In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jesuits

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Origin and Ideology of the Jesuits
  • Jesuit Activities in Europe
  • Economic Activities
  • Education, Culture, and the Arts
  • Scientific Pursuits
  • Enlightenment and Expulsion in the Late 18th Century

Atlantic History Jesuits
Shona Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0147


In 1540 St. Ignatius of Loyola received papal permission to found a new religious order to be known as the Society of Jesus (also called the “Company of Jesus,” or simply the “Jesuits”). Centered on the spiritual exercises of Loyola, the Society of Jesus emphasized education, missionary work, and active engagement with the world as the only means to gain spiritual salvation. First established in Spain, the influence of the Jesuits rapidly expanded across Europe as the Catholic Church searched for a spiritual, cultural, and institutional response to the rise of Protestantism during the Reformation. In Europe, the Jesuits established new religious institutions—such as the Jesuit colleges, lay confraternities, and pastoral missions—that championed the ideas of the Counter-Reformation, sought to eliminate the corrupt practices of the uneducated clergy, and attempted to revitalize the devotional life of European Catholics. From the mid-16th century onward, the Society of Jesus expanded worldwide and established a global network of schools and missions designed to strengthen the Catholic Church in its battle with Protestantism. Portuguese and French Jesuits followed trade routes to the East Indies, establishing mission enterprises in Mughal India, Japan, and China. In Spanish America, Jesuits became agents of colonization as mission culture integrated frontier communities into the Spanish imperial system. The Portuguese Jesuits established a network of missions among the indigenous populations of Brazil, and the French Jesuits dominated cultural encounters in French North America. The success of the mission system lay in the Jesuits’ ability to adapt missionary methods to local conditions. The Jesuits became great linguists, anthropologists, and ethnographers, learning all they could about host societies in order to use indigenous structures to explain the tenets of Christianity and secure a solid footing for their missionary churches. Jesuit missionary tactics helped to preserve many aspects of indigenous culture even as the missions transformed indigenous societies beyond recognition. In some areas, such as Paraguay, indigenous communities actively worked to adapt Jesuit mission culture to their own needs and used it to successfully resist colonial authority. By the late 18th century, the degree of economic, political, and cultural power the Jesuits derived from their educational and missionary institutions made them the target of monarchical and papal attacks. European monarchs, inspired by Enlightenment thinking, promoted political and social reforms that streamlined and centralized imperial power in the hands of royal governments. These reforms clashed with the Jesuits’ dominance of indigenous populations and religious culture in the colonies. Portugal expelled the Jesuits from its territory in 1759. France and Spain followed suit in 1764 and 1767, respectively. In 1773 the pope suppressed the order, drawing to a close two centuries of Jesuit expansion.

General Overviews

The last two decades have seen increasing interest in the study of the Jesuits as a quintessentially early modern organization. Scholarship has expanded to consider the cultural, scientific, political, as well as religious, influence of the Jesuits in the early modern world. Simultaneously, the growing interest in the global nature of early modern history has attracted scholars to the international networks of the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus has become a crucial subject for scholars exploring the expansion of early modern Europe and the resulting cultural encounters that shaped global history. Worcester 2008 provides an excellent entry point to the current field of Jesuit scholarship for undergraduate students and more advanced scholars alike. It includes essays by leading scholars of the Jesuits from around the globe and provides an in-depth overview of the key issues in Jesuit historiography. Worcester balances essays on the order’s European origins with work examining the Jesuits’ international scope and influence. For researchers, O’Malley, et al. 1999 and O’Malley, et al. 2006 demonstrate the depth and variety of recent research, especially highlighting the broad range of research topics, disciplinary approaches, and geographical scope applied to the study of the Jesuits in the early modern period. For scholars interested in researching the Jesuits in the context of the Atlantic world, Gagliano and Ronan 1997 contains a selection of research on the Jesuits in the Americas and complements the key themes highlighted by Worcester 2008; O’Malley, et al. 1999; and O’Malley, et al. 2006. The extent of Jesuit activity around the globe can be a daunting prospect for any researcher, student, or general reader, but there are a number of good narrative histories that can serve as handy reference works. Hughes 1908–1917 offers a detailed account of Jesuit activities in North America, including information on individual Jesuit enterprises and political negotiations back in Europe. Volume 1 deals with the early colonial period to 1645; Volume 2 addresses Jesuit expansion from 1645 to 1773; and Volume 3 reproduces documents from Vatican and Jesuit archives. Cushner 2002 provides a similarly exhaustive account that focuses on Jesuit activity in Spanish America. See also Alden 1996 (cited under South America) for an extended discussion of the Jesuits in the Portuguese world. For a concise chronological narrative of the history of the Jesuits see Bangert 1986.

  • Bangert, William V. A History of the Society of Jesus. 2d rev. ed. St. Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986.

    A comprehensive narrative history of the Society of Jesus from its foundation to the 20th century. A useful reference work for researchers and students.

  • Cushner, Nicholas P. Soldiers of God: The Jesuits in Colonial America, 1565–1767. Buffalo, NY: Language Communications, 2002.

    An accessible overview of Jesuit enterprises in the Americas, with particular emphasis on the Jesuits in Spanish America. Originally published in Spanish.

  • Gagliano, Joseph A., and Charles E. Ronan, eds. Jesuit Encounters in the New World: Jesuit Chroniclers, Geographers, Educators and Missionaries in the Americas, 1549–1767. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1997.

    Collection of twelve essays focused on the interaction between Jesuits and indigenous peoples in the Americas, particularly in the field of missions, education, economic development, and indigenous culture. Includes essays on French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Anglo-America.

  • Hughes, Thomas. History of the Society of Jesus in North America: Colonial and Federal. 3 vols. New York: Longmans, Green, 1908–1917.

    An old but encyclopedic narrative of Jesuit activities in North America spanning the colonial period up to the American Revolution. Geographical scope covers Spanish, French, and English colonial enterprises in Mexico, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada. Includes a volume of documents from Vatican and Jesuit archives.

  • O’Malley, John W., Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Steven J. Harris, and T. Frank Kennedy, eds. The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540–1773. Papers presented at a conference held at Boston College in May 1997. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

    Collection of thirty-five interdisciplinary essays exploring the cultural, scientific, and artistic contribution of the Jesuits. Based on papers presented at an international conference in 1997 designed to showcase the current state of Jesuit historiography, the resultant essays highlight new and expanding areas of research.

  • O’Malley, John W., Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Steven J. Harris, and T. Frank Kennedy, eds. The Jesuits II: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540–1773. Papers presented at a conference held at Boston College in June 2002. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

    A second volume of essays exploring new scholarship on Jesuit contributions to early modern society and culture. Particular emphasis is placed on the activities of the society in the 18th century.

  • Worcester, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521857314

    Collection of introductory essays on the historical and cultural significance of the Society of Jesus, with particular attention to the early modern period. Includes extensive source lists and secondary readings for each essay. Suitable for undergraduate assignment or as a reference work for researchers.

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