Louis Riel believed that on 8 December 1875 he received a divine commission authorizing him to save the Métis and reform the Catholic Church. He was a prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the Métis were the new chosen people. A new branch of the Catholic Church would be founded in North America, with its first Holy See in Montreal, and its second in Riel's birthplace of St. Vital.
When Riel expressed these views in 1876, he was committed to a lunatic asylum. After his release, he suppressed his ideas for several years, only to reveal them again to his Métis followers during the North-West Rebellion. The Rebellion thus became as much a religious as a political movement; Riel believed himself a prophet to the end of his life, and he went to his death thinking that he, like Christ, would be resurrected on the third day.
Earlier writers about Louis Riel have noted his religious beliefs but have not taken them seriously. They have usually dismissed Riel's attempt to found a new religion as the symptom of a deranged mind. Thomas Flanagan takes Riel's religion seriously and analyses it using categories developed in the literature about millenarian movements. He shows that Riel's religion, far from being simply individual madness, is typical of the nativistic and millenarian movements described by one author as the 'religions of the oppressed.'
This is also a biography, tracing Riel's thinking on religious subjects from his childhood to the end of his life and paying particular attention to events in his life that influenced his thinking. This developmental approach is necessary because Riel's ideas changed frequently; he never arrived at a fixed 'system.'
The research is based on primary sources throughout. Much new documentation has become available over the past thirty years and in the sixteen years since this volume was initially published. In particular, new information is presented about Riel's youth in Montreal, his time in insane asylums, his years in Montana, and the North-West Rebellion. Flanagan also re-interprets well-known documents. While this revised edition does not alter the fundamentals of his interpretation, it improves the historical backdrop against which it is presented through use of a wealth of new primary sources. Flanagan has updated his citings of Riel's manuscripts to current sources.