Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions

Living Edition
| Editors: Henri Gooren

Pentecostalism in Latin America, Rural Versus Urban

  • Leonardo Marcondes AlvesEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08956-0_502-1


Rural Pentecostalism Peasant Pentecostalism Folk religion Urbanization 


Pentecostalism is typically an urban phenomenon around the world and this is not different in Latin America. However, this form of Christianity has a noticeable presence in the countryside throughout the region. In Latin America, the growth of Pentecostal denominations in the cities has followed the increasing urbanization trends, with the bulk of new converts originated from rural areas (D’Epinay 1970; Hoffnagel 1980; Corten 1996). After a century of activities by this diverse group in Latin America, distinctive patterns between rural and urban Pentecostalism have become perceptible.


Since the urban Latin American Pentecostalism has been widely studied (Stoll 1990; Martin 1990), this entry presents the contrast between both aspect of the movement while emphasizing the rural – peasant and indigenous – forms of that religion. This entry covers the history and the scholarly interpretation of this social and religious phenomena in Latin America. The last section highlights some contrasting characteristics between rural and urban Pentecostalism.

The City and the Countryside: History and Interpretations

Pentecostalism in Latin America began in the first decades of the Twentieth century around the time the movement had an enthusiastic reception in many quarters of the globe. Anderson (2014) has challenged the standard historiography for the origin and expansion of Pentecostalism from a sole source from Topeka through Azusa Street, then hailing to the rest of the world. Instead, Anderson argues that a common milieu and an existing network connected revivals occurring in different countries. However, even the specialized literature mentions little about the Pentecostal revivals in Latin America among peasants in El Salvador (1904) and Latvian rural settlers in Southern Brazil (1909). But the most known origin narratives – the charismatic outpouring among Methodists in Valparaiso, Chile (1909) (D’Epinay 1970) or the arrival of Swedish-American missionaries in Belém do Pará, Brazil (1911) (Norell 2011) – demonstrate the greater visibility of the Pentecostal presence in urban areas. Consequently, the different narratives on the beginnings of Latin American Pentecostalism reflect the distinct ways the movement took root in the city and the countryside.

Before the Azusa Street revival took place in 1906, a Canadian lay missionary, Frank Mebius (1869–1945) led a Pentecostal revival in El Salvador among coffee plantation workers (Barrillas 2014). The movement Mebius started spread across Central America and south Mexico, resulting in loose networks of independent congregations called the Free Apostolics while the other converts became affiliated with the North American Assemblies of God or Church of God (Cleveland) denominations. A few years later, in 1909 another Pentecostal awakening occurred in the colonies of the Latvian Baptists in southern Brazil which fade out within a few decades (Ronis 1974). During the Mexican Revolution, migrant laborers on the borderlands have also experienced a revival that would reach other regions of Mexico, especially small towns and rural areas.

In common with rural Pentecostalism, its urban counterpart also attracted the socially marginalized. The earlier theoretical assessments by Willems (1967) and D’Epinay (1970) noted that the Pentecostal churches offered direction and provided a sense of community to the rural laborer relocated to the cities. The anomie found at the large cities or at the agricultural frontier left a vacuum filled by the Pentecostals’ organization and message. Another perspective stated that Pentecostalism prepared the poor to cope with the difficulties of an urban life for which they were not prepared (Mariz 1994), especially after the great rural exodus resulting from the implementation of newer techniques of the so-called Green Revolution.

The Latin American city, increasingly industrialized since the 1960s and 1970s, had an exponential growth beyond its capacity to absorb and provide services to the newer inhabitants. In the cities, movements proclaiming divine healing, utilizing larger venues, and mass media has been increasing since the 1950s, constituting the second-wave Pentecostalism (Freston 2001). Later, the individual ethos of the urban semi-industrialized capitalism reverberated at the prosperity gospel message of neo-Pentecostals and neo-Charismatics, which compete for the body and souls in the market of religion (Isaia 2006). It is worth noticing that not all rural migrants became Pentecostals upon moving to the city, while some have been adherents to the religion prior moving (Hoffnagel 1980; Corten 1996).

The newer movements were typically urban and placed emphasis on the dramatic demonstration of healing powers of its leader or on the theology of prosperity. Such discourse has not been very successful in the countryside, even though the peasant worldview is permeated with healing practices (Chaves 2012). Throughout rural areas in Latin America, the classical Pentecostals are groups from the Assembleias de Deus in Brazil or the Colombian United Pentecostal Church and independent local movements, such as the Iglesias Nativas de Apure in Venezuela (Pollak-Eltz 2005).

