Presbyterian Mission to Venezuela: A Brief History
In 1897 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. sent its first mission workers, Theodore and Julia Pond, to Venezuela. The couple was well-accomplished at the time of their appointment; they had spent over 20 years serving in Syria and had been working in Colombia since 1890. In Venezuela the Ponds encountered resistance from a largely Catholic population, but by 1900 were able to establish The Church of the Redeemer (Iglesia Evangélica Presbiteriana El Redentor) in the capital, Caracas. In 1912 the Board of Foreign Missions formally recognized the Venezuela efforts, and sent Frederick and Mary Darley to join the Ponds.
Anti-protestant sentiment and a high rate of illiteracy limited evangelical efforts, and much of the mission’s work centered on El Colegio Americano. The Osuna family, Presbyterian Colombians, founded the institution as an all girls’ elementary school in 1896. Soon after the Ponds’ arrival, the two families joined forces, and the Mission eventually took over the school’s operations in 1921. El Colegio’s English instruction was a draw for mission families, native Venezuelans, and the large numbers of European immigrants welcomed by the government in the mid-century. The institution continued to grow, eventually becoming co-educational and adding a high school. El Colegio continues to operate under the auspices of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Venezuela (IPV).
The mission maintained a steady, if small, presence in Caracas, establishing a popular Sunday school, a bookstore and press, a chapel, and a devoted cadre of “Bible Women” who distributed religious texts throughout the city. Per a 1946 report from the Chairman of the Latin America Field Council, L. K. Anderson, mission workers were not afraid to take initiative and start their own programs. Jane Evans, a nurse, established a small children’s clinic where she administered vaccines, treated parasitical infections, and taught classes in home nursing and child care. James Scotland, Jr. considered the Boy Scout troop he founded to be his primary mission work, much to the consternation of his superiors.
Annual mission reports held at PHS also reveal mission workers’ views of the primary force shaping mid-century Venezuelan society: oil. A 1957 report opens thusly:
“In Venezuela the ‘waters of Babylon’ are the turgid black river of oil that pours from Maracaibo’s swamps and flatlands. It flows, though invisible, through the high valley of Caracas, past the exaggerated porticoes of sumptuous new homes and club and swirls around the concrete pillars of office buildings under construction. For Caracas is a bright new Babylon…it is growing lavishly on every side as bulldozers slash at the sandy hills and whole mountains are terraced into new urbanizaciones…”
Swept up in this change was the mission itself, which ended in 1961. Its activities and properties were transferred to the Presbytery of Venezuela. Today’s protestant population in Venezuela remains small, but in addition to El Colegio, the IPV supports 17 churches throughout the country. PHS’s Venezuela Mission collections contain records from 1911 to 1972 that provide valuable first-hand accounts of the turbulence and growth that shaped Venezuela during that period.
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