mayans are nominal Roman Catholics who also maintain native Amerindian religious practices, such as Shamanism and Bujería (witchcraft). The Garifunas (Afro-Amerindian), who were deported by the British from the island of St. Vincent in 1797 to the Bay Islands of Honduras, eventually settled along the Caribbean shore of Central America, from Belize in the north to Nicaragua in the south. Most Garifunas are marginal Christians (some claim to be Roman Catholics or Protestants) who still maintain their unique cultural and animistic religious practices, in which spirit-possession is a strong component of normal village life in southern Belize.

Although the Roman Catholic Church was not officially present in British Honduras until 1851 when the first Catholic missionaries arrived, by 1860 the Catholic Community in Belize City accounted for 15% of the total population. However, the growth of the Catholic Church in Belize prior to 1900 occurred chiefly among the Indian and mestizo peoples in rural areas, and not among the Creoles in Belize City.   Even as the early Protestant Churches in Belize grew mainly from the influx of West Indian migrants, so also the Catholic Church there increased principally due to the arrival of Mayan Indian refugees from Yucatán who settled in the northern lowlands of Belize during the late 1840s, as well as from the migration of other Indian and mestizo peoples from Guatemala after 1850.

The missionary zeal of the English Jesuits prior to the 1890s, and of the American Jesuits from Missouri since that date, have strengthened the position of the Roman Catholic Church in Belize, mainly among the Indian and mestizo peoples. The Vicariate of Belize was created in 1893, but it was not until 1956 that a Bishopric was organized there. The Jesuits, aided by other religious orders, established schools and social ministries, in addition to parish churches, throughout the country among the larger ethnic groups.

Today, Catholics predominate in every administrative district, with the exception of the District of Belize, where 55% of the population is Protestant and largely Creole. As the mestizo and Indian segments of the population increase during coming years, along with a corresponding decrease in the proportion that is Creole, the size of the Catholic Community will tend to increase as well.

The Anglican Church (also known as the Church of England) in Belize is part of the Anglican Province of the West Indies, which also includes the Caribbean islands as well as Guyana and Surinam, with headquarters in St. Johns, Antigua, West Indies. Anglican chaplains were sent to the Colony of British Honduras, beginning in the 1770s, by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to attend to the spiritual needs of the British colonists and the military garrison concentrated in Belize City, a former pirate enclave at the mouth of the Belize River, probably founded in 1638. Until the 1860s the Anglican Church (financed by the colonial government) dominated the religious life of the colonists, which was centered in St. John's Anglican Cathedral, built in 1815. During most of the 19th century in many remote settlements of Belize, the Anglican church and school were the center of village community life. Many Anglican mission stations were served by English laymen who were testing their missionary vocation, or by local catechists trained for the work and officiating in church and school, under the direction of the Anglican bishop and the Colonial educational authorities.

The size of the Anglican community in Belize has gradually increased over the years, mainly due to natural population growth. From about 12,000 adherents in 1936, the number of Anglicans increased to 17,783, according to the 1970s Census. In 1978, there were about 20,000 adherents, scattered among 26 organized parishes and mission stations, and the Anglican Church operated 23 primary schools and two secondary schools in Belize. By 2000, the number of Anglican adherents was expected to reach about 28,800, or 12% of the total population, although there were only 20 churches and 3,300 communicant members.

The Anglican Church has historically been the dominant Protestant denomination in Belize, but that position is being challenged by the growth of Evangelical groups, mainly Pentecostals, since the 1960s. During the early 1800s, groups of nonconformists or dissenters (meaning non-Anglicans) began arriving in British Honduras, which led to a slow erosion in Anglican influence even though it was the Established Church. English Baptist and Methodist missionaries were sent to the colony in 1822 and 1824, respectively, and Scottish Presbyterians began work in Belize City in 1825. By 1856, the Protestant community of Belize City, where most of the inhabitants of the colony resided, included 2,500 Anglicans, 500 Methodists, 500 Baptists and 200 Presbyterians, in addition to 1,000 Roman Catholics and 2,260 "others" in a total population of about 7,000 people.

