This Day in History: The Doctrine of Christian Discovery

Healing Minnesota Stories has been working with faith communities to raise awareness about the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and the historic and ongoing trauma it has created for Native American peoples. We are using the blog today to remember a particularly important date in this history.

First, quick background: The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification  colonial powers used take indigenous peoples’ lands and forcibly convert them to Christianity. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal bulls (or edicts) granting Spain and Portugal permission to claim foreign lands.

On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued one of the important bulls in this Doctrine. In Inter caetera, the Church granted Spain the right to conquer and claim newly found lands to the west. The Pope issued this edict just one year after Columbus sailed; it triggered the start of Catholic missions in what is now North America. According to an English translation of Inter caetera published on the website, the papal bull states in part:

“Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

Later, the “Discovery Doctrine” was put into U.S. law in secular form through a series of 19th Century Supreme Court decisions. More on that in later blogs.

Dr. Erma Vizenor, Chairwoman of the White Earth Nation.

Church denominations are paying more attention to this painful history, including the Boarding School Era and other policies of forced assimilation. Locally, just this Sunday, the Episcopal Church in Minnesota held a symposium at the Minneapolis American Indian Center called: “The Doctrine of Discovery/Indian Boarding School Trauma: Toward Reconciliation and Healing.” The symposium was cohosted by Dr. Erma Vizenor, Chairwoman of the White Earth Nation. A second symposium will be held May 30, 1-5 p.m. at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis, and a third event will be held in White Earth on July 18.

For more information on the Doctrine of Discovery and denominations that have taken a formal position to repudiate it, see Healing Minnesota Stories webpage on the Doctrine of Discovery. Healing Minnesota Stories is available to help your faith community or civic group organize an educational program on the Doctrine of Discovery. For more information, contact


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