Catholic Church and the Age of Discovery, The Jesuits

Jesuit in China

The first attempt by Jesuits to reach China was made in 1552 by St. Francis Xavier, Navarrese priest and missionary and founding member of the Society. Xavier, however, died the same year on the Chinese island of Shangchuan, without having reached the mainland. Three decades later, in 1582, led by several figures including the prominent ItalianMatteo Ricci, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, ultimately introducing Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the imperial court, and carrying on significant inter-cultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese scholars, particularly representatives of Confucianism. At the time of their peak influence, members of the Jesuit delegation were considered some of the emperor’s most valued and trusted advisors, holding numerous prestigious posts in the imperial government. Many Chinese, including notable former Confucian scholars, adopted Christianity and became priests and members of the Society of Jesus.

Between the 18th and mid-19th century, nearly all Western missionaries in China were forced to conduct their teaching and other activities covertly.

Elsewhere, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan. By the end of the 16th century tens of thousands of Japanese followed Roman Catholicism. Church growth came to a halt in 1597 under the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu who, in an effort to isolate the country from foreign influences, launched a severe persecution of Christians. Japanese were forbidden to leave the country and Europeans were forbidden to enter. Despite this, a minority Christian population survived into the 19th century.

Location of the most important Jesuit Reductions in the Southern Cone, with present political divisions.

In South America, the Jesuits protected native peoples from enslavement by establishing semi-independent settlements called reductions. Pope Gregory XVI, challenging Spanish and Portuguese sovereignty, appointed his own candidates as bishops in the colonies, condemned slavery and the slave trade in 1839 (papal bull In supremo apostolatus), and approved the ordination of native clergy in spite of government racism.

Many buildings erected by the Jesuits still stand, such as the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Macau and the Santísima Trinidad de Paraná in Paraguay, an example of aJesuit Reduction.

Jesuit reduction, South America

A Jesuit reduction was a type of settlement for indigenous people in South America created by the Jesuit Order during the 17th and 18th centuries. The strategy of the Spanish Empire was to gather native populations into centers called “Indian reductions” (reducciones de indios), in order to Christianize, tax, and govern them more efficiently. The Jesuit interpretation of this strategy was implemented primarily in an area that corresponds to modern-day Paraguayamongst the Tupi-Guarani peoples. Later reductions were extended into areas now part of Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia.

Jesuit reductions were different from the reductions in other regions because the indigenous people (Indians) were expected to convert to Christianity but not necessarily adopt European values and lifestyles. Under the leadership of both the Jesuits and native caciques, the reductions achieved a high degree of autonomy within the Spanish colonial empire. With the use of Indian labour, the reductions became economically successful. When their existence was threatened by the incursions of Bandeirante slave traders, Indian militia were created that fought effectively against the colonists. The resistance by the Jesuit reductions to slave raids, as well as their high degree of autonomy and economic success, have been cited as contributing factors to the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Americas in 1767. The Jesuit reductions present a controversial chapter of the evangelisational history of the Americas, and are variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.

In the 16th century, priests of different religious orders set out to evangelize the Americas, bringing Christianity to indigenous communities. The colonial governments and missionaries agreed on the strategy of gathering the often nomadic indigenous populations in larger communities called reductions in order to more effectively govern, tax, and Christianize them. Reductions generally were also construed as an instrument to make the Indians adopt European lifestyles and values, which was not the case in the Jesuit reductions, where the Jesuits allowed the indigenous people to retain many of their pre-colonial cultural practices. In Mexico the policy was called congregación, and also took the form of the hospitals of Vasco de Quiroga, and the Franciscan Missions of California, and in Portuguese Brazil they were known as aldeias. Legally, under colonial rule, Indians were classified as minors, in effect children, to be protected and guided to salvation (conversion to Christianity) by European missionaries.

The Jesuits, only formally founded in 1540, were relatively late arrivals in the New World, from about 1570, especially compared to the Dominicans and Franciscans, and therefore had to look to the frontiers of colonization for mission areas. The Jesuit reductions originated in the early seventeenth century when the Bishop Lizarraga asked for missionaries for Paraguay. In 1609, acting under instructions from Phillip III, the Spanish governor of Asunción made a deal with the Jesuit Provincial of Paraguay. The Jesuits agreed to set up hamlets at strategic points along the Paraná river, that were populated with Indians and maintained a separation from Spanish towns. The Jesuits were to “enjoy a tax holiday for ten years” which extended longer. This mission strategy continued for 150 years until the Jesuits were expelled in 1767. Fundamentally the purpose, as far as the government was concerned, was to safeguard the frontier with the reductions where Indians were introduced to European culture. In 1609 three Jesuits began the first mission in San Ignacio Guazú. In the next 25 years, 15 missions were founded in the province of Guayrá—but since some of these were within the Portuguese area they were subjected to frequent destructive raids by Bandeirantes of São Paulo to enslave the Indians. In 1631, most of the reductions moved west into Uruguay, which was under Spanish jurisdiction, in some cases to be re-opened from the 1680s onwards.


