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Pirates of the Reformation 00:00:0000:00:00

Pirates of the Reformation

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The history of the early Reformation in the New World is both a tale of pirates and the battle of catechisms.

I was born November 1949 in Cartagena, Colombia (pronounced “Carta-hen-a”). Cartagena was founded 416 years before, in 1533, by Dominican and Franciscan monks. A few years later, Jesuit and Augustinian monks catechized the indigenous dwellers. My ancestors were among those whose first catechism had the shape of a rod in hands of armed deputies dispatched from the nearest office of the Roman Papacy.[1]

By order of Friar Juan de los Barrios, the first Archbishop of Bogotá, the “indios” [2] were to be rounded up to hear mass. Not all were willing. Two deputies were ordered to find the recalcitrant dwellers and beat them with rods so that they would show up to mass and renounce their idolatrous faith. As a warning, the bells were to toll for 15 minutes prior to the twice daily catechism class. In addition, should the rod-bearing enforcers of the faith bring the culprits before the priest, the guilty had to pay a fine of “two pesos in gold… one for the building of the Church, and the other to the accusing party.” [3] As a result, this practice promoted snitching, slander, and false testimony before the catechism class even started!

In 1556 Archbishop Barrios begins his orders for the new archdiocese at his charge (Bogotá and all other territories including Cartagena) with: “Whereas the entire good of our Christian religion consists in the foundation of our Holy Catholic faith without which no one can be saved, nor can anything firm nor pleasing to God may be done, and by which the Holy Fathers in all their situations conquered the world, and reached the eternal glory which they now possess.”

Four years before the founding of Cartagena, in 1529, Luther published his first Small Catechism. The Small Catechism was written in question and answer format, and was to be taught at home, not at the church. The chief catechizer was to be the father as head of the household.

Luther’s instruction on The Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer reads as follows in his Small Catechism:

“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

“What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at

our sins or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which

we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace,

for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely

forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”

Luther’s Small Catechism encompasses the heart of the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ without the attached threat of forced conversion. In contrast to the message espoused by the Archbishop Barrios and others, Luther based his catechism on the authority of Scripture, not the authority of the church.

Luther’s Small Catechism encompasses the heart of the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ without the attached threat of forced conversion.

Eleven years after Barrios’ orders, in 1576, the bishop of Cartagena wrote the first catechism for the instruction of the indigenous people of Cartagena and surrounding areas. Its stated purpose is to instruct the “indios” in the faith, and to fight the Reformation heresies. The catechism is published in simple Spanish, with a Spanish Reader appended so that the “indios” would learn Spanish and proceed to baptism in the holy Catholic faith. Incredibly, it is published in a question and answer format similar to Luther’s.

The bishop of Cartagena ordered the catechizers to instruct the indigenous people that all their ancestors were now suffering torment for their idolatry, and should they not confess the Holy Catholic faith, they would suffer the same. However, their heavenly Father is merciful and has sent them to obey His Holy Law [with the sword and rod] and thus save them from the fires of hell.

Seven years later, Antonio Ricardo, a printer from Spain arrives at the New World and sets up shop in Lima, Perú. That same year, Ricardo publishes the first printed book in Lima: “Christian Doctrine and Catechism for the Instruction of the Indians and Others Who Should be Taught Our Holy Faith.” [4]

This book is also modeled in Luther’s question and answer format. Its content is similar to Dionisios de Sanctis’ Cartagena Catechism.

If you had lived in Cartagena as one of my ancestors, or in Lima, you would have found yourself learning the dialogue from Ricardo’s catechism and others from the same era at the point of a sword or confined to the rack.

Q: What must a person do to be free from sin?

A: He will go cleanse his soul by confessing before the father and then by going to Mass.

Q: How do you achieve God’s grace in this life?

A: By believing in Jesus Christ and keeping His Law.

Q: How do you know that this is what God really says?

A: Because the Holy Catholic church says so.

Q: Tell me now, since Jesus Christ died for all, will all be saved?

A: Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ and even those who have faith but do not have works, nor keep His Law, are not saved. Rather, they will be condemned to eternal penalties in hell.

Q: And those who believe in Him and keep His Law, will they be saved?

A: Yes, they will, and in body and soul will enjoy eternal riches in heaven.

This teaching runs contrary to the contents of Scripture, and to the work of Christ crucified which tell us we are not saved by the Law, good works, or the authority of the church, but instead by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9) on account of Christ (Rom. 5:1-2).

Yet in addition to the catechism, in 1610, the Catholic Church established the Tribunal of the Inquisition in Cartagena. The reason? Heretics.

Heretics? Already in the New World? Heretics already in Cartagena? In 1610? That’s 10 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock!

Roman Catholic historian Fermina Álvarez Alonso documents the story. [5] Alonso bemoans that by 1570 when the Inquisition is transplanted to the Americas, Reformed and Lutheran churches already have an institutional body in Europe due to the “tolerance” of the Roman Catholic church. Thus, the Inquisition is sent over the Atlantic in order to prevent the further advancement of the Protestant traditions in the conquered New World. It’s here that the priests are undertaking the laborious process of converting the “Indians, blacks, and mestizos” to the one and true Catholic faith with their new catechism, which in format, greatly resemble Luther’s Small Catechism.

But where is the threat? Where are the missionaries? How are they getting to the Americas?

The answer may surprise even the most assiduous Reformation historians.

