The Devil’s in the Details: A Comparison of Two Jesuits’ Reactions to Native American Spiritual Beliefs
To be honest, this post may be more one sided than I would like, but with my limited resources, there’s only so much I can do. During my stint in graduate school, I studied the intersection of colonialism, imperialism, and religion. So, naturally, I became interested in the Jesuits. My research in grad school was focused on the French Jesuits, and their work in Canada, and the French province of Brittany. Now that I’m out of school, and keeping up with history as a hobby, I’ve become interested in expanding the reach of these historical borders, and looking at religious conversion elsewhere in the Americas.
So recently I checked out a book entitled, “History of the Triumphs of our Holy Faith Amongst the Most Barbarous and Fierce people of the New World,” written by a sixteenth-century Jesuit named Andrés Pérez de Ribas. And as I read through the accounts of this man who worked in what is now north-western Mexico, I could not help but notice the similarities to the language used by my old subjects, the Jesuits of New France.
Though the Jesuits of New France didn’t establish permanent missions in the New World until 1634 (21 years before de Ribas’s death), the language the used in their descriptions and of the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples they encountered seemed to be lifted directly from de Ribas’s accounts of the Ahome and Suaqui peoples of northwest Mexico.
I find it fascinating how men separated by a century or more, by language, and by thousands of miles, could craft such similarly sounding accounts of such varied subjects as the Wendat and the Ahome. Now, to be honest, my cursory searches on the Ahome have turned up nothing in English, and unfortunately, I haven’t taken Spanish since 7th grade (and I got a C). So, I have no idea how culturally distant or similar the Ahome and Suaqui were to peoples like the Wendat of what is now southern Ontario. But, given the distinct cultural differences between the Wendat and their closest neighbors (they spoke their own language, and practiced religious customs that weren’t ubiquitous to that part of the world), I can only imagine how different the peoples of the Northeast and Southwest must have been.
One common theme among Jesuit missionaries was to view the traditional healers of Native Americans societies as sorcerers, who, at best, were practicing ridiculous, hokus-pokus, or, at the worst, actively under the control of the devil. When discussing, what he felt was, the total lack of piety among the peoples of the Southwest, de Ribas stated “Any worship that was to be found was reduced to barbarous superstitions or sorcery, knowledge of which was acquired by certain persons who had intimate dealings with devils. This knowledge was a heritage passed on from their elders. The latter taught it to others at the hour of their death, charging them to practice some of the ceremonies of sorcery and superstition, which they used to cure, kill, and deceive… They [the sorcerers] are the instruments most used by Satan to introduce whatever evil he wants among these blind people.” This description was written in 1604. Now, compare that to an account given by the French Jesuit Paul Le Jeune in 1635 of the Wendat, who lived some 2,600 miles Northeast of the Sinaloa region of Mexico in which de Ribas worked (according to Google
maps). “To cure… diseases, there are a large number of Doctors whom they call Arendiouane. These persons, in my opinion, are true Sorcerers, who have access to the Devil. Some only judge of the evil, and that in divers ways, namely, by Pyromancy, by Hydromancy, Necromancy, by feasts, dances, and songs; the others endeavor to cure the disease by blowing, by potions, and by other ridiculous tricks, which have neither any virtue nor natural efficacy.”
Pretty damn similar, right? In fact, to get even nerdier on ya here, it has been postulated by the historian Dominique Deslandres, that the Jesuits had a shared corporate culture as a result of their uniform education and upbringing in the elite circles of western Europe. That certainly seems the case here, as men separated by a generation of over 2,00 miles wrote almost identical accounts.
Also, they must have been united by what they felt was the defense of their religious and world views. Both the aforementioned Jesuits, Le Jeune and de Ribas, grew up in Catholic kingdoms, France and Spain respectively, and thus must have felt the pressures of Protestantism creeping in (and possibly even Islam, in the case of de Ribas). So, brought up in this environment of a defensive Catholicism, they found all other beliefs as illogical, asinine, or, well, devilish.
But, since I literally wrote a thesis on this topic, I’ll force myself to cut this post off here.
Jordan, I have just found your blog and have read a few of your blog posts! I am very excited by your enthusiasm for history and for the topic of your posts. I am currently beginning my thesis in my graduate studies in history. I wanted to reach out to you and possibly strike up a conversation about the Jesuits in French Louisiana. Add another fan to your site! A.D.
Hi Alecia, thanks so much for your kind words! I’m sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond, I’ve been traveling. I’m so happy to hear you enjoy the blog! Feel free to spread the word among your history department cohorts 🤓
I’d love to talk about Jesuit history! Feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com. Looking forward to hearing from you!