This week's big question
What role did missionaries play in the colonization of North America?
At the end of this week you should:
- have a good understanding of who the missionaries were, why they were in North America, and their relationship with Indigenous peoples;
- be able to describe and make sense of different historians understandings of missionaries’ roles;
- and be able to discuss the significance of missionaries in the history of colonial North America.
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:
- What can we learn about Indigenous peoples from the Jesuit Relations? What can we learn about Jesuits from the Jesuit Relations?
- This week, consider what we can learn specifically about the missionaries themselves from their writings about Indigenous peoples.
- Looking at any of these primary sources, can you see points where there might be different ways of interpreting them? Or where interpretation is unclear?
- How would you characterize the views of Blackburn and Seeman? Do they see the Jesuits in the same way? Do they see the relationship between Jesuits and Indigenous peoples the same way?
- Most of our traditional expectations on the native-newcomer relations focus on differences between the two. Do these readings allow us to think about similarities? If so, what are they?
BackgroundAs 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.
- Jean de Brébeuf describes the Huron Feast of the Dead, 1636, in Jesuit Relations, volume 10, 279-317. (Note: Odd pages only.)
- Paul Le Jeune describes conversions and resistance near Quebec, 1640, in Jesuit Relations, volume 18, 99-107. (Note: Odd pages only.)
- Chrestian Le Clercq, New Relations of Gaspesia: With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians, translated and edited by William F. Ganong (Toronto, Champlain Society, 1910 ), 207-14.
- Joseph Robineau de Villebon, “Memoir Concerning the Conduct of the Missionaries of Acadia,1693”, in John Clarence Webster, ed., Acadia at the End of the 17th Century: Letters, Journals, and Memoirs of Joseph Robineau de Viillebon, Commandant in Acadia, 1690-1700 (Saint John, NB, New Brunswick Museum, 1979 ), 49-52.
Secondary sourcesRead ONE of the following two sources:
If your last name begins with the letters A to L, read:
- Carole Blackburn, Harvest of Souls: The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America, 1632-1650 (Kingston and Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 105-28. eBook
If your last name begins with the letters M through Z, read:
- Erik R. Seeman, The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 59-79.
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:
- These images tell very different stories. In other words, they provide you with a chance to identify conflicting interpretations in primary sources.
- Consider the significance of violence in general, and martyrdom in particular, in these images.
This page references:
- Martyrdom of Fathers Isaac Jogues, Anton Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Charles Garnier, Gabriel Lalemand. Image from Preciosa mors quorundam Patrum iet. Iesu in nova Francia (Paris, 1646)
- Torture of Indigenous peoples to make them convert, from Champlain, Brief Discours des Choses … (1602)
- Huron Feast of the Dead, from Joseph-François Lafitau, Illustrations de Moeurs des sauvages amériquains 1724 Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France
- Historical Thinking Project logo
- Vue de la Mission du Sault St. Louis