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Behind the times — memoirs of a has been

2 August 2009

It’s amazing how quickly things you say can come back to bite you. It’s less than half an hour since I was a bit sarky, in the previous post, about the Mail & Guardian being a bit behind the times in referring to “Verwoerdburg” on its Amatomu blog aggregator site, when I discover that the Episcopal Church in the USA has repudiated a doctrine I’d never even heard of before.

Actually this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened to me — hearing of people repudiating doctrines that I’d never heard had been adopted. I remember listening to a radio broadcast of Herbert W. Armstrong strongly repudiating the doctrine of “rapture”, which I had not heard of before. And it was only about 10 years later that I discovered that “rapture” was part of a larger theological system called “dispensationalism”.

I’ve likewise heard people attacking “kingdom theology”, which sounded like something that I believed in then, except that what they said about it sounded like nothing I believed in, and so I resigned myself to not knowing what they were talking about. And in order to understand what they are attacking, you need to know where they themselves are coming from, and they rarely see any need to explain that. If you ask them, they will scornfully say that their position is “the biblical position, of course”, and dismiss anyone who doesn’t know what they mean by “kingdom theology” or “dominion theology” or whatever it is they are attacking as a probable heretic.

But in this case, it was coming from the Episcopal Church of the USA, which was, until recently (and may still be, for all I know) a part of the Anglican Communion. I myself was a member of the Anglican Communion for 25 years, and studied for two years in an Anglican theological college, but I never heard of the “doctrine of discovery” mentioned in the following article. Things really are moving too fast for me, when I discover (am I allowed to say that?) that a doctrine has been repudiated before I even knew it had been adopted.

Episcopal Church repudiates Doctrine of Discovery | Indian Country Today | National & World News:

ANAHEIM, Calif. – In a first-of-its-kind action in the Christian world, the national Episcopal Church has passed a landmark resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and urging the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Organizers of the bill hope it will lead to the overturning of a 19th century U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Congress’ assumption of plenary power over Indian nations they say are illegitimate and immoral, and continue to strip American Indian nations of their inherent sovereignty.

Being puzzled by Herbert W. Armstrong’s attacks on the “rapture” doctrine that I heard on the radio was one thing. I knew neither where he was coming from nor which group he was attacking. But if a “doctrine of discovery” was part of Anglican theology, that is surely something I ought to have known, yet I didn’t.

Perhaps it was adopted and repudiated in the 25 years since I left, so I’ve not been an Anglican for almost as long as I was one, and I’ve been out of the loop and missed such things. Someone told me a story of Bishop Kallistos Ware, who was asked by someone, during the height of the liturgical reforming frenzy in the Western Church, whether the Liturgical Movement (as it was called in the 1960s) was having any effect on the Orthodox Church, and was it causing them to revise their liturgical texts. And he is said to have replied “Oh yes, in the thirteenth century we introduced a new form of service for the expulsion of rats from wells.”

I read further in the article, however, and changed my mind. I hadn’t missed a thing.

The article goies on to say

The Doctrine of Discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. It was essentially a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so.

Ah, so what they are actually talking about was imperialism and colonialism — why couldn’t they say so?

Yes, indeed, most students of missiology will be aware that the Roman Pope Alexander VI gave his blessing to Spanish and Portuguese conquest in most of the world, provided they made a few token efforts at evangelisation. He drew a line down the Atlantic Ocean, and saying that Spain could go to the west and Portuguese to the east of the line. Part of South America that sticks out into the Atlantic was to the east of the line, which is why Brazil is Portugese-speaking to this day. And in case you didn’t know what Alexander VI was like, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives a succinct summary of his career:

His own election having been secured largely through bribery, the course of his pontificate was determined almost solely by political and family considerations, esp. his favouritism of his son, Caesar. Among the most notable acts of his pontificate were the series dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal (1493-4), his prosecution and execution of G. Savonarola, the Jubilee which he organized in 1500, and his crusade against the Moors (1499-1500). A man of immoral life, he was an astute politicans and generous patron of artists…

And the Episcopalians have only now realised that this was a bad thing? Perhaps I’m not so behind the times after all!

