Synodical Committee Rejects Doctrine of Discovery, Criticizes CRC Ministry to Navajo

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The Doctrine of Christian Discovery Task Force appointed by Synod 2012 asks the Christian Reformed Church to roundly condemn the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD) and the negative effects it has had on generations of Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada. The committee also did not mince words in criticizing the CRC’s ministry to Zuni and Navajo peoples, established more than a century ago. Synod is the annual leadership meeting of the CRC. This report will be received by Synod 2016 in June.

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery was the belief that North American lands were uninhabited until Europeans arrived and placed white Christians in a position of power over non-Christian peoples and lands. The committee asserts that those beliefs, though now disavowed, continue to influence legal and policy decisions today.

The committee’s report provides extensive material on the history of DOCD and its effects on both Native and non-Native populations. It mined CRC archival documents and also captured stories of Native people who were placed in Christian residential schools.

The authors report that “belief in the inferiority of Indigenous cultures led to attempts . . . to wipe out Indigenous culture.” In both the U.S. and Canada, these attempts were facilitated most notoriously through the establishment of Indian boarding schools and legislation designed to force Indigenous cultures to adopt Western practices of land ownership and governance.

In Canada, those residential boarding schools have been the subject of hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It called the attempt to “civilize” Indian children “cultural genocide.” Those schools were run by mainline Christian denominations; the CRC was not involved. Many CRC people and churches are involved in the reconciliation work that has followed the TRC’s hearings.

In the U.S., the CRC was involved through its “Board of Heathen Missions.” It established Rehoboth, an Indian boarding school, in 1903.

The committee wrote that the CRC’s policies and actions concerning Indigenous peoples of the Southwest were directly shaped by the values and assumptions common to the DOCD. “The church made policies based on an understanding that they had an inalienable right to expand their church to Navajo and Zuni territory and that until they came there to save the local Indigenous population, the Navajo and Zuni were firmly in the grip of the devil.”

School officials cut students’ hair, replaced their Native clothes with Western dress, and replaced their Navajo names with “English” names, the trauma of which is recorded in the story of committee member Susie Silversmith. The authors cite the warfare imagery used by missionaries. Assimilation into Western culture was seen as the final victory of Christ over Satan. In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the mission in New Mexico, Herman Fryling gave the following as evidence of their success as missionaries: “Their natural life has in many respects been so wonderfully changed these past fifty years that you would hardly know the present Indian being a descendant from the Indian fifty years ago.”

Many churches and governments have apologized for their actions. The Canadian government apologized to Native peoples in Canada in 2008 for the abuses that happened in residential schools. A number of churches have affirmed their own culpability in the legacy the DOCD has left in North America, including the World Council of Churches, the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ.

When the 100th anniversary of Rehoboth was celebrated, former students, representatives of the denomination, and teachers and staff both past and present participated in a process of healing and reconciliation. “But as truth and reconciliation projects have taught us,” the authors wrote, “confessions, apologies, and reconciliation must flow out of a sincere and rigorous search for truth. Hearings have not been conducted, and the search for truth has not been completed because not all people have felt safe to share their stories.”

“We cannot spread the guilt. And we cannot seek to justify our actions,” the report states. “The CRC was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth; the land the missionaries sought to conquer was not theirs to flourish in; it was wrong to punish students for speaking their language; our denomination was wrong to take children from their homes. The CRC Board of Heathen Missions initiated a lot of pain through its dehumanizing view of Native Americans.”

The authors wrote that the distance of years or lack of immediate responsibility for the actions taken a century ago does not excuse churches or its members today. They note that the CRC and the entire body of Christ in North America “drinks downstream” from that historical reality; the effects of that corporate sin linger today.

The committee made several recommendations to continue the CRC’s journey of reconciliation, starting with a repudiation of the DOCD as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Additionally, the recommendations include

  1. commitment to a long-term process of education, confession, lamentation, and repentance.
  2. acknowledgement of the CRC’s historical appropriation of a Euro-superior worldview and resulting trespasses against Indigenous peoples generally and, specifically, against the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the U.S. Southwest.
  3. holding, in due time, a CRCNA Prayer and Worship Gathering of Lament for “our corporate sins and moral wounds related to the DOCD” under the under the leadership of Indigenous Christians, because “corporate sins call for corporate lament.”
  4. establishing a commission, chaired and led by a simple majority of Indigenous persons, to design and implement a five-year process creating safe space for telling and listening to life stories of Indigenous brothers and sisters.

