The members of the Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, served as missionaries among Native North Americans during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Though by no means the only missionaries to attempt to convert the indigenous peoples of the continent to Christianity during this period, the French Jesuits tended to be the most organized and energetic. They are remembered in part for their remarkable travel accounts and historic records.
The Society of Jesus was founded in 1540 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (born Iñigo López de Loyola). The Society's members, who became known as Jesuits, began as a major thrust of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe, challenging the teachings of Martin Luther and other Protestants, but the Jesuits' work soon extended into the western hemisphere. The Jesuits took the three traditional clerical vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, in addition to a fourth vow of special obedience to the pope. The multifaceted activities of the Society encompassed education, literary and scientific activities, pastoral care, and missionary work. During the second half of the sixteenth century, its mission field was extended throughout post-Reformation Europe, to Asia, and to Latin America. In North America, sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuits briefly and fruitlessly sought to convert the Natives of the Chesapeake, Florida, and Gulf Coast. A handful of English Jesuits also traveled to Maryland and New York in the seventeenth century, only to be hindered by the fierce anti-Catholicism of the Protestant Anglo-American colonists.
Jesuits played a central role in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century colonization of New France, the vast territory claimed by the French crown in North America. In 1611, two fathers attempted to establish a mission at Port Royal, Acadia, only to be expelled three years later by an English force. A similar fate befell the Jesuits who returned to the colony in 1625. Unfazed, the missionaries returned to New France for the long term in 1632.
During the 1630s and 1640s, French Jesuits followed Native trade routes and established missions among the Algonquians and Iroquoians who inhabited the region of the Saint Lawrence River, Saguenay River, and Great Lakes. Impelled by the desire to carry the teachings of the Catholic Church to the inhabitants of the continent, the missionaries figured prominently among those who continued to extend the religious, commercial, and political influence of New France. Closer to the core of the French colony, along the shores of the Saint Lawrence, Jesuits were instrumental in inducing a number of Hurons, Iroquois, Algonquians, Nipissings, and Abenakis to settle in a series of reductions (reserves).
For the Jesuits, the evangelization of Native America meant imposing monogamy, restraining independence (imposing French sovereignty), and suppressing a range of traditional practices as superstition. Not surprisingly, their message was received with considerable scepticism, often hostility, by Native peoples. Although they were certainly aided by French or French-allied Indian military escorts as well as the ability to channel the French trade toward willing converts (nor were they above frightening Indians beset by smallpox into conversion), the missionaries endeavored to Christianize mainly through example and argumentation. To achieve their aims, they became keen students of Amerindian languages and cultures. Following a precedent set by their brethren in other parts of the world, the Jesuits of New France carefully documented their work and the indigenous ways of life, most notably in a collection of published annual reports known as the Jesuit Relations (Relations des Jésuites or Relations de la Nouvelle-France). Sometimes tolerated only because they guaranteed a commercial and military partnership with France, the presence and spiritual services of the French Jesuits came to be appreciated by many Native communities.
The standing of the Society of Jesus was challenged during the second half of the eighteenth century. Canada became a British possession in 1763, thereby losing its connection to France. Having come under fire for interfering with the enterprises of the royal governments in Latin America, the Society was further suppressed in a number of countries, including France, in 1767. A worldwide papal suppression followed in 1773. Staffed by aging men, the Jesuit missions in North America could no longer be sustained; some were abandoned, while others were taken over by secular "priests" and members of other orders.
The period following the Papal Restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814, however, was marked by tremendous growth. The Jesuits of Maryland began to expand their missionary enterprises westward, while French Jesuits returned to Canada in 1842 to resume their work of ministering to the converted and undermining the structures and beliefs of traditionalists. The Society of Jesus continues, to this day, its work among Native Americans.
"Decolonizing and Americanizing the White Man's Indian Jurisprudence." 1986. Wisconsin Law Review (March/April): 220–284.; Blackburn, Carole. 2000. Harvest of Souls: The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America, 1632–1650. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.; Greer, Allan, ed. 2000. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. The Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.; Greer, Allan. 2005. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.; Parkman, Francis. 1865. "Jesuits in North America." The North American Review 105, no. 216 (July).