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Jesuits in War

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by John P. Rodriguez



           The Jesuit Order was founded to be soldiers for Christ as part of the counter-reformation.  They took on the role of missionaries in both Protestant Europe and the heathen New World.  However, in the forests of North America the soldiers of Christ became soldiers for France in the imperialistic wars for control of North America.

            The Jesuits did not actively participate in fighting themselves.   But they did accompany many military expeditions, and the numerous Jesuits who fell during the various conflicts attest to their presence on the battlefield.  Jesuits accompanied French military forces in the role of Chaplains.  They accompanied Native war parties as representatives of France as well as God.  The Jesuits were also an important force in gaining and maintaining military alliances with Native tribes. 

            One of the most important roles the Jesuits played in North American wars was to persuade their respective tribes to take up the hatchet against the English.  The climactic conflict of this era was the Seven Years War (1754-1762).  Prior to this conflict the French were able to build up a highly effective system of alliances with the Native peoples of Canada.  These Indians can be broken into three broad groups.  One was the Christianized Mission Indians that resided around the French cities of Montreal and Quebec in the St. Lawrence valley.  A second were the pays d’en haut of the upper Great Lakes Basin.  The final group was the western Indians of the Ohio Country such as the Shawnee and Mingo. 

            The pays d’en haut tribes consisted primarily of refugees from the Algonquian language groups (Anderson 14).  These tribes were traditional enemies of the famed Iroquois Confederacy, and they had been driven from their homelands by Iroquois aggression.  Now these fragmented groups came under the influence of French missionaries and traders.  The Jesuits became fatherly figures who mediated disputes and rewarded the Natives with gifts (Anderson 15).  Through these actions the French forged a strong alliance with these tribes.  These new alliances also forced the Iroquois to re-evaluate their situation and they began to move towards neutrality in an attempt to play the various European countries off one another.

            An example of Jesuits accompanying Native war parties is the Marquis de Montcalm’s assault upon Fort William Henry in 1757.  Fort William Henry was built upon the southern shore of Lake George, and it was the English post defending the main approach to the Hudson River Valley.  The drive on Fort William Henry is also an example of the French success at recruiting Native allies.  As many as 2,000 Indian warriors assembled to aid Montcalm in his attack (Anderson 187).  Several Jesuits accompanied the army; one was a missionary to the Catholic Abenaki (JR 70:91).  As soon as he arrived the Father said a mass for his Abenaki in which he exhorted the duties of a warrior.  A mass was also said before the men took to their batuex and canoes for the trip to the Fort. 

Many different tribes had gathered for this expedition and many from the pays d’en haut had not fully accepted Christianity, so the Jesuits were anxious that their Natives not abandon their faith in the presence of such peoples.  Towards this end the Jesuits held mass every evening as the army moved en route to their foe.  They also held mass and confessions on the eve of the attack.    

The Jesuits witnessed several atrocities while at Fort William Henry.  However, one father could not bring himself to try to halt the murders.  Others did make attempts to save certain English prisoners (JR 70:127).  After the massacre the overwhelming majority of the Indians left Montcalm.  Their goal had been achieved; they had scalps and a victory.  However, 300 of the Catholic Abenaki stayed their ground in part because of the urging of their Jesuits.  

Jesuit chaplains accompanied regular French forces and Coureurs de bois in their missions against the English and their Indian allies.  The relief column sent to the besieged Fort Niagara in July, 1759 benefited from this service (JR 70:251).  Unfortunately for the French, their force was defeated and the ill-fated Father Virot was captured by the Iroquois and subsequently killed.  Jesuits accompanying the Fort William Henry expedition enjoyed the confidence of Monsieur Marquis de Montcalm, and they were able to meet with him.  Various Jesuits also meet with Monsieur the Chevalier de Levi, Montcalm’s second in command, as he camped near the fort (JR 70:119).

The most loyal and dedicated Native tribes for the French were the Christianized mission Indians of the St. Lawrence.  The Jesuits were instrumental in the lives of these Indians, and the Jesuits also brought their Indians onto the side of France in the many colonial conflicts.  An excellent example of this is Father Rale and the Abenaki.  The Abenaki and French were such close allies that Rale even wrote to French authorities requesting that they support the Abenaki in a conflict they were waging against the English (JR 67:55).  The English had been attempting to win over the Abenaki buy offering better trade terms than the French.  However, the Abenaki were too devoted to their Catholic faith to be won over.  Governor Vaudreuil wrote Rale instructing him to tell the Abenaki that “not to allow the English on their land, they must not hesitate to drive them therefrom as soon as possible, by every kind of means” (JR 67:63).  Vaudreuil also promised to send the Abenaki all the ammunition they would need.  I find that it is very interesting that such military and political matters are being conveyed through a missionary.  One would think that a priest would be neutral in any conflict.  But, if you think of the religious conflicts of this time it is not as surprising as one would think.  Rale would not have viewed the conflict between the French and English or Abenaki and English as a matter of competing Imperialistic powers.  He would have viewed it as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants.  The Jesuits were founded to be soldiers for Christ and for Catholicism.  Therefore, they would not view aiding military endeavors as counter to their mission.  Father Rales proved to be such an obstacle to English expansion that the English decided to murder him.  One of their first attempts failed as Rales was able to escape just in time.  The English made a second attempt and attacked his village with several hundred soldiers and warriors taking the Abenaki by surprise (JR 67:233).  Rales could have fled as the warriors fought a delaying action, but instead he walked forward towards the enemy in an attempt to stop the fighting and save his flock.  However, as he walked forward the enemy let loose a volley of musket fire towards Rale striking him dead at the foot of a large cross in the middle of the village (JR 67:233-235).  Rale had found the martyrdom that he had sought for so long.     

In the colonial wars over North America, the Jesuits in addition to fulfilling the traditional roles for Priest also took a more active role in defending France’s foothold in America.  The Jesuits acted as Chaplains with the French regulars which is a traditional role for Priests in wartime.  However, Jesuit missionaries were also active in proselytizing among the Native peoples and bringing them onto the side of the French in the many conflicts that raged during this period.  The Jesuits also accompanied their Indians, particularly the Mission Indians, on raids and expeditions.  In this role they were both acting as Chaplains and also as representatives of the French government in directly their Indians against the English and their allies.      




Anderson, Fred.  Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2000.


Eccles, W.J.  The Canadian Frontier: 1534-1760.  Hinsdale, Illinois:  The Dryden Press Inc., 1969.


Parkman, Francis.  The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century.  Boston:  Little, Brown, and Co., 1905.


Starkey, Armstrong.  European and Native American Warfare: 1675-1815.  Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.





The Marquis de Montcalm
Montcalm was one of the best French commanders in the 7 Years War.

Battle of the Monongahela, 1755
Indian fighters were crucial to the French and were experts in forest warfare.

Fort William Henry
The Fort was surrendered after being invested by a French and Indian force under Montcalm.

Map of Fort William Henry
Fort William Henry was located at the Southern Shore of Lake George.

Father Sebastian Rale S.J. Monument
Father Rale was killed on August 23rd 1724 in an English attack upon his Indian village.


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