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Grappling with the Doctrine of Discovery in 2022 

At the North American Division Year-End Meeting, executive committee members discuss how this doctrine has shaped law, the world, and Christian denominations.

YEM 2022 Doctrine of Discovery photo 1

On Nov. 1, 2022, Bettina Krause, associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty and editor of Liberty magazine, introduces the topic of the Doctrine of Discovery, before the NAD executive committee members at the year-end meeting engage in a discussion and vote to set up a statement writing committee. Photo by Pieter Damsteegt

At the North American Division’s Year-End Meeting (NAD YEM) on Tuesday morning, Nov. 1, 2022, Bettina Krause, associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty and editor of Liberty magazine, shed light on the Doctrine of Discovery, an 11th-century doctrine with present-day implications.

Krause began with a history lesson from her native Australia. “In 1770, Captain Cook, a British naval captain, was roaming the oceans on a voyage of discovery. He bumped into the continent, went ashore, and claimed it for the British crown. It wasn’t until years later, in a property law class, that I learned Captain Cook was acting on a legal doctrine known as terra nullius, Latin for “an empty or void land.” In other words, he could claim Australia for the Crown because it was an empty, void land. Nobody’s land. Terra nullius.

“Unfortunately, as we know, it was someone’s land. The Indigenous people of Australia had been living on the continent for thousands of years [before the European settlers arrived], and after settlement, were subjected to violence, policies of genocide and family separation, and economic and social marginalization that has left an imprint on today's Indigenous Australians.”

She continued, “I mentioned this story because it’s not unique. You could switch out a few names, dates, and places and tell a remarkably similar story about Canada, the United States, the countries of South and Central America, many parts of Africa, India, Asia, the Caribbean islands, and the Pacific islands. And as you peel back the layers of history, you start seeing connections between all these stories and a legal doctrine known as the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Krause then shared that this doctrine has its roots in the 11th century, during the Crusades, when the notion emerged of the pope as head of a united commonwealth of Christian nations. “This idea was developed in canon law through to the 15th century.” In 1452, Pope Nicholas the 5th issued the first of a series of legal declarations called “papal bulls,” authorizing first the King of Portugal, then the King of Spain to “conquer Muslim and non-Christian pagans, and ‘reduce their persons to perpetual servitude and convert their land to your use and the use of your successors,’” she reported.

As the church in Rome evolved, these documents soon lost their legal and political power. However, Krause said, they solidified “a cluster of ideas around which European nations felt justified to colonize non-Christian lands, [including] terra nullius, the duty to civilize non-Christian lands, and the belief that once Europeans settled, the Indigenous people held a lesser land right. All these ideas, this unholy brew of power, politics, theology, and law, entered the law of nations.”

Relevance for Today

“So why is this relevant for us today?” Krause asked. The partial answer is that the consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery have endured and are part of our international law. In 1823, The U.S. Supreme Court said that once European settlers came ashore, the title in the land was vested or moved to the British crown, “so the doctrine was a valid part of U.S. law.” And as recently as 2005, the Supreme Court acknowledged the continued relevance of this doctrine to U.S. property law in an Indian land dispute case.

Krause acknowledged that she’d only scratched the topic of a highly complex issue. But, she said, “the most relevant point for our purposes is that historically, this doctrine has relied upon the distortion of a number of Christian or biblical ideas such as the great commission — ‘go ye therefore into all the world;’ or Romans 13, an interpretation some have said to mean a divine mandate to rule; or the Exodus narrative, the idea of a divinely favored nation going to another land to possess and occupy another land.”

Many Christian denominations are now grappling with how this doctrine has shaped our law and world. “They're also seeking to acknowledge that, at times, Christianity itself has been perverted to justify acts of colonization and oppression.”

Writing Committee

Delegates learned that a writing committee researching the Doctrine of Discovery has been assigned. The committe is chaired by Rick Remmers, NAD assistant to the president. Other committee members include Campbell Page, the Indigenous Ministries director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada (SDACC); Bettina Krause; Celeste Ryan Blyden, executive secretary of the Columbia Union Conference; and Kenneth Denslow, president of the Lake Union Conference.

The presentation engendered a discussion and overwhelming support for these next steps. "I hope that when [Indigenous peoples] hear and see Adventists, they recognize we are a people who aren't here to take away who [they] are, we are coming to teach and show the culture of Jesus, which includes everybody," said Madonna Taueu, and executive committee member from the Hawaii Conference, during the discussion.

Speaking to this initiative, G. Alexander Bryant, NAD president, stated, “Sometimes when you don’t have a seat at the table, your voice is not heard. And what we are trying to do is be a vehicle for this voice to be heard in the church, … so [Indigenous people] know they’re part of our family and we are part of theirs.”