Most of the early Baptist and Methodist missionaries, as well as some of the Anglican chaplains, were active abolitionists, who argued against the slave trade and its abuses. It was clear that the economy, indeed the very existence of Belize Colony, depended upon slave labor, even though the Abolition Act of 1807 made it illegal for British subjects to engage in the slave trade. However, the Abolition Act did not put an end to slave traffic and ownership in the Caribbean until 1833, when special provisions were made to bring about emancipation.

The origin of British Methodist work in Belize is attributed to a British merchant, William Jeckel, who arrived in the early 1800s and was instrumental in organizing Methodist societies in Belize City, Burrell Boom and Freetown. In 1824, Jeckel requested help from the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in England, which soon sent three missionaries to Belize: Thomas Wilkinson in 1825, Thomas Johnston in 1827, and William Wedlock in 1829. However, when Wedlock arrived, both Wilkinson and Johnston had died of malaria and Methodist work consisted of one small chapel in Belize City and a few preaching points along the inland rivers. When Wedlock left for Jamaica in 1832 due to poor health, he left behind a congregation of 36 members, mainly free blacks and colored living in or near Belize City.

However, under the ministry of James Edney (1832-1850) and Richard Fletcher (1855-1880) and other dedicated missionaries, Methodist work in Belize City grew significantly and the Belize District expanded to include circuits in the Bay Islands of Honduras, among the Garifuna in Stann Creek, and among the Yucateco-Maya in Corozal. Fletcher learned Spanish and Yucateco and translated the Gospels into the latter, which were published by the British and Foreign Bible Society beginning in the 1860s. Many other missionaries served in the Belize District, including the remarkable ministry of James William Lord (1881-1889, 1900-1911), who mainly worked among the Garifuna in the south and the Yucateco-Maya in the north.

Early Methodist missionary endeavors in Belize were plagued by sickness and death, storms and fires, staff shortages and financial hardships, and membership growth and decline for more than a century. In 1913, the British Methodist District of the Wesleyan Methodist Church consisted of 2,000 communicant members and was served by nine ministers, including three native Belizeans. After the withdrawal of the Wesleyan Missionary Society from the Western Caribbean in 1930, the British Honduras District was under the supervision of the Methodist Church in Jamaica from 1932 to 1952. In 1967, the Belize-Honduras District became a founding member of the autonomous Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas, with headquarters in Antigua, West Indies. In 1960 there were 1,800 communicant members among the 15 Methodist congregations in Belize; in 1978, 22 churches were reported with about 1,700 communicant members; and in 2000 the situation was about the same.

The London-based Baptist Missionary Society began work in Belize City in 1822, with the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bourne, not to serve the spiritual needs of the English colonists but to Christianize their slaves and freedmen (former African slaves who had gained their freedom). In 1832, the population of the Colony of Belize totaled about 4,550, which included 2,100 slaves, 2,200 free colored and Negroes, and less than 300 whites.

Baptist ministry in shared a similar history of trials and tribulations in an inhospitable climate that caused much sickness and death among the early missionaries. Bourne organized the First Baptist church in 1825 and served a small congregation of 20 members until leaving the Colony in 1834. Another Englishman, Alexander Henderson, arrived in late 1834 to continue the work of evangelism among slaves, soldiers and discharged prisoners in the poorer sections of Belize City, and within a year the congregation had doubled in size and had 200 children enrolled in the Baptist school. Henderson also reorganized the British Honduras Bible Society, founded by Armstrong--an Anglican chaplain--in 1818, which was instrumental in translating the scriptures into various languages and in distributing them among various ethnic groups in Belize.

