Renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery

Faith communities have been asked by Native Americans to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery (the legal, moral and religious underpinning of much European conquest of territory worldwide, and the dispossession of indigenous peoples) and to consider renouncing it.

At 2020 Fall Interim Session Northern Yearly Meeting learned about the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) and approved this minute:

The Autumn 2020 Interim Session of NYM renounces the Doctrine of Discovery. We form a subcommittee of the Worshipful, Spirit-led Anti-Racism Working Group (ARWG) charged with cultivating awareness and relationships with our local indigenous communities through compiling resources and providing guidance to help the Monthly Meetings, Worship Groups and individuals grow in their understanding and ability to take action relative to the Doctrine of Discovery. In addition, this subcommittee would oversee the process of bringing the Doctrine of Discovery to the full body for consideration at the 2021 Annual Session for possible renunciation.

What is the “Doctrine of Discovery?”

It is the idea put forth in a series of 15th century papal pronouncements that land discovered by Christians and not already inhabited by Christians could be claimed for Christendom and the crown. This idea underlay much European colonization, claiming of territory, and genocide against indigenous peoples.

…We… by the authority of Almighty God … do … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever… all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered… And we make, appoint, and depute you and your said heirs and successors lords of them with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind…

Doctrine of Discovery, Papal Bull, 1493

How did it play out in American History?

In 1792, Thomas Jefferson declared that all of the British Crown’s landholdings and rights — initially acquired under the Doctrine of Discovery — were transferred to the new nation.

In 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned that ownership of land rested in those who “discovered” it, and that indigenous inhabitants had rights of occupancy only. Since then, jurisprudence relating to Native Americans and their land has rested on this legal foundation.

Does it still matter?

Yes! As recently as 2005 the Supreme Court issued a ruling, penned by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that rested on the Doctrine of Discovery. The ruling denied the Oneida of New York the right to rebuild their reservation by buying back land that had once belonged to them and that was illegally purchased.

What does the Doctrine of Discovery have to do with NYM?

Native Americans — nations, tribes, advocacy groups and legal organizations — have asked faith communities to learn about and renounce the Doctrine of Discovery. This is seen as a first step in challenging legal oppression, dispossession and denial of their rights. Several Yearly Meetings (Philadelphia, New York, New England, Baltimore, Intermountain) and Quaker organizations (AFSC, FCNL, QEW) have already renounced the Doctrine, as have a number of mainline Protestant denominations (General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ General Synod, Christian Reformed Church, Presbyterian Church.) Our Antiracist Working Group has chosen to bring this issue forward for our prayerful consideration.

Learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery

What you can do

We encourage NYM’s Monthly Meetings and Worship Groups to approve their own minute renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery. Some of you have already been working towards this step; others may feel like they are at the beginning. Regardless, we urge you to engage in this process.

The below document offers background, resources, and an exercise for reflection.