Early modern intellectual and religious history; Calvinist and Catholic missions; America
“What reason teaches me” – Missions on the New World Frontier, c. 1680-1760
My project evaluates, through the study of French, Spanish, and English missions to the peoples of America, the relationship between Enlightenment and religious thought in the eighteenth century. Both currents of thought were concerned with human nature and the ways to control or help this nature flourish at the social, intellectual, and political levels. The “primitive” peoples of the Americas were considered ideal case studies for philosophical enquiries into human nature and the validity of different political systems. At the same time, frontiers continued to expand in the Americas in the eighteenth century and missionaries continuously explored new territories, and frequently encountered new peoples or attempted to convert as yet unconverted groups.
Did Enlightenment modes of thought have an effect on the descriptions provided by missionaries, by contrast to the accounts elaborated earlier, and did Enlightenment ideas have an influence on missionary practices? Did the peculiar Atlantic context bring a different perspective to the question and definition of human nature and to anthropological and psychological theories about man and his relationship to authority, political or divine?
Studying writings on the American natives will show how religious, philosophical, and political concerns interacted in a complex and turbulent Atlantic world, and how these interactions in turn had a great influence on European and Euro-American thought.
“Prying-Indians” – Conflict and the Building of Religious Identities
A side-project concentrates on the impact of imperial practices on the notions of citizenship and community building as envisioned by missionaries, European officials, settlers, and natives. The study of missions does show that imperialism could be translated into a multiplicity of diverging practices, and that the difficulties and opportunities that colonisation represented played an important role in defining or re-defining the role of the subject in nascent nation-states. European officials, settlers, natives, and religious actors all had very specific ideas about the ways in which the natives should be included in — or excluded from — colonial communities, and these competing views contributed to debates about the nature of the political community and its members. Focusing on the various conflicts and revolts that shaped colonial relationships in the early modern period puts into light significant common patterns emerging in all colonies. These patterns are revealing not only for missionary practices, but also for the study of empire and state building.
- “The Idea of Freedom in Missionary Writings about the New World”, in Quentin Skinner and Martin van Gelderen, eds., Freedom and the Construction of Europe: New Perspectives on Philosophical, Religious, and Political Controversies, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- Forthcoming: “‘Adopted Children of God’: Native and Jesuit Identities in New France, c. 16301690”, to be published in French History and Civilization: Papers from the George Rudé Seminar.