Finding Syncretism in John Jacob’s Hymnbook

This text can be found in Huron University College’s Rare Book Collection. Read about Huron’s copy here.

The narrative of European interactions with North American peoples is eurocentric. It is a one sided story that reduces Indigenous peoples to “the Other”, a category used to describe a group defined by Europeans and their efforts to evaluate and modify cultures of the people with whom they came into contact. They came, they encountered, they colonized. This is the typical narrative of European accounts. In the context of religion, this story tends to emphasize how colonizing Europeans forcefully imposed their thoughts and beliefs on North American peoples who initially resisted the conversion attempts, but ultimately gave in to the European’s Christian faith. When looking at an 1895 Ojibwe and English Hymnbook re-arranged and revised by the Ojibwe-Anglican missionary Rev. John Jacobs, a different story emerges. This story helps counteract a tendency to see faith as pervasive and culture as a zero-sum game.

Jacob’s book is located in Huron University College’s Rare Book Collection. For the most part, the book fits within the broader themes of the college’s collections. A report on the collection completed in the 1980s by Western’s School of Library and Information Science found that fifty percent of the collection was comprised of theological material.[1] Superficially Jacob’s text then becomes simply another book within the Anglican Church’s nineteenth-century collection. From an historical perspective it is nothing more then another example of the civilization mission in Canada conducted by the Christian Churches.

But on a closer inspection its meaning becomes much more complex. The text provides historians with an example of syncretism between the Ojibwe culture and the Christian faith. It is an instance of acceptance by the Ojibwe people of an aspect of Christianity that fit within their own culture. In the end, as this essay will discuss, the hymns did not have the intended influence on the Ojibwe people that the Anglican Church expected. Instead, they conveyed a message that, while similar to Christian values, maintained important aspects of Ojibwe beliefs.


Jacobs was an Ojibwe born near Lac la Croix west of Lake Superior on 22 April 1845. He was most likely Huron’s first Indigenous student, ordained at the college in London, Ontario in 1869.[2] After being ordained into the Anglican Church he went on to be the minister in the Ojibwe community on Walpole Island, Ontario were he took part in the Church’s civilization process.[3] Aside from his hymnbook, Jacobs left few documents through from which we can learn about his life as a missionary. Most information about him can be found in the scant folder on him in the Verschoyle Phillip Cronyn Memorial Archives at Huron University College (for more information see transcribed documents on this site). His life, however, is very important for us to understand, not only because of the importance of his Hymnbook, but also because of how it reveals to us how Indigenous peoples viewed themselves in relation to the settlers quickly increasing in numbers around them.

Even though an Anglican minister, he still identified as being a member of the Ojibwe nation. It is in that capacity that we learn more about his life as he fought against Canadian efforts to separate him from his people. In 1857 the Canadian government made a law stipulating that any indigenous person who had acquired “superior” skills, knowledge or character would lose their Indian status.[4] Just over a decade later, and follow Canadian confederation, in 1869, the Canadian government strengthened these laws, granting individuals enfranchisement without their consent. Later, under article 86(1) of the 1876 Indian Act any Indigenous person who became a doctor, lawyer, minister, or obtained a university degree would be similarly enfranchised. These laws were created because much like Jacobs, few Indigenous peoples chose enfranchisement without coercion. [5] Historian Peter S. Schmalz writes in his book The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario that Jacobs fought vigorously against these provisions. During this time in his life, Jacobs received official letters, most likely from the Department of Indian Affairs, stating “that professional men had no further claim amongst their own people.”[6]What this meant is that Jacobs did not see an implicit relationship between being a Canadian citizen and being a Christian. To him they were two different ways of identifying; religion had little to do with politics or citizenship. It is from this perspective that we need to analyze his hymnbook.


Before looking specifically at the text of Jacobs’s hymns we need to discuss the book itself as an artifact. For being published in 1895, the hymn book is in excellent condition. While that might be a sign of good quality storage, it might also be an indicator of how often this book was handled. Other than the yellowing of the pages, there is not much indication of wear.

