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Another Side to a Sometime-Sorry Story
We deplore the abuse aboriginal children suffered in church-run schools, but we should remember the sacrifice of others who first shared the Gospel with the First Nation people.

All Canadians are angry at the abuse aboriginal children were made to suffer at the hands of church-run schools throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.  All Canadian Christians are humiliated by the reports of sexual exploitation, physical torment and psychological coercion.  Disgust concerning those who disgraced themselves and degraded those entrusted to them is the proper reaction of all who remain sensitive to the vulnerability of children and helpless parents.

Mission inheres the Gospel as surely as it is the property of fire to burn.

At the same time the story of the church’s mission to Canada’s First Nation peoples scintillates with self-forgetful Christians whose love for their Lord and his truth, together with their commitment to natives whose wellbeing they were pledged to pursue, moved them to forego ease, endure hardship, and even bear that witness (‘martys’) which rendered them a martyr.

Christians of all eras, rooted in the apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ, have always known that mission is an aspect of the Gospel.  Evangelism is never an add-on and never an option.  Mission inheres the Gospel as surely as it is the property of fire to burn. For this reason the church has never lacked those whose faith and obedience found them visited with a vocation to serve Christ wherever their Lord had appointed them.  Understandably, missionaries appeared as readily as sea-routes to the New World opened up.

By mid-17th century courageous men and women offered themselves for missionary service aware that if Jesus Christ wasn’t Bread of Life for all people everywhere then neither was he Bread of Life for anyone anywhere, European privileged included.  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, Christians obediently moved out to bear witness to their Lord.

Mennonites, for instance, sent missioners into Central and South America.  The Roman Catholics sent them everywhere, westward to the Americas and eastward to India, even farther to Japan.  Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (“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.

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

Modern 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 Etienne Brule, the 18-year-old who was the first Caucasian to visit the Hurons, came upon them in 1613, they were 30,000-strong.  Slaughter at the hands of the Iroquois and devastation through European disease had reduced their number to 12,000 in 1639, the year the Jesuit missions commenced.

Unordained missioners (donnes) who devoted themselves to assisting the Jesuits erected Ste. Marie, the compound consisting of a chapel, a storeroom and a hospital.  Soon the gospel radiated from Ste. Marie to four other mission outposts, the farthest, St. Jean de Baptiste, adjacent to Orillia.    The work was exacting; the black flies and other pests oppressive; the summers hot and the Georgian Bay winters biting; and of course the threat from the Iroquois 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 the Ottawa and St. Lawrence.  A one-way trip took 22 days.

Rene Goupil was the first of the eight Christian martyrs.  Trained in medicine and surgery, Goupil withdrew from the Jesuit training program in France on account of his deafness.  Offering himself as a lay missionary, he found himself assigned to Huronia.  While returning from Quebec City he and his party were overrun at Trois Rivieres.  Most of the men perished on the spot.  The Iroquois took the remaining few to upstate New York and tortured them for days.  A tomahawk ended his 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.)  On account of treaty disputes between the French and the English he had to return to France, only to find himself, five years later, among the Huron people once again.  Blamed for crop failures and Iroquois victories, Brebeuf was beaten repeatedly by the people to whom he had given himself.  In March 1649, twelve hundred Iroquois capture the mission station at St. Louis (ten kilometres from Ste. Marie.) 

Lalemant, born to the scholarly world of Seventeenth 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 overseas to join his two uncles, Fathers Jerome and Charles, who were in charge at that time of all Roman Catholic missions in New France.  An uncle posted him to Quebec City, eventually succumbing to Lalemant’s importuning and moving him to Huronia.  Lalemant had been working alongside Brebeuf for only one month when he too was captured by the same raiding party.  Both men were tortured repeatedly, one torment being a “baptism” in boiling water.  In March 1649 the two men found release in death.  As soon as the Iroquois returned home, French traders gathered up their remains and buried them at Ste. Marie.

None of what has been written above suggests in any way uncommon cruelty among the First Nations People.  None of it denies 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 are possessed of murderous hearts -- as history attests time and again.  The martyred missionaries knew something more: all without exception are beneficiaries the One whose outstretched arms embraced eight brave men, and through them embraced without reservation Huron, Iroquois, French, English.

While the dark side of the church’s undertaking on behalf of aboriginal people is appalling, the dark side born of institutional treachery doesn’t eclipse the light of him who is light and life and love.  Neither does it besmirch the love and labour of those missioners of whom it was truly said, “The very spring of our actions is the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:16 – J.B.Phillips).  In remembering all such servants of Jesus Christ we must insist that the final word of all for whom the Saviour died – caucasian as well as aboriginal – can only be the word of a condemned sinner who could only plead, “Lord, remember me,” and who was granted unimaginably more than he deserved.

Dr. Victor Shepherd is Professor Ordinarius at the University of Oxford (U.K.), as well as Adjunct Professor at Wycliffe College, Trinity College and Regis College, University of Toronto. He is the author of nine books, and he belongs to numerous professional societies, including the Calvin Studies Society, the Canadian Philosophical Association, the Presbyterian Church History Society in Canada, the Canadian Methodist Historical Society, the Sixteenth Century Studies Society, the Karl Barth Society of North America, the Toronto Renaissance and Reformation Colloquium, The Writers' Union of Canada, and PEN Canada.His web site is (

Originally published in Fellowship Magazine, September 2002. Additions by the author, June 2008.




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