When Christopher Columbus arrived in America, the Catholic Church moved quickly to establish its control in the newly discovered territory. In 1493, just one year after Columbus’s famous voyage, Pope Alexander VI published a bull dividing the new territory between Spain and Portugal—provided the natives were converted to Catholicism. As Hernán Cortés tore through the Aztec Empire, he was following a letter of instruction that said, “The first aim of your expedition is to serve God and spread the Christian faith.”
The first missionaries arrived shortly after the fall of the Aztecs. Most of the missionary work was done by Catholic orders—the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Jesuits. Thirty-five years after the first dozen Franciscans arrived, there were 800 missionaries in Mexico alone. Contemporary reports say the Franciscans alone baptized 5 million—roughly 1 percent of the world population at the time—although these reports are impossible to verify.