Apostles of Empire

The Jesuits and New France

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Bronwen McShea
  • Lincoln: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , July
     378 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


That Louis XIV, the Sun King, was in pursuit of “gloire” (glory),and that an important element of this pursuit was the creation of an overseas Empire, is well known. In Apostles of Empire Bronwen McShea argues that members of the Society of Jesus who went as missionaries to New France--Canada as it became, were active propagandists of Louis’ imperial idea – hence the use of the word “apostle” in the title. McShea has, for at least part of her period which stretches from the arrival of the first Jesuits in 1611 to the suppression of the Society in French territory in 1763-1764, has much material with which to work. Of particular importance for her research are the Relations de la Nouvelle France (The Jesuit Relations), which were published in Paris from 1632 to 1673 by Sébastien Cramoisy, who was also an active patron of the Society, and by his successors. There is also the multi-volume Lettres Édifiantes et Curieuses, regularly edited by the Paris Jesuits from 1703 until the suppression of the Society, but the editors preferred the more exotic accounts of life in the Far East to stories coming from New France: McShea calculates that less than a dozen letters written by Jesuit missionaries in Canada were selected for publication in the Lettres Édifiantes.

McShea’s telling of the story revealed in these sources is fascinating, and well worth reading, though whether the evidence justifies calling the Jesuit missionaries “apostles of Empire” is not so clear. It is perfectly true that, on the evidence of this book, French Jesuits seem to have been much more imbued with Gallicanism (which argues a restriction of papal power) than, say—at a rather later date—were their colleagues within the Holy Roman Empire imbued with Febronianism or Josephism. In other ways, however, they were similar. As the Ursuline Mother Marie de l’Incarnation commented when the Jesuits welcomed the twelve hundred troops sent to New France in 1665, they presented conflict with the Iroquois as a holy war, much like the court chaplains in Vienna and Munich had declared the battle against Protestantism in the Thirty Years’ War to be a holy war (, though Mother Marie did not herself draw the comparison). McShea comments that “rhetoric about warfare, especially about combatting the Iroquois, has largely been whitewashed from the mission’s history” (130). But it could be argued that they welcomed the arrival of the soldiers not so much for territorial aggrandizement they enabled as defenders of their converts from hostile tribesmen or, later, from the attentions of the Protestant English.

Perhaps the evidence could read differently, but it is McShea’s thesis that the Jesuits in New France saw themselves as establishing a French Empire on the other side of the Atlantic almost as much as they were committed to saving souls. Pierre Briard, who was one of the first, when safely back in Europe, to write an account of Arcadie, “prayed in print that the young King [Louis XIII] might ‘one day plant the standard of the cross with its fleur de lys upon the most distant infidel lands’” (14). Jesuit hagiography, McShea suggests, has always presented the martyr Isaac Jogues as single-mindedly devoted to evangelism. But, she claims, this is a myth. Though Jogues was undoubtedly a committed missionary, she argues he was also “much concerned with French expansion and mindful of worldly matters useful to French officials” (77); after he had returned from a visit to France he served as the governor’s representative in negotiations with the Mohawks. But the Jesuit missionaries were dependent upon financial backing from the French aristocracy, as well as on the support of the King himself, and his ministers. Inevitably, this involved some compromises, as well as careful storytelling by the authors of the Relations sent back to Paris to solicit alms.

Presumably, it is this involvement of members of the Society of Jesus in such secular activities on behalf of the French state that enables McShea to write that her history is a “revisionist” account of the work of the Jesuits in New France. The claim may be true, though the book is not exactly a history in the sense that it is a strictly chronological account of the rise and fall of the mission. But to say that it is revisionist suggests that earlier authors have not been aware of the involvement of the missionaries in the governance of New France, which some may find surprising. Most modern historians of the Society are well aware that Jesuits were no strangers to matters of realpolitik. They would not have been surprised at a French Jesuit preaching (in Algonquin!) on the military prowess of Louis XIV, even if Fr Allouez’ claims in 1671 were not exactly true: “No one now makes war upon him, all nations beyond the seas having most submissively sued for peace” (128).

These remarks are not intended, however, to diminish the considerable achievements of this monograph, certainly not of the first part. The book is divided in two parts—part one being entitled “Foundations and the Era of the Parisian Relations” and part two called “A Long Durée of War and Metropolitan Neglect.” The division is not arbitrary; the first part depends heavily, and valuably, on a close reading of the Relations de la Nouvelle France which reveals in detail the Jesuits’ dealings with various tribes, and with their largely unsatisfactory dealings with French settlers. But the Relations came to an end in 1673, an indirect victim, as McShea explains (196 f.) of the Jesuits’ conflict with the papacy over the Chinese and Malabar rites. The publication’s end deprived McShea of much first-hand material.

The final chapter, covering the suppression of the Society in France, is in part a series of vignettes, including one of the remarkable Jesuit priest and missionary Pierre-Joseph-Antoine de Roubaud.  After New France fell to the British, Roubaud ingratiated himself with the English governor and—disenchanted with the failure of France to adequately defend its empire (which was a constant complaint of the Jesuit missionaries as chronicled by McShea)—travelled to London and became an Anglican (238), a term, incidentally, which for the late 18th century is something of an anachronism. Another anachronism is the apparent reference to John Carroll as a Jesuit (250): Carroll did not return from Europe to Maryland until after the suppression. It is an easy mistake to make. As Carroll’s correspondence makes clear, although he never rejoined the Society after he had become a bishop, he kept in touch with his former colleagues across the Atlantic. The English Jesuits continued to survive as a coherent group far more so than did the Jesuits in France who at one time in the reign of Louis XIV had been on the verge of schism from the Society at large.

McShea’s book is an impressive work of research, one which adds considerably to our knowledge of the mission of the Society of Jesus in North America. What I missed, however, as someone whose knowledge of the geography of Canada is not of the best, is a map upon which to locate the various tribes whom the Jesuit missionaries attempted, with varying degrees of success, to evangelize.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Walsh is a fellow of the (now-defunct) Heythrop College, University of London.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bronwen McShea is a 2018–2019 fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University and has taught history at the University of Nebraska Omaha and Columbia University.


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