Presiding Bishop issues pastoral letter on Doctrine of Discovery

Posted May 16, 2012

[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] “We seek to address the need for healing in all parts of society, and we stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples globally to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonial occupation and policies of domination,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote in her Pastoral Letter on the Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples, issued May 16.

“Our Christian heritage has taught us that a healed community of peace is only possible in the presence of justice for all peoples,” Jefferts Schori continued. “We seek to build such a beloved community that can be a sacred household for all creation, a society of right relationships.”

On May 7, Jefferts Schori joined other religious voices in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery at the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The theme for the UNPFII meeting is “The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).”  In 2009, General Convention repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

The full text of the presiding bishop’s letter is below.


Pastoral Letter on the Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”[1]

The first biblical creation story tells of the creation of earth, sky, waters, creatures, and gives human beings dominion over the rest.  God pronounces what has been created good.  At the end of the original week of creation, with the advent of human beings, God blesses all of it, and pronounces the work very good[2].

The second creation story tells of what goes wrong – the first two earth creatures eat what they have been forbidden to eat, and are then expelled from the garden[3].  They have misunderstood what it means to exercise dominion toward life in the garden.  Through the millennia, many of their offspring have continued to misunderstand dominion, or to willfully twist the divine intent of dominion toward the conceit of domination.  Through the ages, human beings have too often insisted that what exists has been made for their individual use, and that force may be used against anyone who seems to compete for a particular created resource[4].  The result has been enormous destruction, death, despair, and downright evil – what is more commonly called “sin.”

The blessings of creation are meant to be stewarded, in the way of husbanding and housekeeping, for the true meaning of dominion is tied to the constellation of meanings around house and household.  There have been strands of the biblical tradition which have kept this sacred understanding alive, but the unholy quest for domination has sought to quench it, in favor of wanton accumulation and exclusive possession of the goods of creation for an individual or a small part of the blessed family of God.

After that eviction from the primordial garden, the biblical stories are mostly about how human communities strive to return to a homeland that will be a source of blessing for the community.  Through the long centuries, the prophetic understanding of that community broadens to include all the nations of the earth.  Even so, the seemingly eternal struggle between dominators and stewards has continued to the present day.

Most of the passages in the Bible that talk about land are yearning for a fertile place, where people are able to grow crops, tend flocks, and live in peace.  The offspring of those first human beings gave rise to peoples who hungered for land, and many of them did a great deal of violence through the ages in order to occupy and possess it.  They weren’t alone, for the empires of Alexander, Rome, and Genghis Khan were also the result of amassing conquered territory.  The Christian empires of Europe were consumed with battles over land for centuries, and eventually sent military expeditions across the Mediterranean in a quest to re-establish a Christian claim on what they called the Holy Land.

The explorers who set out from Christian Europe in the 15th century went with even broader motivations, in search of riches and abundantly fertile lands.  They also went with religious warrants, papal bulls which permitted and even encouraged the subjugation and permanent enslavement of any non-Christian peoples they encountered, as well as the expropriation of any territories not governed by Christians.[5]  Western Christian religious authorities settled competitions over these conquests by dividing up the geography that could be claimed among the various European nations.

These religious warrants led to the wholesale slaughter, rape, and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas, as well as in Africa, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific, and the African slave trade was based on these same principles.  Death, dispossession, and enslavement were followed by rapid depopulation as a result of introduced and epidemic disease.  Yet death and dispossession of lands and resources were not a singular occurrence that can be laid up to the depredations of benighted medieval warriors.  They are not akin to Viking raids in the British Isles, or ancient struggles between neighboring tribes in Europe or Africa.  These acts of “Discovery” have had persistent effects on marginalized, transported, and disenfranchised peoples.

The ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples is the result of legal systems throughout the “developed” world that continue to base land ownership on these religious warrants for colonial occupation from half a millennium ago.  These legal bases collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery underlie U.S. decisions about who owns these lands[6].  The dispossession of First Peoples continues to wreak havoc on basic human dignity.  These principles give the lie to biblical understandings that all human beings reflect the image of God, for those who have been thrown out of their homeland, had their cultures largely erased, and sent into exile, are still grieving their loss of identity, lifeways, and territory.  All humanity should be grieving, for our sisters and brothers are suffering the injustice of generations.  The sins of our forebears are being visited on the children of indigenous peoples, even to the seventh generation.

