God's Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power- A History of the Jesuits

God's Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power- A History of the Jesuits

by Jonathan Wright


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Throughout history members of the Society of Jesus, popularly known as Jesuits, have been accused of killing kings and presidents, have traveled as missionaries to every corner of the globe, founded haciendas in Mexico, explored the Mississippi and Amazon rivers, and served Chinese emperors as map makers, painters, and astronomers. As well as the predictable roll call of saints and martyrs, the Society can also lay claim to the thirty-five craters on the moon named for Jesuit scientists. Jesuits have been despised and idolized on a scale unknown to members of any other religious order; they have died the most horrible deaths and done the most outlandish deeds.

Whether loved or loathed, the Jesuits’ dramatic and wide-ranging impact could never be ignored. By the mid-eighteenth century, they had established more than 650 educational institutions. They were also strongly committed to foreign missions, and like the secular explorers and settlers of the Age of Discovery, they traveled to the Far East, India, and the Americas to stake a claim. They were especially successful in Latin America, where they managed to put numerous villages entirely under Jesuit rule.

The Jesuits’ successes both in Europe and abroad, coupled with rumors of scandal and corruption within the order, soon drew criticism from within the Church and without. Writers such as Pascal and Voltaire wrote polemics against them, and the absolute monarchs of Catholic Europe sought to destroy them. Their power was seen as so threatening that hostility escalated into serious political feuds, and at various times they were either banned or harshly suppressed throughout Europe.

God’s Soldiers is a fascinating chronicle of this celebrated, mysterious, and often despised religious order. Jonathan Wright illuminates as never before their enduring contributions as well as the controversies that surrounded them. The result is an in-depth, unbiased, and utterly compelling history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385500807
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/18/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 894,976
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

The British historian Jonathan Wright was born in Hartlepool in 1969. He was educated at the universities of St. Andrews, Pennsylvania, and Oxford, where he earned his doctorate in 1998. He has published on various aspects of early modern religious history and is a contributor to Oxford University Press's New Dictionary of National Biography and Scribner's revised Dictionary of American History.

Read an Excerpt


"New Athletes to Combat God's Enemies"(1)

Jesuits and Reformations

. . . this sect, which was . . . only recently established by the Roman pontiff for the specific purpose of destroying the Churches that embrace the pure teaching of the Gospel.

Martin Chemnitz,
Examination of the Council of Trent, 1565(2)

It may be said with truth, that this order alone has contributed more than all the other orders together to confirm the wavering nations in the faith of Rome, to support the tottering authority of the high pontiff, to check the progress of the Reformation, and to make amends for the losses their holiness had sustained in Europe, by propagating the gospel, and with it a blind submission to the Holy See, among the African, American and Indian infidels.

Archibald Bower,
History of the Popes, 1766(3)

In any case, although the Society of Jesus would have had a much different history, it would have come into being even if the Reformation had not happened, and it cannot be defined primarily in relationship to it.

John O'Malley, S.J.
, The First Jesuits, 1993(4)


Early in the fog-smothered morning of May 6, 1527, troops of Charles V's imperial army began their clumsy assault on Rome. The feeble, neglected defenses of the city were breached with embarrassing ease, and the soldiers, undisciplined, unpaid, grumbling about months of pestilence and hunger, embarked upon a spree of looting, vandalism, and fleshy excess. Very quickly, reliable, sober reports of workshop smashing, iconoclasm, and theft merged with the more gruesome stories of torture, dismemberment, and serial rape. Across Europe, for generations to come, tales would be told of entire hospitals and orphanages being emptied, their helpless inmates drowned in the blood-gorged waters of the Tiber.

Charles, Habsburg ruler of Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, was quick to deny all responsibility for his renegade forces. The Italian Wars, the dynastic struggles inaugurated by a French king's crossing of the Alps in 1494, had once more flaunted their uncanny talent for blighting southern Europe.

