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The Canadian Martyrs
Anabaptists and Roman Catholics never allowed controversy over doctrine to obscure their zeal in fulfilling the Lord's mandate of evangelism.

"Into your hands, O Lord, we commend our spirits."

Protestants who are quick to defend the 16th-century Reformation leaders—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger. Beza—are equally ready to explain why these theological giants seemed completely unconcerned with mission. The usual explanation is that they were preoccupied with forging doctrine—doctrine that demanded to be re-written in view of some Roman Catholic teaching which they deemed to obscure the Gospel.

… mainline Protestants can only admit and lament the puzzling blind spot that their Reformation foreparents possessed …

Today everyone admits that the Church urgently needed reforming. The extent to which doctrinal re-articulation had to match institutional cleansing, however, is a matter of opinion. Beyond dispute is the fact that other "families" within the Church at this time, such as the Anabaptists ( whose descendants are the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish), as well as Roman Catholics, whose Counter-Reformation found them as concerned with doctrine as the most zealous Reformer, never allowed controversy to eclipse their conviction concerning their Lord's mandate. Always aware of Christ's claim upon them and His command to "Go and make disciples of all the nations," and newly aided by improvements in navigation, Anabaptists and Catholics obediently went into the mission field to bear witness to their Lord.

It appears, then, that mainline Protestants can only admit and lament the puzzling blind spot that their Reformation foreparents alone possessed amidst all the parties who staggered through the Reformation's upheavals. The Mennonites sent missioners into Central and South America. The Roman Catholics sent them everywhere, westward to the Americas and eastward to India, and even to Japan. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (The Society of Jesus), had prepared his men to be the leading edge of the Church's mission to areas that were always difficult, frequently dangerous and occasionally lethal.

Jean de Brebeuf
Jean de Brebeuf

Just as visions had been crucial in the spiritual formation and vocation of Loyola 100 years earlier, visions would be no less crucial in the spiritual life of missioner and people: Jean de Brebeuf was privileged to "see" one night, in his comfortable life in France, a flaming cross suspended above the Huron encampment in the New World. Thereafter he never doubted what he was to do or why.

Modem anthropologists think it likely that the Hurons were originally an Iroquois tribe, albeit isolated from the five tribes comprising the Iroquois confederacy: Cayugas, Oneidas, Onanadagas, Senecas and Mohawks. Eventually the Iroquois and Hurons were at war.

When the first Caucasian to visit the Hurons, 18-yearold Etienne Brule, came among them in 1613, they were 30,000-strong. Slaughter at the hands of the Iroquois and devastation through European diseases had reduced their number to 12,000 by 1639, the year the Jesuit missions began.

Unordained missioners (donnes), who devoted themselves to assisting the Jesuits, erected Ste. Marie, the compound at present-day Midland, which consisted of a chapel, a storeroom and a hospital. Soon the Gospel radiated from Ste. Marie to four other mission outposts, the farthest being St. Jean de Baptiste, adjacent to Orillia. The work was exacting, the black flies and other pests were oppressive, the summers were hot and the Georgian Bay winters were biting. The threat from the Iroquois was relentless. On account of the latter, the trip to Quebec City, the capital of New France, saw paddlers labouring upstream, north to French River, east to the Ottawa, then down to the St. Lawrence. A one-way trip took 22 days.

Rene Goupil was the first of the eight Canadian martyrs. Trained in medicine and surgery, Goupil withdrew from the Jesuit training program in France because he was deaf. Offering himself as a lay missionary, he was assigned to Huronia. While returning from Quebec City, he and his party were overrun by the Iroquois at Trois Rivières, where most of the men perished. The remaining few were taken to upstate New York and were tortured for days. A tomahawk ended Goupil's life in September 1642.

The best-known missionary martyrs are Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant. Born in Normandy in 1593, Brebeuf began studying for the priesthood in Rouen, France. By 1626 he was ministering to aboriginal people in a village on Penetanguishene Bay (Ontario). Because of treaty disputes between the French and the English, he had to return to France, though five years later he was once again back among the Huron people. Blamed by the Natives for crop failures and Iroquois victories, Brebeuf was beaten repeatedly by the people to whom he had given himself. In March 1649, 1200 Iroquois captured the mission station at St. Louis (ten kilometres from Ste. Marie).

All of us, whatever our nationality, are possessed of murderous hearts—as history attests time and again.

Lalemant, born to the scholarly world of 17th-century Paris, entered the Jesuit novitiate as a teenager and was ordained nine years later in Bourgues. His intellectual brilliance gained him a position as Professor of Philosophy at Moulins. Not content with academic life, however, the slightly built man begged his superiors to send him over-seas to join his two uncles, Fathers Jerome and Charles, who were in charge of all Roman Catholic missions in New France. An uncle posted him to Quebec City, and eventually, succumbing to Lalemant's importuning, moved him to Huronia. Lalemant had been working alongside Brebeuf for only one month when he was captured by the same raiding party. Both men were repeatedly tortured, one torment being a "baptism" in boiling water. In March 1649, both men found release in death. As soon as the Iroquois returned home, French traders gathered up the martyrs' remains and buried them at Ste. Marie.

What I have written here in no way suggests uncommon cruelty among the First Nations people, nor does it deny the manner in which Europeans subsequently victimized the Native people. It does confirm, nonetheless, a truth that Scripture announces on every page: All humans are alike creatures of the Fall. All, no matter what nationality, are possessed of murderous hearts—as history attests time and again. The martyred missionaries knew something more: All, without exception, are beneficiaries of the One whose outstretched arms embraced eight brave men, and through them embraced, without reservation, Huron, Iroquois, French and English—all of whom may call, "Lord, remember me."

Dr: Victor Shepherd is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto. Author of six books, he maintains a website at

Originally published in the Fellowship Magazine, September 2002.




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