America and Protestantism in the Philippines

American Protestant beliefs at the turn of the century expressed the American worldly mission based on nationalism, a sense of patriotism and what was described as benevolent imperialism. The politics of Protestantism in the American Philippines were closely linked to the idea that the enemy was not only Spain but also the Catholic Church, which had corrupted local peoples through a misguided sense of dogma and superstition. Thus, the conviction was that Protestantism would bring forth the best of Christianity combined with another type of civilizing process, one linked to Euro-American liberalism and democracy.

In the early stages of American missionary activity in the Philippines, the feeling was that, although the Filipino was already a Christian, the form of Christianity as expressed in Catholicism was a corruption from a decadent context (i.e. Spain) so that, in theory, the whole conversion process to Christianity might have to be redone. Furthermore, American attitudes at the beginning of the twentieth century were probably more anti-Catholic as well as being anti-Spanish. Thus, many Protestant Churches argued that baptism, as expressed in terms of what the various American Protestant Churches had to offer, was the start of “true” Christianity. Yet, after forty years of work, the impact was quite limited. Conversion of Catholics to Protestantism occurred, but the scale and intensity were minuscule in comparison to what had happened under Spanish rule. In some cases local élites did convert with the inducement that they would be educated in Church-run colleges in the United States, since most higher education in the Philippines was under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, the American Board of Missions continuously pressured the American colonial government through the Governor General’s office, as well as the home government in Washington, to place restrictive measures on Catholic Church landholdings, to alter taxation policy towards the Church, and to create other limitations which would curtail the role of the Catholic Church. Although some restrictions were implemented, in most cases they failed to pass due to Catholic pressure in the United States.

By the 1910s a fair segment of Protestant missionary activity shifted from the Catholic lowlands to the non-Christian, “pagan” groups who inhabited the mountainous areas of northern Luzon as well as the interiors of Mindanao and some of the islands in the Bisayas. Non-Christian minorities had the virtue of not being contaminated by Spanish culture and Catholic belief; thus, they could be incorporated into Protestantism with less trouble, and they could also be acculturated into the American mould of democracy and liberalism. The prestigious Brent school was established in Baguio, where the colonial summer capital was located, and missionary activity moved north towards the Kalinga, Igorot, and Ifugao. Uplanders were brought to the United States as show pieces in the great international exhibitions (St Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, etc.) between 1900 and the 1920s. It was the American experience which would provide the guiding and divine hand to these people as they moved from loincloth to democracy.

Where conversion among the uplanders did occur, however, a number of forces worked against missionary efforts. Partly due to limited resources from the United States as well as a dire need for Church personnel and ordained ministers, the various Protestant denominations devoted their efforts to medical benefits through the creation of hospitals and medical staff who could minister to the health needs of the uplanders. To this day, most of these small field hospitals and infirmaries still operate, though the personnel are now primarily Filipino. Thus, the legacy of American Protestantism in the Philippines is essentially not religious, but lies in the establishment of medical facilities and schools through which Protestantism and Americanism combined to offer the fruits and benefits of Western civilization.

Yet, the conversion of the Philippines was not really the ultimate goal of the American Mission Board. Although the Philippines had to be secured for Protestantism, this was only the initial phase in the process by which American Protestantism moved on to the Asian scene. Laubach’s (1925) invocation that “…unless the Philippines are saved we shall lose Asia” meant not only to save it from the Catholic Church, but also to use it as a springboard for practices and methods to be perfected in order to move towards India and China. A vast number of missionaries in these countries received their first taste of the Orient in the Philippines, yet the real gems for Christian conversion were the high civilizations of the Asian mainland.

In a broader perspective, Protestantism’s major impact was through its role in the transmission of American values and institutions to a society which had just fought for its independence from Spanish rule, only to lose it again through American intervention. If the American military conquest of the Philippines was in part brutal and even uncalled for, it was Protestantism which restored the dignity of American humanitarian efforts through a benevolent form of imperialism which focused on mass education as the vehicle of cultural progress.[2]

[2] One should consult Achutegui and Bernad (1961) and Clymer (1986) for interesting overviews of how Protestantism operated throughout the Philippines and how Filipinos reworked certain aspects of both Catholicism and Protestantism in the formation of native Philippine Churches such as Aglipayanism.