Accompanied by Roman Catholic priests, both Spanish and Portuguese invaders came to conquer and convert in South America. For three centuries South America was the stronghold of Roman Catholicism without competition. Despite being, as Dayton Roberts wrote, ‘A fortress with the oceans as its moat, impregnable to merchants and missionaries’ the result was simply more of the same. Lives were not transformed, just a change of rituals and a new type of slavery and idolatry. Argentina was part of that process which also resulted in the emergence of a very wealthy and powerful elite minority and a great majority of underprivileged masses. At present, Argentina has a population of 42 million. Official figures suggest 14 million live in poverty.
The arrival of John Ewing from England in 1882 and Charles Torre in 1889 marked the beginning of assembly work in Argentina. On purpose, they did not travel far from Buenos Aires, and what they accomplished was truly remarkable. They saw the first assemblies established, and a day school opened in the city. Also in Quilmes, near to Buenos Aires, Charles Torre saw the first assembly planted, a printing press set up to meet a growing need for literature for both believers and unbelievers, and also the Quilmes orphanage. All three areas continue to the present day.
British companies were involved in Argentina’s meat industry and the development of the railway network. Brethren who worked in those companies also ‘looked on the fields’. In contrast to efforts by denominationally based missionaries, a distinct pattern evolved, where those in secular employment worked side by side with their missionary brothers in the development of the early assembly movement in the country.
This meant that early in the growth of assemblies the priesthood of all believers was practised, understood, and imitated by the new converts. There is no doubt that this one factor contributed, and still does, to both the numerical and spiritual growth of assemblies in Argentina. Several of these men in secular employment felt the call of God to full-time service and, together with their wives as constant companions, they did lasting work for God.
The expansion of the work in the first fifty years of assembly testimony was mainly due to two factors: 1) the indomitable pioneer spirit of Will Payne, a very gifted evangelist, who, with almost apostolic strategy, preached in the main cities from Buenos Aires all the way north and over into Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where he and his wife settled; 2) the expansion of the railway system, which involved the movement of people, including brethren who were used to help the work and who preached in the new towns springing up.
In each of the places of relatively large population, a missionary couple settled to establish the work. The vastness of Argentina does not lend itself to easy contact with others, nor is it possible to leave a work dependent on regular visiting speakers for its support. The pattern up to the present has been for the missionary to establish and stay with the new assembly to nurture it and give opportunity for the development of local gift. Then, with their spiritual support, lead them in outreach to establish other ventures, which the missionary will again nurture and repeat the process. It would be impossible to mention all those who were involved, but Mr and Mrs James Clifford in Tucumán, Mr and Mrs Alfred Furniss in Santiago el Estero and Mr and Mrs James Hogg in Santa Fe, all spent years in sacrificial labour in these cities. Today, there are numerous assemblies in each of those cities and provinces where no foreign missionary is present. Evidently the Lord approved and blessed their vision and work pattern.
There are now only a total of twelve foreign workers, while the number of national workers who are also called missionaries has increased to eighty-three. Following the pattern mentioned means there are very few itinerant workers. It would be expected by commending assemblies that new workers serve in cities and areas where there are no assemblies or where the assemblies are new or small in areas of great potential. These servants of God go forth on the principle of faith. They may receive help from those assemblies in which they serve, which is also biblical, 1 Tim. 5. 18. Having said that, we have no knowledge of contracted or paid pastors in Argentina.
Argentina has had no revival history and so there is no revival mentality as such, rather the constant effort with extraordinary Latin passion. There is no history either of growth through people coming out of the established churches, except from the Roman Catholic church and these all needed salvation. New assemblies would not normally begin with a campaign over several weeks but by personal contacts being built up and, perhaps, a weekly meeting being held in one or two areas. The weekly basis helps to deepen relationships and also the expansion to neighbours or family members. This would continue until an assembly is formed, which is then followed up on that same basis to build and instruct in the word of God.
