Converting the Sauvage: Jesuit and Montagnais in Seventh-Century New France

By Goddard, Peter A. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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Converting the Sauvage: Jesuit and Montagnais in Seventh-Century New France

Goddard, Peter A., The Catholic Historical Review


The name sauvage' gives rise to so very disparaging an idea of those who bear it, that many people in Europe have thought that it is impossible to make true Christians of them. But such persons do not reflect that God died for the barbarian as well as for the Jew and that his spirit breathes where it wills. Good trees bear good fruits.... not only are true Christians among these sauvage peoples, but also many more in proportion than in your civilized Europe.2

At the vanguard of efforts to revitalize early modern Catholicism,Jesuit missionaries arrived in New France with the ambitious aim of converting the scattered peoples of the northern forests to a pure and rigorous Christianity. Working on the frontier of an expanding faith and a burgeoning civilization, these French Jesuits offer an important window into conversion activity in the early modern world. In their thought, the process of Christianization was dependent upon the introduction of the institutions characteristic of advanced European social life and especially of its control over what was perceived as depraved human nature. Thus French Jesuits called for ordered settlement, the uprooting of superstition, the reformation of the family, and the close regulation of individual behavior, or civilite, as essential elements of a demanding model of conversion. Yet Jesuits also tried to retain those aspects of autochthonous culture which did not contradict the faith, including "natural" virtues which would assist in the construction of the primitive church. Jesuits attempted to buffer new Christians from the corrupting effects of European contact, and, as the passage quoted above suggests, sought to raise the standards of Catholicism everywhere through the example of the sauvage convert. New France was a laboratory for Jesuit efforts: tension and contradictory thrusts characterized their mission strategy.

Seventeenth-century French Jesuits were beneficiaries of the rich missionary tradition of medieval Christianity. Since its 1540 founding, the Society had been devoted to "the advancement of souls and the propagation of the faith" among Turks, the peoples of the New World, and other infidels, schismatics, and pagans.3 Jesuits conceived of this activity, even in the wilderness of New France, as a continuation of the history of conversion of Northern Europe, coterminous with the assertion of Roman order. The Jesuit approach suggests both Gregory the Great's drive to complete the sacralization of monasticism through the preaching to pagans, and Boniface's concern to instruct in a calm and rational manner. By being all things to all men, the Society would find the necessary foundations for Christian belief in the diversity of human experience.4

Jesuits sent to New France were well equipped for this mission. Renaissance linguistic science allowed them to investigate diverse cultures, beliefs, and practices. Their classical education, in which both Aristotle and Cicero figured prominently, prompted Jesuits to compare native Americans to the ancient Scythians or to the tribal peoples of the Roman frontier. Shared news or "relations" of other missions permitted comparative analysis: native peoples of Canada could be likened to the Guaranis of Paraguay, or contrasted with the Chinese or Japanese. Reflective of both classroom learning and practical experience, as magisterially synthesized by Jose de Acosta, Jesuits upheld a religious anthropology which understood spiritual progress in historically and culturally relative stages.5 The humanity of even the most barbarous and nomadic of the northern forest peoples was recognized, and was deemed a sufficient basis for conversion.

Products of the Reformation-era upheaval in Western Christianity, and of acute ideological pressures within France itself, Jesuit missionaries of New France also embodied the early modern addiction to sectarian conflict and to gloomy theology. They reflected the postReformation "rising consciousness of sin" and its consequent demand for penitence.

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Converting the Sauvage: Jesuit and Montagnais in Seventh-Century New France


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