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The Jesuit missionaries preached to the Indians a religion

based on the concept of the immediate reality of an invisible world 

 

 

  The Columbian Exchange  (2003) / Europe and the People without History (1982) / Aristotle and the American Indians (1959)

The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (1982)

The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1984)  /  Genesis (1985), Faces and Masks (1987), and Century of the Wind (1988)

The Vision of the Vanquished (1977)  /  Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (1984)

Huarochiri: An Andean Society under Inca and Spanish Rule (1984)  /

Resistance, Rebellion and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries (1987)

Riot, Rebellion and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico (1988)  / Indian & Jesuit A Seventh Century Encounter (1982)

Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis (1988)

The first social experiments in America: A study in the development of Spanish Indian policy in the sixteenth century. 1964

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Pre Reformation Religious Ideas

Among Native Americans & French Jesuits

The Views of James T. Moore

 

Native Religions

Although Jesuits viewed the Indian’s religious practices that centered around the shaman as demonically oriented, they came to believe in the reality of the phenomena upon which the Indian cultus was built. They came to conclude that the shamanistic practices they so detested, were, indeed, an understandable, if erroneous, response to certain phenomena which they believed permeated Indian existence. It was not a blighted intellect or a warped sense of reason that had produced the native spiritualism, but real, definite, describable phenomena, resulting from an evil intervention in the Indian’s experience of existence.

It is possible to fault both the seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries for their credulity or their superstition, and the seventeenth-century concept of “the powers of darkness,” as exemplified, for example by the Salem witch trials. In justice to the Jesuits, however, it should be noted that when the missionaries first came among the Indians they did express skepticism about the power of the shamanistic rituals. It was only after living with the Indians for a period of time that they reached the conclusion a supernatural power, albeit demonic, lay behind at least part of what the shamans practiced.

Furthermore, it is interesting that the May, 1973, issue of the Smithsonian carried an article written by a non-Indian, an author and photographer, a man of our own century, who had spent much time observing a Sioux medicine man at work. This twentieth-century observer reached a conclusion similar to that of the Jesuits three centuries before. He described the ceremony in which the spirits are supposedly contacted, a ceremony not unlike that which the fathers saw at another time among other tribes.

“I have heard the voices . . . and I have seen the lights. . . . The sparks were moving all around me and high on the ceiling where no man could reach them. And once an eagle came into the room. Nobody could see it, but . . . I could hear its high-pitched cries and feel the touch of its wings. And during a sun dance, in full daylight, I saw a medicine man make a circular motion over his head with a large feather, asking an eagle to come and circle the sacred pole. And within minutes, a black dot appeared in the west, out of the clouds, and became a huge dark brown eagle. It circled slowly and silently four times above us, then sailed away without moving its wings. I and all the Indians saw this thing . . . . I have no explanation.”

Angels, Demons, and Visions

The nineteenth-century American historian, Francis Parkman, stated in the Jesuits in North America, one of the his volumes on French colonial America, that the Christianity brought by the Jesuits to the Indians in the seventeenth century was the only version of that religion which the Indians could have accepted. By such a statement, however, Parkman was disparaging the Jesuit effort rather than praising it.

Parkman believed that the religious concepts of the Jesuits were only a little less primitive than those of the “savages” whom they came to convert.

Although Parkman records his great respect for what he believed to be the intellect, brilliance, and devotion found in many members of the Jesuit order, his own rationalistic world view (and, perhaps, the Puritan roots from which he sprang) militated against his viewing the religious and metaphysical concepts of the Jesuit fathers as being anything other than primitive or “medieval” at best.

Parkman was correct to suggest that the Indian and Jesuit had in common some religious or metaphysical criteria, but his understanding of them as something primitive shows little or no insight into exactly why an Indian might have been attracted to the new religion of the Jesuits instead of, for instance, that of the Puritans of new England.

It was not simply that the Jesuits were Catholics, which made their approach to Christianity different from that of the Puritans, but that the Jesuits as an order had grown out of, and were the chief spokesmen for, the Counter-Reformation, that movement which sought to preserve, purify, and strengthen the traditional spiritual values of Western Catholicism.

The Jesuit missionaries preached to the Indians a religion based on the concept of the immediate reality of an invisible world. A spiritual order which was often, though not always, imperceptible of the senses. This concept theoretically permeates all of Christianity to a degree. The Nicene Creed, accepted not only by Catholics but by most Protestants also, proclaims the Creator to be maker of “all things visible and invisible.”

