A secret Sentiment. (Devils and gods in 17th century New France)”

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Pierrette Désy

Spécialiste en histoire et en ethnologie

Professeure retraité du département d’histoire de l’UQÀM.

A Secret Sentiment.

(Devils and gods in
17th century New France)”

Un document produit en version numérique par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole,

professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi

Courriel: jean-marie_tremblay@uqac.ca

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Cette édition électronique a été réalisée par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole, professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi à partir de :

Pierrette Désy
A secret sentiment (Devils and gods in 17th century New France)”.
Un article publié dans la revue History and Anthropology, vol. 3, 1987, pp.83-121. Great Britain.
[Autorisation formelle accordée par l’auteure le 8 septembre 2007 de diffuser cet article dans Les Classiques des sciences sociales.]
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Pierrette Désy

Spécialiste en histoire et en ethnologie

Professeure retraité du département d’histoire de l’UQÀM.
A secret sentiment
(Devils and gods in 17th century New France)
Un article publié dans la revue History and Anthropology, vol. 3, 1987, pp.83-121. Great Britain.
In the course of the seventeenth century, ideas concerning the beliefs of Canadian Indians underwent a slow process of modification. Chroniclers at the beginning of the century, influenced by those who, the century before, had flatly declared a number of Indian nations to be "faithless, kingless and lawless," continued to describe them pejoratively. However, as they gradually came to see that the Indians were not irreligious, their declarations grew increasingly contradictory. An attentive reading of documents left by missionaries and explorers reveals that towards the middle of the seventeenth century - at a time when, in Europe, conceptions of witchcraft and religion were changing - the observation of American facts became more nuanced. The discovery of a "false religion" launched the debate as to whether or not the Indians had preserved a secret sentiment of God.
Were the Indians monotheistic or polytheistic ? At the beginning of the twentienth century, Paul Radin was to take up the question and propose a tertium quid - namely that the Indians had practised monolatry or henotheism.


In order to understand what the notion of polytheism signifies in the 17th century, I have read the chroniclers of this period and sought their comments on that subject. Because I wanted to give my subject a certain unity I have limited myself to one region : New France and the East coast of North America. I have sometimes had the impression of conducting a veritable ethnohistorical investigation of the chroniclers so as to discover the way they perceived the "superfluous religion" (that is, full of superstitions). Even had I wished, I could not have found the word polytheism in their writings, since the word does not belong to the usual vocabulary of the 17th century chroniclers (on this subject, see Schmidt, 1985 : 84-88), even though what they describe often corresponds to it. On the other hand, what stands out (with exceptions, as we will see), is their insistent denial that the Amerindians possessed any religion or beliefs at all. How is such total negation possible ? Influenced by the prejudices of the preceding century, marked by such a concise expression as sans foi, sans roi, sans loi (no faith, no king, no law) which would become in time an accepted concept, the chroniclers applied themselves to demonstrating, with more or less success, not what was, but what was not. Fortunately, their thesis was difficult to defend, and because they wanted so much to prove it, they constantly contradicted themselves, even going so far as to give strikingly beautiful descriptions of the "false religion."
I have therefore structured my article around a fundamental and highly ambiguous 17th century question : do the Indians have a religion, and if so, to what category (or categories) does it belong ? Given that Lafitau, in his work Les Moeurs (1724), constructs a powerful indictment against the Jesuits of the preceding century, I will begin with this author. The following sections are devoted to recurrent and typical themes of the 17th century : since the Indians lived in a state of total ignorance, it should have been easy for the missionaries to instill the precepts of the "true Religion". However there were important obstacles : did the Devil not hold sway over the whole of Amerindian society, and did the sorcerers not communicate with him ? This Manichean vision of the American world led the chroniclers to oscillate constantly between the notions of Good and Evil, and to grant the Devil a supremacy of position such that any religious manifestation would be directly inspired by him. As the century unfolded, and especially after 1640 - a period when a change in mentality towards sorcery and the devil occurred in France - our chroniclers were eventually seized by doubt, and no longer dared to put forward with such assurance the opinions they earlier affirmed so peremptorily. Although they continued to repeat that the Indians had no religion, they destroyed the effect of their negation by relating it to descriptions of religious rites. Thus they discovered that the Indians, not being "irreligious," could not be atheists. Some had religious beliefs, others a "false religion" ; consequently, the tabula rasa remained in their imagination. In the final analysis, the missionaries would be faced with a serious problem of conscience : if the Indians had been able to create for themselves different gods, why, among all these deities would they not choose a single One ? Actually, the idea that the Indians, corrupted by the Fall, were nevertheless molded from the same clay as all of humanity, had never been altogether absent from the minds of the chroniclers. The Indians must necessarily have had the notion of a First Principle, an innate idea of God. Upon reflection, it was seen that these "people miserable as beggars but absolutely superb" (Ragueneau) nourished a "secret sentiment."
As will become evident my conclusion is inspired by Paul Radin, who for many years studied the Amerindian religions, concerning himself particularly with the question of whether or not the Indians were polytheists. Radin (1915, 1924, 1937, 1954) does not draw his conclusions from the chroniclers but from ethnographic works of the 19th and 20th centuries, including his own. Although I doubt he ever found a definitive answer to his quest, he proposed nonetheless a tertium quid. the Indians could be monolatrist or henotheist, a kind of middle path between monotheism and polytheism which borrows characteristics from both.
In order to concentrate on the historiography of ideas during the 17th century, I have purposely excluded all ethnographic analysis from my study. Indeed, borrowing from modern ethnological discourse could have led to the danger of overshadowing the chroniclers' thinking by replying on their behalf After all, studies on this subject do exist. I have also excluded 18th century writings. Likewise, I could not retain certain late 17th century chronicles concerning the expeditions of La Salle, Jolliet, Marquette and Hennepin in the valley of the Mississippi, simply because I had to reduce the scope of my research. One last word : the 17th century chronicles do not necessarily reveal a constant evolution of one or several ideas. From Biard, Champlain and Lescarbot, from Sagard, Le jeune and Lalemant to Le Clercq, Allouez and Ragueneau - three groups of authors who represent different moments in the century - the same ideas appear frequently. However, an attentive reading permits one to discern several key concepts and to follow their evolution 1.

