Francis Parkman, “The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century”

“Few passages of history are more striking than those which record the efforts of the earlier French Jesuits to convert the Indians.  Full as they are of dramatic and philosophic interest, bearing strongly on the political destinies of America, and closely involved with the history of its native population, it is wonderful that they have been left so long in obscurity.  While the infant colonies of England still clung feebly to the shores of the Atlantic, events deeply ominous to their future were in progress, unknown to them, in the very heart of the continent.  It will be see, in the squeal of this volume, that civil and religious liberty found strange allies in this Western World.” (343)

Works of Francis Parkman

Works of Francis Parkman

With this, Parkman begins the second volume of his Gibbonesque history of the French empire in America.  This volume covers the interactions between the Jesuits, the Huron, the Algonquins, and Iroquois in the early seventeenth century, centering on the rise and fall of the Jesuit missions and the rise of the Iroquois empire, which rose to crush not only the Jesuit missions but several Indian societies as well.  By telling this story, Parkman reminds us how fragile the French empire was in these early days (even if the English settlements were even more so).  Parkman’s position is clear.  While impressed with the Jesuit’s devotion, capacity for sacrifice, creativity, and curiosity, Parkman believes that the destruction of the Jesuits was ultimately a victory for religious freedom in North America.  “Liberty may thank the Iroquois, that, by their insensate fury, the plans of her adversary were brought to nought, and a peril and a woe averted from her future.  They ruined the trade which was the life-blood of New France; they stopped the current of her arteries, and made all her early years a misery and a terror.  Not that they changed her destinies.  The contest on this continent between Liberty and Absolutism was never doubtful; but the triumph of one would have been dearly bought, and the downfall of the other incomplete.”  (712)  However impressive the Jesuits were, never does Parkman doubt that they were on the wrong side of history.  They were representatives of Old World tyranny.  I was similarly conflicted as I read this volume, coming up with, at various times, two different readings.  This volume should rightfully be titled The Jesuits and Iroquois in North America.

Alternatives to European Empires
Parkman insists throughout this work that the choice for America was between English liberty and French absolutism.  However, any reader of The Jesuits in North American will see that there was a third alternative.  The rise of the Iroquois presented a challenge to the diplomatic influence of the French, other Indian societies, and potentially to the settler societies in Virginia and Massachusetts.  Their challenge was not only diplomatic and military.  The Iroquois presented a vision of society, government, culture, and gender that challenged everything both European empires presented.  Instead of the power of capital or the power of family and rank, the Iroquois rose to offic eby “address, ability or valor.” (376)  Instead of monarchy and slavery, the Iroqouis constructed the “council-fire.” Instead of a criminal justice system based on execution and revenge, the Iroquois incorporated atonement and reconciliation into their dealings with criminals.  “A body of hereditary oligarchs was the head of the nation, yet the nation was essentially democratic.  Not that the Iroquois were levellers.  None were more prompt to acknowledge superiority and defer to it, whether established by usage and prescription, or the result of personal endowment.  Yet each man, whether of high or love degree, had a voice in the conduct of affairs, and was never for a moment divorced from his wild spirit.” (382)  Parkman also noticed that the Iroquois religion had a concept of God that was already beyond good and evil.  The most difficult task for a post-theist is to escape the moral authority of a religion otherwise dead.  These Indians had already inoculated themselves from this moral burden of religion, forcing humanity to take up moral questions as free individuals and communities.  I will leave the question of whether the Iroquois had a fighting change to assert their vision over North America.  They were shattered by diseases brought by Europeans.  Yet, in the 17th century, the presented an alternative vision of empire.

The Jesuit
The main story of this volume is the Jesuit missions among the Huron until the martyrdom of the missionaries by the Iroquois.  Le Jeune, Jean de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, and the others saw themselves as the vanguard of a religious revolution that would bring the Christianity to the Great Lakes Indians.  It is difficult not to read Parkman’s account of these missionaries without some awe at their amazing commitment.  Unlike the Inquisition back in Europe, these Jesuits were the persecuted, at every moment at risk of being slaughtered by their enemies and faux-friends.  They contain the spirit that the revolutionary needs, most importantly the rejection of half-measures.  When I read about the Jesuits baptizing children dying of diseases, my disgust at the underhanded nature of their “medicine” is tempered by an admiration for their refusal to accept defeat (and for them the loss of a single soul).  Before we go too far, through, remember that the Jesuits were at the same time forces of the counter-revolution, at least if we take Parkman’s reading.  “The Roman Church, sunk in disease and corruption when the Reformation began, was roused by that fierce trumpet blast to purge and brace herself anew.  Unable to advance, she drew back to the fresher and comparatively pure life of the past; and the fervors of mediaeval Christianity were renewed in the sixteenth century.  In many of its aspects, this enterprise of Montreal belonged to the time of the first Crusades.” (545)  So who were these French Jesuits in North America, a Leninist vanguard party, Crusaders, or Inquisitors?  In any case, their honesty was tested and they were martyred and their mission collapsed along with the Huron.


In any case, I complete this second volume of Parkman’s massive history with a new respect for both the Iroquois alternative and the Jesuit zealotry.  Perhaps we need a combination of these two forces again to face our predicament, borrowing from that willingness to sacrifice with a clear alternative vision to global capital.


One response to “Francis Parkman, “The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century”

  1. Pingback: Francis Parkman, “The Old Regime in Canada” (1874) | Neither Kings nor Americans

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