The Doctrine of Discovery

From “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine

The Doctrine of Discovery may sound like something from the past, a discrete historical event from back when Christians didn’t “know better.” Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The Doctrine of Discovery formed the deep structure of colonization that continues to oppress Indigenous Peoples and disposes them of their land today. Papal decrees had the force of law in a time when there was no such thing as the separation of church and state. Over time, these decrees dictating who was able to own land in colonized countries became the basis of international law, and most Western countries incorporated this international law into their national laws and policies as well. 

For instance, in the United States, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall said that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of america during the Age of Discovery and that upon “discovery,” the Indigenous People had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations” and retained only a right of “occupancy” in their lands. According to Marshall, the United States, upon winning its independence in 1776, became a successor nation to the right of “discovery” and acquired the power of “dominion” from Great Britain.