Apostles of Empire. The Jesuits and New France

McShea, Bronwen
France overseas
378 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Eric J. Toups, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Few groups or entities have a richer or more extensive historiography in the study of the colonial-era North America than Jesuit missionaries. Historians have long romanticized the Jesuits, both to praise and condemn them for their tireless dedication to spreading Christianity to the indigenous communities in what is now Canada. Yet the Jesuits of New France did far more than proselytize and worked in theatres more diverse than remote villages and the colonial hinterlands. Their work took them from Versailles to fashionable Parisian salons to print shops, in service not only to the king of Heaven, but also to that of France. Bronwen McShea’s Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits of New France situates the often-mythologized clerics within the broader context of their times and traces their engagement in France’s salons and print shops to demonstrate their commitment to French imperialism and the transatlantic expansion of the French state.

McShea challenges French colonial Jesuit historiography on two primary fronts. Firstly, she counters the longstanding “Americentrism” (xxii) of the historical literature with a transatlantic narrative that renders North American missionary activity as inseparable from their political and social engagements with France’s absolutist state and its burgeoning bourgeoisie. Such a view also demonstrates the important of lay allies, like wealthy donors or influential propagandists, to the colonial mission. Second, she firmly establishes the Jesuits as critical advocates and enablers of secular French imperialism in North America rather than solely as Catholic missionaries winning souls for the Church. Going beyond the Jesuit Relations, McShea engages with various other Jesuit publications across a century and a half of American imperialism as well as a wealth of secular sources like American and Canadian governmental documents. She further contextualizes the Relations themselves as a part of the Jesuit propaganda machine in service to both their own missionary work and French imperial power. What results is a secular history of a religious order deeply engaged with empire building in New France and Europe and whose colonial influence and vision went far beyond the spread of Christianity.

McShea splits the book into two halves subdivided into chapters. The first half, entitled “Foundations and the Era of Relations,” describes the beginnings of the Jesuit mission to North America and its powerful and lasting attachment to the French state. Chapter 1 explores how and why the French Jesuits did not see their attachment to a French vision of civilization as conflicting with their religious mission. As such, their early efforts in France and the publication of the Relations promoted support for both their mission and the development of New France into “a land as prosperous as France itself” (p. 18). Chapter 2 demonstrates how the Jesuit spiritual message was deeply entangled with a dialogue of materiality in line with of French urban bourgeois sensibilities. They perceived indigenous spiritual poverty to be a consequence of material poverty relative to their French patrons, a poverty that could be alleviated by a more aggressive colonial effort. Chapter 3 details how the Jesuits used their experiences with the Iroquoian Beaver Wars to call for tangible military and governmental support as troubles in France over the Fronde cut into their material support. They exaggerated their predicament in the Relations and uplifted men like Isaac Jogues as martyrs to petition for a heightened and permanent French military presence. Chapter 4 recontextualizes the New France reserves and hospitals created to host the Huron (Wendat) refugees of the Beaver Wars. What appeared to previous historians to be a program of asserting control over indigenous communities in a North American context, McShea contextualizes them as also being a relatively progressive effort for poverty alleviation when considered alongside similar Jesuit efforts in France itself. The Jesuits concerned themselves deeply with secular and imperial affairs both to safeguard and enhance their missionary efforts.

The second half, entitled “The Long Durée of War and Metropolitan Neglect,” examines the comparatively-unexplored history of the New France Jesuits after the colony transferred to royal control, notably transitioning to a more Americentric approach. Chapter 5 explains how the Jesuits made critical contributions to secular imperialism as diplomats, military guides, and translators who tipped the spear of French colonial expansion. The Jesuits saw their evangelizing work “unfolding through, not despite, the colonial-era violence that surrounded them” (p. 130). Chapter 6 covers the change in Jesuit tactics away from assimilating indigenous communities to cultivating an indigenous Catholic aristocracy that could aid them in their evangelizing efforts. Yet even as they lobbied against the assimilatory agenda and liquor sales of the colonial government, the Jesuits argued that their protests aided, not undermined, the French agenda. They argued that, while French liquor traders and soldiers would diminish the French reputation, a Jesuit presence would endear those communities to France and strengthen these critical alliances. Chapter 7 tracks how the Jesuits responded to a decline in funding as metropolitan goals shifted from religious to more secular concerns and the Relations ceased publication. Jesuits like Pierre-François-Xavier Charlevoix and Joseph-François Lafitau published extensively in such a way that linked the Jesuit mission to secular imperialism and continued to rally for support for their cause. Chapter 8 follows the decline and eventual termination of the Jesuit mission to new France in the wake of the suppression of the French order in 1762. Jesuit priests continued to engage in secular imperialism and explicitly connected the success of their mission to the success of the French colonial enterprise.

Apostles of Empire is an excellent transatlantic history of the French Jesuit order that problematizes the historiographical divide between missionary work and empire. While narratives often situate the Jesuits as “somehow attached to French colonial history, but not really of it,” (xxi) Bronwen McShea leaves no doubt that the Jesuits must be considered agents of direct, formal empire. The Jesuits acted as agents, not just symbols, of empire by lobbying the crown for a more intensive, expanded colonial enterprise and by negotiating and reinforcing the indigenous alliances that facilitated French clout on the continent. Furthermore, the book closely intertwines both French colonial history with the emergence of a modern French society and nation-state. The book is thus critical for understanding New World colonialism and the global context that produced and promoted it.

The book is not without flaws. For instance, the first half of the book has a tight temporal focus of a few decades (1630-1663) and closely examines a small cast over that time. By contrast, the second half mostly reiterates the points of the first over a significantly longer period of time (1663-1789) while examining a much larger cast without the same depth. But these flaws are comparatively small in the context of its significant successes. The Jesuits made no serious distinction between Christianizing and colonialism. She points out, just as Emily Conroy-Krtuz does in her most recent book, that both efforts stem from Western certainty that its culture was superior to all others.1 The book makes clear the unity of purpose linking the diverse manifestations of Europe’s globalizing influence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and this makes understanding the New France Jesuits critical for understanding the meanings of implications birth of our present global era.

1 Emily Conroy-Krtutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic, Ithaca 2015, p. 5.

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