During the 1840s, a young English seaman, Frederick Crowe, became interested in Henderson's work, joined the Baptist church, became a teacher in the Baptist school, assisted with scripture distribution, worked as a lay-evangelist, and eventually became a missionary with the Belize Baptist Mission and an agent of the British Honduras Bible Society (1841-1846). Crowe became the first Protestant missionary to work in Guatemala (1843-1846), and his experiences were recorded in his book, The Gospel in Central America, published in England in 1850.

Henderson was also assisted by other missionaries from England during the 1840s, but not without controversy. Because Henderson practiced "closed communion" (only baptized Baptists could receive the Lord's Supper), several new recruits from the London Missionary Society refused to work with him. Henderson was forced to resign from the Mission in 1850, but he soon organized the Independent Baptist Mission of Belize later that year with the support of most of his former members. Consequently, the London Missionary Society decided to abandon Belize, recalled its missionaries, and sold the Society's properties, leaving Henderson as the uncontested leader of the Baptist movement. In 1850, Baptist work in Belize included two organized churches, seven preaching stations, three day schools, five Sunday schools, and about 230 baptized members. Henderson pioneered the founding of the Queen Street Baptist Church in 1850, which he pastored from 1850-1879.

Following Henderson's retirement in 1879 due to failing health, Baptist work was carried on by laymen until the arrival of missionary David Waring from England in 1881. Waring continued the work begun by his predecessors, including outreach to the Yucateco-Maya in the north and the Garifuna in the south, as well as supporting Baptist work in the Bay Islands of Honduras, begun by Mr. & Mrs. John Warner in 1849. Waring sought assistance from the Jamaican Baptist Missionary Society, which sent James Bryant to Belize in 1886. When Waring returned to England in 1888, Bryant was placed in charge of the Belize Baptist Mission.

Encouraged by Bryant, the Jamaican Society was invited to assume responsibility for the Belize field. Soon thereafter, Mr. & Mrs. Charles Brown arrived from Jamaica along with their nephew, Robert Cleghorn, to administer the work in Belize, which began to prosper under the new leadership. Additional lay-workers were sent from Jamaica and local leaders were recruited to expand Baptist work to new settlements along the riverbanks and in the interior. New buildings were constructed and old ones were repaired to accommodate scores of new believers in many parts of the Colony. By 1901, the Baptist Mission reported 353 baptized members and 1,324 adherents among nine organized congregations, along with six schools and more than 600 children enrolled.

After Brown's retirement in 1901 due to poor health, Cleghorn became the chief pastor and superintendent of the Baptist Mission in a distinguished career that ended in 1939, after celebrating his 50th year of service in Belize. To commemorate the occasion, Cleghorn wrote A Brief History of Baptist Missionary Work in British Honduras (1822-1939), from which much of the foregoing account was taken. Not much is known about Baptist work in Belize between 1940 and 1960, but in 1961 the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society (USA) was invited to work with the Belize Baptist Mission. The N. T. Dellingers arrived soon thereafter to supervise the work and rebuild the ministry. By 1978 there were six organized churches and 330 baptized members, mainly among the Creoles. Several Southern Baptist missionaries arrived in Belize in the late 1970s to begin work in the interior and to assist with Baptist work in Belize City. In 2000, there were a total of 25 Baptist congregations in Belize with about 2,500 baptized members.

Presbyterians in Belize trace their origin to Scottish immigrants who arrived in the Colony during 1820s, along with the Baptists and Methodists.  However, it was not until the 1850s that a permanent church building was constructed.  A group of Scottish Presbyterians were allotted public funds on July 24, 1850, for the construction of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (a brick building) in Belize City. This congregation became affiliated with the (Presbyterian) Free Church of Scotland, who sent the Rev. David Arthur to Belize in 1850 and he served until his retirement in 1876. In 1905, the affiliation of St. Andrew’s Church was changed to the (State Presbyterian) Church of Scotland.  