The intradenominational relationship between rural and urban Pentecostalism has a paradigmatic case with the Christian Congregation in Brazil. This movement began in 1910 with the visit of a lay missionary Louis Francescon (1866–1964), born a peasant in a rural town in Italy, but established as a skilled laborer in Chicago. Francescon started his mission in a hamlet near to a small town called Santo Antonio da Platina, in inner Brazil, and within weeks he planted another congregation in São Paulo, at the time, a booming city in the country. The church headquarters and its large membership remain in the cosmopolitan São Paulo, while the denomination keeps a sizeable presence in small towns, frontier regions, and rural areas (Jacob et al. 2003). The church has not felt the pressure to change as other more urban-oriented denominations, maintaining an extended family-like structure and many values and ethos of a rural mentality (Hollenweger 1976; Foerster 2010).


A systematic comparison of rural and urban Pentecostalism in Latin America is still warranted. Most of the well-known studies on Latin American Pentecostalism focus on cities and assume that the countryside branch of the religion is similar to its urban counterpart. However, specific studies conducted among peasants and indigenous groups in the region (Annis 1987; Hoekstra 1991; Chandler 2007; Chaves 2012; Gross 2016) have found distinct aspects. Considering the environmental, economic, and political facets of rural Latin America, the Pentecostals in these areas are key-actors in the countryside or demographic factors when moving to the cities (Hoffnagel 1980). With such discernible differences, some common traits might be contrasted as follows.

While urban Pentecostalism has increasingly become politically active, its rural counterpart remains relatively vulnerable. Thus, peasant Pentecostals still face persecution, social ostracism, and frequent harassment, especially in the southern states of Mexico (Gross 2016) and Colombia (Flora 1976). At those places, the Pentecostals might be regarded as tradition-breakers, opting-out of the obligations of compadres and not taking their turn in the cofradías (Annis 1987).

The rural folk Catholicism across Latin America has the complex social and ritual organization of the cofradia. The religious brotherhood plays a significant role in the internal politics of the villages, with high prestige deferred to the cargo system. Annis (1987) has found that upon intensifying the relations with capitalism, the Guatemalan peasants consider burdensome the obligations to host the yearly festivals. Many of them adhere to a variety of popular Protestant, notably Pentecostal churches, giving an acceptable excuse to avoid alcohol, dances, and partaking the saints’ festivals. Meanwhile, in the Brazilian Zona da Mata, the old Catholic families still bears the obligations to patronize the poor, maintaining a patron-client relationship, while the Pentecostal peasants avoid even government-sponsored incentives, relying more on a horizontal reciprocity system within their congregations (Chandler 2007). On the other hand, Rolim (1985), Ireland (1991), Burdick (1993), among others, have demonstrated that often the urban Pentecostal pastors behave as the rural caudillos, with a patron-client attitude, providing jobs and aid in exchange of political loyalty. The discussion on whether converting to Pentecostalism facilitates the assimilation of the spirit of Capitalism among peasants is still ongoing. This Weberian thesis is defended by Annis (1987), reassessed by Berger (2010), but challenged by Nogueira-Godsey (2012) and Chandler (2007).

Despite the differences on how Pentecostalism affects the life of the peasant in the countryside or upon moving to the cities, it is acceptable that the ascetic ethos of rural Pentecostals provides a clear-cut code of behavior amid ever changing times. Annis (1987) points out that the main perceived differences between the Catholic and Pentecostal peasants are the comportment distinctive. The Pentecostal ethos determines what clothes to sport, what food to consume, how to spend leisure time, and how to conduct family relations. Thus, Pentecostalism has also affected and rearranged the household (Mariz 1994) and gender relations (Brusco 1995).

Pentecostalism has a relevant weight on members’ identity. While urban believers might set one or another primary identifier to exist socially in an environment of multiple overlapping identities, the rural Pentecostalist usually lives in a society with clear affiliations. The solidarity of the Pentecostal congregations might be a replacement for the disrupted compadrazco system, religious cofrarías, and breaking the long-standing relationship of extended families among Latin American peasants (Brandão 2007). Additionally, the indigenous population must also negotiate their identity in relation to the industrialized global urban world. Many indigenous groups, like the Tobas (Qom) and the Matacos (Wichí) in the Grand Chaco, or the Guarani and Kaigang in Brazil have experienced collective conversion to Pentecostalism (Alvarsson and Segato 2003; Barros 2003; Kristek 2005; Guerrero 2005). The double minority status of indigeneity and adherence to Evangelical faith, including Pentecostalism, has been capitalized for political actions, as the articulation promoted by FEINE in Ecuador (Guamán 2006). On the other hand, the ritual aspect of Pentecostalism allows these indigenous and peasant populations to continue their spirituality practice with a more socially accepted Christianized form, especially regarding the divine healing aspect (Brandão 2007).

Concluding Remarks

Pentecostalism has been met with relative success in Latin America. Nevertheless, the many denominations, networks, and movements in the region have distinct characteristics when comparing their history in the countryside and the cities. Latin America has passed by an intense urbanization and the emergence of a plural religious scenario throughout the twentieth century. Although not a sharp boundary between the Pentecostalism in the countryside and the city could be drawn, some of the distinct traits are noticeable, especially on political, economic, and identity aspects.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Federal University of UberlândiaUberlândiaBrazil