In addition to the Savages' concept of a primal Being whom they identify with the Sun, they have that also of still other spirits or demons... Thus they are truly Idolaters
(Lafitau, 1724 : 145-146 & 1974 : 113-114).

In his work, Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains, comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps, Fraçois-Joseph Lafitau tried to demonstrate what to him was an evident truth : "Men need a religion" (1974 : 109). With just cause, he reproaches his 17th century Jesuit colleagues for being contradictory on the subject of the American "Barbarians," claiming, on the one hand, that they had neither cult nor divinity and on the other hand, a divinity and a regulated cult, adding !hat even "Mr Bayle himself has observed" this discrepancy (1724 : 5-6). As a consequence of errors made in the past, Lafitau would very much like to destroy once and for all "the false idea given by authors of the Indian ... and prove this unanimity of opinion among all nations, showing that, indeed, there is none so barbarous as to have no Religion or sanctioned customs" (1974 : 29). For Lafitau, human nature and religious convictions are the same everywhere in the world. Monogenist and diffusionist by conviction, he assumes the first Americans came from Asia. Initially, all men shared the same beliefs, but after they had travelled a long time and they had arrived at the end of the earth, their original ideas had degenerated to the point where they had forgotten the true God (1724 : 93).
During the 18th century, the idea of the corruption and the Fall was already ancient. Numerous are the authors who, during the Renaissance, tried to resolve the problem of the origin of the Indians, and who disagreed on the question of monogenism and polygenism (cf. Gliozzi, 1977 : 331-347) when they were not arguing about whether or not the Aristotelian notion of savagery preceded that of civilization (cf. Hodgen, 1971 : 308). For example, Urbain Chauveton, of whom Montaigne was an assiduous reader (cf. Chinard, 1978 : 197-201), wrote in 1579 in his preface to Benzoni's La Historia del Mondo Nuovo : "Thus the Malediction in which those Nations are immured is nothing more than that shared by the whole human race, the malediction into which mankind plunged first with the transgression of Adam, then with those sins added by each person when Men, having successfully extinguished even the little natural light remaining to them, refused to acknowledge and glorify God, even though He revealed Himself to them ... It is the all-embracing curse under which live all those who do not believe in the Gospel..." (1579 : iij) 2.
As for the origin of the Americans, one can say that it is based on a geographical imbroglio : whereas Columbus believed he had discovered Cathay, an error that was soon recognised, Bartolomé de las Casas, at the beginning of his Historia de las Indias (1527), writes that the American lands are part of the Orient (Scaliogne, 1976 : 65). From this, to affirm that these peoples came from the Orient was but a step, one which Chauveton, as a precursor, did not hesitate to take : "It is indeed more apparent, if one must take conjecture for truth, that those peoples belong to the East Indies, which I suppose to be contiguous with and joined to the West Indies ... Since it is certain that the earth was neither peopled nor inhabited all at once, either before the Deluge or after it, but as the people bred and multiplied, they pushed forward little by little until all the face of the earth was covered with men" (1579 : ij).
Lafitau's predecessors in Canada were less eloquent than Chauveton on this subject, and their hypotheses conformed to the ideas current at that time. This is not the place to quote all of them, but we can recall what Marc Lescarbot, lawyer in the Parliament of Paris, wrote after his voluntary exile in Acadia (1606-07). In his chapter, "Conjectures on the peopling of the West Indies & consequently of New France herein included," he recalls that several authors "have racked their brains to discover the manner whereby it can have been peopled after the Deluge" (vol. 1, 1907 : 43). According to Lescarbot, who liked to quote from the Wisdom of Solomon (although not a Huguenot, Lescarbot borrows from the Geneva Bible), the Indians descended from a race of Ham come to these lands by God's punishment. He sees evidence in the fact that the Canaanites were formerly anthropophagi as were certain peoples of America. He adds : "... although formerly they had some knowledge of God, little by little it disappeared, for lack of teachers, as we see happened in this hemisphere shortly after the Deluge" (44).
As we can see if Lafitau's views were orthodox according to the general perceptions of his time, and even in terms of certain authors of the 16th and 17th centuries (Hodgen, 1971 : 268), he had the virtue, unlike his predecessors, of being the first to construct a genuine system whose elements were articulated in a logical manner (Fenton & Moore, 1974 : x1vii). Convinced that God had inscribed the true religion on the hearts of all men, he quotes Saint Augustine : "... that it is not from the Gentiles that we have taken the idea of monarchy (that IS to say of the unity of God) but ... the Gentiles have not so delivered themselves to their false divinities that they have lost the belief in a unique and veritable God, who is the author of all nature of whatever sort it may be" (1974 : 98). Thus, for Lafitau the religion of the Americans was the result of a degeneration : if they were idolaters then, it was not so much because the idea of monarchy had been forgotten as because it had been corrupted by other beliefs. Here I deliberately offer this simplified version of a much more complex thought. It nonetheless reflects Lafitau's advanced thinking : the Indians already had an idea of the unity of God because, like the Ancients, they had conserved "vestiges", and employed "strong and forceful expressions" to designate "the Great Spirit, sometimes the Master and Author of Life" (1974 : 98). These, however, neither prevented them from having erred, exactly like the Ancients (1724 : 456), nor from paying homage to inferior gods which they never confused with "this superior Being" even though they may have given them the same name (1724 : 145).
