The Great Debate
Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda
Sepúlveda, a distinguished scholar of Aristotle, was official historian of the Spanish crown. In 1547 he wrote The Second Democrates to defend the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. He used the substance of that argument when he debated Bartolomé de Las Casas three years later.
The man rules over the woman, the adult over the child, the father over his children. That is to say, the most powerful and most perfect rule over the weakest and most imperfect. The same relationship exists among men, there being some who by nature are masters and others who by nature are slaves.
Those who surpass the rest in prudence and intelligence, although not in physical strength, are by nature the masters. On the other hand, those who are dim-witted and mentally lazy, although they may be physically strong enough to fulfill all the necessary tasks, are by nature slaves.
It is just and useful that it be this way. We even see it sanctioned in the divine law itself, for it is written in the Book of Proverbs: “He who is stupid will serve the wise man” [11:29].
And so it is with the barbarous and inhumane peoples [the Indians] who have no civil life and peaceful customs. It will always be just and in conformity with natural law that such people submit to the rule of more cultured and humane princes and nations. Thanks to their virtues and the practical wisdom of their laws, the latter [the Spanish] can destroy barbarism and educate these people to a more humane and virtuous life. And if the latter [the Indians] reject such rule, it can be imposed upon them by force of arms. Such a war will be just, according to natural law. . . .
Until now we have not mentioned their impious religion and their abominable sacrifices, in which they worship the Devil as God, to whom they thought of offering no better tribute than human hearts . . . They placed these hearts on their abominable altars. With this ritual they believed that they had appeased their gods. They also ate the flesh of sacrificed men.
War against these barbarians can be justified not only on the basis of their paganism but even more so because of their abominable licentiousness, their prodigious sacrifice of human victims, the extreme harm that they inflicted on innocent persons, their horrible banquets of human flesh, and the impious cult of their idols. . . .
Since the evangelical law of the New Testament is more perfect and more gentle than the Mosaic law of the Old Testament, so also wars are now waged with more mercy and clemency. Their purpose is not so much to punish as to correct evils.
What is more appropriate and beneficial for these barbarians than to become subject to the rule of those whose wisdom, virtue, and religion have converted them from barbarians into civilized men (insofar as they are capable of becoming so), from being torpid and licentious to becoming upright and moral, from being impious servants of the Devil to becoming believers of the true God?
For these barbarians, our rule ought to be even more advantageous than for Spaniards, since virtue, humanity, and the true religion are more valuable than gold or silver. And if they refuse our rule, they may be compelled by force of arms to accept it. Such a war will be just according to natural law.
Bartolomé de Las Casas
The Dominican friar was his era’s most outspoken critic of the Conquest.
There are no races in the world, however rude, uncultivated, barbarous, gross, or almost brutal they may be, who cannot be persuaded and brought to a good order and way of life. . . .
Thus, the entire human race is one; all men are alike with respect to their creation and the things of nature, and none is born already taught. And so we all have the need, from the beginning, to be guided and helped by those who have been born earlier.
Thus, when some very rustic peoples are found in the world, they are like untilled land, which easily produces worthless weeds and thorns, but has within itself so much natural power that when it is plowed and cultivated it gives useful and wholesome fruits . . .
All the races of the world have understanding and will, and that which results from these two faculties in man—that is, free choice. And consequently, all have the power and ability or capacity . . . to be instructed, persuaded, and attracted to order and reason and laws and virtue and all goodness.
They are very apt to receive our holy Catholic faith, to be endowed with virtuous customs, and to behave in a godly fashion. And once they begin to hear the tidings of the faith, they are so insistent on knowing more . . . that truly, the missionaries who are here need to be endowed by God with great patience to endure such eagerness. Some of the secular Spaniards who have been here for many years say that the goodness of the Indians is undeniable, and that if this gifted people could be brought to know the one true God, they would be the most fortunate people in the world.
A method contrary to the one we have been defending would be the following: Pagans should first be subjected, whether they wished to be or not, to the rule of the Christian people, and that once they were subjected, organized preaching would follow.
But if pagans find themselves first injured, oppressed, saddened, and afflicted by the misfortunes of wars, through loss of their children, their goods, and their own liberty . . . how can they be moved voluntarily to listen to what is proposed to them about faith, religion, justice, and truth . . . ?
The one and only method of teaching men the true religion was established by Divine Providence for the whole world, and for all times: that is, by persuading the understanding through reasons, and by gently attracting or exhorting the will.
Divine Wisdom moves rational creatures, that is, men, to their actions or operates gently. . . . Therefore, the method of teaching men the true religion ought to be gentle, enticing, and pleasant. This method is by persuading the understanding and by attracting the will.
Hearers, especially pagans, should understand that the preachers of the faith have no intention of acquiring power over them. . . .
Preachers should show themselves so mild and humble, courteous and . . . good-willed that the hearers eagerly wish to listen and hold their teaching in greater reverence.
[Preachers must] possess that same love of charity by which Paul was accustomed to love all men in the world that they might be saved: “You are witnesses and God also, how holy and just and blameless was our conduct towards you who have believed.”
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #35 in 1992]
Columbus and Christianity in the Americas: Christian History Timeline
Spanish Developments, 1492–1810.Thomas S. Giles
Highlights of the California Missions
Junípero Serra and his successors established 21 missions in California between 1769 and 1823. Each mission was a combination military outpost and religious commune; together, they were a colorful experiment in missions.Mark Galli
Christianity Comes to the Americas
Early Spanish expansion and missions.William D. Taylor
Cross and Sword
The Spain that sought political conquest also served as powerful patron of the Christian religion.Pablo A. Deiros
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