Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Spirit and Power – A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals

Historical Overview of Pentecostalism in Guatemala

Origins and Growth

    • 1910s-1940s: In 1882, an anti-Catholic, liberal president, Justo Barrios, escorts an American Presbyterian minister to Guatemala to encourage Protestant growth. Other Protestant missionaries, with the Central American Mission, Quakers, Primitive Methodists, and Nazarenes, arrive in the late 1890s and early 1900s (Garrard-Burnett 2001: 2-3). Pentecostal missionaries with the United and Free Gospel Society arrive in 1916. The churches they plant eventually affiliate with the pentecostal Church of God (Cleveland) in the mid-1930s. In 1936, Assemblies of God (AG) missionaries arrive (Garrard-Burnett 2001: 14-19). By 1937, a study estimates that all Protestants make up almost 2% of the population (Wilson 1998: 142).


  • 1950s-1960s: Evangelization combined with urbanization and economic decline facilitates pentecostal growth (Steigenga 1999: 160). Guatemalans establish churches such as Church of the Prince of Peace in 1955, which breaks off from the Assemblies of God, and Elim in 1962, which becomes pentecostal after breaking off from the Baptist and Nazarene churches (Anderson 2004: 76). Stoll (1990: 337) estimates that nearly 3% of the population is evangelical by 1960, but pentecostals represent only a small proportion of evangelicals. In the late 1960s, some elites join pentecostal churches (Freston 2001: 265-266).



  • 1970s-1980s: The disruptions caused by the civil war starting in the 1960s and an earthquake in 1976 stimulate pentecostal growth, which is encouraged in part by U.S. missionaries distributing earthquake aid in Guatemala. Aid volunteers from the neo-pentecostal, California-based Gospel Outreach establish worship services that become the Church of the Word (Stoll 1990: 184). By 1994 the Church of the Word has an estimated 15,000 members in 25 congregations (Wilson 1998: 147). Guatemalan evangelicals start other neo-pentecostal churches, such as Christian Brotherhood in 1978 and El Shaddai in 1983, which attract members from the middle and upper classes (Freston 2001: 266). As the civil war intensifies between the government and guerilla groups, Catholics face government attacks because of suspected ties to the guerrillas (Stoll 1990: 193-196). This leads some to consider pentecostalism a “safer” option, contributing to rapid growth in the countryside (Garrard-Burnett 1996: 104; Steigenga 1999: 160).



  • 1990-present: By the 1990s, classical pentecostal and neo-pentecostal churches constitute the majority of Guatemala’s Protestants (Freston 2001: 265). A nationwide Gallup survey in 1991 finds that 19% of respondents are Protestant. In Guatemala City, 23% are Protestant; among those with higher education, 31% are Protestant (Freston 2001: 265).



  • The Forum’s 2006 pentecostal survey also suggests that Guatemala’s Protestant population is highly pentecostal, with more than eight-in-ten affiliated with pentecostal or charismatic churches. The survey also finds that approximately six-in-ten Guatemalan Catholics can be considered charismatic.


Religion and Politics

  • Between Guatemala’s independence in 1823 and the 1940s, successive anti-clerical governments severely restrict the Catholic Church (Garrard-Burnett 1996: 98). Though some Catholic leaders support the overthrow of the leftist regime of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, later anti-communist governments in the 1960s suppress Catholicism because of its suspected Marxist sympathies (Garrard-Burnett 1996: 98, 104). Catholicism’s perceived leftist politics alienates some conservative urban elites, enhancing pentecostalism’s appeal (Stoll 1990: 181).

Ríos Montt’s Regime and the Transition to Democracy, 1974-1990

    • In 1974, General Efraín Ríos Montt becomes the presidential candidate for the opposition Christian Democrats. Election returns show him in the lead, but the government declares its candidate the winner. Ríos Montt is sent to a diplomatic post in Spain, returning in 1977 to seek the Christian Democratic nomination again. The bid fails, and he joins the Church of the Word, becoming head of a Word day school (Stoll 1990: 186-187; Steigenga 1999: 158).


  • In 1982, Ríos Montt considers a second presidential run. The coalition offering him a candidacy collapses, and fraudulent elections bring the government candidate to power (Steigenga 1999: 159). Army officers stage a coup and Ríos Montt accepts their offer to lead the new junta, declaring that the Lord has placed him in power (Stoll 1990: 187-189). Ríos Montt’s key advisers include two Word elders, Francisco Bianchi and Álvaro Contreras, who become his influential personal secretaries. Ríos Montt dissolves congress and appoints Jorge Serrano Elías, a leader in the neo-pentecostal Elim church, as head of the new Council of State (Freston 2001: 268-273; King, Nov. 13, 1990).



