The Doctrine of Discovery and Watershed Conquest

doctrineOn November 3, 524 clergy went in solidarity to Standing Rock as part of a call for clergy to join the struggle. As part of the action, the clergy repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery (which coincidentally is 524 years old). They presented a copy of the doctrine to an elder who burned it.

Below is an excerpt from Kat Friesen’s chapter in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice where she explores the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery and its resulting “Watershed Conquest” provide an exceptionally relevant case study of the harmful outworking of Christendom theologies. Any work toward reconciliation as mission must take into account these exploitative theologies, and begin with repentance as metanoia. Metanoia, translated from Greek as repentance (e.g. Mark 1:4), carries a connotation of changing both mind and action. Thus, repenting of the theologies of placelessness that persist today means recognizing their error and actively changing direction.

Within the Christendom paradigm, mission and colonialism were interdependent forces. David Bosch writes that the word “mission” is “historically linked indissolubly with the colonial era and with the idea of a magisterial commissioning” (Bosch 1991:228). The mission and dominion of the Christendom church during the colonial era accompanied, furthered, and was furthered by the dominion of Empire. The 15th century church’s Doctrine of Discovery, known as the “law of Christendom,” exemplifies how political and religious conquests were sealed together. The Doctrine of Discovery is defined by Sandy Grande as “the logic of fifteenth-century Christendom that endowed European conquerors with self-assumed divine title over all ‘discovered’ land and peoples” (2007:208). Through “discovery,” land and people were subjugated and their resources served the Church and crown.

During the 15th century, the Vatican issued numerous papal bulls, official religious decrees that document the “genesis of competing claims by Christian monarchies and states in Europe to a right of conquest, sovereignty, and dominance over non-Christian peoples, along with their lands, territories, and resources during the so-called Age of Discovery” (Frichner 2010:7–8). These religious documents spelled destruction and bloodshed for indigenous peoples as the Christian gospel was distorted to underwrite conquest.

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20) was one of the main theological rationales for conquest of the New World. Two papal bulls in particular, Dum diversas (1452) and Romanus pontifex (1455), provided the legal and religious justification for the conquest and subjugation of both indigenous peoples and lands in the name of spreading Christianity to all nations. In fact, Dum diversas explicitly declared the need to convert not only indigenous peoples but also, crucially, the need to convert the land (Newcomb 2012). Through conquest and robbery, the forced conversion and “salvation” of people and land were bound up together.

Through the Doctrine of Discovery, the death-dealing theology of entitlement was preserved and enshrined through international law, and continues today. I will focus on its impacts in the U.S., though this Doctrine continues to legitimate the destruction of land and peoples in countries formerly colonized by European powers worldwide. Law professor Robert J. Miller has shown how the Doctrine of Discovery provided justification for the very establishment of the United States. He describes how the theological rationale that undergirded Discovery continued in seemingly secular constructs such as Manifest Destiny, the providential mission of America to expand and occupy the continent (Miller 2008).

The Doctrine of Discovery appears in government documents providing legal basis for the annexation into the U.S. territory of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and other states (Miller 2012:67–88). In the pivotal 1823 Supreme Court Case Johnson v. M’Intosh, the U.S. Senate actually cited the 1493 papal bull Inter caetera as justification for dominion (King 2013:466). Under the Doctrine of Discovery, the U.S. government repeatedly denied Native Americans full title to their land, and thus enabled their impoverishing displacement, loss of land, and outright removal in many cases. As recently as 2005, legal cases involving Native American land loss can be traced to the Doctrine of Discovery because of legal precedent.1 Therefore, the Doctrine of Discovery shapes not only our church history as Christians, but also what it means to be a U.S. citizen today, since the doctrines and theologies of colonial-era Christendom have been encoded in our nation’s laws.

The Doctrine of Discovery’s “principle of contiguity” is a classic case of entitlement theologies expressed politically, through which watersheds became part and parcel of the conquest of the United States. The principle of contiguity used the geographic scope of large watersheds to expand the scope of colonialism, and enabled the U.S. to claim major territories as if they were unoccupied or undefended by the indigenous peoples who lived there. Robert J. Miller writes, “Contiguity held that the discovery of a mouth of a river gave the discovering country claim over all the lands drained by that river; even if that was thousands of miles of territory” (2008:4).

Contiguity explains why Lewis and Clark raced to discover the mouth of the Columbia River. Rather than the expedition of the heroic, morally neutral explorers I learned about in public education, theirs was a race to take the Northwest (Miller 2008:99-100). Through contiguity, the discovery of the mouth of a river created a claim over not only the entire watershed, but also any adjacent coast (ibid:108). At the heart of the practice of the Doctrine of Discovery, then, was what I call Watershed Conquest, as exemplified in the seizure of the Louisiana Territory (the western drainage system of the Mississippi) and also Oregon country (the drainage system of the Columbia River).

What does the Doctrine of Discovery and its resulting Watershed Conquest have to do with us as North American Christians in mission today? I believe that colonial-era Christendom’s theological and legal frameworks continue to hinder our moral vision, blinding us to the importance of place. Especially for those of us who have benefitted historically from European conquest, land seizure and settlement, it is difficult to see the value of land and the primacy of home to other peoples. For cross-cultural and long-distance missionaries, we may unknowingly carry with us theologies of displacement that colonial-era Christendom grafted into North American expressions of Christianity, and upon which the U.S. was founded.

Entitlement theologies that conquered land and indigenous peoples need not have the last word in U.S. history or in the history of the North American church. I believe that the legacy and continued impacts of the theologies that sanctioned Watershed Conquest may be healed by Watershed Discipleship, a home mission into our watersheds and a way of living out the gospel of reconciliation there. The rest of this essay will set forth two hallmarks of Watershed Discipleship, repentance and re-placement.

Katerina Friesen is a writer and community builder, and currently serves as the interim pastor of Belmont Neighborhood Fellowship in Elkhart, IN, part of the St. Joseph River watershed. She is part of a coalition of Mennonites working to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery ( Katerina will be leading a Trail of Death pilgrimage in June, 2017 following the forced removal of the Potawatomi from northern Indiana in 1838. See this website for more information on this pilgrimage class through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary:

One thought on “The Doctrine of Discovery and Watershed Conquest

  1. coopgeek

    Does the Principle of Contiguity apply to tributaries also, or just places where rivers discharge into the oceans? I just got the book and I’m looking forward to reading this whole chapter soon.

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