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Motolinia and Las Casas: Two Missionaries in the Americas


Bartolomé De Las Casas

By Katherine Hugo, Franciscan University

The following was a college essay written by Katie Hugo. It has been edited and approved by Christopher Centrella. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Catholic missionary efforts abounded in the Americas after the explorer Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492. Religious orders sent members from Europe to preach to the Native Americans that they encountered. These included the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and the Franciscans. The Dominican priest Bartolomé De Las Casas and the Franciscan friar Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía were some of the missionaries that came over to the New World from Spain. In addition to the works that they wrote on their missionary activities in the Americas, De Las Casas and Motolinía are well-known for disagreeing with each other on how to evangelize the natives in New Spain. However, despite the deep disagreements that the two priests had on evangelization, De Las Casas and Motolinía had much in common and were successful in converting the Native Americans of the newly discovered continent to the Catholic Faith.

First, the lives of Fray Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía and Bartolomé De Las Casas have numerous similarities. Both men were Spanish members of a religious order. De Motolinía was a Franciscan friar, born in Benevente, Spain sometime around 1495 and his last name was probably Paredes. However, he ended up substituting his birthplace for his last name, which was apparently common practice when joining a religious order at the time. He joined the Franciscans while he was still in Spain. The Aztecs gave him the name “Motolinía,” meaning “poor one” in Nahuatl.[1] Bartolomé De Las Casas was a Dominican priest, and he was born in Seville, Spain around 1484. De Las Casas joined the Dominican order in 1523. This was after he had already come to the Americas, and thus became the first Spanish person to be ordained a priest in the New World.[2]

While their lives have many similarities, the stories of the two priests Fray Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía and Bartolomé De Las Casas do have notable differences. First, the two men came to the Americas for different reasons. De Motolinía left his native country because the Franciscan order sent him to preach with the other Twelve Apostles of New Spain[3]. At the time he came, Bartolomé De Las Casas was a landowner in the Caribbean islands. De Las Casas later gave up his worldly status in order to join the Dominican Order while he was living in the New World.

In addition, because Motolinía and De Las Casas belonged to different orders, they disagreed on how to evangelize the natives. Motolinía and the Franciscans preached the Gospel after baptizing the natives. However, De Las Casas and the Dominicans wanted to educate the people of New Spain in the Faith before converting them. This even led to Motolinía writing a letter to Charles V, the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, about how horrible De Las Casas was.

As a result of their experiences, both Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía and Bartolomé De Las Casas wrote about the New World. In his work, Motolinía discusses the evangelization efforts of himself and the other Twelve Apostles of New Spain. He says that “in all this time the friars did not neglect by prayer and supplication to promote the Faith and to aid those who were doing battle on its behalf.”[4] This shows that the friars were focused on both developing their own faith, as well as the faith of the natives. They originally started in the area in and around Mexico City and only went out when they were invited. However, they started going out to farther areas when they began to learn the language and understood the terrain.

Motolinía recorded his experiences in Motolinía’s History of the Indians of New Spain. In this work, he divides his works into three sections. The first treatise mainly focuses on various rituals among the natives, the second one discusses the sacraments in the New World, and the final section discusses the activities of the missionaries and provides physical descriptions of the natural world. By the time he wrote his work in 1536, the Franciscans were in the New World for a dozen years and the author estimates that he baptized somewhere around four million people.[5]

Like Motolinía, the Dominican wrote several works about the Americas, including In Defense of the Indians and A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which is the most popular of the works that De Las Casas wrote. Both his works discuss the Spanish treatment of the natives and defend the indigenous population against the cruelty of the Spanish encomienda system. However, compared to his Franciscan counterpart, he wrote more of a general overview of the Spanish conquest of the New World, particularly focusing on the cruelties of the Spanish, rather than his personal experiences like Motoliniá did in his work. The books were published after the two priests passed away.