Before we can understand the metaphysical interaction which took place between Jesuit and Indian, we must understand who the Jesuit was in the seventeenth century, and how the traditional pre-Reformation understanding of man, man’s place in creation, and the nature of this creation was reflected by the Jesuit and by his order.

This can be comprehended within the context of the Reformation itself and the divergence of thought regarding man and his place in the universe that took place at that time.

To understand the Jesuit work in French North America, we must once more look at the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century, not quite a hundred years before the first arrival of the Jesuits among the Hurons.

With the Reformation, a cleavage developed as to exactly how the invisible world might be perceived; whether, indeed, it could be perceived at all by those still housed in the flesh. Until the Reformation, the catholic church had assumed that the unseen world from time to time impinged upon the physical order by making itself manifest to certain individuals; hence, pre-reformation Christianity is rife with accounts of visions, dreams, and miracles. It does not follow that the church sanctioned all of these accounts: some were strongly doubted, others were encouraged, and still others were treated with indifference.

But philosophically the medieval Church had no problem handling these phenomena, for in both Platonic and Aristotelian thought the relationship between the physical and invisible world is a close one. If the eternal, spiritual realm, as Plato said, is to some extent reflected in the physical world, then the two can never really be separated. The parallel between the “incarnational” principle lying at the heart of Christianity and the platonic idea that the eternal order reflects or reveals itself in the physical world is plain enough.

But, in addition to this, the Catholic church had centered its whole cultic and spiritual life around sacraments that are based upon, and, it is believed, in themselves carry out, this same principle—that of the eternal and invisible order making itself present and known through and in matter. In the case of the sacraments, the physical elements are bread, wine, water, and oil.

In the late Middle Ages, William of Occam largely denied the reality of this manifestation of the spiritual or eternal order in the realm of the physical; and later, Luther, in portions of his theology, expressed some of the same “nominalist” views. Calvin expressed this view mainly in his writing against visions and other such phenomena, whereas Calvin went on to apply it to the sacraments as well.

In the general classical Protestant view, then, the spiritual world is apprehended in this life by faith alone and experienced only after the physical life ends. This is not to say in Luther’s and Calvin’s theologies the spiritual world cannot in various ways manifest itself in the visible world; but, philosophically speaking, such phenomena would be highly suspect. Luther in his own writings seems to imply that while visions, for instance, may occur they are more likely than not the phenomena of Satan.

This line of thought is indicative of what is later expressed in the seventeenth century by many Puritan writers: what might be called supernatural phenomena are by no means denied, but rather are affirmed as the work of Satan.

It is interesting to note that in the seventeenth century the only kind of Protestant Christianity the Indians of the upper St. Lawrence (such as the Iroquois or Huron), or those of Acadia (such as the Abenaki), were likely to encounter was New England Puritanism. This particular version of Calvinism found it especially difficult to allow for supernatural phenomena except that which found its origin in Satan. Here the puritan records abound with accounts of visions, voices, and so forth.

It is ironic—although perhaps not the idea that the sixteenth-century Reformers intended to convey—that in reading certain writings of the Puritans one is left with the notion that while Christianity seems divorced from any manifestation of spiritual phenomena, evil often manifests itself in witches, visions, and various other supernatural forms.

With Increase Mather wrote of metaphysical events, the devil was usually the source; and Mather relegated visions of the Virgin and the saints, that Catholics sometimes had reported, to the same source, saying that while such phenomena may be truly classed as “visions,” they are inspired by evil sources.

Cotton Mather, Increae’s son, at times exhibited in his writings an obsession with witchcraft and its phenomena, but when he recounts his own daughter’s illness, from which she subsequently recovered, he relates that as he prayed for her when death seemed imminent his bible “accidentally” fell open to the account of the raising of the young girl in the eighth chapter of St. Luke. Evil might have its definite signs and portents, but good rarely would.

Mather hesitates to say that god directly caused the book to open as it did, but uses the word “accidentally” to describe the occurrence. This is significant when contrasted to his frequented and ready ascription of a metaphysical understanding to witchcraft phenomena. While, of course, the Mathers must not be viewed as the only spokesmen for seventeenth-century Calvinism, they are spokesmen for what the English in new England spiritually and philosophically offering with little success to the American Indians as a replacement for their native religions.

By relegating almost all supernatural phenomena to Satan, they did exactly what the Jesuits did not do, which was to effectively close the door to an acceptance of the Indians’ understanding both of man and the universe, and how man and the world around him relate and interact. It is helpful to understand the Puritans, therefore, in order to understand the Jesuits, who, ironically, worked geographically, if not philosophically, in such close proximity to them.