The sack of Rome sent monks and artists scurrying, and it convulsed the Western imagination. Not until the grotesque Parisian carnage of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, four decades later—when hundreds of French Protestants lost their lives—would Europe be quite so scandalized, quite so shaken. The events of May 1527 were really about dynastic politics and disgruntled, leaderless troops. Religious animosity played its part—shrines were desecrated, cardinals were threatened, and one especially zealous participant brandished a golden rope with which he intended to hang the pope—but Spanish Catholics had contributed to the mayhem just as eagerly as German Lutherans.

What truly mattered, though, was the symbolism. Rome, the place that stood for papal plenitude, for Italian Renaissance grandeur, for the Roman Catholic Church, had, as one onlooker put it, become a cadaver of a city. The Venetian ambassador suggested that not even hell itself could offer so miserable a vista. In 1527, a decade on from the first stirrings of reformation, there was still much hope that schism might be averted and schismatics reconciled. But the sight of a ruined, ransacked Rome, of a pope hidden away in the Castel Sant'Angelo, was an eloquent reminder of how much had changed since Martin Luther's Wittenberg revolution, since the iconoclasm of Ulrich Zwingli's Zurich, since the withering assault on Catholic dogmas, rituals, and certainties had begun. Anarchic weeks that can best be blamed on the quarrels of supremely Catholic kings had managed to sum up Christendom's newly found frailty.

And at this bleakest of moments, Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits' future founder and first superior general, was about to arrive in Salamanca, as part of his search for a belated education. Within a few decades his place in the Catholic pantheon would be secure, and at his death a viceroy of Sicily could confidently announce that "after so many battles and victories he has taken up his rightful place in heaven alongside Dominic and Francis."5 In the mission fields of seventeenth-century Canada, pregnant women, having struggled in labor for twenty-four hours, would have Ignatian relics applied to their stomachs and babies would apparently rush into the world; a man with a burning fever would be urged to invoke Loyola's name, and in an instant he would be rendered as "cool as a fish."6

But in the summer of 1527, the heirs of St. Dominic had not been so sure of Loyola's credentials. Rather, they had invited him to a meal at their San Esteban convent, questioned him about his suspect brand of spirituality, and consigned him to twenty-two days in prison. Throughout its history, the Society of Jesus would enjoy similar encounters with the machinery of Catholic orthodoxy, whether the Inquisition or the papal Index. It was the kind of setback to which Loyola, incarcerated for six weeks at Alcal? a year earlier, was growing accustomed.

For the man who would soon be likened to David—providentially sent to combat Luther's Goliath, to help the Catholic world recover from indignities such as the sack of Rome—these were inauspicious beginnings: an early sign that there was to be nothing easy or inevitable about the Jesuits' contribution to the defense and renovation of the Roman Catholic Church.


When Loyola died, at Rome, in 1556, his autopsy revealed a body wasted by disease. Renaldo Colombo, holder of the chair of anatomy at Padua University, reported, "I extracted almost innumerable gallstones of various colours that I found in the kidney, the lungs, the liver and the portal vein."7 There was a distinct lack of Xavierian incorruptibility. For years, Loyola had been a part-time patient, often made worse by inept medical advice: one doctor even prescribed that he be shut indoors during the summer months and be given nothing to drink but strong wine—hardly the most suitable regimen for a man prone to stomachaches and systemically weakened by extreme austerities and mortifications earlier in life.8 But at least Loyola had suffered one worthwhile injury, back in May 1521, when it was definitively proven that a cannonball shot to the legs could do much for a person's hopes of sainthood.

The facts of Loyola's early life are not easy to excavate. Any account inevitably relies on his so-called autobiography, dictated late in life to his close friend Lu's Gonzalves da Camara, a work that was always destined, first and foremost, to be an inspirational exercise in rousing admiration among future members of the Society of Jesus.9 But basic facts there are. Born in 1491 at the castle of Loyola in northern Spain, close to Azpeitia in the province of Guipuezcoa, Inigo Lopez de Loyola was destined for a typical courtier's life, entering the service of Juan Velazquez de Cuellar at Arevalo at the age of thirteen and, by his own admission, quickly developing a taste for brawling and for unseemly encounters with women.