As a result of their time in the New World, both Bartolomé De Las Casas and Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía were in contact with the Spanish King Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. De Las Casas especially fought against the encomienda system, which he saw was one of the ways that the Spanish were abusing the natives. In his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Bartolomé De Las Casas describes the encounters between the two peoples:

The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty, as is premention’d, like most cruel Tygers, Wolves, and Lions, hunder-starv’d, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the massacre of these wretches, whom they have inhumanely and barbarously butcher’d and harass’d with several kinds of torments.[6]

This shows that he did not agree with the actions of his fellow countrymen and was willing to call them out on it. In other works, the Dominican priest wrote about the abuses of this system by listing twenty different reasons to end it. Some of the reasons include that “the Spaniards are not fit or competent agents to be entrusted with the Indians”[7] and “the encomienda system, giving Indians to the Spaniards, always lacked the authority of the sovereigns.”[8] De Las Casas returned to Spain for a time in the 1520s, and he spoke to the Spanish monarch about the exploitations happening to the Natives in the New World. After speaking with De Las Casas, Charles V, who was Holy Roman Emperor and the Spanish king at the time, enacted laws to stop these mistreatments.[9] After the various successes that he had back with the leader of the Old World, Bartolomé De Las Casas returned to the New World in order to become the bishop of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

On the other hand, the Franciscan friar wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor to complain about De Las Casas because Motolinía did not have a high opinion of the fellow missionary to the New World. Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía described his opinion of the Dominican in a 1555 letter: “Truly, for the few canons Las Casas has studied, he presumes a great deal, and his disorder seems very great and his humility very small, and he thinks everyone is wrong and he alone is right.”[10] This conflict was due to the fact that Bartolomé De Las Casas condemned the entire Spanish conquest, whereas Motolinía just denounced the abuses of the Spanish towards the natives. At the same time, they both knew who was in charge and that they could contact him with their concerns about what was happening in the New World.

Both the Franciscan Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía and the Dominican Bartolomé De Las Casas criticized how their fellow countrymen treated indigenous people. They both agreed that the Spanish settlers treated the natives terribly and that the Europeans were conquering the New World because the Spanish treatment of the indigenous people often ended in death. Many of the criticisms revolved around the mines because “natives perished, working in the goldmines.”[11] De Las Casas stated in his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies that:

The Spaniards sailed to the Islands of St. John and Jamaica…perpetrating innumerable Robberies and Villainies as before; whereunto they added unheard of Cruelties by Burning, Roasting, and Exposing Men to be torn to pieces by Dogs; and Finally by afflicting and harassing them with un-exampled Oppressions and torments in the Mines.[12]

This clearly shows that De Las Casas condemned the physical mistreatment of the indigenous people. In addition, the Dominican priest cared about the spiritual state of the natives. He said: “These two Isles [St. John and Jamaica] contain[ed] six hundred thousand at least, though at this day there are scarce two hundred men to be found in either of them, the remainder perishing without the knowledge of Christian Faith or Sacrament.”[13] In the sentence, the word “sacrament” most likely refers to the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ and “the source and summit of the Christian life.”[14] The quote from the Dominican friar shows that De Las Casas saw the mistreatments of the original inhabitants of New Spain and commented on it. Additionally, he cares about their spiritual state, as De Las Casas wants the natives to know what he considered to be the one, true Faith.

The Franciscan friar Fray Toribio de Benevente De Motolinía agrees with Bartolomé De Las Casas that the Spanish treated the population badly. In his book, he also mentions that the Spanish mistreated the natives when they came to the Americas. In the first chapter, Motolinía discusses ten ordeals in the New World that he calls plagues. The priest says:

The sixth plague was the gold mines. In addition to the tributes and services which the people rendered, the Spaniards soon began to look for mines. The Indian slaves who up to the present have died in these mines cannot be counted. Gold, in this land, was adored as a god in the form of a calf.[15]

In this passage from his work, the Franciscan friar compares the Spanish who were conquering the New World to a Biblical story from the book of Exodus. This account from Scripture tells how the Jewish people decided to worship a golden calf while Moses was getting the covenant from God on the mountain.[16] This narrative would have been familiar to those living at the time of the conquest. By making this comparison, he means that the Spanish cared more about the gold than the natives who lived there. The passages are clear that both the Franciscan friar Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía and the Dominican priest Bartolomé De Las Casas agreed that the Spanish were mistreating the natives in New Spain and they called their fellow countrymen out on it.

