In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
On behalf of King Francis I, Jacques Cartier sailed from France on April 20, 1534, with two ships and sixty-one sailors. They had all confessed their sins before sailing, and they prayed for the safety and success of their voyage. Their goal: to determine if a northwest passage existed that would link the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. European explorers were fascinated with the possibility of reaching Asia by sailing westward around the continent through a northern waterway that would connect the two great oceans.
Encountering good weather, Cartier crossed the Atlantic in less than three weeks. On May 10, he spotted what today is called Newfoundland. As he explored the coastline, he and his men paused on June 10 to worship God—the first recorded instance of public worship in Canada.
At first, Cartier and his men were discouraged by the desolate nature of the coastline, and the explorer commented that it reminded him of the land God gave Cain. But after the sailors began encountering tribes of Native Americans, their attitude changed. Eager to share the gospel, Cartier erected large crosses and sought to explain their meaning to local tribal leaders. On the shore of Gaspe Bay, Cartier wrote, ‘We kneeled down together before them, with our hands toward heaven yielding God thanks; and we made signs unto them, showing them the heavens and that all our salvation depended only on Him which in them dwelleth; whereat they showed a great admiration, looking first at one another and then at the cross.’
The next year, Cartier returned on a second voyage, this time with three ships; on October 3, 1535, he entered a Native American village named Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montréal. Cartier was deeply moved when local tribesmen gathered around him bringing their sick and afflicted. The villagers thought the French explorers might be celestial beings.
To a man of Cartier’s habit of mind, the scene must have been an affecting one, suggesting as it did the many similar occurrences in the Savior’s life upon earth; and in recalling the words of power from the Divine lips—I will, be thou clean—Receive thy sight—Take up thy bed—he must have longed for the gift of healing, if only for a few moments. . . . As his heart went out in sympathy for this poor people whose bodily ailments were but a faint type of their spiritual condition . . . he . . . sought to direct them as best he could to the Great Healer of men—to one who could do for them that which he was powerless to effect.
Cartier couldn’t heal the villagers of their sickness, but he knew how to give them the gospel. Lifting his voice, the explorer began reciting the first chapter of John, starting with verse 1: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ The gospel of John, Cartier knew, presents Jesus Christ as God Himself, who, in love, came down from heaven as the Great Communication—the Word—the message of eternal life. Cartier spoke of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, then he earnestly prayed for the physical and spiritual needs of those gathered around him. The villagers were ‘marvelously attentive, looking up to heaven and imitating us in gestures.’
Jacques Cartier didn’t find the elusive Northwest Passage, but his three voyages to North America brought the symbol of the cross and the message of the gospel to the vast areas of the St. Lawrence River, the waterway that slices through eastern Canada and links the Atlantic not with the Pacific but with the Great Lakes. In the process, he also gave Canada its name, from the Iroquois word Kanata, meaning “village.”