The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism

The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism

"American Progress" John Gast 1872

“American Progress” John Gast 1872



And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.[1]

We live on the Earth as part of a vast, interdependent web of life. But dominant Christianity sees the Earth not as sacred but as something to be ruled over as God commanded—i.e. discovered, occupied and made productive.  This article describes some of the direct results of the Christian belief in God-sanctioned dominion.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[2]

This section of Scripture is known as the Great Commission. As the last recorded personal directive of Jesus to his disciples, it holds great significance to all his followers. It is the theological foundation for Christian evangelism, Crusades, and the Doctrine of Discovery. Christians have read this statement as God’s mandate to convert the world to Christianity so that the millennium could begin.

Many Native Americans, when speaking about Western civilization, Christianity and colonization, will immediately name the Doctrine of Discovery[3] as the root of the colonization, dispossession and genocide they have experienced from the western colonial powers throughout the Americas.[4] The roots of the Doctrine of Discovery lie in the two biblical quotes above but it took a long time to coalesce into official western Christian policy.

The Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery, formalized in the Papal Bulls of the 13th and 14th centuries, specified that the entire world was under the jurisdiction of the Pope, as God’s representative on earth. Any land not Christianized, i.e. not under the sovereignty of a Christian ruler, could be possessed on behalf of God. All time and space was considered empty until Christians arrived with God’s truth; until then it was Terra Nullius.[5] Previously it existed in a dark, wild and timeless existence of absolutely no significance.[6]

Pope Alexander VI's Demarcation Bull, May 4, 1493. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Pope Alexander VI’s Demarcation Bull, May 4, 1493. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

In 1455 (Romanus Pontifex ) and then again in 1493 (Inter Caetera ) the Pope, claiming dominion over the entire world, issued statements which gave European rulers the sanction to colonize all of the non-Christian world. Speaking as God’s representative on earth, the popes anointed these rulers and their representatives as sanctified conquerors of anything they discovered not already claimed by Christian rulers. The Bulls gave Columbus, Cortez, Pizarro, Cook, Hudson and the rest both legal and moral license to do whatever they wanted to the people and lands they encountered, including dispossession, enslavement, and murder. They were granted

 “free and ample faculty…to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.[7] Romanus Pontifex, 1455

US legal doctrine is based on the Doctrine of Discovery. For example, in the 1835 Tennessee Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Forman, the court ruled:

The principle declared in the fifteenth century as the law of Christendom that discovery gave title to assume sovereignty over, and to govern the unconverted natives of Africa, Asia, and North and South America, has been recognized as a part of the national law, for nearly four centuries.[8]

The Doctrine of Discovery remains a major tenant of our legal system referred to by recent US Supreme Court Justices citing John Marshall’s Supreme Court Johnson v. M’Intosh decision in 1832. According to Chief Justice 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. Therefore all Native American land claims were null and void. As recently as 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in rejecting land-claims by the Oneidas, one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee.[9] Robert Miller, Native American professor of law, has written, “… The deed to almost all real estate in the United States originates from an Indian title that was acquired by the United States via Discovery principles.”[10]

"Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls" Image from Minnesota State Historical Society

“Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls” Image from Minnesota State Historical Society

Native peoples in the Americas are still fighting to resist western colonialism and reclaim their land and sovereignty. The Doctrine of Discovery still stands in their way. And the entitlement, arrogance, and righteousness it is based on is evident in the common use of the word discovery in this colonizing sense. People discover new restaurants, bars and hotspots. They discover other people’s rituals, sacred texts or sites, music or art and then feel entitled to possess them. They discover new neighborhoods with inexpensive prices and move in. This contemporary doctrine of discovery, labeled gentrification, carries a presumption of entitlement to invasion and possession just from the fact people now recognize something they were previously unaware of. They often don’t see or are oblivious to the prior residents of a neighborhood (or they may be seen as a nuisance to avoid or get rid of just at Native Americans have been). The privacy, sovereignty and rights of the people whose space they are invading are disregarded as they appropriate land, culture or spiritual practices.

Colonization: Crusades in the “New” World

Another root of the Doctrine of Discovery lie in the Crusades, a long series of religious wars spanning a period of 600 years (1095 to 1699) that have left a deep mark on western thinking. When Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade to compel Christians to conquer Jerusalem, a land settled and ruled by Muslims for centuries, his imperial battle cry was “God wills this!” (Deus hoc vult!).[11] As Christians remodeled a theological edifice built on Jewish foundations, they adapted the concept of the Chosen People for themselves and claimed the Promised Land to be anywhere they settled, providing a convenient justification for the conquest and enslavement of other peoples.

