The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, in the midst of a three-day meeting stacked with business, is taking time for reflection and repentance.
The topic – part of the board’s ongoing work in cultural humility training – is the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept that Pope Alexander VI articulated in the papal bull “Inter Caetera” in 1493 and that became entrenched in international law, providing justification for colonial imperialism, enslavement and the taking of land and rights from indigenous peoples.
The Doctrine of Discovery – also known as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery – was used to justify the Spanish conquest of the New World and support colonialism elsewhere, following Christopher Columbus’s report of discoveries in the west.
The bull contended that any land not already inhabited by Christians could be “discovered” – to be claimed and used by Christians. And it used Christianity as a justification for exploitation by proclaiming that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
The U.S. Supreme Court relied on the Doctrine of Discovery in its 1823 ruling in the Johnson v. McIntosh case, for which Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the decision. Marshall wrote in that unanimous decision “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.”
That Native Americans were here first – that it was their land, their history, their sacred space – did not matter under this rule of law.
The 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery – one of a series of denominations and religious groups to do so, including the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalists, the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ and the World Council of Churches. The General Assembly encouraged congregations and councils of the church to do their own work of discovery and repentance regarding the doctrine.
A group of Presbyterians is working on a report to the 2018 General Assembly – detailing the history of oppression that emerged from that doctrine; its legacy and current ramifications; and the need for repentance and healing.
Around the PC(USA), some mid councils are doing their own explorations of the Doctrine of Discovery – with the Presbytery of Yukon offering an apology to native Alaskans last October and with the Synod of the Southwest over the past year studying privilege, classism and racism, including the mistreatment of Native Americans.
Today, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board will spend several hours in a Native American Day worship service and in learning about the long and painful history of oppression that flows from the Doctrine of Discovery. (Click here for photos of the blanket exercise PMA participated in on Sept. 22.)
“I urge you to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery and the search for healing in our native communities,” Katharine Jefferts Schori, the former presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., wrote regarding that denomination’s repudiation.
“But this is also a matter for healing in communities and persons of European immigrant descent. Colonists, settlers, and homesteaders benefited enormously from the availability of ‘free’ land, and their descendants continue to benefit to this day. That land was taken by force or subterfuge from peoples who had dwelt on it from time immemorial – it was their ‘promised land.’ The nations from which the settlers came, and the new nations which resulted in the Americas, sought to impose another culture and way of life on the peoples they encountered. Attempting to remake the land and peoples they found ‘in their own image’ was a profound act of idolatry.”
For more information:
- Read the remarks that Elona Street-Stewart, synod executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, made to the 2016 General Assembly regarding the Confession of Belhar, racism, and the Doctrine of Discovery.
- Read “Discovering the Doctrine of Discovery” by Byron Buck, in the online journal Unbound.
- Explore resources from the PC(USA) on the Doctrine of Discovery.