Last week a researcher into the African Orthodox Church gave me a copy of a rare book called Archbishop Daniel William Alexander and the African Orthodox Church by Morris Johnson. I was very glad to see it because Johnson is one of the very few researchers to have had access to source materials on both sides of the Atlantic. At one point, however, in referring to the Native Affairs Commission report into African Independent Churches (1925) he says

The report’s position was that the “old” clergy was more progressive than the “new” clergy. The former was said to be more sensitive to the needs of Africans, but that position must be rejected. The economic exploitation and spiritual bondage of the African produced separatist sentiments that aided in the rise of the independent black church movement (Johnson 1999:28).

Unfortunately Johnson does not tell us why he thinks that the Commission’s report must be rejected. It is actually a very interesting point.

The “old” imperialism blessed by Alexander VI was superseded in the late 19th century by the “new” imperialism, which led, among other things, to the “scramble for Africa”. And in that period European imperialism developed a very nasty racist and white supremacist face. The “new” clergy, raised in the ideals of the new imperialism, were indeed far less sympathetic to the needs of Africans. And it was not only Europeans. Americans were just as bad, and just how bad has been documented in books like Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

So I’m surprised that the Episcopalians are apparently only discovering it now.

The arrogant self-importance of Victorian imperialists has been a joke for so long that it has long worn thin, like the Victorians’ idea that David Livingstone “discovered” the waterfall he named “Victoria Falls”. It was known to the locals all along, and to them he was simply a passing tourist, and his “discovery” was nothing more than the discovery of a new tourist destination for the Victorian travelling classes.

So I’d like to know which Ecumenical Council (if any) established this “Doctrine of Discovery”? Did Alexander VI proclaim it ex cathedra? It isn’t mentioned in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church — well, perhaps that doesn’t mean much, since it doesn’t mention “rapture” and “dispensationalism” either.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 August 2009 3:42 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I have an Anglican background as well. Did you study at St Paul’s College in Grahamstown?

    As for the Episcopal Church, I think they’re playing a game of smoke and mirrors. It’s been a dreadful month for them from a marketing perspective: first Rowan Williams was less than admiring regarding their impending split from the rest of the communion and then Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori made her “Western heresy” claims. I’m thinking they’re trying to deflect a bit of heat. Traditionally, galvanizing the masses around an issue of social concern makes people feel good which means problems around doctrine have the chance to fade into the background.

    As for the rapture thing: is there a Biblical alternative *blush*?

    In Christ,


    • 2 August 2009 5:05 pm

      I spent a couple of months at St Paul’s, after spending 2 years at St Chad’s, Durham.

      As for the Episcopalians and their “Doctrine of Discovery” thing, it’s a bit like Tony Blair apologising for slavery, about 170 years after it was abolished. Confessing other people’s sins of long ago is so much easier than confessing one’s own, of today.

  2. 4 August 2009 8:32 pm

    Well, it’s not “about 179 years after the doctrine of discovery was abolished” (as in the case of slavery as per “Steve’s” comment), because that doctrine is still the cornerstone of United States Indian law and policy. It is foundational to Canadian “aboriginal law” as well. The Christian discovery doctrine is active in U.S. and Canadian legal precedents, and is traced back to the the Old Testament story of the “chosen people” and the “promised land,” numerous Vatican papal documents of the fifteenth century, and royal charters of England directed at “the lands of heathens and infidels which before this time have been unknown to all Christian people.” The result were claims of territorial dominion and absolute title to all Indian lands in an ongoing effort to deprive indigenous nations of their original free and independent existence for the financial and political benefit of the nations of Western Christendom. Despite whatever other controversies it may be facing, the Episcopal Church ought to be praised for beginning to come to terms with the use of Christianity for purposes of the theft of indigenous lands and the oppression of indigenous nations and peoples.

    • 5 August 2009 7:12 am

      Thanks for commenting, but there is something that needs to be clarified.

      You speak of “Christian discovery doctrine”, which is ambiguous.

