Doctrine of Discovery

Sermon given on May 6 2012 © Rev. Fred L Hammond to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

It seems appropriate that we should be talking about this Doctrine of Discovery in light of this past weeks events because the two are directly related to how we, as people of the United States are conducting our policies towards immigrants here in Alabama and in the nation.

The Doctrine of Discovery also called the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is founded on a series of papal bulls or edicts written between 1452 and 1493.  The first was from Pope Nicholas V in 1452 called the Dum Diversas. It states the following:

” We grant to you (King of Portugal)  full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same […]and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. [i]

This edict gave sanction for Portugal to invade Africa, take its resources, and begin what was to be called the African Slave Trade.

The second edict Romanus Pontifex  also written by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 followed up on the first papal bull confirming Portugal’s right to dominion over all lands discovered and / or conquered from the Saracens and pagans and it reaffirmed the enslavement of these people.  This edict was written to prevent other Christian nations from colonizing lands that Portugal laid claim.  The third edict Inter caetera written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 gave the right for explorers and nations to lay claim on lands unknown to Christians. It added a clause requiring the proselytizing of the inhabitants to Christianity.   It also gave permission for Christopher Columbus  in 1493 to lay claim to the lands he set foot on for Spain.

It is this Doctrine of Christian Discovery based on these three papal bulls that became the basis for the United States claim to the Americas. The assumption here was that once the Europeans were no longer the rulers, the authority to subjugate new lands in the Americas fell on the emerging nation.

The US Supreme court in 1823, in Johnson v McIntosh used the doctrine to state that Johnson had no claim to the land he purchased directly from the native peoples because the land already belonged to the US government.  This ruling meant that the indigenous people only had the right of occupancy so long as the US government allowed it and could at anytime revoke the right of occupancy.  This was upheld in the US Supreme Court ruling of 1831; Cherokee Nation v Georgia.  Justice Marshall wrote that “the relationship of the tribes to the United States resembles that of a ‘ward to its guardian’.[ii]”  This resulted in the trail of tears when Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole were moved to “Indian Territory” known as present day Oklahoma.

We see this doctrine in the footprint of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States should expand from coast to coast.  Historian William E. Weeks suggested three themes were in the concept of Manifest Destiny:  1) The virtue of American Institutions; 2) the mission to spread these institutions thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the US; and 3) The Destiny under God to do this work. [iii]

The first of these themes is today heard in the concept of American Exceptionalism, the belief that America has not only a unique role to play but a divine calling in spreading liberty and democracy in the world.  It is American Exceptionalism that feeds the erroneous belief that America is the greatest country ever, that might makes right, and that we have the right to be the police unto the nations and thereby interfere in the internal and external affairs of nations, even to intervene with force the over throw of governments we no longer approve of, regardless of whether they were democratically elected or not.  America in playing out this exceptionalism interfered with the governments in Latin and South America through out the 20th century and with governments in the Middle East contributing to the current crisis that is ongoing.  All of these policies are grounded in the papal bulls that were written over 550 years ago by Popes of the Roman Catholic Church.

And we recently saw the Doctrine of Discovery in Candidate Newt Gingrich’s vision of a Moon colony that would then become a state of the United States. While many people scoffed at his vision, it is rooted firmly in this Doctrine of Discovery; we plant our flag, we claim it by colonization then it is rightly ours and ours alone to exploit as we choose. And if there really is a man in the moon, then he must be enslaved to the invading forces.

In a sermon recently given by Rev. Matt Alspough[iv], he states, “So we’ve based a significant part of our American political practice on the Doctrine of Discovery, that small act of political expediency enacted by the Catholic Church. We’ve seen that American acceptance of this Doctrine opened Pandora’s Box out of which poured many of our society’s ills: the slavery of Africans as economic practice, our most tragic war over that practice, and the morass of racism that continues to this day. It framed our treatment of indigenous peoples in our country, a history of forced relocation and genocide, imposing on them western religion and practices, sometimes taking their children from them. It has influenced our confusion about immigration, particularly the migration of indigenous peoples in the Americas, many of whom are on the move because United States policies in Latin America have limited economic opportunities for these people.”

This brings us right up to our present day, doesn’t it?  This is the reason why it is important to understand our history, even history that is over 500 years old still has an impact on the decisions, on the values, on the culture we express today. And the people who make these decisions in places of authority might not even have a clue as to what they are reinforcing because to them it seems so natural, so logical, so matter of fact that of course this is the way it must be. Surely the pilgrims and the puritans who came to these shores would have repudiated anything that came from Catholicism had they fully understood the source of their alleged superior dominionist attitude.  Well, perhaps not, since such an attitude benefited them in their forging their way on these shores. But the reason as to why we do something a certain way in this country may not be because we consciously chose to do it that way but rather because some racist, Christian supremacist declared it to be the will of god and it steam rolled across the ages and became part of our cultural DNA.