The full report is available on the CRCNA website and will be published in the Agenda for Synod 2016. Synod 2016, the CRC’s annual leadership meeting, will discuss the report when delegates gather in June in Grand Rapids, Mich.

About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

See comments (5)


This report is an exercise in self-loathing.  The report claims to seek reconciliation but in fact promotes self-loathing into perpetuity, by the widest possible group (those who "drink downstream" from the wrongdoers, a definition that of course includes all our descendants as they are born into perpetuity).

It is instructive to review what Wikepedia says about Rehoboth Christian School, or better yet, what Rehobeth Christian School says about itself in its website at:

Back in 2003 -- yes, that would be 13 years ago -- a "message of confession and reconciliation" was produced and "signed," by executive director of the school, the executive director of CRHM, and the Regional Director of Classis Red Mesa (indicated as a statement from the Navajo native American side).  Read it all at:

But of course we can't let reconciliation be, well, reconciliation.  We need to take it up again 13 years later and whip ourselves with the wrongs of our ancestors all over again because we "drink downstream" from them.  We need to yet again self-accuse, yet again second guess 100+ years of history, yet again look only at wrongs and ignore rights, yet again not acceptance forgiveness that has been offered and accepted but rather blame an even wider group of people, including all CRC members, now and in the future.

To say, as this article accurately quotes the report as saying, "The CRC was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth ...", is remarkable.  Indeed, if this is in fact true, the CRCNA should simply shut down all missions efforts to anyone, everyone, whether in the US or otherwise.  After all, which missions effort that has been engaged in, whether by the CRCNA or any other church, hasn't been accompanied by serious mistakes?  Which missions effort, especially those begun and continued over the past 100+ years ago, can't be seriously second-guessed by others 100 years later?  More to the key point of my proposal to shut down all CRCNA missions effort, which missions effort being undertaken right now, today, won't be seriously second guessed in multiple ways by our children, grandchildren and their children and grandchildren, 100+ years from now, just as this report does to our ancestors and ourselves (those that "drink downstream")?  By the analysis presented by this report, we have done no good, can do no good, and we need to stop trying.

For that matter, if this report is on target, I'm not sure we ought not entirely abandon the idea of having an institutional church like the CRCNA altogether.  After all, how many sins and mistakes don't we now point out about the CRCNA of the past, which sins and mistakes must be attributed to us today because we "drink downstream," after all.

This report replaces the Reformed "guilt, grace and gratitude" motif with a perpetual cycle of "guilt, condemn ourselves, guilt, condemn ourselves, repeat ad infinitum."

One wonders whether the community that is now Rehoboth Christian School (which for all of its sins the CRCNA/CRHM built and gave to the local community back in the 1970s already) would prefer that the CRCNA/CRHM had never set foot in area?  Even though I'm only a guilty CRC member who "drinks downstream" from those awful CRCNA/CRWM  people who began and continued the Rehoboth presence for nearly a century, I think Rehoboth Christian School seems to be a pretty great school, and suspect it is loved by its own community.  I also think the great weight of Rehoboth community would prefer to take note of the 2003 reconciliation efforts already taken, and then move on with the "gratitude" part of "guilt, grace and gratitude."

Excellent comment Doug. Thank you! 

I suspect, Doug, that you don’t appreciate this article because it reflects on Christianity in a negative way.  As I had pointed out to you in a previous set of comments (different article), many of the world’s evils can be laid at the door of the Christian church.  I had suggested that American settlement was largely accomplished by Christian settlers taking over the lands of native Americans and relocating them on much smaller reservations.  It was most often settlers, claiming to be Christian, who took advantage of the native American population for their own gain and betterment.  This is not secret information, Doug, and this article simply illustrates a truth you would just not want to be reminded of, especially in the fact that the CRC can also be implicated in this Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Rehoboth is not a school that disproves our involvement in such sin.  Rehoboth Christian School could be characterized as a band-aid put in place to hide a much larger problem, of which our denomination (and Dutch settlers) had a part in.  This article simply is admitting and confessing our’s along with Christianity’s past record of widespread and deep sin.

Sigmund, uh, Roger:  History is utterly filled with injustice, committed by Christians, those who claimed to be Christian but weren't, those who declare other faiths, and those who don't claim a religious faith at all.

