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Apostles of Empire:
The Jesuits and New France

by bronwen mcshea
nebraska, 378 pages, $60

In Apostles of Empire, ­Bronwen McShea seeks to free the Jesuits of New France from what she calls the “iconic tableaux” in which they have long been trapped: as expatriated ascetics fleeing French civilization to set up otherworldly, yet enculturated, Catholic havens in the harsh climate of the Eastern Woodlands. McShea portrays, by contrast, the French character of the mission, in both Christianizing and civilizing terms, and the willingness of Jesuits to ­sacrifice their lives for empire as well as the gospel. In doing so, she challenges the assumption of much scholarship that the Christianity of the European missionaries is cleanly separable from its historical culture of origin.

McShea recounts the mission’s history, from its establishment in the early seventeenth century—the heyday of its royal support—to a period of decline leading to its ultimate demise in the late eighteenth century. The Jesuit Relations, an annual account of mission affairs established by Fr. Paul Le Jeune and published in Paris from 1632 to 1673, is her principal source. She shows how the Jesuits were not the otherworldly men often depicted in hagiographies and histories alike; rather, they sought to communicate to their readers particular concepts of social order and French civilité. They and their audience belonged to a consciously elevated social group, centered in Paris, which enjoyed refinements and manners that were largely new to France. McShea proposes, “Rhetoric in the Relations suggests . . . that the Jesuits sought to import this ­particular urban-elite culture—not yet fully ascendant in France itself—
. . . together with Catholicism.” In the interest of improving the ­material conditions of the natives through work and trade, they were anxious for the success of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, Richelieu’s merchant organization.

St. Isaac Jogues, the leader of the North American Martyrs, commonly appears as a model of the Jesuit missionary: zealous for the gospel, willing to undergo tremendous privations and sufferings, and, perhaps most of all, isolated from the support and interests of earthly powers. Yet the Relations, which made Jogues the centerpiece of its accounts of the sufferings of the missionaries, identified him as not only a martyr for Christ, but an agent of the Crown. When he was captured for the first time in Mohawk territory in 1642, he was with a group of Hurons carrying French guns that Governor Montmagny had offered in exchange for Huron baptisms. Jogues himself was quite candid that one of his reasons for returning to France after this episode was to seek military aid against the Iroquois. McShea details his diplomatic efforts and intelligence gathering on behalf of the French throughout the 1640s until his excruciating martyrdom in 1646.

Jogues’s mission was seen as part of an often bloody “crusade” in Iroquois country. During the 1660s and 1670s, the Relations touted the dream of a French world empire, promoting offensive as well as defensive war. According to McShea, “The Jesuits understood Christian conversion and heroism as unfolding through, not despite, the colonial-era violence that surrounded them.” Jesuits carried out a variety of functions in these conflicts: gathering intelligence, securing native alliances, and generally pushing for further French offensives into Iroquois territory. In the North American theater of the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), Jean de ­Lamberville, a Jesuit chaplain and medic, writes of taking up a weapon against the Iroquois on at least one occasion. These clergymen evidently did not see a major conflict between their commitment to Christ and renunciation of bloodshed, on the one hand, and providing for the security of the mission and the success of France, on the other hand.

Jesuit sources evince a biblical and providential understanding of the Iroquois Wars, comparing this enemy in New France to the Canaanite presence in Israel, while also expressing admiration for the Iroquois warrior culture. The missionaries praised the native converts, including women, who took arms against enemy tribes and the English. In all these respects, the Jesuits echoed the “holy war” teachings reinvigorated by the confessional conflicts of this historical period, rather than the incipient theological pacifism of some contemporary French writers, such as Pascal and Fénelon.

The civilization-building project had many dimensions. Among its numerous charitable initiatives, the mission established an experimental village called Saint-Joseph de Sillery, which provided Algonquin and Montagnais nomads with medical services, food, homes, tools for farming and artisanal production, and end-of-life care. Jesuits and Augustinian nuns worked together with the financial support of merchants of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France and other wealthy donors. They established perpetual foundations to provide dowries and land plots to Native American women and families. Eventually, the Jesuits recruited socially prominent native converts to their fundraising efforts, appealing to traditions of gift-giving and hospitality indigenous to the Eastern Woodlands.

By the late seventeenth century, important shifts were occurring. Missionaries and other French colonizers disagreed about whether it was more important to encourage natives to adopt French mores or to cultivate and purify native customs. Respect for native ­military valor made the Jesuits more apt to emphasize the goodness and nobility of native ways, and to see at least some elite converts as more or less equivalent to European nobility. They therefore pursued policies of integration that included intermarriage across tribal lines and with the French. In some cases, Jesuits discouraged intermarriage in order to prevent lower-class French mores from turning off native converts from the mission’s urban-elite, aristocratic ideals of civilité. Class distinctions were generally more important than ethnic ones.

The Jesuits, contrary to their image as shock troops of the Counter-Reformation, sometimes took a compromising or ambiguous stance regarding sex, marriage, and family. Catholic teaching on these matters was frequently an obstacle to conversion and perseverance in the faith, so the Jesuits encouraged non-­sacramental, impermanent unions a la façon du pays (according to ­indigenous customs), even among converts. This approach, partially tolerated by ecclesiastical authorities, was aimed at forming an indigenous Catholic aristocracy that could defend New France and support the mission, while easing the transition to the moral demands of the faith.

McShea explains how the demise of the Relations and the relocation of the French court from Paris to Versailles eroded metropolitan support for the North American mission. Competition from the Jesuit missions to East Asia and a general downturn in priestly and religious vocations in France were also factors. The rising power of Anglo-American colonists to the south provided a new source of competition and conflict.

The Jesuit mission to New France, contrary to widespread perception, does not provide a good historical template for models of Christianity that distinguish sharply between power and humility, or the state and the faith. The author seems ambivalent about this. McShea speaks of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a time “when the sheer politics of, and materialistic rationales for, national-imperial rivalries were vividly unfurled—in destructive ways increasingly difficult to identify with Christ crucified, no matter how some apologists for empire, clerical and lay alike, still would try.” Having spent the entire book arguing against a sharp separation of temporal and spiritual interests in the Jesuit mission, McShea says that, in the final analysis, the former may have overwhelmed the latter.

Perhaps, but zeal for the gospel always operates within a complex matrix of other interests and priorities. Apostles of Empire shows that the endeavor of “making disciples of all nations” is as incarnate as our Lord.

Sam Zeno Conedera, S.J., teaches history at Saint Louis University.