The society had its beginnings in the small band of six who together with St. Ignatius took vows of poverty and chastity while students at Paris. Their first plan was to work for the conversion of Muslims. Unable to go to the Holy Land because of the Turkish wars, they went to Rome and received ordination. Their constitution was approved by Pope Paul III (1540), and St. Ignatius was made (1541) general. The order then immediately began to expand.
In Europe the Jesuits were a major force in the Counter Reformation. They sought to reclaim Protestant Europe for the church and to raise the spiritual tone of the Catholic countries. They enjoyed considerable success in W and S Germany, France, Hungary, and Poland. In nearly every important city the Jesuits established schools and colleges, and for 150 years they were leaders in European education. One of their boldest efforts was the English mission of 1580, distinguished by Saint Edmund Campion. Another celebrated English Jesuit was Robert Southwell.
One of the most brilliant of all foreign missionaries was St. Francis Xavier (see also missions); his work in the East was continued by a host of Jesuits. The mission in Japan was wiped out by persecution in the early 17th cent., but when Japan was reopened to the West in the 19th cent. a number of Christians were found there, descendants of these martyrs. The most distinguished early figures of the Chinese mission were Fathers Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall, and Ferdinand Verbiest in the 17th cent.; a characteristic of their mission was their popularity at court, where they were revered as men of wisdom and science. There were persecutions and martyrdoms, but the original Jesuit foundation became the nucleus of the Roman Catholic Church in that country. The Indian mission began under the aegis of the Portuguese in Goa, whence it spread over the country; one of the most remarkable Jesuits in this mission was Robert de' Nobili, who, after arduous asceticism and study, won recognition as an equal of the Brahmans.
The Jesuits worked all over Latin America; among their number was St. Peter Claver. The most remarkable missions were in Paraguay. In French North America the Jesuits came frequently into rivalry with the government and the other clergy; their missions among the Huron were especially successful, and they made headway among the Iroquois. The "Black-Robes," as the Native Americans called them, traveled as far afield as Oregon. Some of these Jesuits died as martyrs for their faith (c.1640); six of them have been canonized together, with two of their lay helpers, as the Jesuit Martyrs of North America (feast: Sept. 26). The Jesuit Relations is a firsthand account of Jesuit work in New France. The suppression of the order in Canada in 1791 and its later readmission as a teaching order led to the Jesuit Estates Act.
The Jesuits eventually became the object of criticism from vested ecclesiastical interests in every Catholic state. The Gallican party in France (see Gallicanism), being antipapal, was naturally anti-Jesuit. The polemics of Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists (see under Jansen, Cornelis) against Jesuit casuistry and alleged laxity in confessional practice were damaging. Through their loyalty to papal policies, the Jesuits were drawn into the struggle between the papacy and the Bourbon monarchies.
Before the middle of the 18th cent. a combination of publicists (including Voltaire) and the absolute monarchs of Catholic Europe undertook to destroy them. In 1759 the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal and its colonies, France suppressed them in 1764, and in 1767 the Spanish dominions were closed to them. Pope Clement XIII denounced these acts, but, in 1773, Clement XIV, under the coercion of the Bourbon monarchs and of some of his own cardinals, dissolved the order, and the Society of Jesus ceased to exist in the Catholic world.
Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great refused to publish the brief suppressing them, and the Jesuits continued to exist in Prussia and Russia, especially as educators. As the 18th cent. drew to a close Catholic Europe, especially Italy, began to ask for restoration of the Jesuits, and, in 1814, Pius VII reestablished them as a world order.