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The Jesuit Relations and the History of New France

Edifying Narratives


Establishing and developing missions abroad required large sums of money every year. Like other religious communities working in New France, the Jesuits counted on donations from generous benefactors to fund their operations. The Relations played an important part in the Jesuits' efforts to obtain financial and political support from the upper echelons of French society. They were the Jesuits' promotional material, telling the world about the efforts made by the missionaries of the Company of Jesus to convert the Aboriginal populations of New France.

Their edifying nature is doubtless what best characterizes the style and content of the Relations, which were intended to inspire readers to contribute in some way to the success of missionary efforts in New France. This edifying character is expressed in different ways throughout the Relations. It is particularly evident in depictions of the tenacity, faith and courage of the missionaries, who encountered numerous obstacles in their efforts to convert the Aboriginal peoples. It also appears in the accounts of virtuous actions of Native people who had been or were going to be baptized, and who often had to resist pressure from their families and friends. And it takes a very concrete form in what the Jesuits interpreted as signs of divine intervention -- signs of God manifesting his support for the missionary project in various ways: punishments inflicted on those who refused to hear the call of the missionaries or who mocked their teachings, good fortune coming to those who listened to their preachings with an attentive ear, and so forth.

We must always keep in mind that the accounts in the Relations were written by men inspired by deep religious convictions and filled with a vision of the world where God, the angels and saints, as well as the Devil and his demons, were players who took concrete action on earth, either favouring the work of the missionaries or placing obstacles on their path. Most of the events reported by the Jesuits that concern the missionary enterprise as such, appear in an interpretive model where the forces of Good and Evil are waging a life-and-death battle.

The Jesuits saw themselves, and presented themselves, as one of the parties in this battle. They were the soldiers of Christ, come to America to liberate the region from Satan's hold: "I come here like the pioneers to dig trenches and then the brave soldiers [will come to] lay siege and capture the field" [Trans.], writes Paul Le Jeune, soon after his arrival in New France. The Relations contain numerous military metaphors that show in what spirit the Jesuits carried out their missionary work. Missionary strategies were "batteries that will destroy Satan's empire" [Trans.], knowledge of the Aboriginal languages was transformed into "arms required for the war" [Trans.], while incursions into Native territory were presented as "sorties to attack the enemy on his own territory" [Trans.].