      It could mean:

      a) The Christian doctrine of discovery

      b) The doctrine of Christian discovery

      When I first read the article I assumed that the first was meant, but have later discovered that it is actually the second — not a doctrine formulated and accepted by Christian churches, but formulated and defined by the US Supreme Court. It is a legal, and not a theological doctrine. This distinction needs to be made clearer when one is writing about a church body repudiating a doctrine.

      A simple additional phrase in the article would have avoided the confusion:

      the national Episcopal Church has passed a landmark resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. which was formulated by the US Supreme court in 1823, and urging the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

  3. 5 August 2009 12:36 am

    You ask who established this doctrine…. the answer and a study of the resulting lineage in law is in Steve Newcomb’s book, Pagans in the Promised Land (Fulcrum Press):

    • 5 August 2009 6:27 am

      Well, thanks for the link, though I was really looking for a kind of executive summary, and not a whole book on the subject.

      Nevertheless, from the summary at the site it appears that the “doctrine” was established by the US Supreme Court in 1823, which explains why I, and probably many others outside the US, had never heard of it before.

      And yes, while the US Constituttion says that congress shall make no law to establish a religion, its framers neglected to apply the same restriction to the supreme court, which appears to have done so.

      In that case, of course, the Episcopal Church was right to repudiate the doctrine. The original article, however, implied that the “doctrine” was known and accepted not only by An glicans, but by all Christians around the world, and that was why I was wondering why I had never heard of it before, and thought I ought to have, if it was so widespread.

      The kind of thinking behind it, is, of course, much more widespread, and some of those themes were explored in the film The mission about 25 years ago.

    • 5 August 2009 7:00 am


      Perhaps what I should have done first was remember the adage “Google is your friend”, and tried that first.

      No need to buy the book — the answer to my question was in Wikipedia all along.

      But I suppose what misled me was the opening sentence of the article “a first-of-its-kind action in the Christian world” — a kind of US ethnocentrism, that was ethnocentric even when trying to counter ethnocentrism. I suppose that’s a trap we all fall into at one time or another — assuming that what is familiar to us is equally familiar to everyone elsde.

  4. 6 August 2009 1:08 am

    I have always used the doctrine of Christian discovery until this posting when, in imitation of the eminent scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., I used “the Christian doctrine of Discovery.” Numerous Vatican papal bulls of the fifteenth century called upon Portugal, as a Christian monarchy, “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue ” all non-Christians, “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and “to take away all their possessions and property.” Other such documents were issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. Not wanting to be cut out of non-Christian spoils, England’s King Henry VII imitated one of the papal bulls of 1493 when he issued a royal patent to John Cabot and his sons. They were instructed to locate, conquer, and subdue non-Christian lands. Other such documents were issued as well. So, the “doctrine” is a core belief in a divine right of Christians to invade, subdue, and possess non-Christian lands throughout the world. This was formally endorsed by the United States Supreme Court in 1823, in the case Johnson v. M’Intosh and used as the premise of federal Indian law and policy.

    • 6 August 2009 4:24 am


      Thanks very much for the additional details. As should be clear from my post itself, I was aware of the activities of the Roman Pope Alexander VI et al. It was the term “Doctrine of Discovery” that was unfamiliar to me and that threw me. Brian McLaren makes a similar point to mine in this post concerning “kingdom now theology”, which he does not understand, and so he can only guess at what his interloqutor means by it.

      Concerning American history, I had heard of the “Monroe Doctrine” and the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”, but the term “Doctrine of Discovery” was new and unfamiliar to me, though imperialism and colonialism have affected our part of the world as well.

      Sir Bartle Frere, when he issued his ultimatum to King Cetshwayo of Zululand that led to the Anglo-Zulu War and the fall of the Zulu kingdom did not use the term “Doctrine of Discovery”, though his war of aggressive imperialist conquest had similar motives and similar results to what you describe. The ultimatum issued to Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that sparked off the First World War was very similar, though it failed in its immediate object until Madeleine Albright repeated it 85 years later, playing a similar role to Sir Bartle Frere 120 years before. So yes, British, Austrian and US imperialism are similar in their motives and methods, whether you call it the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery” or something else.


  1. Discovering the Doctrine of Discovery « Khanya

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