ELCA Repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery, Next Up: Mennonite Church USA

In an overwhelming vote, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. The measure was approved by delegates attending the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans this week. The vote Tuesday was 912-28.

The Churchwide Assembly is the ELCA’s highest legislative body and meets only once every three years. The Assembly will continue meeting through Saturday.

The final language approved by the delegates is not yet available on line. We will reprint it when we get a copy. Many ELCA synods, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul synods, approved memorials to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and forwarded them to the Churchwide Assembly for consideration. The final language most likely will reflect these earlier drafts. Here is a link to the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod Memorial, which read in part:

Resolved, that the 2016 Minneapolis Area Synod Assembly explicitly and clearly repudiates the European Christian-derived “doctrine of discovery” and its continuing impact upon tribal governments and individual tribal members to this day, acknowledges the unearned benefits this church has received from the evils of colonialism in the Americas, [and] repents of this church’s complicity in this doctrine …

The ELCA joins a growing list of churches and organizations which have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, including the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the World Council of Churches, the Community of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA. (To see their statements, click here.)

Next up appears to be the Mennonite Church USA. It hopes to formally repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery next year, according to Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for the church. “[O]ur hope is to work together to come up with a resolution for the Delegate Assembly at Orlando 2017,” she said in a May 12 Mennonite USA post. “We want the denomination to take a definitive stand against the use of the [Doctrine of Discovery].”

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of 15th Century papal edicts that gave the religious and legal justification to Europe’s colonial powers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples and to forcibly convert or enslave them. The Doctrine was the forerunner to the concept of Manifest Destiny and supported the beliefs that led to Native American genocide. Later, the “Discovery Doctrine” was adapted into U.S. law through a series of 19th Century Supreme Court decisions justifying U.S. land claims. Those rulings still apply today.

Since 2014, the Mennonite Church USA has participated in a coalition with other Mennonite groups working to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. It is known as the DoD Coalition. León-Hartshorn also participates on the Coalition, and at a recent conference, she said:

The Christian Church has missed a golden opportunity to allow Native American Spirituality to help inform and unpack some of the negative impacts of Western thought on Christianity. Some First Nations spiritual values could really help us see the fuller picture of what God intended.”

The DoD Coalition has a website with various resources, including a 43-minute documentary which is divided into three sections: The history of the Doctrine of Discovery, Living the Doctrine of Discovery, and Undoing the Doctrine of Discovery. The Coalition also is working on a soon-to-be-released study guide.

For the names of the other people and organizations participating in this Coalition, click here.

The Mennonite Church USA is one of about 40 Mennonite groups in the United States, according to its website.  The different Mennonite groups share a common faith ancestry, but may differ in how they dress, worship, and relate to the world. The Mennonite Church USA has more than 79,000 adult members.

Mennonites are also known as Anabaptists. They are neither Catholic nor Protestant but share ties to Christianity, their website explains:

In Europe during the 16th century, our faith ancestors broke away from the state religion’s practice of baptizing infants. As they looked to the scriptures for guidance, they believed that only adults could make a decision to follow Jesus Christ and be baptized voluntarily.

Stay tuned for more news and updates. To follow the blog, click the “Follow” box in the upper right hand corner.

5 thoughts on “ELCA Repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery, Next Up: Mennonite Church USA

  1. […] The details are still being worked out. Initial plans call for lifting up the ELCA’s recent vote to Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th Century justification given to Christian explorers to seize lands from indigenous peoples and convert or enslave them. (More details in this blog.) […]


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