Laying Down Their Lives for Each Other and for the Lord - In the Forests of North America

Please be aware that this article contains details of torture.

Scene 1: Between Lake Huron and Lake Simcoe (modern-day Canada), 1634-1642

The Huron1 people were good warriors as well as farmers, hunters and fishermen. But all their fighting skills could not protect them against European diseases like measles, flu and smallpox from which about half the Huron community died between 1634 and 1642. And all their farming skills could not prevent frequent bad harvests during those years. They also had to contend with the fearsome Iroquois2 people to the south-east who attacked and enslaved them. During this tumultuous period, French missionaries lived among them, sharing their hardships and sharing the Gospel. One of these was the gentle Isaac Jogues.

Although fiercely opposed by the “medicine men” of the local animist religion, about a hundred Hurons became Christians, mainly the sick and elderly. Warriors, on the whole, had nothing but contempt for Christianity, but among the warriors who did convert was the renowned Ahatsistari who took the name Eustache at his baptism.

Scene 2: Paddling upstream on the St Lawrence River from Quebec towards the Huron homeland, 1642

In August 1642 a group of Christian Hurons (including Eustache) and a few French missionaries (including Isaac), travelling together in four canoes, were attacked by some warriors of the Iroquois people. Not only were Iroquois hereditary enemies of Hurons but also the Iroquois were incensed by those who had abandoned their traditional tribal religion to follow Christ. Half the Christian group fled into the forest. The remainder commended themselves to God and tried to mount a defence but were soon overwhelmed by the Iroquois who outnumbered them nearly six to one. Eustache, the other Hurons and a missionary called René Goupil were taken prisoner. Isaac had not run. Nor had he been captured. Wanting to share the peril of his brothers in Christ, Isaac surrendered himself voluntarily to the astonished Iroquois.

When they met again as prisoners, Eustache said to Isaac, “I praise God that He has granted me what I so much desired – to live and die with you.” Isaac was speechless with emotion, when at that moment they were joined by another missionary, Guillaume Cousture. Guillaume had fled into the forest and outrun his pursuers. Then he realised that Isaac was not with him and must be in the hands of the Iroquois, so had immediately returned and offered himself as a prisoner. 

Thus began several weeks of intense suffering for the captured Christians, both Huron and French. They were beaten with sticks, bitten, stabbed and burned. Their nails were pulled out, fingers cut off, hair and beards torn out. They were forced on a long journey, with very little food, initially by canoe, but then on foot and carrying heavy burdens despite their festering wounds. On the eighth day they encountered a group of about 200 warriors on their way to attack a French fort, who paused on their warpath in order to torture the missionaries and the Huron Christians. They cut off both Eustache’s thumbs and thrust a skewer up his left arm as far as his elbow.

Isaac managed to learn the language of his captors and began to preach and discuss matters of religion with them.

Scene 3: South-east of Lake Ontario, 1642-1646

At each Iroquois village the captives were brought to, a stage was built on which they were displayed to the villagers, most of whom who had never before seen anything as outlandish as a Christian Huron or a European. Sometimes the captives were compelled to sing. At one village, a Christian woman from the Algonquin people, who had been captured and enslaved by the Iroquois, was forced to cut off Isaac’s left thumb. As for Guillaume, an Iroquois tried to saw through one of his fingers with a shell, but it was not sharp enough, so he simply wrenched the finger off. It was one of the times when compassionate villagers tried to ease the suffering of the Christians, and someone sheltered Guillaume in his own hut for two days after this.

Many Hurons were killed. Eustache was burned to death. Instead of crying from the flames for his death to be avenged, as would have been expected in his pre-Christian warrior days, Eustache entreated the watching Hurons that the memory of his death should never cause them to attack the Iroquois.

Another Huron martyr whose name has been preserved was Paul Onnonhoaraton. He would boldly declare his hope of a better life after death, which therefore held no fear for him. At one point on the journey, when the Iroquois were approaching Isaac to inflict another cruel torment on him, Paul offered himself in Isaac’s place and thus his martyrdom came about.

The missionary René was killed by a few blows of a tomahawk, but Isaac and Guillaume were gifted to Iroqouis families.3

Isaac later wrote a long letter describing the year he lived with “his” family. Despite constant insults, threats and various attempts on his life, a strange sort of routine developed in which he cooked for the family, fetched their water and tended their fire. He had spare time in which he could pray. He made himself a little wooden cross and repeated the Scriptures he knew by heart or others that he remembered in paraphrase. His dreams at night were full of crosses and persecution.

Isaac managed to learn the language of his captors and began to preach and discuss matters of religion with them. He would travel to other villages and minister to Huron, Algonquin and French captives, especially those about to be tortured and killed. Noting all this, his captors called him Ondessonk, meaning “Indomitable One”.

Isaac was freed when Dutch traders paid his ransom. After some months in France, he returned to evangelise the Hurons again, who were now becoming Christians in large numbers. In October 1646 he was captured by Iroquois warriors, who blamed him for the caterpillars which had devoured the crops that year, causing great hunger, and for a recent epidemic. Near modern Auriesville (New York State, USA), the warriors killed him with a tomahawk. The next day they killed his two companions: a Frenchman called Jean de Lalande and a Huron whose name is unknown.

Scene 4: Gnadenhütten (near modern-day Lehighton, Pennsylvania, USA), 1755

In 1755 Britain and France were embroiled in a conflict with each other that extended to North America and dragged in the indigenous Americans to fight on both sides.

