HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World


This week's big question

What role did missionaries play in the colonization of North America?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

This week you should read all of the primary sources and one of the secondary sources [see below] before you begin your posts.

Here are some questions to help guide your discussions for this Lesson:


As we saw in our examination of imperial expansion, one of the reasons put forth in support of colonizing America was that Christianity could be brought to its “heathens”.  Thus, from the very beginning, missionaries accompanied expeditions and settlements in the New World.  In the Catholic countries – France, Spain, and Portugal – these missionaries were organized typically through the larger religious orders such as the Society of Jesus, more commonly called the Jesuits (we learned about them in Module 1). The Jesuits were one of the most important religious orders in Christian history, and their influence particularly in education remains significant around the world today (for example, Pope Francis comes from a Jesuit background). They were founded in the wake of the Reformation, and their military-like organization and evangelical zeal marked them as key players in the Catholic Church’s efforts to battle the Protestant reformers. These were strong, dynamic, and intelligent men. Unlike the monks who retreated into monasteries for contemplation, prayer, and self-examination, the Jesuits went out into the world determined to defeat Protestant “heretics” and to reach the minds of “heathens”. The Jesuits were active around the globe, and their most important roles were in missions (sometimes called proselytization) and education. These two roles came together in New France in the 17th century.   

In this context, as we examine North America, we should remember that the Jesuits were Catholic and they saw themselves as contesting the heretics of the Reformation (i.e. the various protestant churches, particularly in England and Holland). We tend to think of the North American struggle for power as an imperial struggle between the imperial states. It was, but it was also a struggle among the Christian faith groups. Few saw this connection between political and religious struggles more clearly than did the Jesuits.

For historians, the Jesuits are important not only for the role they played in the colonization of New France, but also in their writings, the Jesuit Relations. At a time when less than half the population could read and fewer still could write, Jesuits received very good educations. They read ancient, classical texts, and could write very effectively. In relating their experiences, the Jesuits provided remarkable portraits of the peoples of the New World, while also justifying​ the costs involved in the missionary project. And, because northern Indigenous peoples were pre-literate societies, the Jesuit Relations are among the best sources remaining to us for understanding the early years of contact between European and Indigenous peoples.

We will explore the question of cultural relations more this week, but an important basic issue is just what these texts can tell us. Though clearly effective in describing the Jesuits’ views of the encounter with Indigenous peoples, it’s much less clear what they can tell us about the Indigenous people they purport to describe. The role of the Jesuits has been controversial.  While in the past much of this controversy was mired in confessional (Catholic/Protestant) and national (British/French) prejudices, there remains significant debate over whether the Jesuits should be interpreted as engaged in the sincere higher calling of proselytizing (spreading the Word of God), or as agents of empire. Were their interests tied only to converting non-Christians, or were they actively aiding the colonizing forces? Or, however they imagined their actions, were they doing both? All of which leads us to our key question: Who were the Jesuits? Who were these men? What were their motivations? Were they agents of empire, or God (that is, the Catholic Church)? Or both?

Historians, as we saw last week, often take very different approaches to similar questions. This week we'll see that sometimes they arrive at very different conclusions about their subjects, particularly when it comes to controversial groups such as the Jesuits. Recent historians have focused on the cultural impact as well as the motivations of the Jesuits. The aim of these historians has been to assess the impact of the Jesuits on Indigenous people, the place of Jesuit writings in shaping European understandings of the New World, and how that helps to understand the broader story of empire in the early modern Atlantic World.  As you’ll see, our two main secondary readings have quite different views of the nature of that relationship. The differences between Blackburn and Seeman illustrate the interpretative nature of historical writing. Like most authors writing on the Jesuits, they rely on the Jesuit Relations –- writings by the Jesuits themselves relating their experiences for an audience back in France –- but take quite varied meanings from their sources. The Jesuit Relations are complex texts and can be seen as both faithful accounts and propaganda, as both accurate and profoundly misleading. It’s not surprising then that historians offer very different ways of understanding the meeting of Europeans and Indigenous peoples.


Review all of the Toolbox entries from last term before you read the sources, and practice applying the skills you've learned so far in this course.

Primary sources


Secondary sources

Read ONE of the following two sources:

If your last name begins with the letters A to L, read:
If your last name begins with the letters M through Z, read:We want to explore these books' different perspectives. Obviously, they are talking about different people at different times, so it's not the subjects we want to compare, but the general viewpoint and arguments each suggests. Each author interprets the place of Jesuits differently. Explore how they arrive at those differences. 

Supplemental Materials

Click on the images throughout this page to expand them and to learn more about them. They are all found at the online Archive of Early American Images​ at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, RI. We have added these to the supplementary section, because we are requiring you to focus your Forum posts on the written texts. However, if you wish to practice your analysis of visual sources, you may be interested in these issues:

This page references: