Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France, written by Bronwen McShea

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies
Mary Dunn Saint Louis University,

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Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Pp. xxix + 331. Hb, $60.00.

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.

In eight evenly balanced chapters, McShea follows the Jesuits from the mission’s fitful beginnings in seventeenth-century Canada to its metropolitan neglect and eventual demise in the latter third of the eighteenth century, offering en route fresh readings of numerous primary texts critical to scholarship on early modern Canada. Although the Jesuit Relations figure prominently (and predominantly) in the book, McShea treats additional sources, too, including the Letters édifiantes et curieuses (Paris, 1707–76),the Mémoires de Trévoux (Trévoux, 1703), Lafitau’s Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains (Paris, 1724), Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France (Paris, 1744), inter alia, a range that permits McShea to test her thesis across a spectrum of genres. Throughout each of the eight chapters, McShea presses her point that Jesuits like Paul LeJeune, Isaac Jogues, and Claude Dablon were not just apostles of Christ, but apostles of the French empire. Contextualized against the background of the imperial ambitions of the Bourbon state and its allies, the rhetoric of texts like the Relations and du Creux’s Historiae Canadensis reveals a vested and persistent Jesuit interest in importing to Canada not just Catholic Christianity but a certain kind of elite French culture of mercantilist and royalist persuasion. The Jesuits of New France, McShea contends, were not innocent bystanders caught up in the gears of the colonial machine but were, instead, key players committed to French crusading ambitions in the New World—even long after the metropole itself had lost interest. To lift the veil on Jesuit collusion with Bourbon imperialist ambitions, however, is not to impugn the sincerity of the Jesuit evangelical project. Indeed, one of McShea’s most powerful points in the book is that theology and politics, mission and empire, Christ and culture were not in competition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Instead, the worldly causes in which the Jesuits invested themselves were conceived of as “sanctioned by divine providence, flowing from and further reinforcing their work of Christianization” (xvi).

McShea’s argument itself—well-substantiated and persuasive—should recommend the book to historians of early Canada, as well as to those at work on the Jesuits and early modern missions at large. Apostles of Empire makes a remarkable contribution to the historiography of early modern New France, of a piece with the growing body of scholarship that probes the connection between empire and religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Readers interested in diving deep into the history of the Jesuit mission to New France, its personnel, and its fortunes as they relate to events in France, lay patronage, and the intrigues of the Bourbon court will find much in this book to relish, moreover. McShea’s masterful treatment of the Jesuit Relations and the fascinating story of its origins and end with the Cramoisy publishing house, for instance, will not disappoint. Toward the end of the book (particularly in the last chapter), McShea nearly gets lost in the forest of her own research, offering profile after profile of a handful of Jesuits who labored in the mission field toward the end of the eighteenth century with imperial interests in mind. A single illustrative example would have sufficed—and more effectively, too—but McShea should be forgiven this excess, which I imagine is only a symptom of her obvious enthusiasm for the subject.


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