A group of missionaries, mainly German, were living near modern-day Lehighton, Pennsylvania, in a settlement called Gnadenhütten (“Tents of Grace”). As Moravians, they were pacifists. Nearby they had built a settlement for indigenous American Christians, which was soon populated by Mohican Christians who had fled persecution elsewhere and by local Delaware people responding to the evangelistic work of the missionaries.4

In November French-supported indigenous Americans were launching attacks in the area, but the missionaries stayed put, ready to die rather than abandon their mission post. Most of the indigenous Christians were away from Gnadenhütten because it was the season to go hunting in the forests. On the evening of 24 November a band of indigenous Americans attacked the missionary settlement, killing ten adults and a toddler. Four missionaries escaped and one was captured.

Scene 5: Gnadenhütten (modern Ohio, USA), 1781-2

By 1781 there was another conflict in progress, as white American colonists sought independence from British rule. Again the pacifist Moravian missionaries were neutral (and therefore viewed with suspicion by both sides). Again the indigenous Americans were caught up in the conflict.

There was also another Gnadenhütten. Since the events of 1755, a group of Moravian missionaries and indigenous American Christians had moved west into Ohio. Delaware people there began to turn to Christ, and some settlements were established for the growing numbers of indigenous American Christians. One of these, with more than 200 inhabitants, was called Gnadenhütten in memory of the martyrs of Gnadenhütten, Pennsylvania.

Like its namesake, this new Gnadenhütten was to suffer a grievous attack resulting in many Christian martyrs. Professor Craig D. Atwood compares the two events:

In Pennsylvania, white Moravians were killed by Native Americans. In Ohio, their Native American brethren were killed by white Americans. In both cases, the martyrs were men, women, and children who tried to follow the way of Christ in a violent and dangerous time, looking past differences of skin color, language and customs to call one another brothers and sisters. They were prepared to sacrifice their own lives rather than take the lives of others.5

When war broke out between Britain and the colonists, most of the indigenous Americans sided with Britain so that they could attack the colonists who had treated them harshly. The British, assuming the Moravians were pro-colonists, prompted indigenous Americans to attack them.

In September 1781 the European missionaries and indigenous Christians in this part of Ohio were evicted from their homes and forced to walk north for 125 miles (200 km). After a month they reached Sandusky, where they were left to fend for themselves in an unwelcoming landscape with little food to
be found.

Winter came. Snow fell. Cattle and some children died of hunger. Yet back in Gnadenhütten, their crops sat unharvested. Early in 1782, a group of indigenous Christian families nervously set off to journey back to their former homes. On the way they were encouraged by news that the white Americans were now friendly. For weeks they worked in their old fields, harvesting the weather-beaten crops and preparing to carry food to the starving believers in Sandusky. But then a group of colonist militiamen arrived at Gnadenhütten; they were seeking revenge for the massacre of several white families by indigenous Americans allied to the British. Promising protection and pretending to be very religious, the militiamen easily took prisoner the trusting Christians. They told the innocent, peace-loving indigenous Americans they must die.

In their warrior days, the Gnadenhütteners would have put up a strong defence, but now, being Christians, they simply requested from their captors time to prepare themselves for death.

Then asking pardon for whatever offense they had given, or grief they had occasioned to each other, they kneeled down, offering fervent prayers to God their Savior – and kissing one another, under a flood of tears fully resigned to his will, they sang praises unto him, in the joyful hope that they would soon be relieved from their pains, and join their redeemer in everlasting bliss.6

Next day they were attacked by mallet, tomahawk and scalping until 62 adults and 34 children lay dead.

As Chief Tecumseh summarised later,

the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women and children, even as they prayed to Jesus.7


You can read more about these martyrs in Patrick Sookhdeo’s book of daily devotional readings on Christian martyrs, Heroes of Our Faith, Vol. 2, pp. 14, 89, 313, 350 (Isaac Publishing, 2021, ISBN 978-1-952450-15-0). To purchase this book please go to barnabasaid.org/resources/books or contact your nearest Barnabas Aid office (addresses on inside front cover) or write to sales@barnabasbooks.org

Footnotes

1 Outsiders called them Huron, but they called themselves the Wendat.

2 Outsiders called them Iroquois, but they called themselves the Haudenosaunee.

3 Guillaume was not martyred. His courage under torture and his skills as a carpenter and a marksman earned him such respect among the Iroquois that they invited him to sit on one of their councils. In 1645 they released him from servitude in a prisoner exchange and he helped negotiate peace between the Iroquois and the French colonial powers. After two more years of missionary work among the Hurons, Guillaume settled near Quebec, married a Frenchwoman and had ten children. He became the main administrator, captain of militia and chief magistrate of his settlement (later called Lévis). He died in 1701 at the age of 83.

4 Outsiders called them Delaware, but they called themselves the Lenape.

5 Craig D. Atwood, “The Jesus Indians of Ohio”, 4 July 2021, https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/witness/jesus-indians-of-ohio (viewed 29 December 2023). Originally published 1 June 2016 in Plough Quarterly, no. 9.

6 John Heckewelder, A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians, from its commencement in the year 1740, to the close of the year 1808. Comprising all the remarkable incidents which took place at their missionary stations during that period, interspersed with anecdotes, historical facts, speeches of Indians, and other interesting matter, Philadelphia: M’Carty and Davis, 1820, pp.318-319. Heckewelder (1743-1823), born in England, was a Moravian missionary in Ohio.

7 Speech made by Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee people to William Harrison, governor of the Indian Territory, 11 August 1810. Quoted in Elizabeth Cobb and Edward J. Blum (eds.), Major Problems in American History, Vol. 1 To 1877 Documents and Essays, 4th edn. (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2017) p.187.

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