Evangelical Covenant Church Joins Other Protestant Denominations in Rebuking Doctrine of Discovery

Evangelical Covenant Church Joins Other Protestant Denominations in Rebuking Doctrine of Discovery
Pope Alexander VI's papal bull Inter Caetera from 1493. This papal bull gave Spanish explorers the freedom to colonize the Americas and to convert Native peoples to Catholicism.
Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story has been edited for length and three paragraphs providing context for the Christian Reformed Church have been added by the news editor. The original RNS version is available at religionnews.com.


The Evangelical Covenant Church became the latest Protestant denomination in the United States to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the theological justification that allowed the discovery and domination by European Christians of lands already inhabited by Indigenous peoples.

Delegates at the Covenant Annual Connection voted overwhelmingly (84%) on Friday (June 25) to approve a resolution acknowledging the damage done to Indigenous peoples in the Americas by taking their land and rights, and lamenting the church’s complicity in the continuing effects of that history.

“After 125 years, the healing is beginning in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and I’m grateful to be starting this journey with you today,” the Rev. TJ Smith, president of the Indigenous Ministers Association, said in an emotional speech after the vote was taken.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America rejected the Doctrine of Discovery in 2016,  when its annual synod received a report of a study committee and declared the doctrine to be heresy.

While the Evangelical Covenant Church has been working on its resolution for the past five years, its action came the day after the Cowessess First Nation announced it had found indications of at least 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

Weeks earlier, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had used ground-penetrating radar to confirm the remains of 215 children as young as 3 years old on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Kamloops was opened by the Roman Catholic Church in 1890 and became the largest school in Canada’s Indian Affairs residential school system, with enrollment peaking at 500 students in the early 1950s, according to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.

At the time that the news was shared by the Tk’emkúps te Secwépemc, leaders in the CRCNA wrote a response shared on crcna.com.

Smith, the president of the Indigenous Ministers Association, who is Lakota, and others at the Covenant Annual Connection drew a line from the Doctrine of Discovery to what were known as Indian residential schools in Canada and Indian boarding schools in the U.S.

“Please understand this isn’t just Canada,” he said.

The Doctrine of Discovery began as a series of 15th-century papal edicts and later was enshrined in the 1823 Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M’Intosh, which established that the U.S. government, not Native American nations, determined ownership of property.

That doctrine led to practice, including the “violent assimilation of Native children in Indian boarding schools,” added Lenore Three Stars, a Lakota speaker and public theologian who shared remarks with the Evangelical Covenant Church gathering by video. Those children were removed from their homes to attend boarding schools operated under the motto “kill the Indian, save the man.”

“Over time, practice affected institutionalized injustice, which persists today,” Three Stars said.

It’s important for the church to know and lament that history, said Curtis Ivanoff, an Inupiat and superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Alaska Conference.

“That its beginnings can be traced to papal decrees means the church had a direct hand in launching this belief and practice. For this reason alone, it serves us well to shine light on this history, to not only remember, but as fellow ambassadors of Jesus, who has given us the ministry of reconciliation, to renounce such evil,” Ivanoff said.

In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report on the history and legacy of Canada's residential school system, which came after six years of investigation.

RELATED: Walk Towards Reconciliation (The Banner, June 23, 2016);  CRC Members Participate in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Events (The Banner, April 4, 2014); CRC Members Reflect on Residential Schools (CRC Communications, Nov. 27, 3013)

Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is an important first step toward healing and solidarity, Smith said.

In recent years, several other Protestant denominations have taken similar actions.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, recently announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to look into the history of boarding schools in the U.S.

The latest resolution by the Evangelical Covenant Church sets the table for Indigenous people to be seen and their stories heard, Smith said.

“With the passing of this resolution, you’ve advanced the Evangelical Covenant Church as a place where we as Indigenous people and populations are seen and welcomed. We’re accepted and acknowledged as who we are and who we are created to be,” he said.

“With the passing of this resolution, we can now participate and learn from you and you can learn from us what the creator has for us.”

The CRC in Canada supports three urban Indigenous ministries in Edmonton, Alta.; Regina, Sask.; and Winnipeg, Man. Shannon Perez, former Justice and Reconciliation Mobilizer for the CRC’s Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee, recently became full-time director of the Indigenous Family Centre in Winnipeg. She started as a part-time director last summer.

— Emily McFarlan Miller for Religion News Service

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