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A History Of American Christianity by Leonard Woolsey Bacon


FOR a full century, from the discovery of the New World until the first effective effort at occupation by any other European people, the Spanish church and nation had held exclusive occupancy of the North American continent. The Spanish enterprises of conquest and colonization had been carried forward with enormous and unscrupulous energy, and alongside of them and involved with them had been borne the Spanish chaplaincies and missions, sustained from the same treasury, in some honorable instances bravely protesting against the atrocities they were compelled to witness, in other instances implicated in them and sharing the bloody profits of them. But, unquestionable as was the martial prowess of the Spanish soldier and adventurer, and the fearless devotion of the Spanish missionary, there appears nothing like systematic planning in all these immense operations. The tide of conquest flowed in capricious courses, according as it was invited by hopes of gold or of a passage to China, or of some phantom of a Fountain of Youth or a city of Quivira or a Gilded Man; and it seemed in general to the missionary that he could not do else than follow in the course of conquest.

It is wholly characteristic of the French people that its entering at last upon enterprises of colonization and missions should be with large forecasting of the future and with the methods of a grand strategy.

We can easily believe that the famous |Bull of Partition| of Pope Alexander VI. was not one of the hindrances that so long delayed the beginnings of a New France in the West. Incessant dynastic wars with near neighbors, the final throes of the long struggle between the crown and the great vassals, and finally the religious wars that culminated in the awful slaughter of St. Bartholomew's, and ended, at the close of the century with the politic conversion and the coronation of Henry IV. -- these were among the causes that had held back the great nation from distant undertakings: But thoughts of great things to be achieved in the New World had never for long at a time been absent from the minds of Frenchmen. The annual visits of the Breton fishing-fleets to the banks of Newfoundland kept in mind such rights of discovery as were alleged by France, and kept attention fixed in the direction of the great gulf and river of St. Lawrence. Long before the middle of the sixteenth century Jacques Cartier had explored the St. Lawrence beyond the commanding position which he named Montreal, and a royal commission had issued, under which he was to undertake an enterprise of |discovery, settlement, and the conversion of the Indians.| But it was not till the year 1608 that the first permanent French settlement was effected. With the coup d'oeil of a general or the foresight of a prophet, Champlain, the illustrious first founder of French empire in America, in 1608 fixed the starting-point of it at the natural fortress of Quebec. How early the great project had begun to take shape in the leading minds of the nation it may not be easy to determine. It was only after the adventurous explorations of the French pioneers, traders, and friars -- men of like boundless enthusiasm and courage -- had been crowned by the achievement of La Salle, who first of men traversed the two great waterways of the continent from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, that the amazing possibilities of it were fully revealed. But, whosesoever scheme it was, a more magnificent project of empire, secular and spiritual, has never entered into the heart of man. It seems to have been native to the American soil, springing up in the hearts of the French pioneer explorers themselves; but by its grandeur, and at the same time its unity, it was of a sort to delight the souls of Sully and Richelieu and of their masters. Under thin and dubious claims by right of discovery, through the immense energy and daring of her explorers, the heroic zeal of her missionaries, and not so much by the prowess of her soldiers as by her craft in diplomacy with savage tribes, France was to assert and make good her title to the basin of the St. Lawrence and the lakes, and the basin of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. From the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi, through the core of the continent, was to be drawn a cordon of posts, military, commercial, and religious, with other outlying stations at strategic points both eastward and westward. The only external interference with this scheme that could be apprehended at its inception was from the Spanish colonies, already decaying and shrinking within their boundaries to the west and to the southeast, and from a puny little English settlement started only a year before, with a doubtful hold on life, on the bank of the James River. A dozen years later a pitiably feeble company of Pilgrims shall make their landing at Plymouth to try the not hopeful experiment of living in the wilderness, and a settlement of Swedes in Delaware and of Hollanders on the Hudson shall be added to the incongruous, unconcerted, mutually jealous plantations that begin to take root along the Atlantic seaboard. Not only grandeur and sagacity of conception, but success in achievement, is illustrated by the comparative area occupied by the three great European powers on the continent of North America at the end of a century and a half from the founding of Quebec in 1608. Dividing the continent into twenty-five equal parts, the French claimed and seemed to hold firmly in possession twenty parts, the Spanish four parts, and the English one part.

