Historian Emma Anderson and the “Afterlife” of Martyrdom

Welcome again Jared Burkholder of Grace College and Seminary, who will be blogging in this space every other Friday. Jared’s first post jumps off from a new book on the martyrdom of eight Jesuit missionaries martyred in mid-17th century Canada.

The Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame held its fall Seminar in American Religion this past Saturday. These are wonderful events that revolve around critique and discussion of a recent book in the area of American religious history. Held each fall and spring, the seminars draw an interesting mix of seasoned scholars, graduate students, various Protestants, evangelicals, and Catholics. I was first introduced to Cushwa Center events as an eager graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I would tag along with my professors, hoping to get a hand shake with well-known historians such as George Marsden or Mark Noll.

Emma Anderson

This time around, the spotlight was on Emma Anderson’s new book, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs (Harvard, 2013). The eight Jesuits in this storied group were 17th century missionaries working to maintain mission stations among the Huron in what is now southern Ontario and New York. Losing their lives as part of the conflict between the Huron and Iroquois nations, the Jesuit missionaries were canonized by the Church in 1930. Some of the martyrs died in ways that were exceedingly gruesome (ritual torture and cannibalism for example), while in the case of others, death was a result of more mundane, though still violent, circumstances.Anderson, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs

Seminar participants had mixed feelings about the narrative style Anderson uses in the book. She employs vivid storytelling as she attempts to bring the reader inside the thoughts and emotions of these Jesuits, portraying martyrdom in all its gory details. Anderson offers, for example, this thick description of the final moments of two of the Jesuit martyrs:

Bloody and naked, the two Jesuits knelt praying before the torture stakes to which, tethered, they would soon end their lives. Their knees stained the granular white-gray snow of March a dull red. Their vision obscured by the haze of blood and sweat that clouded their eyes, they reverently groped with mutilated fingers the rough wood of the stakes, kissing the New World crosses to which they would soon be fastened, anticipating that their reassuring solidness would hold up their bodies, weakened from hours of torture. The were a mass of wounds and burns, their faces masked with smears of dried blood against which their eyes and teeth gleamed startling white… (p. 38)

Most agreed her wonderful literary style was one of the strengths of the book, but as respondent Thomas Tweed pointed out, this style raises questions about the boundaries between historical analysis and creatively speculative writing.

But as the title implies, Anderson is not simply interested in these martyrs’ deaths, but in the function that the “memory” of these missionaries have served for both Catholic and Native communities up to the present. As Anderson stated on Saturday, the way saints are remembered says more about those who champion their cause (for canonization, for instance) than it does about the saints themselves. Some of the most zealous promoters of the cult surrounding these martyrs are ultra-conservative Catholics who celebrate with annual pilgrimages as a means of maintaining tradition in spite of what they see as the threat of secular and liberalizing trends. Yet Anderson’s study reminds us that hagiography (whether Protestant or Catholic) never takes place in neutral space. Indeed, the more these martyrs have been celebrated as blessed victims of pagan violence, the more Native American Catholics have been alienated through their association with the perpetrators of the bloodshed.

Coincidentally, I showed Paradise Now in a course we call Contemporary American and the World this morning. This 2005 film also deals with martyrdom, though within the context of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It portrays two Palestinian youths who struggle to decide whether or not to take action against Israel by becoming suicide bombers. Obviously, these two examples are vastly different; the Jesuit deaths were motivated by an ethic of nonresistance while suicide bombing is often an act of war. Yet as category of analysis, the phenomenon of martyrdom transcends religious traditions and as I listened to my students’ reactions to the film, I was reminded of the universal power that martyrdom commands — the power to perpetuate causes within vastly different historical and cultural contexts. As we all know, the memory of martyrdom can become more powerful than the act of sacrifice itself. 

* * * * *

The upcoming spring 2014 Cushwa Center Seminar in American Religion will take place on Saturday, March 1 and will discuss Kate Bowler’s recent book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2013).

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