Argentina has a young population and great emphasis is made on the young. In all known assemblies a weekly effort is made to reach pre-teens or teenagers, no matter how many or how few. This would normally take place on Friday or Saturday evenings, in an informal setting, in a home or hall, with games, quizzes and food, but always a message from God’s word. Believer’s children prove to be a real spiritual capital in this regard through inviting their friends. No other effort has produced more fruit and growth over the years. Naturally this leads to their introduction to the formal assembly meetings and principles.
These principles have led to the establishing of approximately 700 assemblies and, at present, 300 outreaches, stretching over the 2770 miles from La Quiaca on the Bolivian border to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world.
The three north-eastern provinces of Misiones, Corrientes and Entre Ríos comprise the Mesopotamia. It is separated from other Argentine provinces on the west by South Americas second largest river, the Paraná, and on the eastern side is separated by the river Uruguay from Brazil and Uruguay. Growth came much later to this area, eighty years later in fact, after the beginning of assembly witness in Argentina. In the five provincial capital cities of the north-east only one had a very small assembly (now extinct). The others were without any assembly witness.
In the 1960s Willie and Pearl Jack were used of God to see an assembly formed in the first of these, in the city of Posadas. On their furlough in 1972 they presented the need of the north-east. As a result of that, Jim and Betty Burnett sailed for Argentina in 1974 and spent their first three years of service there where they were involved with the new assembly. Also, in the early days of preaching and seeing souls saved, they were involved in an outreach which later became the second established assembly. There are now four assemblies in Posadas that have their origins in that first one. In the remaining three of the five provincial capitals mentioned, a national worker and his wife took up residence and today there are assemblies in all five cities.
Jim and Betty took up residence in the city of Paraná (Pop. 300,000) in 1978. From children’s meetings on a spare piece of ground, then on to meeting in a garage, the present assembly of about seventy in fellowship now meets in its own building. It is lovely to see converted folk from about fourteen different Roman Catholic churches gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus. Teaching too has yielded fruit among them. Gifts are in evidence and ample opportunities are given for their development. It is vitally important that the first assembly be strong and the biblical pattern firmly established in view of expansion in the city, where there is room for several assemblies.
Jim and Betty feel privileged to be part of the Holy Spirit’s work in the assembly in the commendation of new workers. Through the efforts of the first of those, Heber and Fiona Gallitto, a vibrant and growing work has begun in North Paraná. In November of 2015 larger premises were rented to meet the growing need. In April of 2016 a harmonious separation from the first assembly of about twenty baptized believers took place to form the second autonomous assembly. Also in 2015, Nelson Gallitto was commended to full-time service along with his wife Rosana. They are being used in retreats and conferences and have taken over the ‘Life Rescue’ ministry on the streets of Paraná. Parallel to that they are involved in the development of Argentina’s first assemblies-linked resident rehabilitation centre for those with addictions, in an assembly camp site twenty-five miles away.
In 1882 the first assembly missionary arrived in Argentina. In the last twenty years there has been a movement of the Holy Spirit, and now eighteen have been commended to other countries. Some have gone to Spanish-speaking countries and others to Angola, Pakistan, Morocco and Papa New Guinea.
One-day conferences are still held, usually for local assembly anniversary dates (so important in Argentine culture), but are not practical for lots of visitors because of distances. Two- or three-day retreats for elders and helpers, and, in some cases with their wives, fill a great need. Subjects related to their qualifications, recognition and work, as well as all aspects of assembly discipline, reception and assembly life are dealt with in depth.
In the last two years, Jim and Betty have participated in an ‘Orientation Retreat’ for young people who have an interest in or are called to serve overseas. Jim was responsible for the ministry. Elders are also invited because the local church will be involved. The contributions at question times reveal some hazy areas and highlight the need for such a retreat even more.
All assemblies have their weekly teaching meetings. In Buenos Aires and some of the major cities the George Muller Institute functions on a one night a week basis with a four-year curriculum. Subjects are taught mainly by gifted brethren in secular employment. Since it is not a residential institute, it is available to young people who are either studying or working. The classes are held in local assembly buildings so there are no overheads either. Overall, it represents a valid contribution to assemblies and to their future.