The comparison between the Spanish and the French methods of colonization and missions in America is at almost every point honorable to the French. Instead of a greedy scramble after other men's property in gold and silver, the business basis of the French enterprises was to consist in a widely organized and laboriously prosecuted traffic in furs. Instead of a series of desultory and savage campaigns of conquest, the ferocity of which was aggravated by the show of zeal for the kingdom of righteousness and peace, was a large-minded and far-sighted scheme of empire, under which remote and hostile tribes were to be combined by ties of mutual interest and common advantage. And the missions, instead of following servilely in the track of bloody conquest to assume the tutelage of subjugated and enslaved races, were to share with the soldier and the trader the perilous adventures of exploration, and not so much to be supported and defended as to be themselves the support and protection of the settlements, through the influence of Christian love and self-sacrifice over the savage heart. Such elements of moral dignity, as well as of imperial grandeur, marked the plans for the French occupation of North America.

To a wonderful extent those charged with this enterprise were worthy of the task. Among the military and civil leaders of it, from Champlain to Montcalm, were men that would have honored the best days of French chivalry. The energy and daring of the French explorers, whether traders or missionaries, have not been equaled in the pioneer work of other races. And the annals of Christian martyrdom may be searched in vain for more heroic examples of devotion to the work of the gospel than those which adorn the history of the French missions in North America. What magnificent results might not be expected from such an enterprise, in the hands of such men, sustained by the resources of the most powerful nation and national church in Christendom!

From the founding of Quebec, in 1608, the expansion of the French enterprise was swift and vast. By the end of fifty years Quebec had been equipped with hospital, nunnery, seminary for the education of priests, all affluently endowed from the wealth of zealous courtiers, and served in a noble spirit of self-devotion by the choicest men and women that the French church could furnish; besides these institutions, the admirable plan of a training colony, at which converted Indians should be trained to civilized life, was realized at Sillery, in the neighborhood. The sacred city of Montreal had been established as a base for missions to the remoter west. Long in advance of the settlement at Plymouth, French Christianity was actively and beneficently busy among the savages of eastern Maine, among the so-called |neutral nations| by the Niagara, among the fiercely hostile Iroquois of northern New York, by Lake Huron and Lake Nipissing, and, with wonderful tokens of success, by the Falls of St. Mary. |Thus did the religious zeal of the French bear the cross to the banks of the St. Mary and the confines of Lake Superior, and look wistfully toward the homes of the Sioux in the valley of the Mississippi, five years before the New England Eliot had addressed the tribe of Indians that dwelt within six miles of Boston harbor.|

Thirty years more passed, bringing the story down to the memorable year 1688. The French posts, military, commercial, and religious, had been pushed westward to the head of Lake Superior. The Mississippi had been discovered and explored, and the colonies planted from Canada along its banks and the banks of its tributaries had been met by the expeditions proceeding direct from France through the Gulf of Mexico. The claims of France in America included not only the vast domain of Canada, but a half of Maine, a half of Vermont, more than a half of New York, the entire valley of the Mississippi, and Texas as far as the Rio Bravo del Norte. And these claims were asserted by actual and almost undisputed occupancy.

The seventy years that followed were years of |storm and stress| for the French colonies and missions. The widening areas occupied by the French and by the English settlers brought the rival establishments into nearer neighborhood, into sharper competition, and into bloody collision. Successive European wars -- King William's War, Queen Anne's War (of the Spanish succession), King George's War (of the Austrian succession) -- involved the dependencies of France and those of England in the conflicts of their sovereigns. These were the years of terror along the exposed northern frontier of English settlements in New England and New York, when massacre and burning by bands of savages, under French instigation and leadership, made the names of Haverhill and Deerfield and Schenectady memorable in American history, and when, in desperate campaigns against the Canadian strongholds, the colonists vainly sought to protect themselves from the savages by attacking the centers from which the murderous forays were directed. But each successive treaty of peace between England and France confirmed and reconfirmed the French claims to the main part of her American domain. The advances of French missions and settlements continued southward and westward, in spite of jealousy in European cabinets as the imposing magnitude of the plans of French empire became more distinctly disclosed, and in spite of the struggles of the English colonies both North and South. When, on the 4th of July, 1754, Colonel George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity, near the fork of the Ohio, to the French, |in the whole valley of the Mississippi, to its headsprings in the Alleghanies, no standard floated but that of France.|

There seemed little reason to doubt that the French empire in America, which for a century and a half had gone on expanding and strengthening, would continue to expand and strengthen for centuries to come. Sudden as lightning, in August, 1756, the Seven Years' War broke out on the other side of the globe. The treaty with which it ended, in February, 1763, transferred to Great Britain, together with the Spanish territory of Florida, all the French possessions in America, from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. |As a dream when one awaketh,| the magnificent vision of empire, spiritual and secular, which for so many generations had occupied the imagination of French statesmen and churchmen, was rudely and forever dispelled. Of the princely wealth, the brilliant talents, the unsurpassed audacity of adventure, the unequaled heroism of toil and martyrdom expended on the great project, how strangely meager and evanescent the results! In the districts of Lower Canada there remain, indeed, the institutions of a French Catholic population; and the aspect of those districts, in which the pledge of full liberty to the dominant church has been scrupulously fulfilled by the British government, may reasonably be regarded as an indication of what France would have done for the continent in general. But within the present domain of the United States the entire results of a century and a half of French Catholic colonization and evangelization may be summed up as follows: In Maine, a thousand Catholic Indians still remain, to remind one of the time when, as it is boldly claimed, the whole Indian population of that province were either converted or under Jesuit training. In like manner, a scanty score of thousands of Catholic Indians on various reservations in the remote West represent the time when, at the end of the French domination, |all the North American Indians were more or less extensively converted| to Catholic Christianity, |all had the gospel preached to them.| The splendid fruits of the missions among the Iroquois, from soil watered by the blood of martyrs, were wasted to nothing in savage intertribal wars. Among the Choctaws and Chickasaws of the South and Southwest, among whom the gospel was by and by to win some of its fairest trophies, the French missionaries achieved no great success. The French colonies from Canada, planted so prosperously along the Western rivers, dispersed, leaving behind them some straggling families. The abundant later growth of the Catholic Church in that region was to be from other seed and stock. The region of Louisiana alone, destined a generation later to be included within the boundaries of the great republic, retained organized communities of French descent and language; but, living as they were in utter unbelief and contempt of religion and morality, it would be an unjust reproach on Catholicism to call them Catholic. The work of the gospel had got to be begun from the foundation. Nevertheless it is not to be doubted that remote memories or lingering traditions of a better age survived to aid the work of those who by and by should enter in to rebuild the waste places.

There are not a few of us, wise after the event, who recognize a final cause of this surprising and almost dramatic failure, in the manifest intent of divine Providence that the field of the next great empire in the world's history should not become the exclusive domain of an old-world monarchy and hierarchy; but the immediate efficient causes of it are not so obvious. This, however, may justly be said: some of the seeming elements of strength in the French colonization proved to be fatal elements of weakness.

1. The French colonies had the advantage of royal patronage, endowment, and protection, and of unity of counsel and direction. They were all parts of one system, under one control. And their centers of vitality, head and heart, were on the other side of the sea. Subsisting upon the strength of the great monarchy, they must needs share its fortunes, evil as well as good. When, after the reverses of France in the Seven Years' War, it became necessary to accept hard terms of peace, the superb framework of empire in the West fell to the disposal of the victors. |America,| said Pitt, |was conquered in Germany.|

2. The business basis of the French colonies, being that of trade with the Indians rather than a self-supporting agriculture, favored the swift expansion of these colonies and their wide influence among the Indians. Scattered companies of fur-traders would be found here and there, wherever were favorable points for traffic, penetrating deeply into the wilderness and establishing friendly business relations with the savages. It has been observed that the Romanic races show an alacrity for intermarriage with barbarous tribes that is not to be found in the Teutonic. The result of such relations is ordinarily less the elevating of the lower race than the dragging down of the higher; but it tends for the time to give great advantage in maintaining a powerful political influence over the barbarians. Thus it was that the French, few in number, covered almost the breadth of the continent with their formidable alliances; and these alliances were the offensive and defensive armor in which they trusted, but they were also their peril. Close alliance with one savage clan involved war with its enemies. It was an early misfortune of the French settlers that their close friendly relations with their Huron neighbors embattled against them the fiercest; bravest, and ablest of the Indian tribes, the confederacy of the Six Nations, which held, with full appreciation of its strategic importance, the command of the exits southward from the valley of the St. Lawrence. The fierce jealousy of the Iroquois toward the allies of their hereditary antagonists, rather than any good will toward white settlers of other races, made them an effectual check upon French encroachments upon the slender line of English, Dutch, and Swedish settlements that stretched southward from Maine along the Atlantic coast.