For several decades, St. Andrew’s Church had an intermittent life:  sometimes it was closed (1903-1905), and for long periods it was pastored by Methodist (1914-1919, 1939-1953, 1955-1968) or Baptist ministers (1922-1923).  In 1933-1934 an attempt was made to unite the Presbyterians with the Anglican Church, and in 1945 another attempt was proposed to unite with the Methodists; however, both times the church preferred to maintain its independence.

Until the mid-20th century, St. Andrew’s Church was dominated by the European population in the capital city.  In 1958, with the help of the National Presbyterian Church in Mexico, mission work started among the Mayan population in the northern part of Belize. It was mainly due to the ministry of Manuel Beltran, a Mayan evangelist from Mexico, that a few Mayan and Spanish- speaking congregations came into existence. Missionaries Tom and Helen Lacey arrived in Belize in 1970 to build on the work begun by Beltran. The first new church built was in Patchakan; the dedication of the building and the organization of the church occurred in April 1974 with a commission from the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico present. The Cristo Rey church followed in 1975 followed by San Jose, San Pablo, San Narciso, Louisville and Concepción.   Later, new buildings were added or additions to the old ones, often replacing thatch buildings.   In 1985 St. Andrew’s Church in Belize City joined with these Mayan and Spanish-speaking congregations to form a provisional presbytery and on June 7, 1987, the national Presbyterian Church of Belize (with support from the Presbyterian Church in America, Mission to the World) was established with three organized churches and 10 preaching points.  In 1988 a ministry among the Chinese population was begun.

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church entered Belize in early 1900s as an extension of their work in Honduras that began in 1887. The Adventist Mission in British Honduras was officially organized in 1922, and in 1930 the two countries were separated administratively. By 1960, the Adventist community in Belize numbered 1,050, grew to about 2,500 in 1970, and increased to about 12,000 in 1978. Adventist work was centered in the Districts of Belize and Corozal. In 2000, the Adventists reported 48 congregations and 10,700 members, which made this the largest Protestant denomination in Belize in terms of communicant membership.

The Church of the Nazarene began work in Belize in the 1930s as an extension of their work in Guatemala, after two Mayan Indian lay-preachers walked more than 60 miles from their home in the Petén of Guatemala to Benque Viejo on the border to evangelize and start new churches in British Honduras. In 1931 the Mission Council of the Church of the Nazarene decided to enter Belize as a new field of service, and eventually sent two veteran, elderly, single female missionaries to work in Benque Viejo, Cayo District: Leona Garner (1934-1938) and Augie Holland (1936-1943). Their duties included being midwife, nurse, carpenter, preacher, teacher, undertaker, spiritual counselor and church leaders. Beginning with the appointment of the Harold Hamptons in 1943, numerous other Nazarene missionaries served on the Belize field, which was originally part of the Guatemala District: Joyce Blair (1943), the Ronald Bishops (1944), the David Brownings (1944). After 1946, Nazarene work in Belize was administered separately from the Guatemalan field. In 1947, the Holland Memorial Clinic was build and operated by Miss Blair. By 1955, 11 Nazarene missionaries were serving in Belize, assisted by 22 national workers, who served 10 organized churches with about 450 members and 300 children enrolled in six Nazarene schools. In 1966, there were 16 churches and 11 missions. During the 1960s work began among East Indians, Garifuna, Kekchí and Mopan-Maya near Punta Gorda in the Toledo District, under the leadership of Paul Beals and Naomi Heman. The Nazarene High School was established in 1964 in Benque Viejo and later was moved to Belize City. Also, the Nazarene's began a program of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) throughout Belize in several languages: English, Spanish and various Indian dialects. By 1978 there were 18 organized churches in Belize with about 630 members and about 2,500 adherents, mainly located in the Districts of Cayo, Stann Creek and Toledo. In 2000, the Nazarenes reported 28 congregations with 1,820 members.