In 1517, military duty under Antonio Manrique de Lara, viceroy of Navarre, beckoned, and it was four years later, when Loyola was facing French troops at the battle for Pamplona, that the fabled cannonballs entered the historical record. His right leg was shattered and his left badly injured. While recuperating back at home, it seems that Loyola was deprived of his favorite chivalric literature and had to make do with reading Ludolph of Saxony's Life of Christ and the saint-filled Golden Legend of Jacopo de Voragine. And that, so we are told, is when the extraordinary transformation began. Loyola apparently discerned something enviable in the heroic lives of the saints, a sort of spiritual chivalry, and he determined to emulate it. Or as a caustic account from Enlightenment France would have it, the "Spanish gentlemen . . . having had his brain heated by romances of chivalry and afterwards by books of devotion, took it into his head to be the Don Quixote of the Virgin."10

Loyola's account of the next few years is replete with epochal, stirring moments. A night spent before the Black Madonna at the Benedictine monastery in Montserrat prompted Loyola to exchange his robe and sword for a pilgrim's staff and the rough cloak and sandals of a beggar. A spell at Manresa saw him begging, praying, fasting, and flagellating, allowing his hair and fingernails to grow to uncommon length, being treated to visions, and working on his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises, on which Loyola continued to work over the coming decades, would emerge as the lodestone of a distinctive Ignatian spirituality—arguably one of the most impressive, enduring Jesuit contributions to the Roman Catholic tradition. Over the next five centuries, Loyola's spiritual vision—optimistic, rooted in notions of magnanimity and fraternity—would lead Catholics through prayer and meditation, allowing them to examine their consciences, convincing them that their God was in all things and that it was entirely possible for them to discern the specific will of their Creator in their individual lives.

By 1523 Loyola was visiting the holy sites of Jerusalem, but when it became clear that the city was far too dangerous for an extended stay, he opted to return to Europe in pursuit of a university education. After two years at Barcelona, taking Latin classes with children, Loyola moved on to the lecture halls of Alcalá in 1526 and Salamanca in 1527, the university towns where his preaching and theologizing (reminiscent to some minds of the outlawed alumbrado movement) first attracted unwelcome attention.11 Released by the Dominicans of Salamanca without prejudice (although they urged him to remain silent on certain theological issues), Loyola rode a donkey to Barcelona and decided to cross over into France. Friends warned him that given the political climate, he risked a hostile reception, telling him that Frenchmen were currently roasting Spaniards on spits, but, undeterred, he left for Paris on foot, arriving on February 2, 1528.12

Over the next six years Loyola studied, begged for alms, lost money to unscrupulous countrymen, and lived in something very close to destitution. But then, in the summer and autumn of 1534, Paris witnessed two events—one intensely private, the other all too public—that would help transform the religious landscape of Western Europe.

At sixty days' distance, the whole Jesuit experiment began and the Protestant Reformation revealed, as spectacularly as ever before, just how disruptive it could be. Neither incident caused, or even really influenced, the other, but for those who would later insist on portraying the Jesuits as the fated champions of Catholic renewal, the timing was exquisite. It was certainly a more portentous coincidence than the year 1527 had been able to provide.


On the morning of October 18, 1534, Parisians woke up to find dozens of placards posted around their city. A bitter attack had been launched on "the horrible, great and insufferable abuses of the papal mass," on the risible notion that the body of Jesus Christ could somehow be concealed within a morsel of bread. The hocus-pocus—Hoc est corpus meum—of transubstantiation was denounced as a grotesque human invention, a way for the dissolute cabal of magician priests to devalue the magnificence and sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, a tactic to trap a gullible laity in false and hazardous security. Through their tricks at the altar, clerics were certainly winning power and prestige; they had been doing so for centuries, but only at the cost of peoples' eternal souls. To the guardians of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, already reeling from seventeen years of Protestant posturing and incursion, the placards were a blasphemy too far.

