For centuries, the Catholic church was the only religious presence in the Spanish colonies. In the British colonies, which soon became the United States, Protestant leaders prioritized evangelizing settlers, assuming their work would prove futile among Mexicans. In fact, it took nearly 100 years after the founding of the US for Protestantism to gain its first convert and a foothold in what is now New Mexico. As the 19th-century Methodist missionary Thomas Harwood explained:
New Mexico should have credit for commencing the [Mexican Protestant] Missionary work first of any other. Let us recapitulate … The first [Protestant] sermon ever preached in Spanish, especially in North or South America, was in New Mexico. The first baptism was in New Mexico. The first Methodist church building ever erected in the Spanish work was in New Mexico. The first martyr was in New Mexico. The first Mexican [Protestant] convert, Don. Ambrosio Gonzales, was in New Mexico.
While few details are known about the life of Ambrosio Gonzales, Harwood knew him personally. His two-volume History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions, which covers the decades between 1850–1910, portrays a man who was radically transformed by the power of the gospel and spent his life trying to help his community come to know the Lord as he did. Although he had no formal theological training, Gonzales’ vibrant faith and deep concern for the Bible empowered him to make an impact in Peralta, New Mexico, and its surrounding communities. In this way, he blazed a trail for other Mexican men and women to follow his footsteps of faith.
The Southwest’s Political Mess
Ambrosio’s conversion is best understood in the context of the mid-19th-century geopolitical tensions that beset what is now the southwestern United States. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the new country extending to what is now the northern borders of California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, with the Pacific Ocean serving as its western border and Texas its eastern.
But in 1836, Texas declared independence from Mexico. Less than 10 years later, in 1845, the US annexed Texas. This action, in turn, provoked a war between Mexico and the US. When the US won, it overpowered Mexico and forced it to surrender what is now Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Suddenly, about 100,000 Mexican sons and daughters whose families had lived on these lands for generations, who spoke Spanish and identified as Catholic, now were “foreigners” in their own homes.
Roughly a decade after Mexico declared its independence from Spain, American Protestant missionaries, like Presbyterian minister Sumner Bacon, began passing out Spanish Bibles in Mexico. These Spanish Bibles and Spanish New Testaments were mass-produced by the American Bible Society for evangelistic efforts throughout the country, according to historian Paul Barton’s Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in Texas. However, Bacon and others testified to how difficult the missionary endeavors were in Mexico. Regardless of the missionaries’ intentions, many Mexicans saw the English language, the Protestant faith, and the US idea of manifest destiny as uncomfortably connected. Thus, retaining their native land also meant rejecting the Protestant faith. The Mexican-American War only further hardened these beliefs. For Mexican families to convert to Protestantism, they would have to align with the faith of those who had taken their land through military conquest.
‘A Charm to Me’
In 1850, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church sent out Enoch Nicholson and his family from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Three years later, Nicholson met Ambrosio Gonzales in the town of Peralta, a community 100 miles south of Santa Fe. Upon meeting Gonzales, Nicholson gave him a Bible. Gonzales later recounted receiving this life-changing gift in a conversation with Harwood:
It was the first Bible of any kind I had ever seen. … The book was a charm to me. When the rest retired, I sat up and read the good book. I read nearly the whole book of Genesis. I then turned to the New Testament and read several chapters in Saint John. One chapter was the fourteenth— ‘Let not your heart be troubled, etc.’— It was to me a new book. I read until the chickens were crowing for day. I laid down on a lounge in the same room and soon fell asleep. When I woke the sun was shining through the window into my face. The Sun of Righteousness was shining brightly in my soul. I have been a Christian and a Protestant ever since.
While Gonzales had spent his entire life in a Christian nation, he had never encountered a written copy of the Scriptures. The Bible engaged his spiritual taste buds to the extent in which he consumed the entire Book of Genesis and other Scriptures in one night. From that day, Gonzales and his family treasured the Scriptures in general, and the Bible given to him from Nicholson became known as the “Peralta Bible.” According to Harwood, “That was the starting point of the Protestant work in Peralta, if not in the entire territory.”
In 1855, the Methodist church sent Dallas Lore to examine the situation in Peralta, New Mexico, and give a report of its condition, according to Presbyterian missionary Robert Craig’s 1904 book, Our Mexicans. In the three years since Gonzales had become a Protestant, Lore saw that the convert had not kept his faith a secret. In fact, 14 Mexican converts, seven men and seven women, were meeting at his home. “There is no reason to doubt as to their sincerity. They have a good man for their leader, Ambrosio Gonzales, and there is much to hope for from them,” wrote Lore in a letter. Before departing Peralta, Lore organized them into a church and appointed Gonzales as the leader.
From that point, few details of the history in Peralta remain until Harwood reached New Mexico in 1869. To the delight of many, “the little band of 14 had increased to 42, the missionary noted.” Harwood officially licensed Gonzales upon that visit and testified, “I found no other organization in any other place in New Mexico where the Mexican people held religious services.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today