By the end of the Middle Ages the word “crusade” had come to refer to all wars undertaken on God’s behalf. Crusading – God commanding Christians to wage pre-emptive war – became a controlling idea. Because people must be evil (controlled by the Devil) to oppose the will of God, the non-Christian enemy was always deemed intractable and had to be exterminated for the safety of the community. Any people judged barbarian, not living by civilized (i.e. Christian) standards, were subject to colonization for the same reasons. The white Christian man’s burden was to colonize in order to save every human being in the world.

The Conquistadores, who went forth to discover “new” (non Christian-ruled) lands considered themselves to be soldiers of the cross on holy crusades. Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortez all wore the cross on their breast, on their sails and, besides their commercial goals, hoped to attack Islamic rulers from the rear by circumnavigating Africa or reaching Asia. The popes strongly encouraged these expeditions.43

Columbus’ ships were named the Nina (baby Jesus), the Pinta and the Santa Maria (holy Mary); he called the first two islands he came upon San Salvador (holy savior) and Santa Maria de Concepcion (Saint Mary of the Virgin Birth). On every island he placed a tall cross “as a sign that the land belongs to your Highnesses and especially as a sign of Jesus Christ and the honor of Christianity.”44

The Spanish, including Columbus, did not use the word conquer, much less invade. All pronouncements and laws issued by the throne used discover and pacify, even when referring to armed intervention.

Religious repression was even harsher for those indigenous peoples who were able to organize serious resistance. Idols were destroyed, temples burned and those who celebrated Native rites were punished by death; festivities such as banquets, songs and dances, as well as artistic and intellectual activities (painting, sculpture, observations of stars, hieroglyphic writing) – all suspected of being inspired by the devil – were forbidden, and those who took part in them mercilessly hunted down and enslaved or murdered.[12]

Through this long, violent period of consolidation of control over much of Europe, Africa and the Americas, the rationale for conquest slowly secularized. At first, people were attacked because they were not Christian. Then, they were attacked because they were not reasonable, because any reasonable person would be a Christian. Finally, they were attacked because they were not civilized, because any civilized society would embrace Christianity and Christians’ attempt to civilize them.

Protestants colonizers were no different than Catholic ones. For example, the Puritan patent (charter) for land from the Massachusetts Bay Company stated explicitly:

The principall Ende of this Plantacion is to Wynn and incite the natives of [the] country, to the Knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Savior of Mankind, and the Christian Fayth.[13]

Legislation passed in 1644 outlawed the practice of Native religion and committed the entire colony to the missionary effort.[14]

Manifest Destiny

Manifest destiny was the continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery adapted to the needs of 19th century US colonial aspirations.

The 1840s was a time of tremendous transformation in the US.  With the opening of the Oregon Trail, the Mexican-American War, and the gold rush in California, much of the public’s attention was on western expansion.  Many white Americans were eager to take more land from Native Americans, establish new territories and states, and increase their economic and political power.  Popularized in 1845 by influential journalist John L. O’Sullivan, the term “Manifest Destiny” became a national rallying cry for proponents of further westward colonization.  It captured and consolidated longstanding concepts from the Crusades and the Papal-sanctioned colonization process such as holy war, divine sanction, chosen people, promised land, terra nullis, and the proselytizing and conversion of heathens. As originally used in the US, Manifest Destiny was the idea that God had given the United States a mission to expand their territory throughout North America.

Three basic ideas underlie the concept of manifest destiny. First is a belief in the righteousness and superiority of the Christian moral values and institutions of the United States. The second is a belief in the responsibility of the U.S. to spread these for the benefit of the world and to fulfill God’s wishes. The third is the faith that God has blessed the country to succeed and every success confirms that blessing.


The US Homestead Act of 1862 continued and quickened the long-term appropriation of indigenous land and its distribution to white Christian settlers. The Act, which continued in force until 1976, distributed 270,000,000 acres – about 10% of the land in the US.[15] This Native American land was given for free, in 160-acre allotments, to any white person who built a house, fence, and well on the land and tilled at least 10 acres of it. Though legally open to anyone who filed the papers and made the required improvements, few white women, free blacks, Jews or others who were not white Christian men were allowed to gain homestead status.[16]

The term Manifest Destiny was revived in the 1890s as a justification for US international expansion. By the end of the 19th century, most white Christians in the US held the commonsense belief that their country had a mandate from God to spread Christianity not only over remaining Native American lands, but also anywhere in the world not already Christian-controlled. And most felt, in addition, those conquered would be better off because of US intervention. After the defeat of Spain, the US invaded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and claimed them as colonies under this worldview.