There will be no peace or healing until we attend to that injustice.  The prophets of ancient Israel cried out for justice when their ability to live in the land they saw as home was threatened.  A day laborer named Amos challenged those around him with the word of God, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”[7].  Where there is no justice, there can be no peace for anyone.

In the North American context, the poorest of the poor live on Native reservations.  The depth of poverty there is closely followed by the poverty among ghettoized descendants of the indigenous peoples of Africa who were transported to these shores as slaves.  That kind of poverty is also frequent in other parts of the world where indigenous people have been dispossessed and displaced.  Healing is not possible, it is not even imaginable, until the truth is told and current reality confronted.  The basic dignity and human rights of first peoples have been repeatedly transgressed, and the outcome is grievous – poverty, cultural destruction, and multi-generational consequences.  The legacy of grief that continues unresolved is visible in skyrocketing suicide rates, rampant hopelessness, and deep anger.  In many contexts it amounts to pathological or impacted grief – for when hope is absent, healing is impossible.

The legacy of domination includes frightful evil – the intentional destruction of food sources and cultural centers like the herds of North American bison, the intentional introduction of disease and poisoning of water sources, wanton disregard of starvation and illness, the abuse and enslavement of women and children, the murder of those with the courage to protest inhumane treatment, the repeated dispossession of natural resources, land, and water, as well as chronically inadequate Federal management and defense of Native rights and resources.

There have been some glimmers of justice in decisions that have returned Native fishing and hunting rights, and some improvements in tribal rights to self-determination.  There is a very small and slow return of bison to the prairie, and wolves have begun to return in places where they are not immediately hunted down.  Yet many of these recoveries continue to be strenuously resisted by powerful non-Native commercial interests.

There are signs of hope in returning cultural treasures to their communities of origin, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act[8] is returning remains for dignified burial.  The legacy of cultural genocide is slowly being addressed as indigenous traditions, languages, and cultural skills are taught to new generations.

The Episcopal Church has been present and ministering with Native peoples in North America for several centuries.  That history of accompaniment and solidarity has hardly been perfect, yet we continue to seek greater justice and deeper healing.

The Episcopal Church’s relationship with Native peoples in the Americas begins with the first English colonists.  We remember the story of Manteo, a Croatan of what is now North Carolina.  He traveled to England in 1584 and helped a colleague of Sir Walter Raleigh learn to speak Algonquin.  He returned here the next year, became something of an ambassador between the two peoples, was baptized, and is counted a saint of this church[9].

Episcopal missionaries have served in a variety of indigenous communities and contexts.  Henry Benjamin Whipple was Bishop of Minnesota in 1862, and his powerful petition to Abraham Lincoln saved the lives of some 265 of the Dakota men sentenced to hang the day after Christmas in Mankato[10].  The Dakota people called him “Straight Tongue.”  Today many Dakota and Lakota people are part of this Episcopal tradition.

This Church has stood in solidarity with native peoples in Alaska, Hawai’i, and the American southwest, especially the Diné (Navajo), as well as in urban Indian communities.  The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (in Alabama) achieved federal recognition in the 1980s with the aid of baptismal records maintained by this Church, which also assisted in returning a piece of land to the Poarch Band[11].  A large group of indigenous people in Ecuador is seeking recognition as worshiping communities in the Episcopal tradition, and we have other indigenous members and communities in Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Micronesia.  Our historical presence in the Philippines began with the indigenous Igorot peoples of the mountains and highlands.

Healing work continues across The Episcopal Church.  In 1997 Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning apologized for the enormities that began with the colony in Jamestown[12].  Today our understanding of mission has changed.  We believe that God’s mission is about healing brokenness in the world around us – broken relationships between human beings and the Creator, broken relationships between peoples, and damaged relationships between human beings and the rest of creation.  We seek to partner in God’s mission through proclaiming a vision of a healed world; forming Christians as partners in that mission; responding to human suffering around us; reversing structural and systemic injustice; and caring for this earthly garden[13].  We partner with any and all who share a common vision for healing, whether Episcopalian or Christian or not.

