Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
The World Convention is currently building a global reference for the nearly 180 countries and territories where we know there are Christian – Churches of Christ – Disciples of Christ congregations. Rather than wait for comprehensive, complete information we are putting up details that we readily have available. If you can correct or add to this information, please contact us with details at email@example.com Reference for further information will be in the form of web sites and mailing addresses.
The island of Puerto Rico lies within the archipelago of islands between North and South America with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Encompassing an area of a little over 9,000 sq km (3,500 sq miles), Puerto Rico is nearly square, 105 miles long and 35 miles wide. It is the smallest of the Greater Antilles islands. Boasting a population of nearly 4 million people makes Puerto Rico quite congested.
Boricua was the name used by the inhabitants of the island before “discovery” by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Early in the sixteenth century Ponce de Leon established a settlement on the island. The advent of European visitors and settlers caused the decimation of the native population, particularly as a result of disease. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries French, English and Spanish piracy was common on the island and in the area.
As a result of the Spanish-American War, in 1898 Puerto Rico was allotted to the United States as a secession of Spain. In 1917 Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in the United States but are not allowed to vote, nor do they presently have representation in Washington D.C. Puerto Ricans voted to remain a self-governing commonwealth, forgoing statehood, in 1993.
The economy of Puerto Rico is the strongest in Latin America (outside of the island tax havens) and is essentially modern and industrialized as the result of tax relief measures and cheap labor that attracted business and factories, particularly under the governorship of Luis Munoz Marin (1948-1964). Industries include petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and electronics. Important agricultural products of Puerto Rico include sugarcane, coffee, bananas and tobacco.
Due to the long influence of Spain the dominant religion on the island is Roman Catholicism. When Puerto Rico became American property the island was opened to Protestant influence, which is said to now claim as much as twenty percent of the population. At the 100th anniversary of the Disciples of Christ in Puerto Rico in 1999 it was estimated that Disciples were the largest Protestant denomination on the island with 25,000 members.
The history of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Puerto Rico began very late in the nineteenth century, shortly after the islands were ceded to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. At the time the religious life of the island was wholly in the Roman Catholic tradition. Nine American mission boards met to discuss Protestant evangelism in Puerto Rico and by a comity agreement allotted areas of the island so as not to overlap work or compete for converts. The Disciples of Christ were assigned the north central portion of the island, the area around San Juan, the capitol city and the city of Bayamon.
The Christian Woman’s Board of Mission were tendered the use of a municipal building in Bayamon on the condition that they use the facility to establish and maintain an orphanage for girls. Originally planned to provide for 25 children, by the close of the first year the number had nearly doubled to 46. Two years later a boy’s orphanage with an industrial school was established. The first congregation was established in 1901 in Bayamon and became Central Christian Church. By 1920 when the Christian Woman’s Board of Missions was incorporated into the United Christian Missionary Society, Ida Withers Harrison reported that the work in Puerto Rico had grown slowly but steadily with the establishment of nine churches with seven hundred members, 22 additional preaching points and 100 baptisms for the previous year. However, the boys and girls orphanages were closed by 1920.
In the early era there were few trained pastors among the churches so often the congregations were led by lay pastors and leaders. To help provide an educated leadership for the local churches Disciples, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and United Brethren cooperated in an educational work that in 1919 yielded Union Theological Seminary in Rio Piedras. (Several years later the Seminary was greatly expanded under the presidency of T. J. Liggett, a Disciple.) Further cooperative work resulted in Union Press and Book Deposit publishing a semi-monthly union paper called Puerto Rico Evangelico, which saw a circulation of 5,000 copies in 1928. It is said that in the early 1930s a strong Pentecostal element entered the churches of Puerto Rico which continued, in a measure, through much of the twentieth century. This was also an era in which poverty was a factor for the churches; it was said that families gathered around empty tables and offered thanks for spiritual food. But out of this physical poverty grew a deep commitment to the church, tithing and prayer. For example, in 1934 when US missionary budgets were being cut, a missionary home ten miles south of Bayamon became the center of a strong conference program. The McLean Conference Grounds, as it became known, was a place where every minister among the Disciples of the island found inspiration and instruction, every youth had courses in leadership, and where the women’s organization met and planned. Many young couples also honeymooned in the cottages! Despite humble facilities the McLean Conference Grounds were said to be the “heartbeat” of the Disciples’ work in the mid-twentieth century.
In 1958 at an all-Protestant conference it was recommended that every church establish a three grade primary school because the Puerto Rican government was not able to supply universal education for all children on the island. The Disciples’ churches took that recommendation to heart and many were able to establish complete elementary schools while one congregation, Comerio Street, was able to go so far as establishing a high school.
New Congregations did not result from any formal plans but were the result of enthusiastic Christians who held in-home classes for children and prayer meetings for adults. In 1965 there were reported 57 churches with a membership of 8,656. By the 1960s the leadership studied the area of their responsibility and their potential for meeting the needs and made intentional plans to establish twenty congregations by the end of the decade. 1965 was a high water mark for the Disciples’ of Puerto Rico when San Juan was the location of the Seventh Assembly of the World Convention of Churches of Christ (see below).
On April 23, 1999 the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) celebrated 100 years of work in this Caribbean island and had grown to be the largest Protestant denomination in Puerto Rico with over 25,000 members and almost 100 congregations. By the late 1990s the Puerto Rican Disciples were spending over $100,000 a year supporting congregations begun in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua, giving back what they had been given in the past. At that time there were on the roster about 150 ordained and lay pastors, other active and retired, with about 100 of them holding the Master’s of Divinity degree from the Evangelical Seminary. The latter decades of the twentieth century saw intense work in drug rehabilitation, orphans, the environment and other issues.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Puerto Rico is an autonomous national church and is not under the United States Disciples supervision. Some years ago a joint commission was established between Disciples in the US/Canada and Disciples in Puerto Rico to facilitate relations between the two churches and to launch joint projects in mission. Reverend Esteben Gonzalez is presently General Pastor.
