Church History

Atlantic Interconnections and the Origins of Brazilian Protestantism

Today, much of the discussion on Brazilian Christianity focuses on the charismatic movement within the Catholic church and the growth of neo-pentecostal churches such as the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus. As I have discussed in an earlier article, the Brazilian pentecostal movement is over a century old today, and it owes its origins to a variety of transnational and Brazilian actors. However, the emergence of Protestantism itself in this predominantly Catholic country (70% of the population in 2015) extends much further back than the 1910s, beginning with the work of British and US Bible societies and the evangelistic missionaries that built on these societies’ work in the mid-19th century.

One of the earliest Protestant churches in Brazil still in existence today is the Igreja Evangélica Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro. This congregation was established by the Scottish missionary Robert Reid Kalley and his English wife Sarah Poulton Wilson Kalley in the 1850s, pastored by João Manoel Gonçalves dos Santos after 1876, and kept financially stable by businessman José Luis Fernandes Braga in the last decades of the 1800s.[1]

Robert was born into the Church of Scotland, but soon turned away from the faith of his family and went to study medicine rather than divinity. However, in part through witnessing the faith of his patients, Robert returned to faith in Christ and determined to be a medical missionary to China, a common missionary destination of the times. However, he inadvertently redirected his plans when he married his first wife, Margaret, whom the London Missionary Society considered too frail to work in China. The couple instead went to the Atlantic island of Madeira, under the control of Catholic Portugal, where Robert began medical and evangelistic work. His proselytizing efforts soon resulted in a substantial group of evangelical converts. Facing significant persecution from the Catholic authorities, the Kalleys and many of the converts fled to Trinidad, taking advantage of British ships which were eager to bring in an immigrant laboring population to their Caribbean colony. Many of these Portuguese-speaking religious refugees subsequently relocated to areas in the United States, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois, where pockets of Portuguese and Madeiran culture persist to this day.

The Kalleys themselves returned to England, and Margaret unfortunately soon passed away. On a subsequent trip to Palestine, Robert met the Wilsons, an English family with ties to leading Congregationalist leaders. Sarah Wilson, a daughter in this family, was an avid promoter of the Sunday School movement, having taught the children of poor industrial workers in Torquay, a coastal town along the English Channel, before going to Palestine. Sarah and Robert were married, and the couple headed to the United States.

In Boston, they met with leaders of the American Bible Society (ABS) in Boston, who had just received notice from Methodist ABS worker Daniel Kidder that the distribution work in Brazil needed some help. To make their Bibles more attractive to Catholic buyers, the ABS distributed Bibles with prefaces noting that the translations were based on the Vulgate and made by Catholic priests.[2] However, Catholic opposition to the ABS was strong, and Catholic polemicists emphasized the fact that the Methodist distributors were foreigners from New York.[3] Since Robert knew Portuguese and had many contacts among the Madeiran exiles, the Kalleys briefly toured the US to raise support and sailed to Rio in 1855.

From 1822-1888, Brazil was an independent empire under the leadership of the descendants of the monarchs of Portugal, who had fled to their Brazilian colony during Napoleon’s domination of Europe. Having experienced in Madeira what it was like to lack governmental support, the Kalleys established their home in Petrópolis, where much of the imperial government was centered. Fortunately for them, the Emperor Dom Pedro II, though Catholic himself, was opposed to the ultramontanist Brazilian clergy, who desired greater direct contact with Rome. Dom Pedro therefore was sympathetic to the proselytizing work of these Protestants and enjoyed discussing Palestine while visiting with the Kalleys. These contacts proved valuable to Robert, as he was able to enlist the help of prestigious lawyers when he was prosecuted for his evangelistic work.[4]

Robert was able to persuade three of the Madeiran exiles to come to Brazil and do evangelism and Bible-distributing work: Francisco da Gama, Francisco de Souza Jardim, and Manuel Fernandes. Though a Presbyterian pastor with the Illinois refugee congregation, Antônio de Mattos, did not believe that converts from Catholicism needed to be baptized again, Robert Kalley did 5himself held this position.[5] Pedro Nolasco de Andrade, baptized in 1858, became the first convert and member of the Igreja Evángelica Fluminense. Two other early converts included the sister of the Marques of Paraná, Gabriela Carneiro Leão and her daughter Henriqueta Augusta Soares do Couto. The baptism of these elite women caused some controversy for the young congregation, though the Kalleys’ elite contacts mitigated the situation somewhat. Sarah began a Sunday School for the children of the congregation, and she also started a regular women’s gathering. Though she anticipated that only the German immigrant women would attend, since they were less bound to the Brazilian custom which required that women not go out alone, Sarah was surprised that as many as fourteen women began attending these gatherings.[6] The Protestant work extended northward when Manoel José da Silva Vianna traveled to the state of Pernambuco and paved the way for the establishment of another Protestant church in 1873, which was named the Igreja Evangélica Pernambucana.[7]

The Kalleys continued their work in Rio and Petrópolis until 1876, when they returned permanently to Scotland, where Robert died in 1888. Sarah outlived him by many years and kept up her connection to Protestant work in Brazil by serving as secretary of “Help for Brazil” Mission. João Manoel Gonçalves dos Santos took over as pastor of the church in Rio, and the funds from the successful hat-making business of José Luis Fernandes Braga helped keep the congregation going financially. The Igreja Fluminense was not formally tied to any outside denomination or mission agency, since Robert had been a largely independent agent. Many of the members of the Igreja Fluminense church, however, affiliated themselves with and became leaders in the early Presbyterian mission work in Rio and São Paulo, which had started in the 1860s.

The story of these early beginnings of Brazilian Protestantism is fascinating for all the Atlantic interconnections it reveals. English-speaking evangelicals around the middle of the 19th century were beginning to build networks of mission and outreach work. Latin America was incorporated more slowly than other areas of the world, making the work of the Kalleys unique in their day. However, the Igreja Fluminense marked a beginning point, setting a precedent for Protestant presence that many other groups built on in the subsequent decades.


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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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