The gospel Southern Baptist Convention missionaries brought to Brazil in the late 19th century contained at least as much Jim Crow as it did Jesus Christ, scholar João Chaves said during the Baptist History and Heritage Society’s second “Making Baptist History Public History” webinar June 1.
Those first SBC missionaries, beginning in the early 1880s onward, mixed an idealization of the Confederacy, Southern patriarchy, white supremacy and adoration of political authoritarianism with the religious message they had come to proclaim, said Chaves, associate director for programming at the Hispanic Theological Initiative at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of The Global Mission of the Jim Crow South: Southern Baptist Missionaries and the Shaping of Latin American Evangelicalism.
These actions resulted in the creation and continuation of a right-wing evangelicalism that vilifies Catholics, Pentecostals and progressive Baptists and other Protestants as Communists and heretics, he added.
The role of SBC missionaries, publications and theological education during the first 100 years of the Brazilian Baptist Convention also helped seed racial divisions between Brazil’s European descendants and its Black and interracial populations. “That history is connected to the history of Baptist missions: we have the Southern Baptist Convention in the development of Brazilian national identity in terms of racial imagination,” he said.
In his research, Chaves found the writings of SBC missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveal the attitudes they held about those they sought to evangelize. “It’s interesting to see that the worst instances of white supremacy and racist dispositions the missionaries show … is toward people of mixed blood.”
To illustrate his point, Chaves presented slides of missionary writings, some of which were published in The Home and Foreign Fields, then the journal of the Foreign Mission Board, from 1881 to 1936.
For example: “The dread of social equality is the source of greatest bitterness toward the Negro on the part of multitudes of white people. The thought of intermarriage and consequent negroid progeny is utterly repugnant to any right-thinking white man. One has only to go to certain Latin-American countries where this has occurred to be convinced of the terrible disaster which is involved. The standards of both races are lowered, the purity of racial stock is destroyed, and irreparable harm is done to both peoples.”
An excerpt from the writings of W.B. Bagby, a pioneer missionary who established the first Baptist church in Brazil in 1882, slanders native Brazilians as “uncivilized” and “animal-like” and condemns mixed-race residents as racially and morally inferior.
“Their moral condition is fearfully dark and sad,” Bagby said. “Purity is entirely unknown among men, while among women ideas of propriety and morality are far below the Bible standard.”
Other writings, however, also demonstrate the disdain SBC missionaries had for Black Brazilians: “There are over six million Africans among the 30 millions of people in Brazil, and many of them are the crudest type of Negro on the American hemisphere.”
Seeking to entrench and spread Southern concepts of white supremacy and the notion that true Christianity centers in the American South, SBC missionaries and other denominational officials began to groom white Brazilians, mostly of Portuguese descent, for positions of local leadership and for theological education at seminaries in the United States, Chaves said.
“They preferred white male — middle class, if they could get them — converts.”
“They preferred white male — middle class, if they could get them — converts. They felt those were set naturally to be the leaders and those were the people they sent to study in the U.S. and that they supported as leaders of churches in the denomination. They got scholarships and positions of leadership that Black and brown Brazilians did not.”
The effort to create a Brazilian church that is Southern in theology and appearance was further reinforced by the blurry line between missionaries and American migrants, he said.
“Here you have Confederate exiles going to Brazil, and that’s where the sustainable phase of Baptist missions in Brazil began — in Confederate enclaves in the country. Very soon you have missionaries sending white Brazilian men to study in the segregated South. So, you see the mentality of the Confederacy is established and maintained by Confederates and missionaries.”
The dominance of SBC and other conservative Protestant groups continued into the 20th century and was especially evident in 1964 when Brazil entered into more than two decades of dictatorship rule, Chaves said.
“The growth of Protestantism in Brazil … is sometimes traced back to the privileges that were given to a few Protestant initiatives, Baptists among them, by a dictatorship that was trying to fight off progressive elements within the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants were a lot more embracing of that dictatorship when it was established and Brazilian Baptists, likewise, saw it as a very positive thing and they benefited from those 21 years of dictatorship.”
More recently, conservative Brazilian evangelicals have continued their infatuation with authoritarianism by strongly supporting Jair Bolsonaro, who became president in 2019.
“The Brazilian Baptist Convention is a strong supporter of Bolsonaro, who many call the ‘Brazilian Trump.’ He’s Roman Catholic but his wife is Baptist. He has spoken in Baptist churches and is celebrated and continues to be celebrated by many Baptists in Brazil and also in the U.S.”
And Chaves showed recent images of Brazilians waving Confederate flags in areas of Brazil colonized by Southern American migrants and missionaries. “They still celebrate the Confederacy.”