So here we are 560 years later, still immersed in cultural norms and mores and in laws that seek to place dominion over another people. We still have a belief in this country that we can do whatever we want with the earth, ravage its minerals, its lumber, its water to serve our purposes and to hell to everyone else.

This doctrine influences our water access in the southwest.  We know we absolutely know that the rain that falls in the Rocky Mountains and enters the Colorado River supports life through out the desert on its route to the Gulf of California.  But our laws state that if the water falls on United States then it belongs to United States and so we seek to trap it in the desert with major dams across the Colorado River. We then catch the overflow by other avenues so that we can water the non native grasses and water hungry potato farms and supply water to swimming pools in communities like Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson.

We are not being sensible when it comes to water in the southwest, yet because of this ingrained doctrine of domination over the land and its native peoples we take what we want for our own greedy purposes and privilege. All of these actions are to the detriment of the indigenous peoples and species that live along the border and dependent on the spring runoffs for their survival.   The waters of the Colorado River never make it to the Delta in the Gulf of California causing extinction fears of the rare indigenous species that live in the gulf.

The people who live in Sonora were part of a nomadic tribe that traveled north into Arizona and back south again, a pattern they followed for 10,000 years.  Now the border walls prevent these people from their nomadic customs over land that has been theirs.  The chant that I heard when I was in Arizona for the day of non-compliance was “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.” This is a very real statement.  Two countries, Mexico and the United States, developed borders without regard to the indigenous peoples that lived there.The Doctrine of Discovery was in operation through out the Americas.

As we come to better understand the ancient peoples of this land, we discover that the Aztec’s realm extended far into Georgia.  Many of our immigrants from Latin America today are descendants of the Aztec and Mayan people as well as other indigenous peoples.  So in some ways it could be said that immigrants from Latin America are coming home.

The state of Alabama is playing the Doctrine of Discovery by insisting that it has the right to determine who shall live within our state borders. This is currently constitutional under Johnson v McIntosh but should it be when so many of the immigrants are in fact indigenous people of these lands.  The question really becomes can we continue to tell native peoples where they can and cannot live, when it is the descendants of Europeans who are the non-natives here?

Bruce Knotts, Director of the UUA United Nations Office[v], writes: The Doctrine of Discovery violates human rights on its face.  It states that any Christian discovery of non-Christian people, gives the Christian nation the right to claim the land and enslave the people, which many European nations did all over the world.  The vestiges of these terrible crimes remain with us today.  We have imposed relatively modern borders onto ancient indigenous nations.  These newly established colonial boarders divide indigenous nations.  Families are cut off from each other.  Nowhere is this as bad as it is in our American Southwest, where some families and nations of indigenous people are on one or the other side of the American/Mexican border.  The American government makes no provision for people of one indigenous nation (which may have existed for over a thousand years as a cohesive people) are divided by a border established less than two hundred years ago.  Our immigration authorities make visits and commerce within one indigenous nation divided by the American border nearly impossible to achieve.  The Doctrine of Discovery, purports to give us the right to do what we never should have had the right to do; which is steal the land of others and to enslave the owners of the land we have stolen.  The hard work of restoring justice in this world must begin with a total and complete repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.

We have been asked by our national partners in the fight for true immigration reform to join the Roman Catholic Church in revoking this doctrine.  The Holy See in April 27 of 2010 confirms that the Papal Bull of 1493 Inter Coetera “has been revoked and considers it without any legal or doctrinal value.[vi]” Further the Episcopalians and the Quakers have also passed resolutions repudiating this doctrine.

So while we are in Phoenix for our General Assembly, the UUA has proposed a resolution for us to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and to urge the Federal government to fully endorse and implement without qualification the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed by 144 countries with four votes against. The four votes against this resolution included Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.  These four countries have large indigenous populations within their borders.

The action of civil disobedience that I performed this past week is brought into even finer focus with the Doctrine of Discovery as the context in which HB 56 and its revision bills are placed.  Tupac Acosta from Arizona speaks frequently about the connection of SB 1070 and the Doctrine of Discovery.  He says, “the purpose of SB1070 was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.[vii]

I would suggest that this is what is happening in Alabama as well.   It is time for us to put an end to our domination culture.  It is time for us to live up to our higher ideals and values of loving our neighbors.  As I recently wrote in a blog in response to Governor Bentley’s comment about the bible stating one must always obey the law, I quoted another verse from the chapter he referred to:  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. May we strive to always fulfill the law.

[iv] Sermon: Doctrine of Discovery – Rev Matt Alspaugh, Unitarian Universalist Church, Youngstown, OH as found at

[v] Human Rights Violation – Bruce Knotts, Director UUA United Nations Office as found at

One Comment


    Gilbert G. Cuevas
    Ventura, CA

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