If one reads attentively my initial quotation from Lafitau, one realizes that for him, the idea of the corruption of the monarchy is not without hope of being reformed. On this subject, moreover, William Fenton and Elizabeth Moore demonstrate in their authoritative preface to the American edition of Les Moeurs (1974) how Lafitau was influenced by two 17th century bishops and theologians, Huet and Bossuet. They further argue that Bossuet, in his Discours Sur l'Histoire Universelle (1681) - himself following Jean Bodin's model - showed Lafitau the way : the Bishop of Meaux divided history into three periods, including "les premiers temps" preceding the universal Flood. In addition, he showed how the corruption of the monarchy was due to several factors including "the spirit which corrupted the first man, the old theory of demonology, Sun Worship (Sabaism), and worship of the authors of inventions useful to human life (a utilitarian variant of Euhemerism)" (1974 : liv) 3.
According to Lafitau, one finds among the American nations an intrinsic inneity, that is, an innate belief in God (1724-110), and in spite of "ignorance, superstition and corruption... which they conspired to destroy, the essential article, that is the belief in a religion and a supreme Being, remains always invariable" (1974 : 93). Lafitau then goes on to incriminate atheists like La Hontan who "has a Savage talk about Religion" (cf. La Hontan, 1703 et Roelens, 1973) in a manner that "leads to conclusions contrary to Religion itself' (1974 : 94) ; he sees him as one of those libertines who "would wish others to have no more Religion than they" (ibid.), or who like Bayle or Locke 4, are persuaded "that barbarian peoples have no awareness of religion" (1724 : 110), because according to them the origin of the divine cult is to be found in legislation. Perhaps Lafitau is also thinking of Lescarbot "who doesn't miss a thing" (436) and who said that religion "is the bond which keeps nations at peace, and is, as it were, the pivot of the State" (vol. 1, 1907 : 181), again repeating that "it is the most solid foundation for a State, containing in itself justice, and consequently all the virtues" (194).
Although Lafitau was undeniably subject to influences, he also had personal reasons for believing that all men conceive the fundamental idea of the existence of God. He became convinced of that at the time of a sojourn with the Iroquois of Saint-Louis-du-Sault (near Montréal) where he discovered religious ceremonies whose founding myths told how cultural heroes brought benefits to humanity. In the same way his reading of the Relations, written in the 17th century, and from which he borrows copiously in writing Les Moeurs, allowed him to compare the religious rituals with those of other Amerindian nations. He deduced from such comparisons that these religions were but degenerate forms of the true Religion, which is as ancient as Moses, and existed at the time of the universal Flood an event that has remained engraved in the collective memory. Because they shared common characteristics, all religions necessarily had the same origin, all the more so since this is due to divine will (Fenton & Moore, 1974 : lxxvi-lxxvii).
One of Lafitau's major ideas, inspired no doubt by his stay in Saint-Louis-du-Sault, was that Religion permeates everything (1724 : 17) since it is linked to every act of social and cultural life. At the beginning of the 18th century, one could scarcely be more resolutely modern. For the same reason Lafitau rose up vigorously against the current of negativism towards the Americans, a current that was very powerful and which still persisted into the 18th century. One can even assert that Lafitau was led by it to write his work. He makes his purpose clear in his Dessein & Plan : "I have seen, with extreme distress, in most of the travel narratives, that those who have written of the customs of primitive peoples have depicted them to us as people without any sentiment of religion, knowledge of a divinity or object to which they rendered any cult, as people without law, social control or any form of government ; in a word, as people who have scarcely anything except the appearance of men" (1974 : 28-29).
Lafitau fought even more strongly against this idea because, during his life, many Indians of Eastern Canada, such as the Abenaki, had already been converted (1724 : 387). This also implied, in Lafitau's view, that it was urgent for him to write on the universal sense of Religion. The information he needed to compose the American part of his work was mostly contained in the Jesuit Relation (see Thwaites, ed.). One of the most striking aspects of the 17th century chroniclers is their rationalist side : they attempt to explain everything on the strength of irrecusable principles, and they condemn strangeness as a production of sensation and deficiency.

