Europeans used religion to justify their actions in many different ways. One motive for the exploration and colonization of the Americas was the need to win converts to the Catholic Church in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. Many observers, both contemporaries, like Bartolome de las Casas, and later historians,...
Europeans used religion to justify their actions in many different ways. One motive for the exploration and colonization of the Americas was the need to win converts to the Catholic Church in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. Many observers, both contemporaries, like Bartolome de las Casas, and later historians, argued that violence and cruelty practiced by settlers against Native Americans was inconsistent with these religious motives. Europeans were more interested in plundering the Native peoples they encountered than in bringing them religion.
Still, the idea of converting Native peoples was a consistent justification for colonization. One early promoter of the English settlement at Jamestown exhorted the colony to "let Religion be the first aim of your hopes," and to "propagate the Gospel of Jesus Christ" among the Native peoples of North America. The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured a Native American man exhorting Englishmen to "come over and help us." Spanish and French religious orders, including the Jesuits, went to great lengths to convert Native peoples. They established monasteries and missions in the far-flung corners of North and South America. Europeans believed that the benefits of Christianity justified the brutal means of conquest.
Some colonizers even argued that Native Americans were outside the reach of civilization. Their uncultured status relieved Europeans of the responsibility to treat them as human equals. This argument was famously made at the "Valladolid debates," in which Spanish theologan Juan Ginés de Sepulvéda claimed that Indian peoples were "barbarians." Any war or violence against them was just due to their "barbaric" nature.
It is easy, considering all the examples of brutality and greed in Europeans' dealings with Native Americans, to dismiss assertions of religious motives as hollow justifications for stealing land and wealth. But in reality, Europeans did not make these distinctions between religious and pecuniary motives. Many would have seen the desires to gain wealth and spread Christianity as reinforcing aims, rather than exclusive ones.