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Priest And Pagan

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Men's beliefs are their most precious possessions. The gold and the furs and the tobacco of the New World were bright allurements to the western adventure; but it was the desire to keep their faith unmolested that planted the first permanent English colony on American shores, and Spanish conquistadores and French voyageurs were not more zealous for wealth and war than were the Jesuit Fathers, who followed in their foot-steps and outstayed their departure, for the Christianizing of the Red Man's pagan soul. It is to these missionary priests that we owe most of our knowledge of the Indian's native beliefs — at least, for the earlier period. They entered the wilderness to convert the savage, and accordingly it became their immediate interest to discover what religious ideas this child of nature already possessed. In their letters on the language, institutions, and ideas of the Indians, written for the enlightenment of those intending to enter the mission field, we have the first reliable accounts of Indian myth and religion.

To be sure, the Fathers did not immediately understand the aborigines. In one of the earliest of the Relations Père Lalemant wrote, of the Montagnais: "They have no form of divine worship nor any kind of prayers"; but such expressions mean simply that the missionaries found among the Indians nothing similar to their own religious practices. In the Relation of 1647-48 Père Raguenau said, writing of the Huron: "To speak truly, all the nations of these countries have received from their ancestors no knowledge of a God; and, before we set foot here, all that was related about the creation of the world consisted of nothing but myths. Nevertheless, though they were barbarians, there remained in their hearts a secret idea of the Divinity and of a first Principle, the author of all things, whom they invoked without knowing him. In the forests and during the chase, on the waters, and when in danger of shipwreck, they name him Aireskouy Soutanditenr, and call him to their aid. In war, and in the midst of their battles, they give him the name of Ondoutaete and believe that he alone awards the victory. Very frequently they address themselves to the Sky, paying it homage; and they call upon the Sun to be witness of their courage, of their misery, or of their innocence. But, above all, in treaties of peace and alliance with foreign Nations they invoke, as witnesses of their sincerity, the Sun and the Sky, which see into the depths of their hearts, and will wreak vengeance on the treachery of those who betray their trust and do not keep their word. So true is what Tertullian said of the most infidel Nations, that nature in the midst of perils makes them speak with a Christian voice, — Exclamant vocem naturaliter Christianam, — and have recourse to a God whom they invoke almost without knowing him, — Ignoto Dec."

Exclamant vocem naturaliter Christianam! Two centuries later another Jesuit, Father De Smet, uses the same expression in describing the religious feeling of the Kansa tribe: "When we showed them an Ecce Homo and a statue of our Lady of the Seven Dolours, and the interpreter explained to them that that head crowned with thorns, and that countenance defiled with insults, were the true and real image of a God who had died for love of us, and that the heart they saw pierced with seven swords was the heart of his mother, we beheld an affecting illustration of the beautiful thought of Tertullian, that the soul of man is naturally Christian!"

It is not strange, therefore, that when these same Fathers found in America myths of a creation and a deluge, of a fall from heaven and of a sinful choice bringing death into the world, they conceived that in the new-found Americans they had discovered the lost tribes of Israel.

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