At the beginning of the 19th century there was almost no vestige of Protestantism in Brazil. From the 16th century the country was colonized basically only by Portuguese, who resisted the advance of Protestantism during the same period. Huguenots and Dutch Reformers tried to colonize parts of Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries, but with little or no lasting effects. Only after the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in 1808 did this picture begin to change.
First came the English Anglicans. England rendered a great help to Portugal in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, and thus the subjects of the English crown gained religious freedom on Brazilian soil. This freedom soon extended to German Lutheran immigrants who settled mainly in the south of the country from the 1820s. However, it was only with the American missionary work, from the 1840s and 1850s, that Protestantism really began to settle in Brazil.
James Cooley Fletcher was one of the people who contributed most to the establishment of Protestantism in Brazil. Quoted frequently by historians, he is, however, little understood by most of them and little known by the general public. Born April 15, 1823 in Indianapolis, Indiana, he studied at the Princeton, Paris, and Geneva Seminary between 1847 and 1850 and first came to Brazil in 1852. In 1857 he published the first edition of The Brazil and the Brazilians, a book which for many decades would be the main reference regarding Brazil in the English language.
Fletcher first came to Brazil as chaplain of the American Seamen’s Friend Society and a missionary of the American and Foreign Christian Union. However, shortly after his arrival in the country, he made it his mission to bring Protestantism to the Brazilians. His performance, however, would be indirect: instead of preaching himself to the Brazilians, Fletcher chose to prepare the ground for other missionaries. For this he became friends with several members of the Brazilian elite, including Emperor Dom Pedro II. Through these friendships, he managed to influence legislation favorable to the acceptance of Protestantism in Brazil.
Although Fletcher anticipated and aided missionaries who would work directly with the conversion of Brazilians to Protestantism, his relationship with these same missionaries was not always peaceful. Some of the missionaries who succeeded Fletcher were suspicious of him because of his contacts with Brazilian politicians. It is true, Fletcher had an agenda not always identical with that of other missionaries: while others wished to focus only on the conversion of Brazilians, he understood that Protestantism and liberalism were closely linked, and that the implementation of the first in Brazil would lead to the progress propelled by the second. For this very reason, Fletcher had no problem engaging in activities that at first glance would seem oblivious to purely evangelistic work. He promoted, for example, the immigration of Americans to Brazil, the establishment of ship lines linking the two countries, the end of slavery in Brazil and commercial freedom.
James Cooley Fletcher is generally little remembered by Brazilian Protestants, although he has contributed decisively to the end of the Roman Catholic monopoly in the country. He is also little remembered by historians, but this should not be so. Fletcher was one of the people who contributed most to the strengthening of religious freedom in Brazil, and also to a combination of religious, political, and economic beliefs. It was precisely because of his religious beliefs that he believed in the political and economic strength of liberalism to transform any country, including Brazil.