After Italian explorer Christopher Columbus arrived on the American continents, various Catholic missionary efforts flourished in the New World because several religious orders, including the Dominican Order and the Franciscan Order, sent many members from Europe in order to evangelize the Native Americans that they encountered. The Dominican Bartolomé De Las Casas and Franciscan Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía both preached to the Native Americans in New Spain. Both of these men are well-known for a few reasons: writing about their time in the Americas in addition to their disagreement with each other on the best methods of evangelizing the natives in the New World. However, despite the deep disagreements that the two priests had on evangelization efforts in the Americas, Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía and Bartolomé De Las Casas had more in common and they both were successful in converting the Native Americans to the Catholic Faith.

Works Cited

Casas, Bartolomé De Las. Bartolomé de las Casas; a selection of his writings. Translated and edited by George Sanderlin. New York: Knopf, 1971.

Casas, Bartolomé De Las. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. United States: ReadaClassic.com, 2009.

“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, http://ccc.usccb.org/flipbooks/catechism/336/index.html.

Clayton, Lawrence A. Bartolomé De Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Dussel, Enrique. “Bartolomé de Las Casas.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Last modified on September 05, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bartolome-de-Las-Casas.

Hanke, Lewis. Bartolomé de las Casas, bookman, scholar, and propagandist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1952.

Motolinía, Fray Toribio De Benevente De. Motolinía’s History of the Indians of New Spain. Translated by Francis Borgia Steck. Washington, DC: Academy of the American Franciscan History, 1952.

Three Dominican Pioneers in the New World: Antonio de Montesinos, Domingo de Betanzos, Gonzalo Lucero. Translated by Felix Jay. New York: Edwin Mellen, 2002.


[1] Fray Toribio de Benevente De Motolinía, Motolinía’s History of the Indians of New Spain, trans. Francis Borgia Steck, (Washington, DC: Academy of the American Franciscan History, 1952), 1.

[2] Lawrence A. Clayton, Bartolomé De Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas, (West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 39.

[3] De Motolinía, Motolinía’s History of the Indians of New Spain, 87.

[4] De Motolinía, Motolinía’s History of the Indians of New Spain, 87.

[5] Ibid, 179.

[6] Bartolome De Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, (United States: ReadaClassic.com, 2009), 7.

[7] Bartolomé De Las Casas, Bartolomé de las Casas; a selection of his writings, trans. George Sanderlin, ed., (New York: Knopf, 1971), 176.

[8] Ibid, 177.

[9] Enrique Dussel, “Bartolomé De Las Casas,” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified on September 5, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bartolome-de-Las-Casas.

[10] Toribio De Benevente De Motolinía, letter to Charles V, January 2, 1555, quoted in Lewis Hanke, Bartolomé de las Casas, bookman, scholar, and propagandist (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1952), 3.

[11] Three Dominican Pioneers in the New World: Antonio de Montesinos, Domingo de Betanzos, Gonzalo Lucero, trans. Felix Jay, (New York: Edwin Mellen, 2002), 15.

[12] Bartolome De Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 16.

[13] Ibid, 16.

[14] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, http://ccc.usccb.org/flipbooks/catechism/336/index.html.

[15] De Motolinía, Motolinía’s History of the Indians of New Spain, 91.

[16] Exodus 32:1–35 (Revised Standard Version).

1 comment on “Motolinia and Las Casas: Two Missionaries in the Americas

  1. Donald Link

    The Spanish conquests were never noted for their civilized approach. Were it not the leavening effect by some missionaries in a few areas, the death toll among the natives would have been much worse. Little wonder that after the independence of many of the Spanish conquests, relations between the mother country and former colonies could scarcely be called warm in many instances. This in contrast to British and French colonial policy which sought a more peaceful integration of cultures.

    Liked by 1 person

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