The Jesuit Missions to the Huron in the 17th Century


Jesuit missions to the Huron in New France has been controversial ever since those missions started in 1634.[1] There are numerous reasons for this. First, it should be noted that these were Jesuits bringing and preaching Catholicism. The Jesuits have long had a contentious history because of their special position in the church: they are answerable to the pope alone. This special position of power has made church officials and religious orders jealous and has caused them to spurn the power that the Jesuits are able to yield. The second area of controversy is found in the Jesuit’s methods in obtaining the conversion and baptism of some 5,800 Hurons[3]. The Jesuits offered a completely different perspective and way of doing missions than any other religious group (Protestant or Catholic) at the time. Others question the Jesuits’ motives in trying to convert the Hurons. Comte de Frontenac (the Governor of New France) asserted that the Jesuits were more interested in converting beavers than souls.[2] By that, he implied they were more interested in the monetary gains of the fur trade than in actually doing the work of the church.

All these controversies have led to questions about the sincerity of the Jesuit conversions. Were the Hurons genuinely converted to Roman Catholicism? Some argue that they were. They state that baptism was often always performed after a lengthy period of religious instruction.[4] Others dispute that by saying that true conversion was not possible because native beliefs and understanding were too different from Roman Catholicism.[5]

This blog post will examine these issues in closer depth. In the end, it will be clearly shown that the Jesuits were able to effect genuine conversions (in the Catholic, not Protestant, sense) among the Huron.

Huron Religious Beliefs

Let us first turn to the Huron’s religious beliefs. It is necessary to have an understanding of Huron beliefs in order to make sense of Jesuit methods in teaching them Catholicism.

Behind most native religions is a complex cosmology which outlines how the universe came into being, how it is structured, and a “science of the principles of their [i.e. the creation’s] interaction [with itself]”[6] One fundamental “law” is a belief in a hierarchy of being. At the top of this hierarchy is the Master Spirit. The Master Spirit is the Creator of the universe and was only good. The Huron worldview also contained a dichotomy. The good Master Spirit was pitted against the lesser evil god called “machemantio” (although interestingly, it appeared more prominently in Huron beliefs after the Jesuits’ mission started[7]). Machemantio “purveyed devilry and death if not appeased.”[8]

As one can tell, a great feature of their religion is the notion of spirits. Indeed, everybody was supposed to have their own guardian spirits and those devoid of one were considered to be outcasts of the society.[9] Axtell tells us this is the most “populous tier”[10] of their universe. For the natives, “every plant and animal species had a “boss” or “owner” spirit whose experience encompassed all the individuals of the species.”[11] Thus spirits could interact with humans in multiple ways, but especially in dreams. Thus, dreams and their interpretation played a very important role in the lives of the Huron, especially regarding prophesying. Those who were experts at interpreting dreams were called shamans.[12]

Shamans were the religious and spiritual leaders of Huron tribes. It was through the shaman’s practice of various rituals that the natives were able to control the spirit realm.[13] The shaman was able to control the spirit world through his own personal spiritual power and he (normally shamans were males) could do this for the benefit or the hurt of his tribe.[14] Being the spiritual leaders of the tribe, the natives placed a lot of trust in the shaman.

Common European Missionary Practices

Having briefly examined native beliefs, let us now move on to examine how the Europeans normally conducted their missionary attempts. This will help us appreciate how different the Jesuit missions were from what was considered normal in doing mission work.

Becoming European 

One of the fundamental things that Europeans believed was that the native first had to become a European in order to be able to grasp and understand Christian ideas. By becoming civilized the natives would be able to control their passions via the use of reason, they would be capable of higher rational reasoning, and they would become able to become instructed in the arts of civil life and humanity.[15] So the idea was that by civilizing the natives they would be able to rationally understand Christianity.

There are several ways in which the native (according to European standards) had to become civilized. First, it was necessary to Europeanise their names.[16] Second, they had to stop living a nomadic life and start dwelling in towns, with proper buildings (the town, after all, was the centre of justice, law, and order).[17] Along with having them live in towns, where they could be controlled and restrained, they also had to start taking up European practices of agriculture.[18]

Recollets’ Mission to Huron:

One historical example of a group practicing this missionary style is found in the Recollets’ mission to the Huron. They thought it was necessary that the natives learn French rather than having the Frenchman learn Huron.[19] Also, the Recollets refused to actually live among the Huron for moral reasons. Unfortunately, this made them appear as outsiders to the Hurons, and they were never fully accepted by the tribe. The ultimate problem with making the natives dwell in towns is that the natives had different ideas. They believed they should have the ability to be free and so they would come and go, hardly ever staying put in one area.[20] Further, that notion of liberty extended to their beliefs regarding morality.[21] They were very reluctant to be bound by Christian moral laws and teachings. For this and other reasons, the mission of the Recollets in Huronia failed.[22]

This brings us to the story of the Jesuits. Let us now look at how they conducted their mission and the problems that they faced as they did their mission work.