Copies of the protesters' manifesto were found also in Blois, Tournon, and Rouen, and legend has it that Francis I, enjoying a weekend at his château at Amboise, discovered one of the broadsides on the door of his bedchamber. The French establishment was launched into a vengeful rage that would trigger weeks of persecution, lynching, and execution. A shoemaker's son and a wealthy draper were among the first Parisian victims. One unfortunate Flemish merchant fell foul of mistaken identity, being pursued to his death by a mob chanting that if he was a German, his murder would likely gain them indulgences.13

Francis (Renaissance monarch par excellence, who had created lectureships in Hebrew and Greek out of which the forward-thinking College de France would emerge) made the uneasy transition from enlightened humanist to lighter of autos-da-fe. By the following January, Francis was leading a religious procession through the capital, torch in hand, shrines and relics proudly on display, leading to high mass at Notre Dame. Lest anyone be unsure of what was at stake, the bishop of Paris carried the Blessed Sacrament in a canopy held aloft by the king's three sons and the duc de Vend(tm)me. Later the same day, six Protestants were burned to death in front of the cathedral, and Francis boldly declared that if it transpired that any of his children were stained by heresy, he would light their funeral pyres with his own hands.

Throughout the period of the Reformation, there would be rows about salvation, about the impenetrable decrees of predestination, about how, and by whom, the Bible ought to be interpreted; but there would be no more potent shibboleth than the theology of the real presence—the transformations of wine to blood and bread to body and all the symbolism and ritual that surrounded them. To Calvinists, the "peevish, popish, prattling, private mass" had forgotten that the sacrament was really a memorial of Christ, who, when one thought about it, was supposed to be at God's right hand, not to-ing and fro-ing between heaven and earth. Protestants across Europe sometimes lost all patience when "a stinking sodomite or a wicked whoremonger . . . dressed in his fool's coat and standing at an altar" launched into his transubstantiating nonsense, making a God out of that which "not many days past was corn in the ploughman's barn."14 When William Gardiner was forced to endure such a spectacle in Portugal in 1552, he felt obliged to "snatch away the cake from the priest and tread it under his feet." A decade earlier, John Ellis had found himself before the Archdeacon's Court at Colchester, accused of feeding the communion wafer to his dog.15

Not that Catholics regarded Protestant innovation and denial of the real presence with any less disdain. In 1570, Elizabeth Milner of Clapham removed "the sacramental bread from her mouth and spewed forth the wine," doubtless conscious that, as one Catholic authority advised, it would be better "to eat so much ratsbane than that polluted bread and to drink so much dragon's gall or viper's blood than that sacrilegious wine" of the lackluster Protestant communion.16

Such battle lines were drawn during the so-called Affair of the Placards, and in the very same year and city, Ignatius Loyola embarked upon the spiritual pilgrimage that would culminate in a religious order as determined as any other to sustain the awe and dignity of the Roman Catholic Eucharist. It was a coincidence. Loyola and his friends, at least in what survives of their testimony, seem hardly to have noticed the gathering theological storm. But for sixteenth-century Catholics, under siege and confident that theirs was an assiduous, interventionist Creator, it was very hard to believe in coincidences. As Gregory XIII (the sixteenth-century pope who, more than any other, prized the Jesuits) told a member of the Society in 1581, "there is in this day no single instrument raised up by God against heretics greater than your holy order. It came into the world at the very moment when the new errors began to spread abroad."17

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God's Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power- A History of the Jesuits 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
eturner27 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A balanced and informative read, Jonathan Wright employs a playful -at times smug - tone to his examination of the origin, suppression and rebirth of the Church's most controversial order, the Jesuits. As a Jesuit trained student and teacher, I smiled and cringed throughout the read wishing Wright had focused just a bit more on the pedagogical contributions - good and bad - the Society of Jesus has imparted to students all over the world. My father in-law, having attended St. John Bapst High (not a Jesuit institution) in Bangor, ME, was pleased to hear about the incredible persecution and successful evangelism the patron of his alma mater had. A historian first, theologian second Wright undoubtedly respects religion's role in the world without entirely convincing the reader that he himself practices it.