The Counter-Reformation, officially expressed in the decretals of the Council of Trent, which closed in 1563, was the Roman Catholic response to the work of the reformers.

While the council of Trent sought to purify the Church from both moral and doctrinal corruption, at the same time it placed renewed emphasis on a theological heritage that is based on tradition and classical philosophy. “Nominalism” was completely rejected.

The Society of Jesus was instrumental in countering the theological influence of reformation while seeking to bring about reforms at the same time. Jesuit theology, their view of man and the world of matter, as well as their view of the invisible or spiritual world, were what classical philosophy and the medieval Church had declared these to be. This is what the counter-Reformation reaffirmed.

Whatever modern man may think of how or why the Indian experienced what he thought he experienced, there can be little doubt that the Indians believed they perceived and often experienced a transcendent side to existence which not infrequently manifested itself in their lives. There was for the Indian very little distinction between the physical world and the realm of spirits and supernatural phenomena.

The Jesuits, too, believed in the impingement of the invisible world upon the physical order, and what really differentiated them from much of Protestantism, particularly Calvinism or Puritanism, was that they believed the divine was as likely to manifest itself in a supernatural manner as was evil; in fact, even more so, since the sacraments were an ever-present means of participating in the divine order by means of the physical.

The Jesuit missionaries, in short, were able to come to terms with the Indians’ world. They were able to accept the reality of supernatural phenomena in the native cultus, because of their conviction of the reality of the supernatural within their own cultus. When exhorting the Indian to accept Christianity, instead of attempting to deny him his perception of an unseen world which was an important part of his existence, the Jesuits provided the Indian with a way to retain it—albeit from a different vantage point.

This is not to say there was no problems in this for the fathers, but what problems arose were not insurmountable, because of the existing commonality of metaphysical perception between the two ostensibly disparate groups—the pagan Indians and the Christian Jesuits. To put it simply: the Indians had visions; the Jesuits had visions. The Indians experienced signs and portents; the Jesuits, also, though perhaps not as often.

The Indians believed supernatural properties might dwell in matter; the Jesuits said spiritual power resided in certain material elements divinely ordained for that purpose. Paradoxically, while there was, on the one hand, no comparison between what the fathers taught and what the unconverted Indians believed, yet, on the other hand, there were certain preconceived factors regarding the existence of an imminent spiritual order that made an understanding between the two possible.

The Jesuits came to accept some of the phenomena surrounding native shamanistic rites as evidence of the direct intervention of Satanic forces in the native cultus. They, of course, did not need such displays to convince them of Satanic powers in the lives of people; but such manifestations confirmed all the more what they believed to be the reality of the evil power which opposed them. This was a spiritual power, and the Jesuits believed that they too were in contact with power emanating from the unseen world, but a power that was always working for the good of man.

It was to the same plane of existence, as it were, that both Jesuit and shaman looked for help, but the Jesuit saw this aid as coming from two diametrically opposed sources: good and evil—God and Satan.

Needless to say, the Jesuits believed the power of God to be greater. They knew they often faced death among the tribes, but they believed that death could never overtake them unless God allowed it to happen; and such allowance would only occur in order to accomplish the divine will.

Therefore, while it was likely that at sometime an Indian or a group of Indians at the instigation of demonic powers would kill some or most of the missionaries, there was really nothing to fear since their demise would not happen until God willed it.

For the missionaries, their struggle with the forces that opposed them and the possibility of martyrdom were all part of an unseen conflict which, though involved with this world, was basically concerned with an unseen realm where good and evil continued their age-old struggle. Just as the shaman called on the aid of forces from the spiritual world, the missionaries did likewise; confronting openly and directly, they believed, the demons themselves; rebuking them and exorcizing them.

As the shaman called on spiritual beings for assistance, the Jesuits and their converts called upon God, the angels, and the souls of the dead for strength and protection.

And more particularly, as the shaman used charms that were the bearers of spiritual aids, so the missionaries directed the Indians to the sacramentals such as holy water, medals, statues of the saints, and rosaries.

To the missionaries, these material objects had been brought into such close relationship to the spiritual world that they had become special channels through which spiritual power passed into the physical order.

Much of what the Indians invoked in the spiritual world, they abjectly feared; therefore, if the missionaries were successfully to oppose these forces, they had to show no fear in the process. Le Jeune cried out in the presence of a terrified medicine man, “ . . . come, demon; murder me if thou hast the power, I defy thee . . . thou hast no power over those believe and love God . . .”

