José Manuel da Conceição (March 15, 1822 – December 25, 1873) was the first Brazilian evangelical minister.
Conceição was born in São Paulo. In 1824 he moved to the city of Sorocaba, where he was educated by his uncle, a Roman Catholic priest named José Francisco de Mendonça. Conceição started reading the Bible at the age of 18 years. Not long after, he became a friend of an English family and several German families, all protestant, and was impressed by their religious devotion, in contrast with the habits of the Brazilian Catholics.
Conceição also became a friend of a Danish physician, with whom he learned some medicine skills and German.
Conceição became a Roman Catholic priest when he was 22 years old, although he would say that since the beginning of his religious career in Catholicism, he was already experiencing differences with the roman catholic believes. He was extremely devoted to the Bible, what rendered him the nickname by which he would be known, the “Protestant-Priest” (Portuguese: “O Padre Protestante”).
In order to stop his influence among his parishioners, Conceição’s superiors moved him from parish to parish several times. This only made things worse for the Roman Catholic authorities, for that Conceição’s ideas had the opportunity to spread even more. Everywhere he was sent to, he taught the parishioners to read the Bible and to confess their sins only to God.
Growing in his differences with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, Conceição asked his superiors to leave the priesthood. His bishop suggested another solution: he would be moved to a more bureaucratic function, without preaching responsibilities. Conceição agreed. He bought a small farm close to the city of São João do Rio Claro, where he stayed for some time.
Conceição worked in the priesthood for about 20 years. In 1864 he abandoned it when he was at last converted to Protestantism, through the work of North-American missionaries, mainly Alexander Latimer Blackford. This missionary passed at São João do Rio Claro, and managed to talk with the famous “Protestant Priest” he had already heard about. Conceição appreciated the conversation with Blackford very much, and within a few months he abandoned the priesthood. He made his profession of faith in October 23, 1864, in São Paulo.
Conceição conversion to Protestantism was a major event in Brazil, including both the religious and the political dimension of it, being Conceição a priest and being the Roman Catholic Church the official religion of Brazil at the time.
In December 16, 1864 Conceição was ordained the first Brazilian minister by the Presbyterian missionaries in a exceptional way, being dispensed of further studies at a theological seminary, as by the examinations made at the time he proved himself apt for the requisites. The presbytery organized by the three missionaries present in Brazil at the time, Simonton, Blackford e Schneider, had the explicit objective in its organization of ordaining Conceição.
As a minister Conceição visited his old parishes, in order to teach his old parishioners the true gospel. As it seems, Conceição was moved by the feeling that he spent many years teaching wrongly, and so he should undo this mistake.
Conceição was at the same time deeply humble and highly learned. He was able to read and speak in several different idioms (Portuguese, English, German, French and Latin, at least), and wrote hymns and religious papers. Despite all that his work as a minister consisted basically in walking on foot from town to town, form village to village and farm to farm, in Brazil’s countryside, preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen to him. Sometimes he would send the other ministers some texts he had written in order to publish, or a report, including places and people who might serve as the beginning of new churches.
Conceição was sent to the United States in 1867 for a furlough. In the next year he came back to Brazil, where he resumed his preaching.
Conceição’s sort of itinerant preaching style marked the Brazilian Presbyterianism very deeply in its first years. While the missionaries were looking for consolidation in few preaching points, Conceição extended the frontier in a much wilder way, showing to the missionaries that Protestantism could be preached in Brazil faster than thought at first.
It was in one of his walkings that Conceição died. He was coming back to Rio de Janeiro form Caraguatatuba, in order to rest from his long journeys. While traveling by train, he was mistaken for a vagabond by a policeman. When the confusion was undone, he had no money anymore, and had to continue his journey on foot. Close to Rio de Janeiro he fainted in exhaustion, and was taken to a military hospital ward by a soldier. The Major Fausto de Souza (Later colonel, and is first biographer), supervised the treatment of the stranger. Conceição asked to be alone with God for a moment. When people came back, he was already dead. He was buried close to the hospital, in a Catholic Cemetery (almost all Brazilian cemeteries, with the exception of a few built with special government permission, were catholic). Later his remains were removed by catholic authorities, who considered him unworthy of a catholic funeral. Even later his remains were taken to the Protestant Cemetery (Portuguese: Cemitério dos Protestantes), in São Paulo, where were buried next to those of Ashbel Green Simonton.
A theological seminary in São Paulo, Brazil, is named after him.
Carl Joseph Hahn, História do Culto Protestante no Brasil, ASTE, São Paulo, 1989.
Émile-G.Léonard, O Protestantismo Brasileiro: Estudo de Eclesiologia e História Social, ASTE, São Paulo, 1963.
Boanerges Ribeiro, José Manoel da Conceição e a Reforma Evangélica, São Paulo, Livraria O Semeador, 1995.