The history of Protestantism, as well as the history of Catalan Protestantism, is part of our shared history, although unknown by the vast majority in our milieu until quite recently. Because, as Dr. Justo L. González reminds us, “the primary reason for studying history is that the present cannot be understood without it" (1).
The first thing to note is that the Protestant Reformation never reached Catalonia. Provided, that is, we understand ‘Reformation’ by its original meaning: the wish to spiritually reform the Western Christian Church. There would have been few Catalans we could identify today as its followers., This is easily explained, in the words of the historian and Dutch Reformed theologian Bernard Coster, by the fact that “the Counter-Reformation, armed with the political and cultural support of all the conservative forces of the 16th and 17th centuries, used every kind of social and religious pressure, even persecution and wars, to contain protestantism.”
The Inquisition proved crucial for putting a stop to the incipient Lutheranism among Catalans, and for preventing the arrival of other historical reforms. And this was evidently managed quickly over here and with very few exceptions, which were strongly repressed, such is the case with the first auto-da-fé, of 1539, in which Occitans and French were accused of being Protestants, with the evidence found a few years later, in 1542, of the presence of Lutherans in the city, and with the eight “Lutheran heretics” condemned at Plaça del Rei in Barcelona on July 12, 1562.
Many years later, specifically “on September 30, 1868, the Glorious Revolution was at its height, (led by General Prim, a son of the city of Reus). Isabel II and her family had to cross the border into exile. So ended the 25-year reign of the Queen with the “tristos destins” (sad destiny). The situation changed. That was how Joan González i Pastor, a dear friend and minister who was a member of my local community, explained the build-up to the arrival of Protestantism in Catalonia, which was romantically called the Second Reformation - in clear reference and intention to its being a continuation of the First.
But nothing was further from the reality because “unlike the protestants of the 16th century, converts no longer aimed to reform the Roman Church from within, but rather to follow a new Christian faith, whose main adversary was Papism or Romanism (the Catholic Church)”. That is why there are those who prefer to refer to these events as a “Protestant resumption” as it expresses the historical reality more accurately.
However, the triumph of the Glorious Revolution was an opportunity the leaders of the time knew how to exploit: “Cabrera, Alhama and other Protestants in exile in Gibraltar marched towards Algeciras. Knowing that General Prim was in that city, they asked him for an audience, which the leader of the September Revolution did not hesitate to grant them. He received them very cordially and, as they were taking their leave of him, he came out with the famous phrase: ‘Now you can travel throughout Spain with the Bible under your arm.’”
Federico Vázquez Osuna, a lecturer at the Centre for International Historical Studies at the University of Barcelona, aptly identified the second feature of the “Protestant resumption”, when he wrote: “The first Catalan Protestants had already active in the third of the 19th century, before the Tribunal of the Inquisition was abolished (1834). The Protestant denominations now established in Catalonia are products of the 16th-century Reformation, as well as the resurgence and invigoration of later centuries: Protestantism has historically been in a constant dynamism of theological reformulation, of ways of life and worship...”.
We can therefore see that Catalan Protestantism is not so much the result of the historical Reformation as a product of later reformations and awakenings. These come from the so-called “free churches”, assuming the task of embodying the Protestant testimony, both on their own behalf and thanks to the generous collaboration of prominent ministers and foreign missionaries from the main denominational families.
Chronologically they are as follows: the Anglicans (Barcelona, 1868), the Brethren Assemblies (Barcelona, 1869), the Presbyterians (Barcelona, 1870), the Methodists (Barcelona, 1871), the Baptists (l’Hospitalet de Llobregat, 1875) and, finally, the Adventists (Barcelona, 1912), to name some of the oldest established.
The elation among the Protestants here did not last long. According to Joan González i Pastor, “the most remarkable innovation (of the 1869 Constitution), unprecedented in the history of Spain, was its guaranteed freedom to practice any religion in private and in public”. “The Restoration's so-called 'Canovas del Castillo' Constitution of 1876 stipulated that: “Ceremonies or public demonstrations other than those of the State religion are not permitted’.”
Despite the closing of the doors to religious freedom and the entry of an era alternating between repression and tolerance - depending on the political, religious and official arbitrariness of the time - Protestantism, with more or less impetus, has maintained its historical continuity, from its resumption of 1868 until today.
The Catalan model of Protestantism. Catalan Protestantism has always been characterised by the Catalan way of doing the things, which was then adopted by the first ministers and missionaries who started this church here.
We can trace the beginning of this model back to 1879, when three ministers, Alexandre Lluís Empaitaz, Reformed; Enric Payne, of the Brethren Assemblies, and Robert Simpson, Methodist, encouraged an evangelical nursing organisation, Infermería Envangèlica, to attend to impoverished Protestants refused admission to public hospitals because of their faith.
Such “unity through action” as it was later known, brought about the gradual recovery of the Protestant identity, after the defeat of the Civil War. It began with the minister Samuel Vila, on his return from the United States in 1939, where he had gone to study theology. In 1948 he created an organisation called Joventut per Crist" (Youth for Christ), as a unitary platform where representatives of the various local evangelical communities would gather to organise their united testimony. A few years later, in 1956, two other ministers, Antonio Martínez Conesa and Pere Bonet i Such, created the first Association of Ministers for the whole of Spain.
The establishment of Spain's new democratic system on June 30, 1979 led to the creation of the Catalan Council of Evangelical Churches. Its beginnings were uncertain, because it carried with it open wounds from the two issues discussed above.
Its elected secretary-general resigned a year later. A young layman was chosen to take his place. He believed that the best way to overcome the situation was to relaunch the Protestant federation, and he acted as the driving force behind the creation of the current Evangelical Council of Catalonia, which was formally established on 12 December 1981.
To this day the Evangelical Council of Catalonia still gathers together most of Catalonia's Protestants and represents them in full before the various authorities and organised civil society.
It is also worth noting that Protestants make up the second-largest religious community in Catalonia in number of churches, in addition to their own institutions and their territorial presence.
(1) González, Justo L. Introducción a la historia de la Iglesia. Abingdon Press. Nashville. 2011. Page 10.
Guillem Correa Caballé
General Sercretary of the Evangelical Council of Catalonia