Through most of Guatemala’s history, the dominant religious force has been the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic missionaries arrived along with soldiers during the Spanish conquest in the early 1500’s. Subsequently, Catholicism enjoyed enormous power and privilege as the only official church.
In the late 1800’s, anticlerical “liberal” politicians pushed to reduce the status of the Catholics. One was Justo Rufino Barrios, Guatemala’s president. He personally requested in 1882 that U.S. Presbyterians send a missionary, and escorted Rev. John Clark Hill back from New York. Behind the Palacio Nacional, Hill founded Guatemala’s an English school and the first Protestant congregation, the Iglesia Presbiteriana Central. But after three years, this early mission effort fell apart. Barrios was killed in a gun battle, and Hill, financially strapped, was called back to the States.
That was just the start, for hundreds of missionaries followed in the decades to come. It wasn’t long before others followed the Presbyterians–notably the Methodists, Friends, Nazarene and Central American Mission. These U.S. denominations developed a close relationship, in part because they faced a common persecution by the Catholics. They even adopted a formal “comity agreement” in 1936 that designated territory for each mission. Denominations that arrived later, however, didn’t feel bound by this agreement. In particular, Pentecostal missions, which started to arrive in the 1930’s, showed little interest in cooperation.
By 1950, Presbyterians had established five presbyteries across the country, plus schools, Bible institutes, a seminary, and a hospital. That year these mission efforts were organized into a national body called the Synod. Thus began the process toward autonomy that concluded with the founding in 1962 of the Evangelical National Presbyterian Church of Guatemala as an “integrated” denomination.
About this time a civil war was heating up that featured military dictatorships, human rights abuses, and guerilla insurgencies. The IENPG’s leadership struggled to keep peace within its diverse membership, which included upper-class professionals and business people as well as indigenous farmers. For the most part they kept a lower political profile, providing some social assistance while trying to keep pace with the phenomenal growth of the Pentecostal movement. Nonetheless, several significant schisms took place. U.S. mission workers tended to be more vocal about protesting injustices, and some of them were asked by the church to leave.
Since the civil war’s end in 1996, there’s been a surge in mission groups coming from the U.S. to Guatemala, along with numerous partnerships between PC(USA) and IENPG presbyteries (nineteen at last count). These partnerships emphasize transparency, mutuality, and long-term relationships. However, there’s little oversight, and sometimes partnerships are hindered by subtle forms of paternalism, dependence on personalities, and disregard for denominational protocols.
Today the IENPG consists of 450 churches in twenty-one presbyteries, nine of them Ladino and twelve indigenous. Worship is held in 8 languages, and church members reflect all socio-economic classes. While most hold to a traditional theology, there’s also a growing openness to innovations. Presbyterianism in Guatemala keeps evolving, as does the relationship between churches in Guatemala and the U.S. What remains unchanged is the determination to stick together across cultures and languages, while seeking to stay faithful to God.