By Clifton L. Holland
AN HISTORICAL PROFILE OF
RELIGION IN HONDURAS
Last revised on July 20, 2001
The Republic of Honduras, about the size of Ohio, is located in Central America, between Guatemala to the north, El Salvador to the west, and Nicaragua to the south. The country is largely mountainous--dominated by the central highlands--with a broad, fertile coastal plain on the Caribbean Sea and a narrow access to the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific coast.
In mid-2000, the total population of Honduras was estimated at 6,130,000 and was very homogeneous: about 5,517,000 or 90% of its population is Mestizo (mixed Spanish-Indian blood), about 7% Indian (Lenca, Chorti, Chorotega, Pipil, Miskito, Pech, Sumo and Tol or Jicaque), about 2% Negro (Garifunas and Creoles), about 1% Caucasian (including U.S. citizens, Canadians, Jews, Arabs and Lebanese), and small numbers of Asians (Asian-Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans). Honduras has the distinction of having the largest Garifuna (Afro-Indian origins, also known as Black Caribs) and Arabic (predominantly Palestinians, but mistakenly called Turks) populations in Central America.
It should be noted that some of the Indigenous groups (Lenca, Chorti, Chorotega and Pipiles) are Hispanized peoples and none of these speak their native languages, only Spanish), whereas the Miskito, Pech, Sumo and Tol still maintain their original languages and many speak some Spanish and/or English as well. The Miskito, in particular, have experienced significant changes since 1492 due to the incorporation of numerous ethnic components (African, Spanish, English, French, Dutch and German) into their cultural world, due to numerous ship wrecks, foreign explorations and pirate raids along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua during the 15th - 19th centuries.
Roman Catholicism arrived in Honduras with the early Spanish explorers and settlers, and it dominated the religious life of the country until after the 1950s when Protestant groups began to multiply rapidly throughout the country. Franciscan missionaries arrived in 1521, followed by Mercyite missionaries in 1548, to begin the task of evangelizing and baptizing the Indians, and forced them to build churches in the settled communities across the land. But, during the 500 years since Columbus sailed the Caribbean Sea and launched the Spanish invasion of the Americas, the Roman Catholic Church in Honduras has never developed into a strong, national institution.
As late as 1990, the Catholic Church in Honduras was one of the most dependent national churches in Latin America, with a large number of expatriate priests and lay workers. For example, in 1989, out of 292 Catholic priests working in Honduras, only 70 were native Hondurans. In 1970, only 5% of the 233 priests and 18% of the nuns were Hondurans, which gave Honduras the distinction of having the highest proportion of expatriate priests of any Latin American nation.
Beginning in the mid-1600s, the British established a Protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and the Bay Islands, which today form part of Honduras and Nicaragua. Trading settlements were established by the British in the 1730s at several key locations along the coast. The Miskito Indians were armed by the British to protect the Mosquito Shore from Spanish penetration, while the British engaged in illegal trade with the Spanish and with Indians in the interior. The Miskito Kingdom successfully resisted Spanish conquests and allied themselves with the British for self-protection and trade benefits. As early as 1739, the Miskito chiefs requested religious instruction for their children in the Anglican Faith, and even sent several of their young men to Jamaica to be educated during the 1740s.
Protestantism in Honduras has had slow but steady grow. The first Anglican missionary to arrive on the mainland of Honduras was Christian Frederick Post (1768-1785) from Philadelphia, who was sent out by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPGFP). Post arrived at the Black River settlement in 1768, where Anglican services were conducted in the Superintendent's Hall.
Other Anglican chaplains were sent to preach the Gospel among the British settlers, Indians and Negroes that inhabited the Mosquito Coast during the mid-1700s. Among those sent were the Rev. T. Warren (1769-1771), the Rev. R. Shaw (1774-1776), and the Rev. Stanford (1776-1777), all of whom were unable to bear the heat and primitive conditions that often led to serious illness. Nevertheless, Anglican schools and chapels were established among the Indians and Negroes, but few converts were made among the whites who were given over to vices.
Despite the hardships, Anglican chaplains and missionaries continued to serve on the Miskito Shore of Honduras until the mid-20th century. Although Anglican work in Honduras was transferred to American jurisdiction in 1947, becoming a missionary district of the Protestant Episcopal Church with headquarters in the Panama Canal Zone, by 1978 the Episcopal Church in Honduras could only report a total of six churches, eight missions and 1,615 communicants in the entire Republic, which included the Bay Islands. However, in 1986, there were 30 congregations with about 3,500 members.
