Some historians have concluded that Columbus was motivated by fame and raw greed. Other historians see more complex motives and point out Columbus’ strong religious piety.

“What some historians have termed a ‘discovery,’ in reality was an invasion and colonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economic exploitation, and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence.”

So stated the National Council of Churches in 1992 as America prepared to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. On the other hand, President George Bush (Sr.) said that Columbus Day honored “one of the greatest achievements of human endeavor.”

Two radically different assessments. Which one is correct?

Christoforo Colombo dreamed of discovering a trade route to the Orient that would bring him glory and untold wealth. On Oct. 12, 1492, when the experienced mariner found America, he thought he was in the isles of the Indes (and thus named the natives “Indians”).

Columbus named the island on which he landed “San Salvador” (Holy Savior), announced that the lands were the property of the Catholic government of Spain, and believed that he had discovered a gold mine. The crew members that were left behind, in their search for gold, pillaged and massacred the natives.

Some historians have concluded that Columbus was motivated by fame and raw greed. Other historians see more complex motives and point out Columbus’ strong religious piety.

He exhibited strict religious habits. According to his son, Columbus was like a monk in his devotion to fasting and prayer. He was a serious student of the Bible and, as might be expected, was devoted to the medieval church. The crews of his ships regularly observed religious rituals, and Columbus testified that he frequently heard the voice of God (and critics obviously point to stress or mental instability).

Reflecting on his travels, Columbus clearly viewed his voyages in explicitly religious terms. They were evangelistic missions to expand Christianity. They were part of God’s plan to preach the gospel to every creature and would thus help usher in the imminent end of time.

To extend Spain’s Catholic borders in the New World was to spread the faith. To conquer natives was to make good Christians and to make good slaves (similar logic was used in the slave trade in the American South).

Consequently, Columbus placed a large wooden cross on every island he visited and, in 1493, asked the Spanish government to set aside one percent of all the gold taken from the islands to pay for religious work there. Ultimately he took satisfaction that his travels fulfilled Scriptures, such as John 10:16: “and other sheep I have, which are not of this fold, them also I must bring …”

Historians who try to balance Columbus’ motives admit that the explorer was obsessed by greed. They contend, however, that Columbus was not simply out for personal gain, but was driven by the desire to fund a crusade to recapture the Holy Land from Muslims. He believed God had chosen Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs, to lead this holy endeavor.

What do we make of Christopher Columbus? Prominent historian Martin Marty said: “Some historians make Europeans all evil and the American natives all good. Likewise, Columbus used to be overpraised as the perfect pioneer. Now he is often overaccused as the hemisphere’s arch-villain.”

When telling the story of Columbus, the religious element cannot be left out. Assessments of the effect of religion on Columbus, however, are mixed.

Did he read too much religion later in life back into his story? It won’t be the first time. Did his biographers too quickly exalt his piety? Perhaps.

But more to the point, Columbus evidently was typical in many regards. He was a person of mixed motives: a man of greed and a man of faith. Personal wealth and religious zeal make it easy to say that God is on my side. Perhaps more than anything, Columbus teaches us that the crusading spirit in religion is fraught with dangers.

One thing is clear: Columbus is an ambiguous figure. He was a sinful saint and a saintly sinner.

Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga.

Note: Christian History magazine, issue 35, has an extensive look at Columbus and the discovery of America.

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