Jesuit Missionary Practices

The Jesuits conducted their missions in a much different way than all other Europeans. For one, they were not as interested in first civilizing the natives in order to bring them to Catholicism. They conducted their mission by actually living with the Huron people. Once the Jesuits were allowed into a village they had to work to gain the Hurons’ trust and respect. They did this through “acculturating themselves to the natives’ way of life.”[23] A radical concept from what has been described above. The way the Jesuits did this is illustrated by what Father Vimont states:

To make a Christian out of a Barbarian is not the work of a day . . . . A great step is gained when one has learned to know those with whom he has to deal; has penetrated their thoughts; has adapted himself to their language, their customs, and their manner of living; and, when necessary, has been a Barbarian with them, in order to win them over to Jesus Christ.[24]

Once a Jesuit had gained the Hurons’ trust, his next mission was to discredit or overpower the shaman. Since the shaman played such an important role in tribal life, this was a very important task. In certain respects the Jesuits had the upper hand here: they had a more scientific understanding of nature (they could make it appear that they could predict and even control eclipses)[25], they had technology (such as compasses, clocks, and magnets), and the written word (a marvel for an oral culture).[26] But it must also be understood that the Jesuits were working against a culture that had been in place for many years. They were arguing against perhaps the most powerful man in the tribe; the man which the natives trusted to take care of their souls and to keep them safe from demons and witches.

A continual problem that the Jesuits had in their missionary labours came from the fact that the Hurons believed that there was more than one path to heaven. They could not understand the notion that salvation is only through Catholicism. They would argue: “Do you not see that, as we inhabit a world so different from yours, there must be another heaven for us, and another road to reach it.”[27]

Yet another problem the Jesuits had was that of language. While the Jesuits had the advantage of being able to learn Huron before actually going to be missionaries (thanks to the labours of Etienne Brule who learned Huron by living with the natives and taught the language to the Jesuits) this did not account for other problems with language. The chief of those problems was the issue of vocabulary. Huron simply does not have the Indo-European terms that are so quickly associated with Christianity. Words such as sheep, sin, and Christ did not exist in the Huron vocabulary.[28] This further made it very difficult for the natives to understand theological issues such as “sin, guilt, and hell.”[29]

Yet, Axtell seems to downplay this issue by stating that “Despite their linguistic and cultural differences, they shared enough beliefs and practices to allow generalization, and, to some extent, comparisons with Christianity.”[30] So he essentially argues that because Roman Catholicism was such a ritualistic religion there were enough similarities with the native rituals that they were somewhat compatible. He argues that the Jesuits used objects to illustrate their preaching and this helped them to understand Catholic doctrine. Objects such as rosaries, crucifixes, rings, incense, altars, and pictures of Bible scenes all gave a real sense to their preaching.[31] Axtell also argues that these objects in a sense were similar to the natives own “wampum belts, medicine sticks, and condolence canes.”[32]

Smallpox Epidemic

Probably the greatest setback for the Jesuits mission in Huronia was the epidemic of the smallpox that struck the Huron nation. The Huron quite often believed that the disease was spread by the Jesuits. Part of the reasoning behind this was their celibacy, which they took as a sign that they were witches.[33] In other words, since the Jesuits were celibate they “were nurturing great supernatural power, and their generally sound health and speed with which they and their workmen recovered from influenza were additional proofs that they could control diseases.”[34] Further problems were caused when the Jesuits would baptise children that were dangerously ill (because of the Catholic belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation) and then those children would die.[35] This would quickly result in great suspicion of the Jesuits, with the Huron often suspecting that the baptism had killed their children.

Another response to the smallpox was actually the reverse. Indeed, many “Hurons had been baptized in the hope either that it would cure them or that, by making them kinsmen of the French, it would permit them to escape the latter’s sorcery altogether.”[36] The history of the smallpox and the Hurons reaction to it is perhaps crucial evidence that not all of them truly understood Roman Catholicism. Their ideas of baptism were not congruous with what the Jesuits were teaching, rather their view of baptism was steeped in the superstition of the native religion.

That all being said about smallpox, the fact that Hurons still remained with the Jesuits until even after the epidemic passed over is evidence that they truly started to believe something new. The Huron would have witnessed people who been baptised die and those who had not been baptised die. The result of the epidemic would have undoubtedly left them confused and unsure. However, the fact that they remained showed they had trust in the Jesuits and their beliefs.

True Conversions to Catholicism?

There were also other reasons that Huron’s got baptized. A big factor here is related to the trade with Europeans. For instance, it was illegal for unbaptised natives to own guns.[37] So the French refused to sell guns to those who were not baptised. This then, quite obviously, created other motives for the Huron to get baptised: motives that do not correspond to a conversion. In addition, baptised natives were treated better than unbaptised natives. They were given extra goods by the fur traders and they were given food and blankets in time of need by the Jesuits.[38]

While some conversions may definitely not have been real true conversions to Roman Catholicism, it can certainly be argued that there were genuine conversions among the Huron. One of the required steps that a Huron had to do when they were converted was that they had to “destroy their charms, which they had relied on for good luck in every sort of activity, and were forbidden to use dreams as guides to their actions.”[39] Now it was mentioned earlier in this paper how important dreams were to the natives and how superstitious their beliefs were. To do this required action would take a great amount of faith and belief that the Jesuits were correct. There were also forbidden the rights of a traditional native burial with all its ceremonies[40], another very important aspect of traditional native culture.