Protestant missionary increased during the 19th century, with the arrival of Wesleyan Methodist missionaries in the Bay Islands where the first Methodist society was formed in 1844-1845. By 1860, the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Honduras numbered close to 1,000 members. Several British missionaries worked in the Bay Islands during the period 1845-1865. Between 1887 and 1892, the Belize District of the Wesleyan Methodist Church formally entered the mainland of Honduras, where English-speaking congregations were established among Belizean and West Indian migrants. During the 1930s, these congregations were taken over by a new mission agency from the USA, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1949, the United Brethren in Christ Mission (UBCM) arrived on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and soon absorbed the remaining English-speaking Methodist congregations. In 1952, the UBCM began work among the Spanish-speaking population on the north coast, and by 1978 there were 25 congregations with about 1,382 baptized members; by 1986 the work had grown to 34 churches, eight missions and 1,677 members.
Another Methodist missionary society entered Honduras in 1957, the Wesleyan Church (Marion, Indiana), which also began work among the English-speaking inhabitants of the Caribbean coast; by 1978, six churches had been established with about 260 members. In 1986, most of the English-speaking Methodists in the country were affiliated with the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and the Americas (headquarters in St. Johns, Antigua, West Indies), which reported 12 congregations and 540 members in Honduras.
The Baptists in British Honduras (now called Belize) responded to invitations from West Indian Baptists in the Bay Islands to come and help them, and the first Baptist missionaries were sent to the Bay Islands in 1846. By 1904, Baptist work in Honduras had become independent of the churches in Belize under the British Honduras Baptist Trust Association. A spiritual revival, known as the "Great Awakening," occurred in Belize and the Bay Islands between 1905-1914, which added hundreds of new converts to the existing Baptist churches. But the revival was soon followed by the turmoil of the First World War, economic depression and destruction caused by a major hurricane, which motivated thousands of Bay Islanders to emigrate and led to the decline of church membership during the 1920s and 1930s. By 1978, there were only seven churches and 110 members in the Baptist Association of the Bay Islands.
Baptist work on the mainland, begun by the Conservative Baptist Home Missionary Society in 1951, grew to 66 churches and 1,470 members along the Caribbean coast in 1978. By 1986, there were 119 congregations with 2,269 baptized members affiliated with the Conservative Baptists in Honduras, mainly due to missionary efforts by George Patterson in La Ceiba.
Three other Protestant groups entered Honduras during the latter part of the 19th century, the Seventh-Day Adventists (1887), the Central American Mission (1896), and the Plymouth Brethren (1898).
Initially, the Adventists concentrated their efforts on the English-speaking population of the Bay Islands and on the coastal mainland, which resulted in the establishment of five churches with 160 members by 1905. In 1937, the Adventists reported 15 churches and 624 members. By 1978, Adventist work in Honduras was equally divided among Spanish-speakers in the interior of the country and English-speakers on the north coast and the Bay Islands. In 1978, there were 38 Adventist churches with 9,933 members in Honduras, which by 1986 had grown to 55 churches, 97 missions, 120 preaching points, and 18,383 members, making this the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Also present in Honduras are the Church of God (Seventh-Day) and the Adventist Church Reform Movement (based in Germany).
Missionaries of the Central American Mission (now called CAM International) entered Honduras in 1896 with the express purpose of evangelizing the Spanish-speaking population, mainly in the nation's interior regions. Five CAM missionaries launched a pioneer effort in the mountain villages, while others concentrated their efforts on regional market centers. In 1936, there were 21 CAM churches with 1,175 members in Honduras, but by 1978 the work had grown to 83 churches and 108 mission stations, with about 4,300 members. In 1986, CAM reported 154 churches, 21 congregations and 33 preaching points with 7,613 members in Honduras. At the time, this was the third-largest non-Pentecostal denomination in the country.
The Plymouth Brethren began work in the San Pedro Sula area in 1898 led by Christopher Knapp and, after 1911, by Alfred Hockins, an agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society, who later became a missionary affiliated with Christian Missions in Many Lands (1919) and remained in active ministry with the Plymouth Brethren in Honduras until his death in 1978. By 1936, 12 small congregations, called "Gospel Halls," had been established in the San Pedro Sula and Trujillo regions on the north coast. About 1950, missionary efforts were started in the interior of the country, and the Plymouth Brethren grew from 25 congregations in 1950 to 45 in 1960. Their greatest grow occurred during the next 20 years: by 1980 there were 120 Plymouth Brethren congregations with about 7,200 members, making this the second-largest non-Pentecostal denomination in Honduras. By 1986, there were 164 Gospel Halls with about 10,000 members in Honduras.
