Canada in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Scholasticism

19 January 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

I am so bad at getting distracted.  I go to the Post-Reformation Digital Library looking for one thing, and then get totally distracted by another.  However, this works to your benefit because now I can share something interesting that I discovered this afternoon.  PRDL has a new link to a 1669 work of Johannes Hoornbeek, De conversione Indorum et Gentilium (Concerning the Conversion of Indians and Gentiles).  This book is another nail in the coffin of the idea that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed churches had no interest in the missionary calling of the church.

In the first part, Hoornbeek does a survey of the different types of native peoples and “gentiles” of the then-known world.  Eventually, he comes to Canada.  He notes that the native people of New France regard the devil to be God, although they do not worship him (licet non adoret).  Mostly they indulge in magic arts.  This characterization is flawed in many ways, but my interest is not so much in explaining how.  Rather, I’m more interested in the roots of this view.

Hoornbeek himself had never been to New France.  So far as I know, Dutch Reformed missionaries never went there either.  However, Reformed missionaries (like Johannes Megapolensis) worked among the Mohawks of upstate New York and there were also Mohawk people living in what was then called New France (present-day Quebec).  I think Hoornbeek’s information may come from Megapolensis.  In a letter he wrote to the Netherlands about the Mohawks (and later published without his consent), Megapolensis described the religion of the Mohawks:

They are entire strangers to all religion, but they have a Tharonhijouaagon (whom they otherwise call Athzoockkuatoriaho), that is, a Genius, whom they esteem in the place of God; but they do not serve him or make offerings to him.  They worship and present offerings to the Devil, whom they call Otskon, or Aireskuoni.  If they have any bad luck in war, they catch a bear, which they cut in pieces, and roast, and that they offer up to their Aireskuoni, saying in substance, the following words:  “Oh, great and mighty Aireskuoni, we confess that we have offended against thee, inasmuch as we have not killed and eaten our captive enemies; — forgive us this.  We promise that we will kill and eat all the captives we shall hereafter take as we certainly as we have killed, and now eat this bear.”  Also when the weather is very hot, and there comes a cooling breeze, they cry out directly, Asorunusi asorunusi, Otskon aworouhsi reinnuha; that is, “I thank thee, I thank thee, devil, I thank thee, little uncle!”  If they are sick, or have a pain or soreness anywhere in their limbs, and I ask them what ails them they say that the Devil sits in their body, or in the sore places, and bites them once there; so that they attribute to the Devil at once the accidents which befall them; they have otherwise no religion.

Again, this account is undoubtedly flawed in many ways and Megapolensis probably didn’t understand what he was observing or hearing.  It is interesting that his account of the bear sacrifice sounds a lot like the Heidelberg Catechism on the Lord’s Supper in QA 75 — I wonder if this is deliberate or something that has been imported into the translation.  At any rate, I suspect that Hoornbeek was working from his memory of what Megapolensis had written.  Some of the elements in both accounts are the same, but Megapolensis is, of course, far more detailed.

BTW, if you’re interested, I wrote this article on Johannes Megapolensis and his missionary work among the Mohawks.  It was published in the 2009 issue of The Confessional Presbyterian.