This can most likely be attributed to the importance of printing to the European ‘civilization’ process. When the Province of Upper Canada was created in 1791 John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor understood the connection between printing and the process of colonization, bringing with him a printing press.[7] Partially through reading and the mass production of print, colonial officials used alphabetic literacy to determine how Indigenous societies compared with their own. For example, when the amount of printing in Upper Canada surpassed that of Lower Canada, it was seen as an indicator of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race as the predominantly French Lower Canada’s printing sector had been created some thirty years before.[8] By the time Jacobs’s book came out, the Christian Churches had become an important part of the printing sector in Canada.

Between 1840 and 1918, compared to other genres, Christian publications were the most widely circulated form of print.[9] In the 1830s, following John Wesley’s emphasis on alphabetic literacy, the Methodist Church in Britain, Canada and the United State began to evangelize by disseminating religious texts at a low price. The British Foreign Bible Society of London believed in this idea as well and distributed religious texts to the poor in Europe, India, and the Americas.[10] By 1862, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions claimed that it had produced 1,841,000 pages of Bibles, hymnals and school books in the Ojibwe language.[11] Jacobs’ hymnbook was produced on a similarly large scale. Huron’s copy, a third edition, was printed in Sarnia, Ontario by the Office of the Sarnia Canadian. Using Google’s newspaper search, however, I found a newspaper article that listed more places that this book was published and used. In the Daily Mail and Empire from Toronto the article states that the book was also printed in Toronto by the Brown Bros. and it was used in Manitoba, Rat Portage, Manitoulin Island, Lake Simcoe, and other parts of Ontairo and Minnesota.[12]This widespread interest helps explain why Jacobs’s hymn book was in its third edition. In an earlier 1890 collection of hymns, the second edition, for which Jacobs provided no English translations, Jacobs’s states that the reason why he printed another edition was because the first edition had become exhausted.[13]

According to Joyce Appleby, this type of mass printing in North America brought with it increased attention towards education.[14] Education and religion were very much interconnected at this time. For Ojibwe-English books like Jacobs’s, however, their purpose was not only to teach the Ojibwe to speak English, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to instruct English clergymen how to read and speak in Ojibwe. Christian missionaries reported that Indigenous populations were more interested in what they had to say, when they could speak their language. [15] More importantly, though, popular thought at the time suggested that hymn singing was an effective strategy in creating a passion in children to learn and lead a moral life.[16] These hymns were meant to move the soul and the mind of all who sung them, encouraging them to accept the preached Word. This made hymn singing an indispensable tool for missionaries.[17] Much like with printing, it was seen as a tool of social and cultural revolution.

Here, religion cannot be separated from broader trends within colonial politics. Books like Jacobs must be situated within the nineteenth-century history of settler colonialism in the lower Great Lakes. In this part of the world, the spearhead of the Canadian Government’s civilization mission was the Anglican Church, which also had the secondary objective of making the Ojibwe loyal subjects to the crown.[18] To complete the goal of ‘civilizing’ the Ojibwe, the Government’s and Church’s methods were to destroy Ojibwe culture and assimilate them into the Canadian society. In the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent General of the Indian Department: “The happiest future of the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object of the policy of our government. The great forces of… education will finally overcome the lingering traces of native practices and tradition.”[19]Part of this education was to eradicate the Ojibwe language, making it easier to be absorbed into the emerging Canadian culture.


With the church’s methods so tightly linked with these policies of assimilation, why would any Indigenous person want to convert to the Christian faith? There are a variety of reasons. According to Christopher Vecsey, some converted to gain wealth and power, others plainly had a desire to please the missionaries or maintain agreements and relationships important to the Ojibwe people.[20] Building on this latter point, some would convert to develop Ojibwe Christian leadership, to help their community as it faced increasing hardship and dispossession.[21] Although certainly true for some Ojibwa, these reasons fail to account for the shear number of Ojibwa conversions over the nineteenth century. By 1900, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic officials claimed that almost all of the Ojibwe in Southern Ontario and Minnesota had converted. [22] To understand their motivations, one must take a much closer look at Jacobs’s hymnbook and how it was used.