Lutheran and Calvinist believers from Holland, England, and Germany (some French Huguenots) found a most ingenious way of reaching the Americas with the Reformation Gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. They took the Augustinian, Dominican, and Jesuit monks by surprise.

Most of these self-made missionaries had an incredible cover: they arrived at the New World disguised as pirates. Yes, pirates! They were mercenaries in English, Dutch, and Portuguese privateer schooners awaiting the gold laden Spanish galleons to head for Spain. When the schooners anchored off the Caribbean coast near Cartagena, the “pirate missionaries” would jump ship at night and either swim or row to shore. Many of them seem to have brought Luther’s Small Catechism with them. Thus, the history of the early Reformation in the New World is both a tale of pirates and the battle of catechisms: the Roman Papacy’s Small Catechism vs. Luther’s Small Catechism.

The history of the early Reformation in the New World is both a tale of pirates and the battle of catechisms.

These believers came over in the late sixteenth century. It’s impossible to even guesstimate the number of these self-appointed missionaries. The only record is found in the Inquisition archives for many years kept in Cartagena. Those records provide the account of those who were “processed” by the inquisitors’ Autos da Fe (torture or death decrees called “Acts of Faith”). The Cartagena Inquisition records bear the names of the Reformation protagonists together with their alleged heresy.

“John Seyber. Lutheran.”

“Peter Leonard (17 years old when he left Holland). Lutheran.”

“John Frederick Preys. Calvinist. Quoted from Calvinist books, laughed at the images of saints.”

“Adam Edon. Protestant.”

“Andrew Bernard. Calvinist. Taught Catholic ceremonies were nothing but lies. Denied the existence of purgatory and promoted a married clergy.”

“Domingo Hernández Romero (a Protestant from Spain).”

“Nicholas Burundel.” A recalcitrant Lutheran. Witnesses said he spoke against the Catholic mass, the sale of indulgences, veneration of the saints, “boldly, obstinately, and with depravity expounding heretical arguments.”

“John James. Confessed he had heard Lutheran and Calvinist sermons, and that salvation could be found in those faiths. Did not believe in the intercession of the saints. Taught that neither the Pope nor priests could forgive sins.”

A total of 82 “heretics” came before the Inquisition in Cartagena. The very place where they were tortured exists to this day in the Cartagena Museum of the Inquisition. You can see the rack and other instruments provided for their “conversions.”

Thirty-five were sentenced, which means they were either killed by torture, sentenced to life in prison or given over to be forcefully catechised until they repented, confessed, or died denouncing the Catholic faith. Forty-seven were “absolved,” which means they were held in prison until they voluntarily repented and confessed.

Today in Cartagena and all of Colombia’s northern Caribbean, Reformational tradition churches can be counted with the fingers of one hand. If asked about Luther’s Small Catechism, few if any would understand the reference. Instead, most Christian evangelical congregations in Cartagena mirror those of Zwingli or the Radical Reformation. New pirates are needed.

The Reformation pirates took real risks and swam to shore not knowing where they would land. They had no currency but saving faith in Jesus Christ. And oh yes, Luther’s Small Catechism, which they quickly translated into Spanish.

The Reformation pirates took real risks and swam to shore not knowing where they would land. They had no currency but saving faith in Jesus Christ.

It’s now five hundred years later, and I currently live in the northern Caribbean area, not far from where the original Lutheran pirates swam to shore. No longer do privateer schooners anchor off the radiant beaches of Cartagena. Instead, several huge cruise ships a week visit our ancient city. Thousands of tourists from all over the world wonder at the magic of the old colonial walled city and enjoy the traditional dances, the old churches with quaint plazas, and the European cuisine restaurants. And oh, yes: they visit the Museum of the Inquisition, where the blood of the Reformation martyrs was shed for the sake of Christ and Him crucified.

But there seem to be no Lutheran or Reformed pirates among those thousands of tourists crossing Cartagena off their bucket list.

However, Christ did not die in vain for “cartageneros.” One way or another, the Gospel ship will come. Pentecost has never ended. Christ will be exalted as Savior. For where His marvelous grace is preached and taught, we know His word does not come back empty. It shall “announce the eternal gospel to the inhabitants of the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people… and whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Rev. 14:6; Is. 55:11; Acts 2:21).

[1] Título 1o. de las Constituciones Sinodales de Fray Juan de los Barrios (1556). As quoted in M.G. Romero, Fray Juan de los Barrios y la evangelización del Nuevo Reino. Editorial ABC. Bogotá, 1960. pp. 459-487.

[2] This term was always used pejoratively for our ancestors, and it still a demeaning way to address the original local dwellers of the Americas.

[3] All quotes from the various catechisms are from this document. http://revistas.javeriana.edu.co/index.php/teoxaveriana/article/view/22311/17360.

[4] Doctrina cristiana y catecismo para la instrucción de los indios, y de las demás personas que han de ser enseñadas en nuestra santa fe: con un confesionario y otras cosas necesarias. Lima, 1584. Antonio Ricardo. 1st book published in Lima, Perú. https://www.wdl.org/es/item/13746/

[5] Revista de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Vol 6 (1997). Fermina Álvarez Alonso, Herejes ante la Inquisición de Cartagena de Indias, pp 239-259. Álvarez Alonso actually writes quite approvingly – and in defense - of the Inquisition in Cartagena. Given her perspective, it’s unlikely she’s exaggerating the account.