Doctrine of Christian Discovery

John Turner

Laboring under the misapprehension that political bodies listen to the opinions of mainline Protestant denominations (we didn't even have a label for mainline Protestantism on this blog), the Episocopal Church recently repudiated the centuries-old belief that God gave Christian Europeans the right to wrest land away from benighted natives.

A friend forwarded me an article from Indian Country Today celebrating the resolution, which calls for the overturning of an 1823 Supreme Court decision (Johnson v. M’Intosh). That SCOTUS decision held that Indians do not possess sovereignty over their land because of the established precedent of European colonization.

This is far beyond my field of alleged expertise, but I presume that the Episcopal action is very much in accord with mainline resolutions on similar issues relating to native peoples over the past several decades. Can anyone shed any light on churches and this vaguely described “Doctrine of Discovery,” this Manifest Destiny for all of Christian Europe?

I’m also always struck by the dogged custodialism of mainline Protestantism. I once attended a PCUSA General Assembly at which the delegates passed resolutions on everything from oil drilling in Alaska to U.S. policy toward Columbia, which struck me as highly unlikely to attract attention beyond the conference center hosting the gathering and a few denominational publications. But even with their dwindling numbers and political influence, mainline Protestants take their mission of justice seriously, doggedly passing resolutions and calling on politicians and communities to take seriously their understanding of the Gospel.


Wayne Ratzlaff said…

Since I am not a legal historian, I cannot offer comment on the the "doctrine of discovery," but I too am fascinated by the resolutions that are passed at denominational conferences.

While I don't think conference resolutions carry much direct legislative influence, they do offer a historical gauge regarding when an awareness developed on a particular social or cultural issue.

One question I have whether resolutions reflect topics already being discussed at the grassroots or whether they are intended for broader dissemination to shape the thinking of those in the pews?

If the answer to this question is the latter, do resolutions then become topics that are incorporated into sermon texts?
Rebecca said…
My sense is that the doctrine of discovery took some time to develop. Certainly it was not universally held in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. I was thinking about this the other day in rereading William Crashaw's 1609 Virginia sermon, in which he outlines the differences between the Biblical Canaan and Virginia: "The Israelites had a commandement from God to dwell in Canaan, we have leave to dwell in Virginia: they were commanded to kill the heathen, we are forbidden to kill them, but are commanded to convert them..." (F3r-[F4]v) At other points Crashaw reminded the adventurers not to steal anything and to be sure that everything they took they paid for. According to Crashaw, the English had God's permission to dwell in the New World but only if certain conditions (namely the conversion of the Indians) were met. This is a little different from a belief that the English could simply move in and take everything. That belief came later; in Virginia I would date it in the post-1622 era, but the Pilgrims initially colonized Cape Cod with justifications that looked a lot more like Crashaw's than the reasons listed in Johnson vs. M'Intosh.

Shorter version: we desperately need some new scholarly work on ideas of colonization and on the intersection of religious and commercial justifications for empire. I like Andrew Fitzmaurice's book Humanism in America--it raises many interesting questions that we should follow up on...

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