Continuing this legacy, Henry Luce, enormously influential publisher of Time and Life magazines, wrote a 1941 editorial titled “The American Century” declaring that the US “was destined to be the Good Samaritan and the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice.” Luce argued the United States had, “the right to go with our ships and ocean-going airplanes, however we wish, when we wish, and as we wish.”8

Today Christian imperialism is visible at every level of US foreign policy from the concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil to a belief in our Manifest Destiny to bring various kinds of salvation to benighted peoples. As religious historian Andrew Preston has extensively documented,

“American foreign relations retained core features developed early on … not merely over decades but down through the centuries. In the American context, this has often meant waging war in the name of God, or at least in the name of serving him and fulfilling his will. This is familiar rhetoric in the history of American exceptionalism: the stuff of providence, manifest destiny, a New Jerusalem, and a shining city upon a hill.” [17]

American Exceptionalism

Commonly paired with the phrase “manifest destiny” and with the same roots in the Crusades and the Papal Doctrine of Discovery, American exceptionalism has been described as “a pervasive faith in the uniqueness, immutability, and superiority of the country’s founding liberal principles, accompanied by a conviction that the United States has a special destiny among nations.”[18]

Today this missionary zeal is still linked with what the US considers its responsibility to bring US-defined modernity, democracy and most recently, free markets, human rights, civil society, and humanitarian intervention to other peoples – almost always against their will and with the use of overpowering force. Those who lose in struggle with us (the Russians or Saddam Hussein) are confirmed as evil, and our every victory is taken as a sign of divine providence and the country’s exceptional goodness.

Of course, if a government sees itself as anointed by God and carrying out God’s mandate, then there is no moral or legal standard it need accept about its actual behavior. As cultural historian Robert Jewett has noted, this leads to “a problematic sense of innocence, moral superiority, and entitlement … [because] … If you believe you are already virtuous, you feel automatically entitled to reform others.”[19]

There is no end of statements from our most powerful leaders confirming that manifest destiny, American exceptionalism and millennial beliefs are foundations of US foreign policy. In 2003, US General Boykin, who, while in uniform, gave talks at churches around the country, declared that in his battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I knew that my God was bigger than his God. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol,” and that George Bush is “in the White House because God put him there.”18 President Obama regularly emphasizes the belief that the United States is an exceptional, God-blessed country. In a national address on Syria on September 10, 2013 for example, he said,

Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman… But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.[20]

US domestic and foreign policy is an extension of a thousand years of Christian holy wars against Muslims, heathens, heretics, indigenous peoples, Jews, and others. These wars were carried out by military forces, “explorers,” traders, missionaries, settlers, law makers, court officials, and individuals imbued with the belief that they owned what they “discovered” and it was their God-given right to grab anything and everything that those who are inferior possessed. The doctrine of discovery is still used by law makers and judges to deny indigenous peoples rights to their lands, manifest destiny is still used to justify “humanitarian” invasions of other countries to bring them if not explicitly Christianity, then such benefits of our superior Christian society as freedom from “evil” dictators, democracy, free markets, material aid, and human rights. American exceptionalism is still the oft-used phrase to remind us that we should be unconstrained by international law because anything we do is blessed by God and therefore, by definition, beneficial and above critique.

Native peoples have been working for centuries to defend themselves against attack and dispossession justified by the Doctrine of Discovery. They are demanding that the US adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which explicitly repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery. Recently some faith-based groups in the US have stepped up to support their efforts and to support local sovereignty struggles. The Episcopalians (2009), Quakers, (Pennsylvania, 2009), Anglicans (Canada, 2010), the Unitarian Universalists (2012), and the World Council of Churches (2012) have passed resolutions rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on their congregations and members to work with local Native American groups on issues of land and sovereignty.

There are many ways to resist Christian Hegemony. Working in solidarity with indigenous groups to reject the Doctrine of Discovery, working to stop all wars, invasions, and interventions justified by the concept of manifest destiny, and rejecting all attempts to circumvent international law and human rights based on beliefs in American exceptionalism are necessary and useful ways for every one of us to get involved.



Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2014.

Kivel, Paul. Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony. New Society, 2013

Miller, Robert J. Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Miller, Robert J. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Newcomb, Steven T. Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Fulcrum Publishing, 2008.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. Hill and Wang, 1996.

Williams, Robert A., Jr. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Christian Resolutions rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery

Unitarian Universalist Resolution

Taking action on the Unitarian Universalist Resolution and what to do

World Council of Churches

Episcopal Church


Video resources

The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code (2015) directed by Sheldon Wolfchild

“Indigenous Reflections on Christianity” available at Viewed on 7-8-15.