Work with indigenous peoples in recent years has been intensely focused on issues of poverty and the generational consequences of cultural destruction, the reality of food deserts and diabetes rates on reservations, unemployment and inadequate educational resources, as well as the ongoing reality of racism and exclusion in the larger society[14].  Mission and development work in Native communities is locally directed, honoring the gifts and assets already present[15], and moves toward a vision of healed community.  We partner with White Bison in community organizing that develops training programs for community healing[16].  This is a historic development, the first such partnership between a traditional Native American non-profit and The Episcopal Church.

This Church has worked to alleviate systemic and structural injustice in many ways, and our repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009 is a recent example[17].  Since at least 1976, our advocacy work has included support for First Nations land claims in Canada, advocacy with the U.S. government for improved health care, religious freedom, preservation of burial sites and repatriation of remains and cultural resources, increased Federal tribal recognition, and critical Federal Government self-examination around Native American rights.  We have affirmed and reaffirmed our desire to strengthen relationships with Native peoples by remembering the past, recognizing the deficits and gifts in our historic and current relationships, and continued work toward healing[18].  We are currently advocating for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, with provisions directly affecting Native women.

The Doctrine of Discovery work of this Church is focused on education, dismantling the structures and policies based on that ancient evil, support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[19], and challenging governments around the world to support self-determination for indigenous peoples.

We seek to address the need for healing in all parts of society, and we stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples globally to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonial occupation and policies of domination.  Our Christian heritage has taught us that a healed community of peace is only possible in the presence of justice for all peoples.  We seek to build such a beloved community that can be a sacred household for all creation, a society of right relationships.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God[20]

 We pray that God will give us the strength and courage to do this work together for the good of all our relations, in the belief that Christ Jesus ends hostility and brings together those who were once divided.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church


[1] Genesis 1:26

[2] Genesis 1:1-2:3

[3] Genesis 2:4-3:24

[4] Commodification or what Heidegger called Bestand, cf. The Question Concerning Technology or Being and Time

[6] cf. Johnson v M’Intosh:’Intosh

[7] Amos 5:24

[13] a shorthand summary of the Five Anglican Marks of Mission

[15] through Asset-Based Community Development

[18] cf.  Decade of Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation:

[20] Ephesians 2:13ff






Comments (9)

  1. Jenny Plane Te Paa says:

    E te Pihopa, te rangatira nga mihi whakawhetai ki a koe, mo nga kupu aroha mo nga tangata whenua katoa o te ao!

    Arohanui – Jenny.

  2. The Rev. Christopher S. Martin says:

    Thank you. Well said.

  3. Doug Desper says:

    This commentary by the Presiding Bishop is certainly well-stated and I agree with the necessity to call attention to past abuses by opportunistic perpetrators. History has proven that people who wore the name of Christ have not always been faithful servants but more shaped by their culture’s deformities. Healing needs to happen and we should appeal to the Lord’s example to make that step.

    With that said I am equally critical about the hesitance to not challenge indigenous cultures. Christ came to transform people and cultures – not merely affirm them. Mission opportunities have suffered because of past abuses, including the need to challenge elements of cultural practices that are not Christ-centered. We do not want to devolve this conversation into a debate overly simplified as “evil white Christian males hungry for fortune” vs. “pure as driven snow innocent natives” (speaking of the past).

    As an 11th generation Virginian I want to challenge the poor research that still lingers surrounding Episcopal Church leader pronouncements about Jamestown – especially the missed opportunities during 2007’s 400th anniversary. Because of oversimplification and accommodation for not wanting to seem insensitive a couple of dramatic stories were missed and the “evil white males seeking fortunes” got the emphasis. Never mentioned adequately was the Rev Robert Hunt, the chaplain to the colony. The first story missed and neglected by our Episcopal leaders was how this chaplain was revered and respected by the colonists during the voyage – even by the less noble among them. Upon landing at Jamestown, Rev Hunt was sick unto death but summoned the strength to demand that no one set foot ashore for three days as their personal penance for infighting among them on the voyage and preparation to respect the natives. The three ships stood anchored with no one coming ashore for the three days in deference to Rev Hunt’s admonishments. What a missed opportunity to state the power of the moment. And then let us not forget that Chief Powhatan was already at war with his neighbors before the colonists arrived. One of Powhatan’s first desires was to use the colonists as allies against his neighbors in the bloody wars that he was engaged in. The colonists arrived in an imperfect world after all.