The cause is that these Savages have no formal religion, no magistrature or regulations, no arts either liberal or mechanical, no commerce and no civil life...
(Father Biard to Father Balthazar, Prov., January 31 1612, in Campeau, (doc. 78 1-5) 1967 : 230)

Already current in the 16th century, the negative mode of description did not fail to impress the chroniclers of the following century, who remained profoundly Europocentric (cf. Hodgen, 1971 : 196-201) : Indians were perceived primarily in terms of what they did not have in relation to Europeans.
In 1548, the young Étienne de La Boétie, in the Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, speaks of these "new people" who "live without faith, without king, without law," where man is "without law, without emperor, and each man is his own master" (in Clastres, 1976 : 245). In 1580, in his famous Essay Des Cannibales, Montaigne goes even further, demonstrating in a long series of negations that "Savages" share with Europeans, even a contrario, the "identity of the human spirit," to borrow an expression from Gilbert Chinard (1911 : 209) 5.
But Montaigne had a predecessor in the person of Chauveton who, in his Preface to Benzoni's La Historia and in the "Discours" strewn throughout the translation, writes ironically about the Indians' supposed deficiency 6 : "What, they go about naked and are not ashamed ? To do so is worthy more of simplicity and innocence than of malediction ... They sacrifice men. So, formerly, did the French and Germans, who offered up human victims to their false gods ... and we would do the same ourselves if God had not delivered us from the Tyranny of the Devil" (1579 : iij). And Chauveton again asks himself. "Because what are we of ourselves, if not what they are ? Poor, blind, naked, idolatrous, devoid of all good and all vice" (iij) ? In his "Discours sur le XXVI chapitre", he does not hesitate to criticize the attitude of contemporary Christians who, in contrast to the Indians, had received the Revelation and therefore could not - like them - find any excuses for "adoring the Devil in visible form" (305). He hastens to denounce "what manner of individuals one must endure today in Christendom. Such as Poisoners, Massacrers, Blasphemers, Apostates, Atheists, Naturalists, Libertines, Lucianists, Simoniacs, Pantagruelists, Necromancers, Enchanters, Sodomites, Epicurians, Sardanapalists, careless Children, Swine who fatten themselves at the expense of the Church. Because which God is this, I beg to ask you, that all those good people adore, if not the one Saint Paul calls God of the World ?" (306). Addressed exclusively to Europeans, this long citation has a familiar ring : in fact, except for the charges concerning "Atheists and Swine", we find exactly the same accusations or the same sentiments applied to the Indians in the 17th century Relations. This is a strange inversion and unconscious projection, purporting to describe accursed humanity. Further on we will see how the Indians escaped suspicion of being atheists : in fact, the contrary would be difficult, since they were supposed to be without a God and without a religion. However, when the missionaries questioned them to know if they had a false religion, they could still escape any accusation of atheism.

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