Guarani cavalry, mid-18th century

The missions also secured the Spanish Crown’s permission, and some arms, to raise militias of Indians to defend the reductions against raids. The bandeirantes followed the reductions into Spanish territory and in 1641 the Indian militia stopped them atMbororé. The militias could number as many as 4,000 troops, and their cavalry was especially effective, wearing European-style uniforms and carrying bows and arrows as well as muskets. In the Treaty of Madrid (1750) the Spanish ceded to the Portuguese territories including the Misiones Orientales, reductions now in Brazil, threatening to expose the Indians again to the far more oppressive Portuguese system. The Jesuits complied, trying to relocate the population across the Uruguay river as the treaty allowed, but the Guarani militia under the mission-born Sepé Tiaraju resisted in the Guarani War, and defeated Spanish troops, obliging them in 1754 to sign an armistice in Guarani – a victory that helped to ensure the eventual defeat of the reductions. The war was ended when a larger force of 3,000 combined Spanish and Portuguese troops crushed the revolt in 1756, with Guarani losses in battles and massacres afterwards of over 1,500.

The reductions came to be considered a threat by the secular authorities and were caught up in the growing attack on the Jesuits in Europe for unrelated reasons. The economic success of the reductions, which was considerable, although not as great as it has often been described, combined with the Jesuits’ independence, became a cause of fear. The reductions were considered by some philosophies as ideal communities of noble savages, and were praised as such by Montesquieu in his L’Esprit des Lois (1748), and even by Rousseau, no friend of the church. Their intriguing story has continued to be the subject of some romanticizing, as in the film The Mission (1986), whose story relates to the events of the 1750s, shown on a miniature scale. It is generally accepted by modern historians that the reasons for the contemporary opposition to them were political, humanitarian, and economic. When theJesuits were expelled from the Spanish realm in 1767, the reductions slowly died out, becoming victims of slave raids or being absorbed into European society. Some of the reductions have continued to be inhabited as towns while most have been abandoned and remain only as ruins. Córdoba, Argentina, the largest city associated with the reductions, was atypical as a Spanish settlement that predated the Jesuits, and functioned as a centre for the Jesuit presence with a novitiate centre, and a college that is now the local university. The Córdoba mission was taken over by the Franciscans in 1767. Many have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, including six of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos in Bolivia, and others in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. There are also two creole languages, Língua Geral and Nheengatu, originating in the reductions and based on Guaraní, Tupi and Portuguese.

At the height of the reductions there were around 40 different communities that were home to as many as 150,000 Indians, most of whom were Guaraní, Tupi and Chiquitos. Reductions were laid out according to a standardised plan: the main buildings, like the church, college and churchyard were concentrated around a wide square, with houses facing the other three sides. Each village also provided a house for widows, a hospital, and several warehouses. In the centre of the square, there was a cross and a statue of the mission’s patron saint. The reductions were ruled by indigenous chiefs who served as the reductions’ governors, but were controlled by the Jesuits. There was a minimum of two Jesuits in a reduction, with more for larger ones. The social organization of the reductions has often been described as extremely efficient; most were self-supporting and even produced surpluses of goods, which they traded to outside communities, which laid the foundation of the belief that Jesuits were guarding immense riches acquired through Indian labour. The main traded produce was the hides of their cattle and yerba mate, leaves drunk somewhat like tea. Initially these were collected from the wild, but later cultivated. A number of trades and skills were taught to some Indians, including even printing, to produce mostly religious texts in indigenous languages, some illustrated by engravings by indigenous artists. In reality the communities were economically successful but hardly constituted any important source of income for the Jesuit order. The degree to which the Jesuits controlled the indigenous population for which they had responsibility and the degree to which they allowed indigenous culture to function is a matter of debate, and the social organization of the reductions have been variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.


