Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), who journeyed to the New World as a young man, was undoubtedly the most influential critic of Spain's colonization of the Americas. During his lifetime, he was best known for his short polemic, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies), a gruesome account of Spanish misdeeds in the Americas. Published in 1552, it circulated through Europe in translation and was the source for the Black Legend of Spanish atrocities. This excerpt comes from a longer work, Historia de las Indias, a chronicle of Spanish occupation from Columbus' first voyage to about 1521. In commenting on the actions of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, Las Casas, a Dominican priest, reveals his essential view of Christianity in the New World: it is a religion to be imposed by moral suasion and good example, not by the sword.
In this excerpt, the Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas criticizes the conquistadores for destroying Amerindian "idols" and erecting crosses in their place. Such a simplistic substitution, he argues, will not change the essential religious practices and beliefs of indigenous people. Instead, it will encourage them to continue idolatrous practices as they continue to worship objects, rather than the divine beings that such objects represent. Such uncertainty about the depth of indigenous understanding of Catholicism, and consequently, the success of the evangelizing project in the New World, dogged Church leaders through the sixteenth century, and complicated the role of images in the Church.