Quebec Studies

Religious Conversion in New France: The Case of Amerindians and Immigrants Compared

Quebec Studies (2005), 40, (1), 97–110.

Abstract

97 Religious Conversion in New France: The Case of Amerindians and Immigrants Compared Leslie Choquette Institut français, Assumption College In recent years, historians have begun to compare the process of religious conversion in Europe and the Americas, for example, in the volumes Croire et faire croire: les missions françaises au XVIIe siècle, by Dominique Deslandres, and Conversions: Old Worlds and New, edited by Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton.1 But there is still a need for detailed comparison of the two kinds of religious conversion that coexisted within the New World: conversion of immigrants and conversion of Amerindians. In the case of New France, the immigrants subject to conversion were all Protestants, with the exception of a few Jews. The Protestants consisted largely of French Huguenots and English captives from the French and Indian Wars, together with a small number of Swiss and German soldiers serving in the French army. The first Amerindians to be converted belonged to two large cultural and linguistic families: the Algonkians, who were Subarctic hunter-gatherers, and the Iroquoians, northeastern farmers belonging to the rival Huron and Iroquois Confederacies. As New France expanded in the seventeenth and eigh­ teenth centuries, however, French missionaries came into contact with Na­ tive peoples from most of eastern North America. By the eighteenth century, greater New France included distinct settle­ ments in the Canadian Maritimes, the St. Lawrence Valley, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi Valley. While Acadia, Canada, the Upper Country (Pays d'en haut), and Upper and Lower Louisiana, as they were called, were all strategically important to the French Empire, the heart of New France was Canada — the St. Lawrence Valley — and its capital, Québec City. This arti­ cle will concentrate on the process of conversion in Canada to the exclusion of the French settlements to the east and west. The story in those areas could be quite different due to their peripheral status and, in the case of Louisiana, a separate proprietary regime. Within Canada itself I will con­ centrate on comparing the Amerindians to the French Protestants rather than the English captives, although the particular case of the captives (nearly half of all Protestant converts) certainly deserves attention. I will also focus on the process of conversion as seen through the eyes of the mis­ sionaries rather than their converts, whether European or American. Since a single essay cannot do justice to the conversions of New France in all their multiplicity, my goal here is simply to lay the groundwork and suggest some directions for future research. Converting Huguenots, unlike converting Natives, was never a cen­ tral enterprise in the Canadian colony. Although it was viewed as a neces­ sity, it was a peripheral, even a shameful one. For Cardinal Richelieu, Canada was a kind of laboratory of absolutism and religious conformity. His charter for the colony, which was ratified outside of La Rochelle during Québec Studies, Volume 40, Fall 2005/Winter 2006

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Choquette, Leslie