The Jesuits

The Society of Jesus is a Roman Catholic religious order founded in 1534, by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier. Following a religious awakening while recovering from wounds, Ignatius gathered a small group of dedicated followers who pledged themselves to lives of poverty and chastity. They also were committed to spreading Catholicism to the Muslims in the Holy Land, but were prevented from making that journey by warfare in the region.

Ignatius of Loyola

In 1540, the group received a charter from Rome in which the members promised total loyalty to the pope, including a willingness to go wherever he might assign them. The name Jesuit was originally a term of derision applied to the group by its critics, but in time it was recognized by all parties.

The Jesuits made their initial impact by combating advances made by the Protestant Reformation. Their energetic efforts during this Counter-Reformation won back many areas that had pulled away from Rome.

Over the next 150 years, the order would grow and extend its influence through its roles in education, scholarship, and missionary activities. Schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries were established in nearly all of the great urban centers of Europe, and missions were founded in such faraway locations as India, Japan, China, South America, and New France.

The Jesuit influence in northern North America was significant. The first French missionaries arrived in 1625, and a steady stream followed in later years. Known to native peoples as the Black Robes, the Jesuits concentrated their efforts on the dominant Huron, who probably numbered more than 30,000 at the time. Lesser attention was paid to the Iroquois.

The Jesuits lived with the tribes in their villages and were willing to probe deep into the interior; some traveled as far as present-day Oregon. Despite such diligent efforts, the number of actual converts remained small.

Tensions between the Jesuits and other Frenchmen in the area developed quickly. The root of the problem was the missionaries’ criticism of the use of alcohol in trade with the Indians. The natives quickly developed a dependence on the libation, making the task of conversion all the harder. Jesuit protests achieved their aim in 1662, when the French government outlawed the use of alcohol in the North American fur trade. The rule was hard to enforce; nevertheless, it embittered the majority of traders and trappers.

While the alcohol issue was being contested, another factor entered the picture â€" disease. The Jesuits brought with them such European maladies as influenza, smallpox, and measles; the Indians had no natural immunities to those diseases and began dying by the hundreds, later by the thousands. By 1650, the Huron numbers had been so drastically depleted that they were nearly wiped out by their weaker traditional enemy, the Iroquois. The Jesuits were blamed for the spread of disease and many were tortured and killed.

The record of the Jesuits in New France was mixed at best. The introduction of fatal diseases was, of course, unintended, but the effort to enforce an alien religion upon the natives was appreciated by very few. The missionaries were impervious to criticism on this score, believing that any inconvenience on the Indians’ part, was a small price to pay for salvation.

The fastidious record-keeping habits of the early Jesuits have preserved a valuable record of events in New France. A highly detailed catalog of customs, language and beliefs of the Huron was assembled from the priests’ reports and later published in Jesuit Relations. Much of what is known today about the history, ethnology, and natural science of the area stems the writings of the Jesuits.

The Society of Jesus fared poorly during the 18th century, both in North America and in Europe. In an age of widespread anticlerical feeling, the Jesuits were singled out for special disparagement. Some of the antipathy had been earned by their overzealousness, but rival churchmen and political figures also were motivated by the close relationship between the order and the pope. In 1773, the pontiff gave in to political pressure and dissolved the Society. Only in Russia did the order survive. It was not until the end of the Napoleonic era that the Jesuits reemerged.

See Indian Wars Time Table .