David Vargas, the Executive Director of the U.S. Disciples’ Global Missions was reared in Puerto Rico in the Disciples’ tradition on the island. His father, Joaquin Vargas, was minister with the Puerto Nuevo Disciples of Christ Church and took part in the 1965 World Convention. World Convention’s Executive Director Jeff Weston has commented, (What a) great story of mission that the ones who were commissioned reach a stage of development whereby they produce a person who becomes the head of the denominational mission body!
The Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are relative newcomers to Puerto Rico; the first work was marked by the arrival of Gordon and Vivian Thompson in 1954. The Thompsons established a congregation and an elementary school, keeping in mind the extreme need for primary education in that era. Both of these are still in existence. For several years theirs was the only work of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ on the island.
From the mid-1960s on there was an influx of new missionaries from the mainland United States to Puerto Rico, as well as a number of Puerto Rican men who felt called to serve the Lord in leadership capacities which helped to strengthen the churches on the island. As a result ten new congregations were established from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. All but two of these congregations were in existence in 2003. Two Christian elementary schools were also established, offering classes in English through the ninth grade. One of those schools was Puerto Rico Christian School, founded in April of 1971 by William and Virginia Loft and Miss Katherine Rhodes at Levittown, Bayamon. That first year a pilot program was begun in a rented house with eleven students, three teachers and a helper. Since that time the school has grown to nearly three hundred students.Christian Church and Church of Christ congregations in Puerto Rico average from 20 to 75 in attendance each Sunday. These congregations are served by American missionaries, several Puerto Ricans, a Dominican and a Mexican. Some are completely self-supporting while others rely upon aid from the United States. While locally autonomous these congregations do enjoy a rich fellowship and meet for special services and events throughout the year. The four congregations located in San Juan meet to conduct college-level leadership training sessions. Seven to ten students were involved in these weekly studies in 2003. Efforts were then underway to purchase land for a Christian Camp; over $180,000 had been set aside for land acquisition and site development. At present five American missionary families are living and/or working in Puerto Rico listed in the 2007 Directory of the Ministry.
At present the early history of the a cappella Churches of Christ in Puerto Rico is piecemeal. Churches of Christ Around the World compiled by Mac Lynn (2003 edition) shows 37 congregations of the Churches of Christ in Puerto Rico with the largest being the Arecibo congregation with 100 in attendance. It is also among the oldest congregations listed, having been established in 1966. The Church of Christ in Dorado is reported to have been established in 1956.
Jim Gullette of the South Plains Church of Christ, Lubbock, Texas is active in Puerto Rico Missions. He maintains an extensive page on the church website with frequent updates of his travel and work among Churches of Christ in Puerto Rico. For both audio and text see http://www.southplainschurchofchrist.org/Missions/Puerto-Rico/puerto-rico.htm
August 9-15, 1965 were the dates of the Seventh Assembly of the World Convention of Churches of Christ in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The President of the Convention was Florentino Santana, Minister of the Calle Comerio Disciples of Christ Church in Bayamon. The theme for that year, “Jesus Christ is Lord”, was taken from Philippians 2: 9-11. The 1965 Convention has been called the finest of all the World Conventions and was certainly one of the most well attended. Registration topped 5,000 with about 4,000 of that number coming from the United States. Twenty-nine countries were represented. The attendance of the evening sessions ran from a low of 6,000 to a high of 11,000 with an average attendance running close to 8,000. The gathering was opened with greetings from the Governor of Puerto Rico, The Honorable Roberto Sanchez Villa. Among the speakers for the Convention were President of the World Council of Churches, Martin Niemoeller and Martin Luther King, Jr., Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who spoke at the Saturday evening service. Carl Ketcherside was also a speaker, thought to be the first time a preacher from the American a cappella Churches of Christ spoke at a World Convention. US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, himself a lifelong Disciple, was honored with a World Convention Citation, which was later presented at a White House ceremonyThe Seventh Assembly of the World Convention of Churches of Christ, 1965. Sunday evening saw the closing assembly communion service in which was instituted a World Convention tradition that has continued with nearly each subsequent Convention, that is the souvenir communion cup which participants take home as both a remembrance of the Body of Christ and the global fellowship of the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Clinton J. Holloway
National Profiles Editor
For further historical reference:
Churches of Christ Around the World, Mac Lynn, 21st Century Christian Publications, Nashville, TN, 2003.
Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1101 19th Avenue, South, Nashville, TN (USA) 37212, Telephone: (615) 327-1444 Website: http://www.discipleshistory.org (provides links to other historical sites/databases).
The Christian Woman’s Board of Missions, 1874-1919, Ida Withers Harrison, privately published the CWBM, 1920.
Survey of Service, W.R. Warren, General Editor, Christian Board of Publication, St. Louis, MO., 1928.
La Iglesia Christiana (Discipluos de Christo) en Puerto Rico
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Puerto Rico
Reverend Esteben Gonzalez, General Pastor
Telephone: (1) 787-799-7878
For online directories of a cappella Churches of Christ see:
An online Spanish directory of some congregations in Puerto Rico can be found at:
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada
P.O. Box 1986, Indianapolis, IN 46206 (USA)
For a list of many Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (in the United States) missionaries/ministries see:
Mission Services Association
7545 Hodges Ferry Road, Knoxville, TN 37920 (USA)
Telephone: 1 800 655 8524
Fax: 865 573 5950
Directory of the Ministry
1525 Cherry Road, Springfield, IL 62704 (USA)
Telephone: 217 546 3566