During the 20th century, Protestant mission efforts in Honduras increased significantly with the arrival of dozens of new agencies and hundreds of new missionaries, mainly following World War II.
The California Yearly Meeting of Friends (Religious Society of Friends or Quakers) established mission work in Guatemala in 1902, and by 1912 this activity had spread across the border into northwestern Honduras, based in San Marcos de Ocotepeque. However, the first Quaker missionaries to be stationed in Ocotepeque were Cora Wildman and Maude Burns, who arrived in 1915. Soon Quaker missionaries and national workers were active throughout the Departments of Copan, Gracias a Dios and Ocotepeque. By 1935, two dozen congregations and nearly 50 preaching points had been established in this region, with about 1,500 baptized members and 2,280 adherents. In 1960, 22 Friends churches were reported with 1,068 members and about 3,000 adherents. However, do to the war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, the work of the Friends Mission in northwestern Honduras was severely affected, because many of the church members were Salvadorans who were forced to return to their own country during the conflict, while other members fled to Guatemala and to the interior of Honduras. By 1979, there were only 700 members in Friends churches in northwestern Honduras, and in 1986 the Friends Mission reported 61congregations and 1,185 members (about 20 members per church).
Although in 1914 the Quakers also began work in the nation's capital of Tegucigalpa, located in the south-central region, this field of service was administered separately and included mission stations in La Esperanza, Marcal, La Paz and Juticalpa. However, in 1944 the Tegucigalpa Friends Mission was transferred to the supervision of the National Holiness Missionary Society (now called the World Gospel Mission-WGM), due to serious financial and personnel shortages during World War II. At the time of the transfer, there were five Quaker churches with about 500 members. The Honduras Holiness Church became independent of the WGM in 1956, and despite slow growth for several decades it reported 32 churches with 1,781 members in 1968. In 1979, 76 Holiness churches with 2,309 members were reported in Honduras, and by 1986 the work had grown to 98 congregations, 2,413 members and 6,227 adherents.
Other non-Pentecostal churches established in Honduras by 1986 were the following: the Evangelical and Reformed Church (a 1934 merger of the Reformed Church in the USA and the Evangelical Synod of North America) in San Pedro Sula in 1935, now affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church; the Moravian Church in 1930 in the Mosquitia region, mainly Miskito Indians; the Southern Baptists in 1946 in Tegucigalpa; and the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1950 on the Caribbean coast and later in Tegucigalpa. Several Baptist missions entered Honduras during the 1950s and 1960s: Baptist International Mission, Bible Baptist Fellowship, Grace Baptist Churches, Baptist Mid-Missions, the Good Samaritan Baptist Mission, and a dozen independent Baptist groups. Also present were the Church of the Nazarene, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, independent Churches of Christ, and several other small denominations.
The first known Pentecostal missionaries in Honduras visited the Bay Islands in the early 1900s, but it was not until 1931 that Frederick Medius, an independent Pentecostal missionary from Canada, crossed the border from El Salvador and helped established the first Pentecostal churches in western Honduras. Early Pentecostal leaders in Honduras requested help from the Assemblies of God in El Salvador during the mid-1930s, and several national workers were sent. But the first Assemblies of God missionaries did not arrive in Honduras until 1940. From the very beginning, the work in Honduras was indigenous and self-supporting, although the Assemblies of God Board of Missions has aided the work by sending missionaries and funds for special projects. By 1960, the Assemblies of God reported 30 churches, 44 preaching points, 680 baptized members, six foreign missionaries, and 34 national pastors; by 1978 there were 196 churches, 243 preaching points, and about 5,900 members, which indicated a period of rapid church growth between 1960-1978. This denomination continued to experience significant growth between 1978 and 1986, when it reported 392 churches, 34 missions, 22 preaching points and 10,156 baptized members, making it one of the largest Protestant denominations in Honduras.
The Prince of Peace Pentecostal Church, founded in Guatemala City by Jose Maria Munoz in 1956, began ministry in Honduras during the 1960s mainly due to the influence of Munoz' extensive radio ministry and the reputation of the Mother Church in Guatemala. By 1974, about 50 Prince of Peace churches had been established throughout Honduras, and by 1978 the work had grown to 125 congregations, 60 preaching points, and about 4,600 members. However, in 1986, this denomination only reported 143 congregations with about 3,500 members in Honduras, which reveals a decline in growth due to dissension within the ranks and the formation of splinter groups.
