Apostles of Empire is a revisionist history of the French Jesuit mission to indigenous North Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, offering a comprehensive view of a transatlantic enterprise in which secular concerns were integral. Between 1611 and 1764, 320 Jesuits were sent from France to North America to serve as missionaries. Most labored in colonial New France, a vast territory comprising eastern Canada and the Great Lakes region that was inhabited by diverse Native American populations. Although committed to spreading Catholic doctrines and rituals and adapting them to diverse indigenous cultures, these missionaries also devoted significant energy to more-worldly concerns, particularly the transatlantic expansion of the absolutist-era Bourbon state and the importation of the culture of elite, urban French society.
Bronwen McShea’s Apostles of Empire is a meticulously researched, elegantly written, and precisely aimed salvo intended to demolish some of historiography’s most cherished myths about the Jesuits in North America. The Jesuits who labored in French Canada from the mission’s inception in the early seventeenth century to the order’s suppression in 1773 (and beyond), McShea argues, were not the single-minded spiritual adepts memorialized by Catholic martyrologies—nor was the mission to New France as severable from imperial ambitions as traditional historiography would have it. Rather, the Jesuits “were men planted knee-deep in an untidy world of politics, social pressures, and war” (xxvii) and the Canadian mission inextricably entangled with the project of empire building for the Bourbon state.
Mary Dunn (Saint Louis University), Journal of Jesuit Studies
To illustrate the force of Bronwen McShea’s fascinating treatment of the Jesuit missions in New France, one might begin with Francis Parkman—scion of a Unitarian dynasty, Harvard horticulturist and insufferably condescending historian of French and English conflict in North America. Speaking of Sébastien Rale, S.J., the Jesuit missionary and lexicographer who labored to convert the Abenaki and died in battle with the English, Parkman writes: “In considering the ascription of martyrdom, it is to be remembered that [Rale] did not die because he was an apostle of the faith, but because he was an active agent of the…government” (i.e., of New France).
McShea demonstrates beyond cavil that this sort of distinction stumbles into, or imposes, a grievous anachronism about the Jesuit “apostles of empire,” for whom faith and polity were two inseparable aspects of the universal mission of Catholic New France, two wings on which North America might rise to attain the fullness of Christian civilization….
One comes away from the book with a sense of a lost world recovered and portrayed in loving detail. McShea has done for early modern North America and New France what Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State did for the France of the 13th century. The result is a triumph of the historian’s art.
Adrian Vermeule (Harvard Law School), America: The Jesuit Review