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First Methodist mission in Argentina

First Methodist mission in Argentina

The Rev. William H. Norris arrived in October, 1839, to work in Montevideo as a preacher and teacher. Upon his arrival in Montevideo, Norris found a very unexpected state of affairs. Two opposing armies were within a few miles of the city. The city was full of refugees from Buenos Aires and the crowded state of the city made it impossible to find a home. Finally Norris found a place to live and held the religious services, but it was “outside the walls of the city and very inconvenient.”

In a long letter dated May 23rd, 1840, found in 2001 at the Methodist Archives of Drew University, Norris addressed a very discouraging message to the Rev. Nathan Bangs, Secretary of the Missionary Society. After relating the problems he had had in finding a home and a proper location for worship services, he also expressed doubts about the destiny of the mission itself. The following fragment conveys the sentiment of Norris regarding the situation at that time. (The words omitted are due to an inability to transcribe them.)

In my letter of Jan. 11th, I stated that a Mr S… had offered to aid liberally in building us a church. He constantly attends our services and shows great interest in them and wanted to proceed and build without delay…………..and he solicited promise of liberal primary aid and personal service and influence.

Being on intimate turns with the men in power he seems to ascertain their views on the subject, assuring me beforehand of their consent to the erection and that probably would give me a lot for the purpose; on these and other points information seems to be obtained and communicated to me. But instead of doing this in privately,……… Before his plans were matured he was taken down with the small pox and during his very dangerous illness announced his intention to build the church himself, all this without saying a word to me on the subject. Since his recovery he has bought a lot only large enough for the church for which he pays 11.000 Spanish Dollars, it being in the heart of business district near the shipping center and in a most conspicuous location. The building is expected to be completed in twelve months; when done it is to be occupied by an Eng. Episc. clergyman.


The Prot. Residents here excepting the few poor and intemperate mechanics generally from Buenos Aires and those married to natives universally designed to return home, none of them became citizens: the females uniformly dislike the country and sigh for their native country as some slaves sigh for freedom.

The conversion of the Prot. I am well aware is contemplated only as incidental and subsidiary to our missions; the great and ultimate object being the conversion of the Cath. I believe the obstacles for the conversion of the Cath. in this country are not appreciated at home. They are seen through a medium that diminish their number and their magnitude. Most of the people in the country…..are uneducated and from the ….of the population must long remain so, the civil condition of the country is very unsettled and what is worse there is scarcely a probability that it will be otherwise for a long time to come; the people of South America cannot govern themselves, they do not now govern themselves, they never have done it. The church of Rome at this hour holds a sway but uncontrolled from Mexico to Patagonia……

I had written a letter of several sheets on this subject giving my views at length and in detail, but in further reflection I concluded to suppress it. I wish it were possible for me to entertain higher hopes of the future conditions and prospect of this country. But I cannot. Fact, observations, the awaring policy of the church of Rome in every country where she had had the power concur in bringing in my mind to the conclusion at which I have arrived.

You must not infer that I am discouraged, nor that I wish to leave the field. This time my prospect of usefulness in any considerable degree among the Protestants is exceedingly limited. I am already afflicted by the course S…. has taken, and dread the probable result on both Protestants and Catholics, for it is my deliberate opinion that South America would be the gainer if every Protestants in it were to leave. I speak of to gain in a moral and not a pecuniary sense and I design to include the religious establishment of Prots. also. I came to this dark land from the conviction of duty, in obedience to the call of providence as I thought and still think and of the voice of the authority of the church were I obliged to leave the field I would be sad and disappointed.  Whether it offers little present promise of much, is those on whom the responsibility of decision rest judge that the mission ought to be continued I wish to stay and see the salvation of God if He shall please to grant it to poor South America.

Until I am superseded I shall…the Protestants to the extent of my power. In the meantime I am studying the language though at a disadvantage for lacking of a competent teacher. Have commenced a Sab. School which must be very small while we reside where we now do. A part of my Eng. tracts are distributed and a number of Eng. Bibles and Testaments. There have been a large supply of these here some time before I came. Spanish Texts and Tracts I have distributed as I had the opportunity. I have also use some French and German Tracts given me by the American Tract Society.