While few of those who communicated with evil forces were viewed as possessed, some shamans exhibited at times a high degree of what the Jesuits considered derangements. These were viewed by the missionaries as demoniacs. It seemed to the Jesuits that their madness only created a greater reverence for these shamans among their fellow tribesmen. The missionaries concluded that Satan, through long contact, had possessed their minds and was using the manifestation of possession as a further means of controlling the Indians.

Jérôme Lalemant cited one of these in the Relation of 1647 as having attacked Isaac Jogues during his first sojourn among the Iroquois. As further indication of demoniac possession among the Indians, the missionaries noted that, as they approached some Indians to mention Christianity, the Indians refused to listen to mention Christianity, the Indians refused to listen and made distracting, incoherent sounds.

Daniel and Lemoyne, working among the Huron clan known as Arendaronons in 1640, reported that as the priests approached, certain of the Indians began to howl like wolves; their conclusion, that demon-possession was the source of the activity, led them to “outwardly exorcise them per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum,” whereupon, wrote the missionaries, the Indians became silent.

This visble and outward opposition to what the fathers believed was the source of native shamanism was carried out among the converts as well. At the Huron mission of St. Joseph in 1642, a captain, desiring baptism, was summoned before a council of village Christians to declare his faith; instead, he began to act like a madman. He went to several villages wrecking canoes, crashing down cabin doors, crying out all the while that a demon had entered and taken hold of him, that he now belonged to this demon and must try to kill the French.

The fathers recorded that he took on unusual strength and resilience, running through the thicket seeming not to notice as thorns ripped his flesh. He began a general harassment of Christian Indians: throwing water on one woman in imitation of baptism and threatening to burn another. When the missionaries approached him, they were met with violent blows from his fists. At this point the priests “saw very plainly that the issue of this affair must be referred to God alone.”

They prayed for him to God and the “possession” left him in a few days, the missionaries reported. Later, the man returned to the priests, asking their forgiveness for what he could only vaguely remember and for what others told him. He stated that at first he recalled being affected by a “force” or invisible power, or as Lalelmont put it, “an occult force.” The missionaries restored him to the fold, holding that he could hardly be guilty of any crime since a demon had directly governed his actions.

Whenever and Indian, convert or not, was troubled with visions or apparitions which brought fear or foreboding, the Jesuits were equipped to deal with the situation in terms he could understand. At the Jesuit mission at Three Rivers in 1640, an Indian of high position visited Father Buteux. The Indian related that a demon had appeared to him in his cabin. He begged the priests to “offer the payers appointed to drive him away.” Buteux went home with him and said the prayers he had requested.

The Indian was no longer troubled and was soon instantaneously delivered from a pain in his side after praying to god.

He was not baptized at the time; yet significantly, instead of seeking a medicine man to deliver him from a frightening apparition, he had sought out Buteux who not only accepted the reality of his difficulty but was able philosophically and ritually to cope with it. 

Buteux regarded the Indian’s willingness to turn to a priest for help and of the priest’s invocation of good which had descended upon the cabin and removed the source of the Indian’s fear. It is not too surprising then that, as Buteux reported, this experience caused the man to be well-disposed toward Christianity, for here was something the Indian could understand. The new religion had not only met an immediate need, but had moved within a context familiar to the Indian’s experience of life.

The “evil spirits” did not go away just because an Indian became a Christian. The voices, apparitions, and dreams might well occur, but the Indian was taught how to resist them through prayer, the sacraments, the use of holy water and blessed objects, or the recitation of the rosary—all things which were believed to bring him into contact with forces in the invisible world which would aid him in his conflict with evil forces that emanated from the same metaphysical realm. 

The fathers assured the Indians, who themselves had always so believed, that mankind was surrounded by spirits. But the fathers explained that the Christian faithful had, as allies, spirits called “angels,” which protected them from evil spirits.

The Indians readily understood this for they had always been taught to seek out a “personal spirit” through fastings; and, as has been shown, they learned to trust in the power of their personal spirits—or demons, as the missionaries called them.

It is little wonder then that the missionaries’ teachings concerning the ministrations of angels was so attractive to the Indians. Those baptized invoked the aid of their angels, and some saw visions of them just as they had once seen visions of their personal demons. The missionaries reported that those converts who saw their angels were struck by the beauty of them. An old, dying Huron asked one of the missionaries who the young man was who stood at his side.He described him as possessing “rare beauty . . .” and added that just to look upon his being “. . . enraptured his heart with joy.”

The missionary with the sick man reported seeing no vision.

Source: James T. Moore. Indian & Jesuit A Seventh Century Encounter. USA: Loyola University Press, 1982.

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