Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part III: The Jesus Lottery in the Jesuit Relations
Earlier this week, Randall got us going on a series that I hope others will contribute to here: Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources. Randall picked out a narrative in Abroad in America: Visitors to the New Nation, 1776-1914 by Nakahama Manjirō, a Japanese seafarer lost at sea who washed up on a deserted island, was picked up by an American ship, and ended up in Massachusetts in 1841.
Actually (and unbeknownst to him), Lin got us started a few posts down with his reflections on The View from Patgatgoch (Or Why the Moravians Are Still Sexy), his post about the 1300 pp. compilation of primary sources from the German Moravian mission among the Patgatgoch in eighteenth-century Connecticut.
So I’ll call my first contribution to this series Part III: the Jesus Lottery in the Jesuit Relations. No one would ever call the Jesuit Relations a “surprising” primary source; they’ve been grist for the scholarly mill for a century or more since the publication of Reuben Gold Thwaites’ 1899 edition of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. More recently, Allen Greer’s The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America has provided a nice, short “greatest hits” compilations of selected excerpts from the Relations that have made these documents much more accessible for classroom use.
But while they are a standard source, I always remain surprised how little they seem to get used in courses on early American history generally, and American religious history more specifically. Since they have been scanned and are all easily available online, the possibilities for use are greater than ever. Just recently, I was using The Jesuit Relations Index to look for specific items through keyword searching, and got involved in hours of fascinating reading (the online index also made possible in one weekend or so a search that otherwise would have taken an awful lot more time reading through the hard copy).
In my search I found this story, which had previously escaped my attention, in vol. 55 of the Relations, covering 1671-1672. The story is told with the usual hagiographical excess, but reading about the porcelain beads offered up to the infant Jesus (or, in another story, the tobacco sprinkled over a manger scene figurine) provides plenty of fodder for classroom discussions of the interaction of religious traditions.
ARTICLE III. OF THE DEVOTION OF THE HURON
CHRISTIANS TO THE HOLY INFANT JESUS.
THE Reverend Mother Marie de l’Incarnation, of whom we shall speak later, presented at the beginning of Advent to Louys Taondechoren, chief Dogique of the little Huron Church, a very beautiful waxen relief Image of the holy Infant Jesus in his cradle. This good Savage manifested more gratitude for the gift than if he had been presented with all the treasures in the world. The entire Village shared his joy, and regarded this holy Image, although given to an individual, as a common possession and a present sent from Heaven. Their Pastor — who seeks only new opportunities for inflaming that zeal of theirs for everything connected with God’s Service — formed the plan, with Louys’s consent, to afford consolation to all with this treasure; and to take such action that each of the cabins might enjoy it in turn. Being well instructed, they beheld in this Image him whom it represented; and well knew that the honors which they rendered it would not stop at the figure before their eyes, but would pass on even to the sacred person of the Savior of the world, who graciously condescended to become a Child for love of us.
They conceived the idea of making the honors bestowed upon this holy Image an atonement for the ill reception that the Jews gave the Infant Jesus when he came into the world. [Page 277] The Father, seeing them filled with such pious feelings, assured them that this act of devotion would secure them a thousand blessings from Heaven. He gave them a whole week to prepare to receive the Image in their cabins; that week was spent in a. renewal of fervor that was highly acceptable to Heaven and Earth. A Missionary is happy when he finds means to reach the heart; and anything that can serve to advance his Church in the spirit of the faith, and in the practice of the solid virtues, seems to him of importance. He wrote on separate slips the names of the Heads of all the cabins; and when the day for this act of devotion came, after singing the Veni creator, the first slip that came to hand was the one inscribed with the name of a good widow, who had displayed especial zeal in the preparation that she had made for rendering herself worthy of being the first hostess of the little Jesus. She had thought only of what might please him, — often rising before dawn to go and  offer him her prayers in the Chapel; and to recite her Rosary there for the purpose of inclining his holy Mother’s heart in her favor. At this news she thought that she would die with joy. Speedily all was made ready, her cabin thoroughly cleaned, and a very neat little Altar prepared, with its dais and adorned with all the beautiful things that she could find for the reception of such a guest. For she was well convinced that this choice was a stroke of Heaven, and the sign of a special Providence of Our Lord toward her and all her family. The holy Image having been borne to her cabin in a sort of Procession, and placed on the Altar, the Father had the company offer a prayer in greeting to their guest, and present to him all that they [Page 279] possessed, — their goods, their persons, and their lives; while at the close, they all began to sing Christmas carols in their language in honor of the Holy Infant Jesus, continuing this Practice at their little evening Benedictions, On each of the following days.
The ceremony was followed by a feast which this good woman gave to the chief people of the Village; but before Placing the food before them, she thus addressed the whole company: “The little Jesus is entertaining you; and you must know that, although everything is his, independently of me, nevertheless I of my own free will make him a special gift of all that belongs to me, — my corn and other grain, and my little furnishings; and I pray him also to take possession of my person and of my children, to make such use of them as he shall choose, during this life and throughout all eternity. It was to make this solemn declaration in your presence that I prepared this little feast in his name.” That act of devotion was approved by all the company, and the Father, who was present, caused them after the benediction, to offer a prayer to the holy Infant Jesus, supplicating his acceptance of this good widow’s offering. She wished further that two of her children should also share in this offering. To this end, she sent for her little son Joseph, thirteen years old, our pupil in the sixth class, and godson of Monseigneur our Bishop, who is having him reared in his palace. Upon his arrival, she first made him pay divine honors to Our Lord in his Image; and then asked him, at the same time showing him Some Porcelain collars, —  wherein the entire wealth of the family consists, — whether he were not Well pleased to give the little Jesus half of his share. “Yes, indeed,” [Page 283] said he. Putting the same question to a daughter of hers, she received a like reply. Thereupon she said: “You gratify me, my children so the little Jesus will be pleased to accept half of our most precious possessions, and will sanction our using the rest in making our little necessary purchases.”
On the following day, she begged the Father to come to her cabin where, in her children’s presence, she besought him to accept a fine collar of 4,000 porcelain beads for the infant Jesus. This was given in order to strengthen the friendship which the latter had deigned to show them by choosing their cabin for his first abode in the village; and to implore him to regard them always as persons who, while wholly his from the necessity of their being, and the constant succor of his grace, had, by a voluntary resolve of their own free Will, pledged themselves to serve him the rest of their lives more faithfully than ever. They also besought him not to forsake them; and, although he made his abode in other cabins, to extend to them always a special Providence. The Father accepted the collar at the time, in order not to deprive her of the merit of her generosity and gratitude; but, because of her poverty, he made her take it back again two weeks later, assuring her that our Lord would be as well pleased thereby as if it were used in adorning his Altar.
While this image of the holy infant Jesus was passing from cabin to cabin each week, in the manner related, until the Festival of the Purification, each person, with a holy jealousy, took pleasure in preparing for it an altar more magnificent than the last, inventing new devices to guard it from the smoke.