One can deduce two important things through Norris’s words:

First, there was a strong man in the Protestant circle at Montevideo, called S…. who, encouraged by his money and apparently fluent contacts with the government, had decided by his own to build the church, and only after the purchase was made, shared his intention with Norris. It appears that Norris not only disliked this man’s attitude, but also the very idea of building a church which might come to be a motive of confrontation between Catholics and Protestants. Norris’ thought seems to be one of non-interference. That point leads one to a second conclusion. That is, now that the Missionary Society was effectively contemplating the possibility to dispute the field with the Catholic Church, which was intended to be discouraged by Norris. If that is so, one must conclude that the goal of the mission, between the first General Conference report in 1836, and the prior days of this letter, had changed.

The other point one can see in Norris’s letter is the beginning of a developing skeptical attitude: What should be worthier, to stay or to leave the mission? The million-dollar question is whether this doubt was already instilled in the Board, when Norris wrote, or, on the contrary, it is because of this letter that the Board began to think about that possibility.

On December 1840, John Dempster, who had been briefly visiting the United States arrived at Buenos Aires harbor. Two missionary teachers came with him: Orrin A. Howard and Susan, his wife. They came to open a high school, that had been planned two years before by Dempster and another missionary teacher, Hiram A. Wilson.

Despite the arrival of this backup force for the educational work, the Society found that it was not able to make the necessary additional appropriations, so the plan of Dempster and the work of the newly arrived teachers were never realized.

However, Norris opened a school at Montevideo, but finding his duties very arduous, he was pastor and teacher, he began to claim for a teacher to the Society, but none was sent. At the same time, the mission was suffering a paralysis on account of several reasons.

From Buenos Aires, in a very vivid statement, Susan Howard writes to her mother about the deep depression that that unstable situation had been producing in her, and the imminent end of the mission:

Now, my disappointment is in this; my trials have been altogether different from what I had imagined to be the unquestionable accompaniments of a missionary’s life. I did not enter into my mind that I should have to resist a soft and indolent spirit. The fear of being ‘at ease in Zion’ on missionary ground was not one of the expected sufferings. I have been called to be rather a passive looker on. A life of submission, not of action, appears to have been my dispensation in this place. … Our Missionary Board at home, partly from a view that little can be done at present in South America, and on account of being in debt, have recently recalled all our missionaries…and now…if I live, the wanderer shall return…

April 16th, 1842, on board ‘The Falconer.’ The term of my sojourn in a distant land has expired, and I am again on the mighty deep, wending my way back to the home of my nativity, the scenes I love so well. Our missionary efforts in South America have not been prosperous. Perhaps future operations, when the field is riper, will be more so.

It is highly curious how suddenly the decision to close down the mission operations was taken. Taking in account that in the report of the Committee on Missions to the General Conference of 1840, had been stated:

The mission in South America ought to be sustained, and increased efforts employed to establish the institutions of the gospel, and diffuse the principles of pure Protestant Christianity, as they are embodied in Methodism, throughout that whole country.

Despite this favorable report, and only one year after that, on October 20th, 1841, the Board made the decision to recall its missionaries from South America. No reasons were assigned in the resolutions but the heavy debt of the Society of $5,000 with no prospect of liquidating it the near future. The Annual Report of the Missionary Society indulged a determined tone to that decision:

Our labors in South America have been less productive of visible good than we had hoped. Hence the Board had not felt authorized to appropriate any further sums toward the buildings contemplated and in progress until peace is established, and future advice from our missionaries will justify it.

The full explanation for this retreat, probably can be found in a coalition of several factors: “the treasury heavily in debt; the state of the work, its success not demonstrated; and the state of the country, one of almost constant civil war and revolutions, all entered into the decision that led to the retreat.”

A half-built church, one Sunday School, and one Day- School had been abandoned.

But, this decision would not last for long time. Within a few months, the mission station would be reopened.

Written by Daniel Bruno


Missionary Files, Microform, Call number 26, Reel 26, Drew University, United Methodist Archives. The underlined is from the original. Some words are missing because illegibility.

William Chapin. Memoirs of Mrs. Susan Howard, late of the South America mission/ with extracts from her journal and letters. (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1845), 116-117.

Methodist Episcopal Church, Journal of Conference, (1840), 102. Item.4.

Annual Report of Missionary Society, (1841), Reid, 309.

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