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DISCOVERY DOCTRINE

A few years before the Reformation began in England the Pope blessed the colonization efforts of Portugal and Spain as those countries “discovered” the New World and claimed sovereignty over lands, peoples and civilizations hitherto unknown. After the Reformation, or its first stage, England muscled in on colonization and in 1607 established a permanent settlement in what was called Virginia. I have written a booklet on the Jamestown Settlement which may be obtained from Forward Movement Publications.

I have seen no evidence to suggest that this small beginning of establishing a “British Empire” relied on any “doctrine” promulgated by the Roman Pontiff. One doubts seriously whether Elizabethan and Jacobean settlers, Anglicans or Puritans invoked or would have dreamed of invoking such a “doctrine”. English settlers in Virginia were inspired by commerical interests: they wanted to make their fortunes. The Puritans sought a place to establish their Godly Commonwealth. Insofar that either group saw it their duty to evangelize the indigenous population, they were inspired by their reading of God’s Word and by a sense of cultural superiority which is not dead today, even in the thinking of “liberals” who believe that they have been uniquely singled out by God to spread their Gospel of inclusion.Settlers or some of them “demonized” the culture of the “natives”. Demonization of cultures and people who do not conform to our “doctrines” is alive and well in our own church and by both extremes.

The impulse to wish to convert others to a more “Godly” way is not an exclusive prerogative of “evangelicals” or colonists. The mixture of religious fervor and cultural imperialism is not merely found among 16t Century Jesuits and Franciscans, 17th Century mercantile Anglicans or Wordly Puritans.

Granted that colonization involved much which is shameful and frightful, it is merely eccentric to damn out of hand the results of colonization. For an assembly of Christians, whose ancestors took land from Indigenous Americans or who have recently arrived on these shores to pass a resolution disassociated themselves from the actions of a Pope and colonists in other places seems to be eccentric at best and self-congratulatory at worst. Lacking time machines, we have no way to go back in time and right wrongs. Blanket condemnation of colonialism handily omits credit to the positive contribution of missionaries and merchants who brought advances in medical care, education and the very elements in what is termed “progress” so lauded in other contexts.

The problems we can and should address today are the residual negative effects of the evil of slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans whose plight remains a condemnation on our civilization and remains where our church exercises mission at this very moment. Go to the “reservations” in South Dakota, where we are closing churches and failing to fund measures to alieviate the medical and economic plight of brave a proud people. We spend so much time concentrating on sex and so little time and money on championing and advancing the lives of Native Americans and Hispanics.

Renouncing a “doctrine” which did not apply to Anglicans or what we did in North America may make us feel better. It is in fact a gesture which does nothing for those who are heir to both the best and the worst of “colonization”. We are Episcopalians because Anglicans landed in Jamestown. Americans for the most part, in law, language, political system and religion are heirs of those settlers. heirs to their hopes and their evils. Should General Convention denounce Jamestown and the impulse which brought English people to these shores? How may they do so without denouncing their identity and their country?  Doctrine of Discovery?  Nonsense.

4 Responses

  1. Fr. Tony:
    Silly resolution unless you want to attach your deed to it and present it to the legacy native american tribe for ones locale. But, the factual basis is not entirely crazy. Below is an extract of the foundational Supreme Court opinion on the matter.

    Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL [an Episcopalian] delivered the opinion of the Court.
    . . . As the right of society, to prescribe those rules by which property may be acquired and preserved is not, and cannot be drawn into question; . . . it will be necessary, in pursuing this inquiry, to examine, not singly those principles of abstract justice, which the Creator of all things has impressed on the mind of his creature man . . .
    On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offerend an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence. . . .
    http://thorpe.ou.edu/treatises/cases/Johnson.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_v._M%27Intosh

    Peace,
    miserable sinner

  2. I think I made it clear enough that the thinking behind colonization was self-serving and led to dreadful injustice, a legacy which survives to this day. For us to recognize this while also recognizing the probable inevitability of the process and noting the contributions made which now enable us to enjoy the fruits of “discovery” in the areas of medicine, education and government is surely appropriate. To pin all this on the decree of a Medieval pope seems odd, indeed eccentric. Nor are we obliged to forsake attempt to visit the past without imposing upon it our present sensibilities. The test of our reslove not to commit the sins of the past is our willingness actively to redress their present manifestations.

  3. Fr. Tony:
    I was merely trying to address the 1st two lines of your 2nd paragraph. A quick read of Johnson v. M’Intosh provides quite a history lesson on the colonial era royal charters and land grants granted by Spain, France, England and the Netherlands all tied to the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’. At least according to Chief Justice Marshall.

    Peace,
    -ms

  4. It is sop much easier to engage in the relatively undemanding activity of confessing other people’s sins, as I noted in my blog here: Blair, the slave trade and apologies. In that case it was Anglican bishops in England, but the principle is the same.

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