Singing is an important part of Ojibwe culture. According to Donald Smith, from time immemorial, ceremonies of the dead, war preparations, nearly all games, and treating of the sick (among other activities) involved singing.[23] These songs carry much more meaning and emotion than we often associate with song today. For the Ojibwe songs made an intervention in the world, and pointed to the relationships within it. Titles or first lines were not used, for example, instead ownership, origin, or use of the songs were used as identifiers.[24] In 1845 Thomas Commuck, a Narragansett man from New England published a collection of 121 hymns titled Indian Melodies. The theological content of the hymns is not what Commuck used to title his songs. Instead he used the names of leaders like Uncas and Powhatan that reminded him, and the Narragansett more generally, of struggle with colonization. Indigenous place names and the names of nations were similarly used to serve as a memory of peoples reduced by warfare and settlement.[25]

Missionaries capitalized on this love of music. From as early as the 1630’s missionaries like the Jesuit Father François Joseph Le Mercier emphasized the importance of music, writing about the Wendat:

the curiosity to see our images and to hear our songs attract these peoples to our cabin on Sundays and Feast days, where we appear in our surplices to offer public prayers… Our Superior begins with a Prayer in their language, which he pronounces in the tone generally used in the Councils …. [W]e after wards sing the Apostle’s creed in the native rhymes. [… After the catechism t]here follows some Church Hymn, and then all is ended with a prayer, intoned to some tune resembling their own songs, of which they are very fond.”[26]

This mutual interest in music and singing resulted in the creation of the Canada’s first Christmas carol the Huron Carol by Father Jean de Brebeuf around 1643. According to linguist John Steckley, the carol’s original Wendat translations blend traditional Wendat teachings to the new Christian teachings that were being introduced into their culture.[27] The attempted conversion of Indigenous populations through the singing of hymns did not have its intended effect. Though Indigenous peoples did accept the use of hymns, they used them to tell their own stories.

Unlike some of the examples explored above, however, Jacobs did not write his own hymns, he merely revised and rearranged them. Even here, though, Ojibwe stories and ideas can be found in his translations. This is partially because, according to Peter Jones, the Ojibwe language “makes a deeper impression on the mind of both speaker and hearer [than English]” because it is “full of imagery”. Jones, or Kahkewaquonaby as he was known among the Ojibwe, was perhaps the best known Ojibwe Methodist minister of the nineteenth century. [28] He found translating hymns very difficult and it was hard to provide a faithful translation of the original hymns. [29] This made it difficult for missionaries to teach the Ojibwe as the differences in languages encouraged them to interpret the hymns in their own way.

Michael D. McNally’s book Ojibway Singers explores this issue and what it means for our interpretation of Jacobs’s hymn book. McNally uses a couple of different motifs to show how Christian teachings reflected perspectives already ingrained within Ojibwe culture and how these perspectives were developed through the translation of hymns. To make his argument, McNally translated a 1910 Ojibwe hymn book 1910 back into English. He then compared these translations to the original English hymns, from which they had emerged. While I cannot translate the Ojibwe hymns in Jacobs’s book, McNally’s ideas demonstrate that there were likely similarities between his hymn books and the one explored in this paper. One of the motifs McNally uses, for example, is variation in how one perceives the ideal Christian life and practice. In the hymn A Charge to Keep I Have by Charles Wesley, the second verse reads “To Serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will!” In the Ojibwe Hymnal the verse is translated as “You want me to thus work for you. Let it be so. Make me hopeful that I pray in the right manner”. The Ojibwe meaning implies that one does not need to follow the “right religion” to find the Christian path, but one just needs to be sincere when practicing religion.[30] Similarly, in the hymn Jesus to All, Heaven is Gone by George Coles, emphasis in the English text is place on the Christian path discovered by the holy prophets, leading to salvation and away from banishment, while in the Ojibwe text the holy prophets are absent, the path instead being led to by the wise, creating a multiply of paths.[31]

Perhaps more importantly, however, these translations can change over geographical areas. Between Jacobs revised hymn book and McNally’s 1910 hymnal, translations of the same hymns do not appear the same. Continuing to use McNally’s analysis, we can assume that this is much more than corrections to make the text more closely resemble that of the original authors, or to teach the “true doctrines”. They show the wide reaching practice of hymn singing as the local dialects in the Ojibwe language would have changed by author, resulting in the translations, and therefore the meanings, being different. The difference could also have been a result of the mannerisms of hymn singing, similar to folk songs in an oral tradition, details sometimes change over time because of shortcomings of memory as well as creativity.[32] So while becoming Christians, this analysis of hymn books suggests they very much retained diverse Ojibwe outlooks on the world.[33]