    Yes – we need to respect indigenous people – but tell the whole truth. Don’t deify one culture over another because all cultures have deformities in need of redemption. None are wholly pure like none are wholly to blame. Challenge all elements of the culture that need to be shaped by Christ; whether they are native or newcomer.

  4. May God, in Her/His grace, make it so.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ( 2 Corinthians 4:6).

      No ambiguity about God here – the grace of God is known in the man Jesus Christ.

  5. Neil Elliott says:

    It would be a sad commentary on the state of the church if the greatest pain evoked here by the Presiding Bishop’s statement were out of sympathy for the colonists of Jamestown. History is everything; but that must mean that the gravity of history is everything. That means that my history is only one part of our collective history. There are greater–deeper, broader, more long-lasting–griefs than that inflicted on the reputation of some of the Jamestown colonists; and the Presiding Bishop’s statement speaks eloquently to them.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Sorry Neil, but if justice is justice you cannot scape-goat, weigh pain for greater or lesser, negate the troubles of those who endured, or believe that some backs should bear the weight more than the other, seeking some greater gravity of pain. I’m not talking about a mere snubbed “reputation”. I’m talking about telling the whole truth. All cultures are deformed and need the redemption of Christ. I’m sure that King Powhatan’s neighbors didn’t see your fine distinctions as they were being attacked, slaughtered, and enslaved in the years before and after the arrival of the Virginia Company. Likewise, I am sure that these fine distinctions about degrees and gravity of suffering are lost on the Virginia colonists who starved to death, buried their children, or who were attacked by natives (referring to the story of Chanco). Conversely, one need not educate the native Virginia tribes about the duplicity of newcomers. My comment emphasizes that the wearily overused (and erroneous) “default point” of many of these discussions (and pronouncements) is to oversimplify and make all newcomers evil and all natives pure as snow. It just doesn’t work out like that. You can’t have true justice without telling the whole story.

  6. John D. Andrews says:

    You may be speaking truth, but, in my opinion, it is not an appropriate response to this letter. The Anglican Church (now the Episcopal Church) was responsible for much harm in the name of Jesus. The Presiding Bishop rightly says we must now do what is right. Doing what is right does not require the Church to tell what a great man Robert Hunt was. It does not require us to talk of the troubles between indigenous tribes or wrongs committed by indigenous tribes. It only requires us to own our own misdeeds and work to not repeat them. No where in the Presiding Bishop’s letter, or in any other discussions I have read, or been a part of, have I seen indigenous people being portrayed as being “pure as snow” and Anglos as being evil. Because of the Doctrine of Discovery whole nations were destroyed, languages and cultures have been lost forever. Because of loss of identity there is gang violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide, all at extremely high levels in indigenous communities. So, I guess compared to the reality of the result of the Doctrine of Discovery, your concerns seem rather petty to me.

  7. I´ve never heard anyone who seeks to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery in this Church pretend that there is an evil race of whites who inflicted all the world´s injustice on all the indigenous peoples who were perfect innocents. Creating a straw man to fight is a way to avoid the real struggle to which we are called, which is repentance from our own past wrong and conversion to a new redemptive future. There is a time to lift up individual acts of heroism and to study varieties of injustice among the different peoples. But when we are renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery, it is the time for repentance on the part of the Church and its heirs.

    When I go to confession, it is not time for me to say, ¨But actually, I am not as bad as all that because I did this good deed someone might have overlooked,¨ or ¨I may be bad but don´t forget that the person I offended also did this bad thing that wasn´t reported.¨ Either I am repenting, or I am not repenting of what I acknowledge to be wrong on my part (or I don´t acknowledge to be wrong on my part).

    It is not a question of ¨who sinned worse?¨ just as it is inappropriate for me to ask that in confession if I´m truly repentant. Bishop Katharine gives us the theological and biblical story which shows us the error of the Doctrine of Discovery. She reminds us of the hideous consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery. We know that this Doctrine was promoted by the Church to justify political and economic ends; and that our Church is not exempt from participating in it. The appropriate response is repentance, acceptance of the means of grace for renewal and amendment of life as persons and as a Body.

    There are other moments for comparative histories of motives and methods in war amongst the peoples of the various continents. When you start looking closely, I doubt that you can really say with great confidence that one is that much better than another. But you can surely say that we can´t do these things in the name of Christ.

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