  • Ríos Montt begins Sunday-evening televised addresses to the nation that are infused with religious rhetoric. In his speeches, he calls on Guatemalans to resist communism and uphold morality in family life and politics. His campaigns against crime and government graft openly equate Catholicism with corruption, and his response to John Paul II during his 1983 visit further offends Catholics (Garrard-Burnett 1996: 106; Freston 2001: 269).



  • Ríos Montt forges ties to U.S. evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson, who flies to Guatemala five days after Ríos Montt comes to power to show his support (Brouwer et al 1996: 56). U.S. evangelicals pledge funds for Montt’s pacification program, through efforts such as “International Love Lift,” administered by Gospel Outreach (Stoll 1990: 191-192).



  • In November 1982, about 250,000 Protestants gather in the capital to celebrate 100 years of Guatemalan Protestantism. Some evangelicals see the convergence of the centennial with the country’s first Protestant leader as a sign that God has appointed Ríos Montt to save Guatemala from communism and lead it to Christ (Stoll 1990: 1-3, 189-190).



  • In August 1983, a military coup overthrows Ríos Montt. The head of the new junta states that saving the country from fanaticism is one reason for the coup, which pleases the Catholic hierarchy. In 1985, the military reinstitutes democracy. Jorge Serrano places third in the subsequent elections, won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo of the Christian Democrats. In 1986, Serrano founds the conservative Solidary Action Movement (Freston 2001: 272-274).


Jorge Serrano’s Presidency, 1990-1993

    • In 1989, Ríos Montt founds a new party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, and leads the polls for the 1990 elections, but the Constitutional Court declares him ineligible because of his involvement in the 1982 coup. Serrano then emerges as the major challenger to National Centrist Union candidate Jorge Carpio Nicolle, a Catholic. The campaigns trade accusations about Serrano’s alleged involvement in international Protestant plots to destroy Guatemala’s Catholic identity. Serrano wins the runoff with 67% of the vote, becoming the first elected Protestant president in Latin America. Surveys suggest that the Serrano vote is not disproportionately Protestant, with Catholics favoring Serrano over Carpio by two-to-one (Steigenga 1999: 162; Freston 2001: 275).


  • Serrano begins asserting civilian control over the military and helps initiate talks with the guerillas. But when Mayan social activist Rigoberta Menchú receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, Serrano fails to stop a wave of reprisals against her associates (Freston 2001: 275). In 1993, Serrano faces corruption charges, revelations of immorality and protests over his economic policies. After his unsuccessful “self-coup,” the congress rejects an attempt by Vice President Gustavo Espina Salguero of the neo-pentecostal Christian Brotherhood to succeed Serrano, and elects as president the human rights ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio (Steigenga 1999: 162).


Neo-Pentecostal Politicians and Christian Political Parties, 1994-2006

    • The Guatemalan Republican Front wins a majority in the 1994 congressional elections, and Ríos Montt becomes president of congress until he again runs for president in 1995. The courts again deny Ríos Montt’s presidential bid, and center right candidate Alvaro Arzú of the National Advancement Party wins the election.


  • In the 1999 presidential election, Francisco Bianchi, a Word leader and former secretary to Ríos Montt, organizes a new party, the Democratic Reconciling Action, which is widely understood to be an evangelical party. Bianchi runs for president with the support of the Church of the Word, but receives only 2% of the vote in the first round and the new party loses its registration (Freston 2004c: 132-133; Samson forthcoming). Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front wins the 1999 presidential election, and Ríos Montt is again elected congress president.



  • Bianchi joins El Shaddai in 2001 and registers a new political party in 2003 based on Christian values, called the Movement of Principles and Values. After an unsuccessful attempt to field a coalition presidential candidate, with Bianchi as vice-president, the party does not field any candidates (Barahona 2003: 6; ASIES 2003: 2; OAS 2005: 43).



  • With court permission to run, Ríos Montt finishes third in the 2003 elections with less than 20% of the vote, while Óscar Berger Perdomo, Catholic candidate of the coalition Grand National Alliance, wins the presidency (Samson forthcoming). While Ríos Montt’s party remains the largest in congress, it fails to win a majority, ending Ríos Montt’s term as congress president. He continues as spokesperson for the party through early 2006 (Joynes, Mar. 22, 2006). In July 2006, a Spanish judge issues an international warrant for the arrest of Ríos Montt for human rights abuses committed by the Guatemalan military during his presidency (Watts, July 7, 2006).



  • In May 2006, Harold Caballeros, pastor of El Shaddai, calls on evangelicals to reform Guatemala, which some see as an indication of his presidential aspirations for the November 2007 elections (Otzoy, May 11, 2006).


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