Professor Robert Miller: The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny
Viewed on 7-8-15.

Chief Oren Lyons on Doctrine of Discovery Viewed on 7-8-15.

Discovered? Or Stolen! Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery Viewed on 7-8-15.

Walter Echo Hawk Presentation – International Seminar on the Doctrine of Discovery  Viewed on 7-8-15.

Steve Newcomb at Indigenous Peoples Forum on the Doctrine of Discovery, Arizona
Viewed on 7-8-15.

The Doctrine of Discovery: True Story of the Colonization of the United States of America (UU educational video). Viewed on 7-14-15.

Other resources

Text of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Viewed on 7-8-15.

[1] Genesis 1:28, King James Version.
[2] Matthew 28:18-20, New International Version.
[3] Native American legal scholar and activist Steven Newcomb refers to it as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination.
[4] See, for example, “Indigenous Reflections on Christianity” available at
[5] Land belonging to nobody or “no-man’s land.” The concept of empty land parallels that of static time. Only Christians could bring progress (advancement in time) through development (advancement in space).
[6] Robert J. Miller. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. University of Nebraska, 2008, p. 4.
[7] Emphasis added.
[8] Ibid., p. 36.
[9] “NY Tribes In Decades-long Battle With Gov. Cuomo, Lawyers For Rights To Their Land” by Chrstine Graef, 9-3-14. Viewed on 7-11-15.
[10] Robert J. Miller. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny. University of Nebraska, 2008, p. 6.
[11] Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. 2nd ed. Anchor, 2001 p. 67.
[12] Claude Baudez and Sydney Picasso. Lost Cities of the Mayas. Abrams, 1992, p. 21 quoted in Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Autonomedia, 2004 , p. 226.
[13] George E. Tinker. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Fortress, 1993, p. 28.
[14] Ibid., p. 29.
[15] Homesteading continued in Alaska until 1986.
[16] The appropriation of indigenous land continues today throughout the Americas.
[17] Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. Anchor, 2012. p. 7-8.
[18] Deepa Kumar. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket, 2012, p. 114.
[19] Robert Jewett. Mission and Menace. Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal. Fortress, 2008. p. 101.
[20] Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Common Dreams Viewed on 7-8-15.

10 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism

  1. Pingback: White people were America’s real “anchor babies”: A history lesson for the Republican Party | Newslair

  2. Kwai N’idoba; Boozhoo, I personly don’t believe in organize religion, of any kind.
    They all want to control you as a person, in how you think and feel and act. They seem to forget the one essential thing, Respect for who we are and for each other. Respect is the basis for all thing’s that we do. Thing’s will never change until they realize that.

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  5. Thank you for this. I only now stumbled on it as or U.S. Attorney General has created a special Religious Task Force that will most assuredly only protect Christian beliefs and individuals. I shared it on Facebook as it provides a wonderful summarized evolution of how Americans have their sense of entitlement provided by God so ingrained in everything we do.

  6. I liked the summation of organized religion especially Christianity as a institution of religion. Majority of them all fall back to the Roman Catholic Church and majority of his sources all relate to men that used the bible to dominate and control the masses. However, you all must remember, that Jesus’s was one of the biggest hippies that walked the earth. He was against the statues quo, of a “eye for an eye,”and his highest commandment was, ” love thy neighbor and love thy enemy even more.” Weather, you believe in the divine truth, of love and wisdom and the message to follow in his footsteps. It is the self-evident truth that we are all one race, one tribe, and come to that truth when we leave this temporary vessel (body) and return back to infinite energy aka spirit.
    I hope this is viewed as the same dream, that we all dream about. The same universal truth that reflects MLK’s dream for us to set down at the table of brotherly love and stop the oldest trick in the book (divide and conquer). And understand it is deeper than the flesh, but a spiritual war of souls of men/women in three dimensions realm we refer to as reality. However, only to realize that it is the illusion and reality is unseen or metaphysical world that ever ancient culture on the planet has agreed-ed in ie. soul, spirit or afterlife.

    1love1 = “One Love, One heart” – bob marley

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  8. All white folks, no matter their current positions politically, need to read this. I think it would be useful for all suppressed groups too (all race heritages, all religious leanings, all political bents). We as human beings need to find our common ground and learning to recognize the places where there are failures (in this case organized religion and subsequently US law) will aid us in building a better world.

  9. Pingback: What Christians Need to Know About the Great (White) Replacement Theory – Adventist Today - Global Politics Today News

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