The Gospel Missionary Union (GMU), an independent Holiness mission, sent their first missionaries to Belize in 1955, the Gordon Lees, who established the Yarborough Bible Church in Belize City in 1956. The GMU acquired a 20-acre tract of land about 30 miles from Belize City in 1956, where they opened a camping-conference center and a Bible school, known as Carol Farm. Outreach began among the Yucateco-Maya in 1960 in Orange Walk district, and a Christian bookstore was established in Belize City in 1962. By 1978, there were seven organized churches and five mission stations with 326 baptized members. In 2000, the GMU reported 17 congregations with about 940 members.

Numerous Anabaptist-Mennonite groups began arriving in Belize in the 1950s from Mexico, Canada and the USA, and by 1978 there were at least a dozen Mennonite agricultural colonies in the country, mainly composed of Old Colony Mennonites (Rhinelanders) and Kleingmeinde Mennonites ("The Little Brotherhood") that still speak Low-German. After Hurricane Hattie devastated parts of Belize in 1961, a number of Mennonite agencies arrived to offer disaster relief, including the Beachy-Amish and the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The later sent their first missionaries to Belize in 1964, Paul and Ella Martin. In 1969, the Mennonite Central Committee established the Mennonite Center in Belize City to assist the Mennonite Colonies both economically and socially. By 1978, the Belize Evangelical Mennonite Church had been organized with five congregations and 122 communicant members among Creoles, Mestizos, Mayans and Garifuna. In addition, 11 distinct Mennonite groups reported 37 organized congregations and about 1,900 communicant members. Overall, the total Mennonite community in Belize numbered about 5,000, most of whom resided in agricultural colonies at Spanish Lookout, Blue Creek and Shipyard.

Early Mennonite colonists signed an agreement with the Belizean government, which guaranteed them complete freedom to practice their distinctive beliefs and operative their own schools within their closed communities. In 1978, the Mennonites operated 39 primary schools and two secondary schools, almost exclusively for the educational needs of their own children. Under this special agreement, the Mennonites are exempt from military service and from paying compulsory insurance, although they are liable for all other taxes. By 1978, the Mennonites held about 15,000 acres, mainly in Orange Walk and Cayo Districts, and had transformed unproductive bush into fertile farmland. Their agricultural and dairy products have had a favorable impact on the economy and eating habits of the population in general, particularly in the nation's largest urban area, Belize City.

Other non-Pentecostal groups in Belize include the independent Churches of Christ, the Christian Brethren, the Salvation Army, the Quakers, the Wesleyan Church, and dozens of independent churches.

Although there were few Pentecostal churches in Belize in 1960, since that time the Pentecostal Movement has experience substantial growth throughout the country. From five organized churches and about 200 members in 1960, the Pentecostals grew to 67 congregations and 1,656 baptized members in 1978. However, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country only reported 15 congregations and 750 members, the Kekchí and Mayan Churches of Belize, founded in 1968. The Church of God (Cleveland, TN) arrived in 1944, but in 1978 there only reported eight churches and 360 members; in 2000, there were 22 churches and 610 members. The Assemblies of God began work in Belize in 1951 and reported three churches and 90 members in 1960, but internal controversies led to the formation of two rival groups with a combined membership of about 100 in 1978; in 2000, the Assemblies of God reported 41 churches with about 1,000 members. The Church of God in Christ has worked in Belize since 1953, but there were only five churches and 540 members in 1978; in 2000, this denomination reported 14 churches and 1,060 members. Recent arrivals include the Church of God of Prophecy, the Pentecostal Church of God of America, the United Pentecostal Church, the Pentecostal Missionary Baptist Church, the Pentecostal Church of God (Puerto Rico), the Apostolic Faith Churches, Resurrection Churches and Ministries, and the Caribbean Light and Truth Mission.

Marginal Christian groups in Belize include the Jehovah's Witnesses (25 churches and 1,180 members), the Mormons (six churches and 950 members), Christadelphians, Unity School of Christianity, and the Children of God ("The Family").

Non-Christian groups include Hinduism (East Indians), Judaism, Islam, Mayan religions, Garifuna religion, and Obeah-Myalism among the Creoles.

 

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