The main buildings, especially the churches, were often substantial Baroque constructions, made by trained indigenous craftsmen, that often remain impressive after over two centuries of abandonment, though the elaborate carved wood interiors have vanished in these cases. The first buildings were usually made in wood, which was sometimes covered with stuccodecoration imitating stone Baroque architecture. Later, if resources allowed, actual stone buildings would follow, sometimes very large. The Bolivian missions have the best surviving wood and adobe churches. Father Martin Schmid (1694–1772), a Swiss Jesuit who was a leading figure in the reductions, was both an architect and a composer, and is usually given much of the responsibility for both the later architecture and the remarkable musical life of the reductions.

Mission layout

The ruins of several of the missions still remain. They were laid out in a uniform plan. The buildings were grouped about a central square, the church and store-houses at one end, and the dwellings of the natives, in long barracks, forming the other three sides. Each family had its own separate apartment, but one veranda and one roof served for perhaps a hundred families. The churches were of stone or fine wood, with lofty towers, elaborate sculptures and richly adorned altars, with statuary imported from Italy and Spain. The priests’ quarters, the commissary, the stables, the armory, the workshop, and the hospital, also usually of stone, formed an inner square adjoining the church. The plaza itself was a level grass plot kept cropped by sheep. The native houses were sometimes of stone, but more often of adobe or cane, with home-made furniture and religious pictures, often made by the natives themselves.

Life at the missions

Smaller missions had two priests, whereas larger missions had more. Populations varied from 2,000 to 7,000. In the morning, children’s hymns were followed by Mass and breakfast, after which the workers went to their tasks. “The Jesuits marshaled their neophytes to the sound of music, and in procession to the fields, with a saint borne high aloft, the community each day at sunrise took its way. Along the way at stated intervals were shrines of saints where they prayed, and sang hymns between shrines. As the procession advanced it became gradually smaller as groups of Indians dropped off to work the various fields and finally the priest and acolyte with the musicians returned alone” (Graham, 178–9). At noon each group assembled for the Angelus, after which came dinner and a siesta; work was then resumed until evening. After supper came the rosary and sleep. On rainy days they worked indoors. Frequent festivals with sham battles, fireworks, concerts, and dances enlivened the community.

Aside from the main farm, each man typically had his own garden, pursuing agriculture, stock raising, and the cultivation of maté. Jesuits introduced many European trades and arts to their communities. Cotton weavers, tanneries, carpenters, tailors, hat makers, coopers, boat builders, silversmiths, musicians and makers of musical instruments, painters, and turners could sometimes be found. They also had printers, andmanuscripts were also produced by hand copying.(Graham)

The goods that were produced at the missions, including cattle, were sold in Buenos Aires and other markets under the supervision of the priests. The proceeds earned were divided among a common fund, the workers, and dependents.

Much emphasis was placed on education, as early training was regarded as the key to future success. (Page 503) Much of the instruction was conducted in Guaraní, which was still the prevailing language of the country, but Spanish was also taught.

São Miguel das Missões, in Brazil

São Miguel das Missões is a municipality in Rio Grande do Sul state, southern Brazil. Important 17th century Spanish Jesuit mission ruins are located in the municipality.

San Miguel Mission is within Sant’Angelo Microregion, and the Riograndense Northwest Mesoregion.

Mission São Miguel das Missões

The town grew around the Spanish colonial Jesuit Reduction, Mission São Miguel das Missões, founded in 1632.

In 1984 Mission São Miguel das Missões was one of four sites of Jesuit reductions in Argentina and one in Brazil to be declared by UNESCO the Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis World Heritage Sites.


The Museu das Missões (Museum Mission) is a history museum located in São Miguel Mission.

The creation of the museum was one of the first initiatives of the Office of Historical and Artistic Heritage, today IPHAN. In 1937 the SPHAN was created and in the same year, the architect Lucio Costa was sent to Rio Grande do Sul to analyze the remains of the ruins of the Seven Peoples of the Missions, and propose measures. One of his proposals was to create a museum to house the statues missionary dispersed throughout the region. In 1938, the remnants of the town of San Miguel and the museum building were listed as National Heritage, and in 1940 , the Museum of the Missions was officially established.

Between 1938 and 1940, the architect Lucas Mayerhofer directed the stabilization works in the mission Church of San Miguel, the construction of the museum building, and was in charge of gathering the works of statuary.

Currently listed in the museum’s collection are religious images from the time of installation of the Jesuit missions in the region.

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