Further, the Huron had to live separately from the members of their tribe who were unconverted.[41] Part of the reason for this is because a lot of the ceremonies that the unconverted members of the tribe took part in, were not analogous to Catholicism. This demonstrates the verity of some of the conversions, especially when one considers the importance of both the family and the tribe in Huron culture. They were not easily forsaken. The fact that some were willing to do this, points again to the fact that there were true conversions.

That all being said, probably the most powerful arguments regarding the verity of the Huron conversions is found in actual stories of the personal lives of the Huron. One of these stories is regarding a captive of the Neutral Nation who a Catholic Huron woman had ownership of. This Huron woman treated her captive like a daughter and she instructed her so well in the doctrines of Catholicism that the Jesuit missionary exclaimed: “’Well, my sister . . . why hast thou not baptised her, since she has as strong faith as thou thyself.’”[42] If this Huron woman was able to understand the doctrines of the Church to such an extent that she was able to teach and convert other natives, that points to a genuine conversion. Further, the fact that she would have the passion in her heart to convert somebody else points to a love of the Catholic doctrine.

One other remarkable story is that of a severe display of voluntary penance by this one woman with the help of a group of native women who desired to form a convent.[43] The story goes as follows;

She has had four companions in her fervor . . . . Two of them made a hole in the ice, in the depth of winter, and Threw themselves [one of whom was pregnant at the time] in The water, where they remained during the time that it would take to say a Rosary slowly and sedately. One of the two, who Feared that she would be found out, did not venture to Warm herself when she returned to her cabin, but lay down on her mat with lumps of ice adhering to her shoulders.[44]

The story is a remarkable display of their understanding of Catholic doctrine and the fact that they voluntarily did this shows that they understood the necessity of penance in Catholic life. If that does not illustrate the fact that some natives had genuine conversions to Catholicism, it is hard to imagine what will.


Therefore, in conclusion, it can be stated that the Jesuits were able to bring about true conversion to Catholicism in the Hurons. The motives of some Hurons may certainly have been wrong or misguided, but that does not mean that every single Huron had the wrong motives. The history certainly seems to indicate that many Hurons did believe Catholic doctrine. They did have a bona fide belief in what they understood to be Catholicism.


Axtell, James. Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Bumsted, J.M. The Peoples of Canada: A Pre-Confederation History Fourth Edition. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2014

Choquette, Leslie. “Religious Conversion in New France: The Case of Amerindians and Immigrants Compared.” In Quebec Studies Vol. 40 (Winter, 2006): 97 – 109

Crowley, Terry. “The French Regime to 1760” in The Concise History of Christianity in Canada edited by Terrence Murphy and Roberto Perin. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1996: 1 – 55

Donnelly, Joseph. Jacques Marquette, S.J. 1637 – 1675. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1968

Gordon, Alan. “Heritage and Authenticity: The Case of Ontario’s Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons.” In The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 85, No. 3 (2004): 507 – 531

Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in North America (1610 – 1791) ed. Edna Kenton. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1954

Monson, Paul. “Sacred Seeds: The French Jesuit Martyrs in American Catholic Historiography” in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. Vol. 17, No. 4 (Fall, 2014): 87 – 108

Trigger, Bruce. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985

Trigger, Bruce. “Jesuits and the Fur Trade” in Ethnohistory Vol. 12, No. 1 (Winter, 1965): 30 – 53

Welton, Michael. “Cunning Pedagogics: The Encounter between the Jesuit Missionaries and Amerindians in 17th-Century New France” in Adult Education Quarterly 55, no. 2 (February, 2005): 101 – 115


[1] Bruce Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered.  (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985), 226

[2] Bruce Trigger, “Jesuits and the Fur Trade” in Ethnohistory Vol. 12, No. 1 (Winter, 1965), 32

[3] Terry Crowley “The French Regime to 1760” in The Concise History of Christianity in Canada ed. Terrence Murphy and Roberto Perin (Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1996), 13

[4] Ibid, 14

[5] Ibid

[6] James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 165

[7] Ibid, 166

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, 165

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid, 166

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, 147

[16] Ibid, 151

[17] Ibid, 158

[18] Ibid, 151

[19] Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 201

[20] Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 159

[21] Ibid

[22] Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 201

[23] Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 163

[24] Ibid

[25] Michael Welton “Cunning Pedagogics: The Encounter between the Jesuit Missionaries and Amerindians in 17th-Century New France” in Adult Education Quarterly 55, no. 2 (February, 2005): 102

[26] All this is demonstrated in Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 164

[27] Welton, “Cunning Pedagogics”, 106

[28] Ibid, 102

[29] Ibid, 104

[30] Axtell, Natives and Newcomers, 165

[31] Ibid, 163

[32] Ibid

[33] Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 246

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid, 247

[36] Ibid, 249

[37] Ibid, 255

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid, 256

[40] Ibid, 256

[41] Ibid

[42] Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in North America (1610 – 1791) ed. Edna Kenton (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1954), 250

[43] Ibid, 293

[44] Ibid

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