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Deviance in the Method

The Reality of Converting New World Natives to Christianity, 1632 - 1639

Nov 11, 2008


The sixteenth century saw the rise of French interest in imperial expansion, and the early seventeenth century marked a turning point in the commitment of French resources to the pursuit of overseas colonization. The thrust of royal expansion motivated the French to establish a permanent settlement in the New World, present day Canada. The colony was to be called New France, and the bedrock of society was to be Christianity. Because the basis for social development was Christianity, the influential Catholic Jesuit Order was well positioned to play an integral and instrumental role; in working to establish a new French colony, the skills of these highly trained missionaries would be essential to the foundation of a civil society. The Jesuit mandate was to save the native peoples of New France from eternal damnation by educating them in the teachings of Christ, thus delivering their spirits unto the service of the lord.

The initial tactics of the Jesuits were unproductive, and yielded only a small number of converts. Traditionally, the Jesuits had relied heavily on linguistics, but verbal instruction in New France proved ineffective. This was not because Native languages were unknown to the Jesuits, but because the abstractions and tenets of Christianity were completely alien and incomprehensible to the Natives. In addition to the lack of cognitive concepts that the Jesuits might use to relate Christian doctrine, native society also lacked social constructs that the Jesuits might use to transmit the Christian message. With respect to the propagation of their doctrine and the observance of their rites, the Jesuits could not make use of a top down approach because native communities lacked coercive hierarchical power arrangements. Pursuant to these problems, we find a decrease in direct sermonization and an escalation in the Jesuits' focus on a variety of seemingly disconnected initiatives: settlement of one particular tribe, the Huron; isolation of the Huron from French-Canadians; increasing the Huron's reliance on agriculture; promoting the replacement of Huron practices with Christian customs; and finally, providing Christian converts with privileged status and protection.

Because their initial methods of proselytization had failed, the Jesuits began to search for aspects of native society that might be exploited in order to win converts. The futility of persuading natives to convert was apparent, and reflecting on their failures, the Jesuits recognized that the key to converting aboriginals lay in the very foundations of native communities: politics and economics. The primary objective remained evangelism, but the mechanism became conversion by other means.

This paper will discuss the Jesuit experience and methodology in struggling to convert the native peoples of New France to Christianity. The origins of missionary work in New France will be surveyed, followed by an examination of conversion tactics based on the direct application of Christian doctrine, in particular from 1632 to 1639. During this period the Jesuits repeatedly modified their conversion program to reflect the realities of working with the aboriginals, and reduced their plan from the conversion of all native tribes via sermonization, to conversion of the Huron tribe via acculturation, and lastly to conversion of the Huron via economic and political inducements. This final approach had nothing to do with Christianity, but from its inception in the late 1630's, it was the most successful method in obtaining converts, and remained dominant until the dispersal of the Huron in 1649.

Failed First Impressions : Wa-mit-ig-oshe

The first attempt, and failure, of the Jesuits to establish a Christian presence in New France took place in 1611, in the settlement of Port Royal. The missionaries found the Micmac Indians unreceptive to their message, and turned their sights toward Mount Desert Island, which was soon lost to the English. Thus ended the first Jesuit expedition.

In 1615, the Récollet order were invited to New France, and sent missionaries to live among the Montagnais and the Huron in order to study their language, hoping to reveal the word of God to the natives in their own tongue. The Récollet worked with the natives for many years, but met with little success, in large part because their methods did not grow with their experience.

The disconnect between the message of the French missionaries and the natives can not be overstated, and was captured in the odd nickname given to French priests by the Algonquin, "Wa-mit-ig-oshe." This name meant "men of the waving stick", and was a reference to the priestly practice of brandishing a cross high in the air when landing at an Indian village. Hardly the response the missionaries were hoping to elicit.