George Copway, a Mississauga Ojibwe who converted to Methodism after having a vision, demonstrates the syncretic interconnections between Christian and more traditional Ojibwe beliefs. In fact, Copway’s reference to visions demonstrates another area in which Christianity aligns with Ojibwe practices. [34] Other historians have suggested this was the same for other Indigenous societies. According to Linford Fisher, the Narragansett continued the traditional cultural practice of having dreams, visions, and trances, integrating them into their new found religion. A man named Samuel Niles, for example, could not read, but was said to learn Christian doctrine from Angels and Christ through feelings, visions and appearances. Experiences like this encouraged Narragansett Christians to believe that they had a much closer connection to God and that indeed their form of Christianity was superior to that of the European Christians, as they did not need to rely on the Bible for guidance.[35] Similarly, French missionaries working with the Illinois noted that the Illinois accepted the Christian God, but continued their own religious practices. They continued to worship the manitous that surrounded them, but also included Christian objects in to their customs. Churches and chapels, for example, were seen as manitous of protection.[36]


With this historical context in place, it is now far easier to see how hymn books served a syncretic purpose for many Ojibwe people. John Jacobs may have been an Anglican priest, but he still considered himself as an Ojibwe individual. The Indigenous people that converted to the Christian faith in the Lower Great Lakes did not completely change their beliefs; instead they adopted elements of the new faith that fit into their own culture. By way of conclusion, this process can best be described using Linford Fisher’s words. In his book, The Indians Great Awakening, Fisher describes Thomas Commuck’s Old Indian Hymn using these words: “The implicit moral of the hymn was that Natives, too, had received independent revelation regarding God that Euroamerican Christianity could only supplement, not supplant.”[37] The Ojibwe people were similar. They used books like Jacobs’s as a tool. Though it was meant to destroy their language and culture, they often modified it and made it there own.


[1] Jennifer Robinson, “History of the Rare Books Collection,” Huron University College Library

[2] Jim Miller, letter to Cathy Phillips, November 8, 1989; and Huron University College, Huron Memories: 1863-2013 accessed December 4, 2015,

[3] Among the Ojibways,” Daily Mail and Empire October 2, 1895, p. 12.

[4] Sébastien Grammond, Identity captured by law: membership in Canada’s indigenous peoples and linguistic minorities (Montreal: McGill-Queens’s University Press, 2009), 99.

[5] Ibid., 100.

[6] Peter S. Schmalz, The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 197.

[7] Aegidius Fauteux, The Introduction of Printing into Canada (Montreal: Rolland Paper Company, 1930), 115.

[8] Ibid., 141.

[9] Janet B. Friskney, “Spreading the Word: Religious Print for Mass Distribution” in History of the Book in Canada: Volume II 1840-1918, ed. by Yvan Lamonde, Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Fiona A. Black (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 365.

[10] Wyatt Kyle Carsten. “‘Rejoicing in this unpronounceable name’: Peter Jones’s authorial identity.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada Vol 47 No.2 (2009)

[11] Michael D. McNally, Ojibway Singers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 36

[12] “Among the Ojibways,” Daily Mail and Empire

[13] John Jacobs, A Collection of Ojibway hymns (Sarnia: Office of the Sarnia Canadian, 1890), 1.

[14] Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 103.

[15] McNally, 48.

[16] Ibid., 38.

[17] Ibid., 39.

[18] Schmalz, 160.

[19] Ibid., 182.

[20] Christopher Vecsey, Traditional Ojibwa Religion and its Historical Changes (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1983), 54.

[21] Ibid., 55.

[22] Ibid., 50.

[23] Donald B. Smith, Missauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices From Nineteenth-Century Canada(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 224.

[24] Schmalz, 27.

[25] Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Grat Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 207.

[26] John Steckley, “Huron Carol: a Canadian cultural chameleon,” British Journal of Canadian Studies, 27, 1 (2014) 55-74.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Smith, 17.

[29] McNally, 61.

[30] Ibid., 66.

[31] Ibid., 65.

[32] McNally, 49.

[33] Smith, 19.

[34] Ibid., 170.

[35] Fisher, 130.

[36] Christopher Bilodeau, “They Honor Our Lord among Themselves in Their Own Way”: Colonial Christianity and the Illinois Indians.” American Indian Quarterly 25, 3 (Summer, 2001), 358.

[37] Fisher, 208