The Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery

Many Americans grow up learning that this continent was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. The concept of discovery, as if the land was empty prior to arrival and its indigenous inhabitants were somehow “less than” the explorers is, at its heart, racism and cultural superiority. 

The doctrine of discovery, a concept of public international law expounded by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, originated from various church documents in Christian Europe in the mid-1400s to justify the pattern of domination and oppression by European monarchies as they invasively arrived in the Western hemisphere.  It theologically asserted the right to claim the indigenous lands, territories, and resources on behalf of Christendom, and to subjugate native peoples around the world.

The U.S. Supreme Court used the doctrine to assert that the United States, as the successor of Great Britain, had inherited authority over all lands within our claimed boundaries. This decision allowed our government to legally ignore or invalidate any native claims to property and resources. To this day courts continue to cite this legal precedent. It is still being used by courts to decide property rights cases brought by Native Americans against the U.S. and against non-Natives.

The repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by General Synod 29 provides an invaluable teaching moment for our congregations to understand systemic and continuous impact of racism on the daily lives of indigenous peoples in the U.S.

Learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery

What is the Doctrine of Discovery?

The discovery concept has basically has two separate references. Theologically, it provided the spiritual rationale for Europeans since the times of the Crusades to conquer and confiscate other lands, including what is now the United States. There were papal documents which laid the groundwork that, later, Protestants adopted. It treated the indigenous peoples as if they were animals; they had no (European) title to the land on which they lived. Thus, the Church justified removing and killing them. 

Legally, the discovery concept was written into United States law as a doctrine to deny land rights to American Indians, through the Supreme Court case known as Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. The decision stripped American Indians from the right of their own independence, providing a rationale for taking land away from the indigenous peoples, with the support of United States federal law. As a concept of public international law, it continues to be cited as recently as 2005. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues noted that the Doctrine of Discovery “was the foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous peoples) human rights."

Continuous Impacts

Excessive poverty, teenage suicides that outpaced all other ethnicities, extreme incidences of Type II diabetes, unemployment rates that rank among the highest – these are but a few of the contemporary cultural, communal, and individual damages experienced by indigenous peoples in the U.S., due to the generational impact resulted from the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.

UCC Perspectives on the Doctrine of Discovery

Lenten Reflections

For the five Sundays in Lent the United Church of Christ has created a series of reflections on selected lectionary texts, using the lens of the doctrine of discovery. Your congregation is invited to engage with these reflections as an exercise to prepare for the encounter with the risen Christ anew this Easter, and in the service of racial justice.

The first Sunday in Lent: Temptation
The text according to the Gospel of Matthew narrates the Temptation of Jesus, and Matthew 4:8–9 reads, “[A]gain, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all of the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 10 Jesus said to him,...
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The second Sunday in Lent: Manifest Destiny No More
In Genesis 12:1-4a, God spoke to Abraham, calling him to take his family and migrate to another land, pledging to make them into a great nation and promising blessings to all the families of the earth.
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The third Sunday in Lent: Is the Lord among us or not?
In Exodus 17:1-7, Moses led the people out the wilderness of Sinai. When they found that there was no water at Rephidim, the people quarreled with Moses. Their struggle for physical survival became a struggle for spiritual survival, prompting the...
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The fourth Sunday in Lent: Darkness Exposed
In John 9:1-41, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind. The miracle was performed despite the disciples’ difficulty understanding Jesus’s concern for the blind man. Through this healing, Jesus repudiated the old theology that said that tragedy is...
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The fifth Sunday in Lent: Unbind Lazarus!
In John 11:1-45, the gospel text tells the story of Lazarus who had been ill and died. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, and their religious leaders were grieving for him. Deeply moved by their mourning for Lazarus, Jesus told them that Lazarus...
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Thanks to Norm “Jack” Jackson for his assistance in crafting these reflections. For more information on the UCC Council of American Indian Ministries (CAIM) visit

Contact Info

Elizabeth Leung
Minister for Racial Justice
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115