The Call For Reinforcements : Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

In 1625, the Récollet, finding themselves with few followers and fewer prospects, invited the Jesuit Order to rejoin the missionary enterprise. The Jesuits were sought because they were well financed, and had prior experience in spreading the word of God and the glory of France, having already travelled to China, Japan, India, and South America. The Jesuits had been established in the sixteenth century by a saint and soldier, Ignatius Loyola, who envisioned his missionaries as the "Soldiers of God," embroiled in an epic earthly battle against the forces of Satan. The Jesuit motto, "Ad maiorem dei gloriam," for the greater glory of God, was conceived with a military spirit, and a militant attitude was evident in both their heavy-handed approach and their calculated persistence. The Jesuits were eager to rejoin the missionary front, and to act as a driving force in advancing the Christian line in New France. Three Jesuit missionaries were immediately dispatched: Father Charles Lalemant, Father Jean De Brébeuf, and Father Enemond Masse, who had been involved in the 1611 expedition.

The initial plan to convert the natives closely mirrored that of the Récollet: learn native languages, and deliver convincing sermons. With a little hard work, the Jesuits believed this plan would reap a monumental "harvest of souls." Such methods and expectations were a reflection of the Jesuits' unfailing certitude, as much as their uninformed perspective. The Jesuits believed they could simply awe and overwhelm the natives with their divinity. Natives had been "born and brought up in the forest like beasts," and were seen as little more than the artifacts of Adam's fall from grace, devolving steadily toward a state of savagery. For the Jesuits, New France was an untamed wilderness, and the landscape was imbued with a profound religious significance. Wilderness "appears in the Old Testament as both the site and the state of sin", with the "physical characteristics of the site metaphorically conveying the spiritual condition of its inhabitants." The Jesuits did not however view the natives as completely lost. Father Paul Le Jeune, during a later mission, reasoned that the natives could be salvaged with the help of Christianity, on the grounds that "souls are all made from the same stock."

Confident of the Jesuit plan, Father Brébeuf spent the first winter with a band of Montagnais hunters, studying their language and attempting to demonstrate the error of their ways. At the end of 1626 all three Jesuits went to Huronia, where they hoped to benefit from the knowledge of a Frenchman who had lived among the Huron since 1610. Brébeuf absorbed what he could and went on to mission among the Bear tribe, but was unsuccessful. Before the Jesuits had an opportunity to regroup and reconsider their plans, Quebec fell to the English in 1629, bringing an all too familiar conclusion to the second round of Jesuit missionary work in New France.

Deviance in the Method : From Sermonization To Acculturation

England rescinded their claim to the lands of New France in 1632, and the Jesuits returned, this time with a complete monopoly on missionary work. Once more, a Jesuit was sent to live with the natives. Father Le Jeune spent the winter of 1634 living with the Montagnais, attempting to learn their language and introduce religious instruction. After the winter, Le Jeune returned to Quebec, and expressed little hope for converting this tribe to Christianity.

The Jesuits reviewed their experiences, looking to find the root cause of their failures, and arrived at two underlying problems: the absence of agriculture, and the correspondingly migrant hunting patterns of the natives. The nomadic lifestyle of the Montagnais complicated attempts to convert them. Traditional techniques of persuasion could not work on a tribe that was constantly on the move, and lacked a stable food supply. The construction of a church made no sense, as it would have no patrons, and there was little time for the Montagnais to study Christian doctrine and practice Christian rites while hunting, fishing, and gathering. Having become more acquainted with native culture and society, and having had time to reflect on their ordeals, the Jesuits theorized that a potential solution might be to focus their efforts on a tribe that already practiced agriculture, and was at least somewhat sedentary: the Huron.

According to the new criteria for conversion, the Huron were ideal candidates. Huron society combined agriculture with hunting, gathering, and trade, and they lived in semi-permanent settlements. The Huron even conserved an extra cache of food to be saved for winter. Generally speaking, as compared to the Montagnais, the Huron maintained "some sort of Political, and Civil life," which could be used as the basis for a respectable Catholic society. The Jesuits planned to take advantage of this structural stability by converting Huron tribe members to Christianity at home, in their own villages. By converting natives inside their homes, the Jesuits thought the seed of Christianity would be planted at the source of Huron society. New converts would preach to their neighbours and family members, and with a little tending from the Jesuits, Christianity would flourish throughout the entire Huron community. This tact was in direct opposition to the Récollet, who had hoped to achieve conversion by migrating natives in to French settlements, and immersing them in local French society. The Jesuits reviled the conduct of the settlers, and felt that living among the French would debauch the Huron rather than civilize them. Instead of exposing the Huron to French towns, the Jesuits preferred to isolate the natives on their own reserves. "The goal was to Christianize the pagans of Canada, but without Frenchifying them first." By segregating the Huron, the Jesuits would also maintain greater control over all aspects of socialization, as there would be no authority more powerful than the Jesuits on the reserves. Not only would this create an optimal environment for transmission of the Christian message, it would also establish a relationship between the Jesuits and the Huron in which the observance of Christian doctrine could be enforced. These ambitions were candidly revealed in the words of Father Le Jeune, when he wrote "If they can be made to settle down, they are ours."