3. In one aspect it was doubtless an advantage to the French missions in America that the sharp sectarian competitions between the different clerical orders resulted finally in the missions coming almost exclusively under the control of the Jesuit society. This result insured to the missions the highest ability in administration and direction, ample resources of various sorts, and a force of missionaries whose personal virtues have won for them unstinted eulogy even from unfriendly sources -- men the ardor of whose zeal was rigorously controlled by a more than martial severity of religious discipline. But it would be uncandid in us to refuse attention to those grave charges against the society brought by Catholic authorities and Catholic orders, and so enforced as, after long and acrimonious controversy, to result in the expulsion of the society from almost every nation of Catholic Europe, in its being stigmatized by Pope Benedict XIV., in 1741, as made up of |disobedient, contumacious, captious, and reprobate persons,| and at last in its being suppressed and abolished by Pope Clement XIV., in 1773, as a nuisance to Christendom. We need, indeed, to make allowance for the intense animosity of sectarian strife among the various Catholic orders in which the charges against the society were engendered and unrelentingly prosecuted; but after all deductions it is not credible that the almost universal odium in which it was held was provoked solely by its virtues. Among the accusations against the society which seem most clearly substantiated these two are likely to be concerned in that |brand of ultimate failure which has invariably been stamped on all its most promising schemes and efforts|: first, a disposition to compromise the essential principles of Christianity by politic concessions to heathenism, so that the successes of the Jesuit missions are magnified by reports of alleged conversions that are conversions only in name and outward form; second, a constantly besetting propensity to political intrigue. It is hardly to be doubted that both had their part in the prodigious failure of the French Catholic missions and settlements within the present boundaries of the United States.

4. The conditions which favored the swift and magnificent expansion of the French occupation were unfavorable to the healthy natural growth of permanent settlements. A post of soldiers, a group of cabins of trappers and fur-traders, and a mission of nuns and celibate priests, all together give small promise of rapid increase of population. It is rather to the fact that the French settlements, except at the seaboard, were constituted so largely of these elements, than to any alleged sterility of the French stock, that the fatal weakness of the French occupation is to be ascribed. The lack of French America was men. The population of Canada in 1759, according to census, was about eighty-two thousand; that of New England in 1754 is estimated at four hundred and twenty-five thousand. |The white population of five, or perhaps even of six, of the American provinces was greater singly than that of all Canada, and the aggregate in America exceeded that in Canada fourteenfold.| The same sign of weakness is recognized at the other extremity of the cordon of French settlements. The vast region of Louisiana is estimated, at fifty years from its colonization, at one tenth of the strength of the coeval province of Pennsylvania.

Under these hopeless conditions the French colonies had not even the alternative of keeping the peace. The state of war was forced by the mother countries. There was no recourse for Canada except to her savage allies, won for her through the influence of the missionaries.

It is justly claimed that in the mind of such early leaders as Champlain the dominant motive of the French colonization was religious; but in the cruel position into which the colony was forced it was almost inevitable that the missions should become political. It was boasted in their behalf that they had taught the Indians |to mingle Jesus Christ and France together in their affections.| The cross and the lilies were blazoned together as the sign of French dominion. The missionary became frequently, and sometimes quite undisguisedly, a political agent. It was from the missions that the horrible murderous forays upon defenseless villages proceeded, which so often marked the frontier line of New England and New York with fire and blood. It is one of the most unhappy of the results of that savage warfare that in the minds of the communities that suffered from it the Jesuit missionary came to be looked upon as accessory to these abhorrent crimes. Deeply is it to be lamented that men with such eminent claims on our admiration and reverence should not be triumphantly clear of all suspicion of such complicity. We gladly concede the claim that the proof of the complicity is not complete; we could welcome some clear evidence in disproof of it -- some sign of a bold and indignant protest against these crimes; we could wish that the Jesuit historian had not boasted of these atrocities as proceeding from the fine work of his brethren, and that the antecedents of the Jesuits as a body, and their declared principles of |moral theology,| were such as raise no presumption against them even in unfriendly minds. But we must be content with thankfully acknowledging that divine change which has made it impossible longer to boast of or even justify such deeds, and which leaves no ground among neighbor Christians of the present day for harboring mutual suspicions which, to the Christian ministers of French and English America of two hundred years ago and less, it was impossible to repress.

I have spoken of the complete extinction within the present domain of the United States of the magnificent beginnings of the projected French Catholic Church and empire. It is only in the most recent years, since the Civil War, that the results of the work inaugurated in America by Champlain begin to reappear in the field of the ecclesiastical history of the United States. The immigration of Canadian French Catholics into the northern tier of States has already grown to considerable volume, and is still growing in numbers and in stability and strength, and adds a new and interesting element to the many factors that go to make up the American church.

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