The Church of God (Cleveland, TN) arrived in the Bay Islands in 1944, when Fred and Lucille Litton went to Roatan and Utila to hold revival meetings among the English-speaking West Indian population. In 1960, five churches and four missions were reported in the Bay Islands with 408 adherents, while on the mainland there were four congregations with only 63 members. Spanish-speaking work was begun in the 1950s in the interior of the country through the efforts of Mexican evangelist Josue Rubio, who established the first church in Tegucigalpa in 1951 with 53 members. By 1960, there were 24 churches and 10 missions with 1,054 members and about 2,150 adherents in the Central Mountain Region of Honduras. The most significant growth occurred in the Departments of Copan and Santa Barbara, located in the rugged mountain region along the border with Guatemala. In 1978, there were 144 churches and 74 missions in the whole country, with a total membership of 4,548. The work continued to grow in Honduras, mainly due to the efforts of hundreds of lay pastors with little formal education, so that by 1986 the denomination was able to report 371 churches and 113 missions with about 14,000 total members.
The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel arrived in Honduras in 1952 and began evangelistic efforts in the capital city and in the Departments of Cortes, La Paz, Santa Barbara and Valle, in addition to Francisco Morazan, where Tegucigalpa is located. By 1960, there were seven organized churches and 18 preaching points with 310 members and about 1,000 adherents; by 1978, the total membership had grown to 1,870 members. In 1986, the denomination reported 149 churches, 42 missions and about 6,000 members.
Other Pentecostal denominations in Honduras in 1986 included the following: Church of God of Prophecy (146 congregations with 3,870 members), Philadelphia Church from Sweden (42 congregations with 1,802 members), Pentecostal Church of God from Puerto Rico (90 congregations and 2,157 members), Congregational Pentecostal Church (88 congregations with 1,383 members), Free Pentecostal Church of God (11 congregations with 295 members), International Revival Center (34 congregations and 447 members), World Wide Missionary Movement of Puerto Rico (29 congregations with 772 members), United Pentecostal Church (24 congregations with 1,117 members), Pentecostal Church of God of America (12 congregations with about 360 members), Church of the Bible Convent (14 congregations with 143 members), and several dozen smaller groups.
Overall, in 1986, the Protestant Movement in Honduras was composed of an estimated 2,644 churches and 645 missions, for a total of 3,289 congregations; the total membership was reported to be 149,313 and the Protestant Community was estimated at 450,000, or about 11.7% of the national population of 3,838,031 in 1985, according to the Socio-Religious Study of Honduras produced by PROCADES-World Vision International in March of 1987.
Other religious groups in Honduras are the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Utah Mormons), the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Missouri Mormons), Light of the World Church (Guadalajara, Mexico), Growing in Grace Churches (Miami, Florida), Baha'i Faith, Native American Indian religions (animist), Myalism-Obeah among the West Indians, Garifuna religion among the Black Caribs, Judaism, Islam (among Palestinians), and a few Buddhist, Hindu and Ancient Wisdom-Psychic-New Age groups.
According to a CID-Gallup public opinion poll in July 1997, Roman Catholics accounted for only 63% of the total population, whereas Protestants had increased to 21%, other religions were 4%, and no religion/no response was 12%. In addition to Protestant growth, the size of "other religions" and those with "no religion/no response" is significant.Sources:
Grimes, Barbara F., editor. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twelfth Edition. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992.
Holland, Clifton L., editor. World Christianity: Central America and the Caribbean. Monrovia, CA: MARC-World Vision, 1981.
Iglesia Cristiana Luterana. ?Los Nuevos Movimientos Religiosos en Honduras al Servicio de Quien? 1980-1989. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Iglesia Cristiana Luterana de Honduras, 1993.
Lopez, Marlo Rene. "Historia y Mision del Protestantismo Hondureno." Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Seminario Internacional Teologico Bautista, Tesis de Licenciatura en Teologia, 1992.
Matthews, E. F. "Planting the Church in Honduras: the Development of a Culturally Relevant Witness." Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, M.A. thesis, 1970.
PROLADES and Vision Mundial Internacional-Honduras. Estudio Socio-Religioso de Honduras. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Vision Mundial Internacional-Honduras, 1986.
Read, William R., et al. Latin American Church Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969.