Divine Revelation : The Discovery of Native Religion

This conversion scheme rested not only on settlement, but also on the belief that the Huron possessed no religious philosophy. Though the Huron were considered to be more civil than the Montagnais, the Jesuits viewed Huron society on the whole as undeveloped. Because the Jesuits had not observed any organized system of ministering, they concluded that Huron culture contained a spiritual gap, and that once the natives were made sedentary the gap could readily be filled with Catholicism. The perceived goal at this time was not so much religious conversion as it was religious introduction. However, after years of experimenting with the settled instruction of the Huron, the Jesuits enjoyed no more success than when sermonizing the itinerant Montagnais.

In the Huron, the Jesuits thought they had found a vacant tract of fertile land, ripe for the introduction of the seeds of religion. In fact, religion infused the soil itself. The Jesuits discovered that religion was not missing from Huron society, but was inconspicuous only because it saturated Huron life to such an extent that it governed their every action. The enormity of the conversion project became evident, and the problem was lamented by Father Lalemant: "superstition has contaminated nearly all the actions of their lives, it would seem that ... one must ... die ... at the very moment that one wishes to assume the life of a Christian."

The Jesuits were at first unyielding, and set about replacing Huron religion entirely. However it was not a straightforward matter of replacing one system with another. The Huron religion was built on a conceptual framework entirely different than that of Christianity, and did not function as an independent element of native life that could simply be updated with Catholicism. The Jesuits assumed that they needed only to identify analogous words and concepts that could be used to explain Christianity, but quickly learned that no compatible words or concepts were available; "when it came to talking about God or things having to do with religion, there was the rub: no words existed!" The natives did not apprehend sin, they did not fear eternal punishment, and they believed no distinction was made between good and evil in the afterlife. Once again, the Jesuits could not apply the structured hierarchy of Catholic pedagogy. Eventually the Jesuits consummate rejection of all native rites and observances gave way to syncretism, and the Jesuits aimed to replace only those customs that could not exist in harmony with Christianity. However, by 1639, the number of Christian converts still remained negligible. This was to be the last tactic based directly on Catholicism.

Father Lalemant, who assumed the office of superior in 1638, sanctioned a pragmatic approach to obtaining converts: treat converts better than others, socially and economically. Native converts were accorded more respect than the unconverted, enjoyed preferential dealings at trading posts, and were sold guns. During the 1640s the number of converts rose dramatically. This mechanism underpinned the Jesuit strategy until the destruction of the Huron community in 1649.


Failing in their initial program to reveal Christianity directly through the word of Christ, the Jesuits attempted to guide the Huron toward the path of salvation indirectly by placing their society on a stable Christian basis, agriculture. Failing again, the Jesuits then sought enlightenment by attempting to impose the substitution of Christian rites for native rites. However, try as they might, Christianity itself would not convert the natives. Nonetheless, the natives required converting. Finally, accepting failure, if not in so many words, the Jesuits employed economic and political incentives for conversion, and thus disincentives for remaining unconverted. Over the course of seven years, from 1632 to 1639, the Jesuits reduced their methods from what they perceived to be intellectual expansion to what they knew was material seduction.

Prior to the Jesuits' final change in tact, the Montagnais shaman Carigonan summarized the aboriginal reaction to the Jesuit enterprise in a pointed epigram to Father Le Jeune, and unknowingly presaged the future of Huron-Jesuit relations: "Do not speak to me about the soul, that is something that I give myself no anxiety about ... it is the body I cherish; as to the soul, I do not see it, let happen to it what will."

Part of the series: UWO

[ Essay ; History ]