And then some injustices are by Christians against Christians (eg., Roman Catholics killing Guido de Bres and other Calvinists), Christians against non-Christians, non-Christians against Christians, and all other other possible combinations.

I don't think I'm naive or skittish about condemning injustices, regardless of who commits them.   I've practiced law for 36 years and in the course of that have condemned the actions of Christians, non-Christians, etc etc etc.

But the questions I have specifically raised here are these.  First, why do we want to unreconcile a reconciliation of 13 years ago?  Certainly, neither you nor I have detailed knowledge about what did and did not happen at Rehoboth in the past 100+ years, but we do know, from the public statement signed 13 years ago by representatives of "various local perspectives" and statement of reconciliation, that local folks have worked through what they decided needed to be worked through.  Given that, exactly who are these task force members, and who would the members of the 2016 Synod be (were they to adopt), to scratch off not just scabs but scar tissue, to say, "no, no, you folks haven't reconciled -- we'll tell you when you've reconciled"? This reminds me of conflicts I've been involved in as an attorney, where overbearing parents of adult aged children insist on being in control of the conflict their adult children are having with others.

Control of Rehoboth facilities was apparently given to the local community in the 1970s, nearly a half century ago.  That local community isn't a child anymore.  Who are you, I, or the members of this task force to now declare the reconciliation reached and publicly stated 13 years ago invalid or inadequate? Again, it's time for mom and dad (aka, CRCNA) to butt out.

Second, for this task force to declare that the CRCers who worked for CRHM, and otherwise in the CRCNA, were wrong, and not just wrong in some respects but in the whole of what they did in the Rehoboth mission, is patronizing, presumptuous, and utterly arrogant, not to mention wrong-headed.  As I indicated in my first comment, if we are going to apply the standard of scrutiny  applied by this task force to the past 100+ years of Rehoboth, we must simply stop doing missions programs (perhaps relief work as  well, where so easily "helping can be hurting") because we will undoubtedly be second guessed 100 years from now in the same way this task force, and you apparently, are second guessing the people who were the minds, hands and feet of CRHM.

Or are you offering to be in charge of all future CRCNA missions ( and CRCNA relief) efforts, providing the assurance of course that all your decisions will not only perfect but recognized as such by everyone, including outsiders second guessing 100+ years later?

Maybe Sigmund would be giving you advice, Roger.  Maybe he would say you have a fixation to understand and explain how most injustices and problems in the world are created by Christians.  Maybe excepting you?  You say "our's" in your last sentence.  Does that mean "yours"?  Are you responsible for the wrongs, whatever they were, committed at Rehoboth in last 100+ years?


Thanks, Doug, for your comment.  I would agree with your concern in regard to the Synodical Committee and the action they seem to want to take.  I agree, how many times do you need to say I’m sorry for a past action?  We’ve already asked for forgiveness, now can we let sleeping dogs lie?  What’s the point of festering a wound that is trying to heal? 

That was not my point in responding to this article or to your comment.  My point was to reveal or demonstrate that Christians and the church are just as bad as our culture in propagating sin. In a previous set of comments you went to lengths to defend the church as being the light in a dark and sinful culture (a culture that would condone homosexuality).  To my understanding of your comments, you thought I painted the church into a dark corner that was no better than our culture.  I pointed to many cultural sins (such as the Crusades,  American slavery, the subversion of women, racial segregation, apartheid in South Africa) as being led by the Christian church.  You thought my criticism of the church was unfair (do I reflect a change of opinion in this past comment?).  After all, Christians are to be the bright light in a dark world.  This present article, in my thinking, simply pointed out that once again Christianity, because of its own prejudice, could force a heathen (the CRC Board of Heathen Missions) culture to be Christianized in a way that was anything but Christian.  This article was quite revealing as to our own past sins.  And this article was supportive (in my mind) of the idea, that early Christian settlers would take advantage of native Americans for their own benefit by pushing them off their own lands and into much smaller Indian reservations where they were poorly treated.  Once again, shame on Christians.

My point previously was, seeing as the church is no better in promoting righteousness than our culture and seeing as our culture does as much, maybe more, as the church in promoting good, perhaps once again our culture has it right when it comes to the issue of homosexuality and the church has it wrong.  And somewhere down the road (like in this article), it will be admitted by the church that they didn’t even know how to read their own Scriptures, and therefor was largely responsible for the prejudice and stigma and harm done against gays.