n September 25, 1973, American Cherokee Chief Adam Nordwall stepped off a plane in Rome, Italy. He announced that he had “discovered” Italy, claimed it on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, and took possession of it “by right of discovery.”
Needless to say, the people of Italy took little notice of Chief Nordwall’s claim. But what makes his claim any less valid than that of Christopher Columbus, when the Admiral landed on what is probably Watling Island near Florida on the 12th of October 523 years ago, named it San Salvador (Holy Savior) and claimed it for Spain?
That’s easy, one might say, Italy didn’t need to be “discovered;” it had been inhabited and governed for thousands of years.
But the same is true of America. Over 500 tribes of Native Americans had lived in North and South America for thousands of years with forms of government ranging from the despotic rule of the Aztec emperors to the relative freedom of the Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four and the Iroquois Confederacy. As one tribal chief recently said, “We knew who we were and where we were, and we didn’t need to be discovered.”
And Columbus wasn’t the first European to visit America, or even the first Christian. The excavation of the L’Anse Aux Meadows site on the coast of Newfoundland verifies the Norse sagas’ claim that Leif Ericson established a colony on the North American coast around 1000 AD, and other Europeans may have visited America even before that.
Those who haven’t read the Norse sagas may not realize that Leif’s expedition took place shortly after the conversion of Norway to Christianity, and the colonies established by Leif Ericson and his kinsman Thorfinn Karlsefni contained a mixed population of Christians and pagans, the former being the strong majority. But why did the Norse colonies fail? Why were they abandoned after only a few years? Would God not look with favor upon Christian outposts on a pagan continent?
One possible reason: Although the Norse colonists were mostly Christians, they showed little interest in sharing the Gospel with the people of the New World. The sagas describe the Norse relations with natives in Greenland and North America as almost invariably hostile, using terms of derision like skraelings and trolls. And the natives responded in kind. The Vikings’ courage and weaponry enabled them to fend off native attacks, but they knew they could not ultimately prevail as a small band on a hostile continent, and they returned to Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia.
By contrast, Christopher Columbus came to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
His modern detractors suggest all sorts of motives – gold, glory, power, conquest, fanaticism – but they ignore his own words, clearly stated in his Book of Prophecy:
It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) to sail to the Indies. ...There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures. ...Our Redeemer Jesus Christ said that before the end of the world, all things must come to pass that had been written by the prophets. ...These are great and wonderful signs for the earth, and the signs are that the Lord is hastening the end. The fact that [the] gospel must still be preached to so many lands in such a short time – this is what convinces me.
When Columbus spoke of the “Indies,” he meant islands off the coast of Asia, and he never really understood that he had discovered a New World. European Christians hoped to bring the Gospel to China. The Khan had asked Marco Polo to return with priests to proclaim Christianity in China, but the Church had failed to respond, partially because the land routes to Asia were blocked by the forces of Islam, particularly the Ottoman Empire. Some Europeans were building ships that could sail around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope and reach China via the Indian Ocean. Columbus said the best way to reach China was to sail west from Spain.
Columbus never abandoned that goal. In 1504, shipwrecked off the coast of Jamaica and in bad health, Columbus wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella:
Jerusalem and the Mount of Zion are now to be rebuilt by Christian hands, and God through the mouth of the prophet in the fourteenth Psalm said so. The abbot Joachim said that this man was to come from Spain. St. Jerome showed the way thither to the Holy Lady. The Emperor of Cathay [China] some time since send for wise men to teach him the religion of Christ. Who shall offer himself for this mission? If Our Lord takes me back to Spain, I vow in God’s name I will undertake to convey them thither.
The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Columbus returned to Spain in November 1504, but he never regained his health. On 20 May 1504 his condition worsened, and after receiving the Lord's Supper and the Last Rites, he passed into eternity. His last words were “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” (“Into thy hand, Lord, I commend my spirit.”)
Columbus’s modern critics ignore his stated purposes and accuse him of engaging in a war of genocide upon the native population, and the sad truth is that millions died in the wake of his voyage and colonization. But the vast majority of these deaths were from disease, especially smallpox, to which the native population had little immunity. Inevitably, contact between the two worlds would have brought these epidemics, whether Columbus discovered America or Chief Nordwall discovered Italy. This makes the deaths no less tragic, but it does make them less blameworthy.
Columbus had urged King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to allow only “good Christians” to settle in the Indies. But his advice was forgotten, and ungodly and unscrupulous men came to the Indies, some who wanted to get rich quick without working, even convicts who settled in the Indies in exchange for clemency. As a result, great cruelties often took place.
But this was not Columbus’s intention. In his October 12, 1492 Journal entry, he exulted in the discovery of the island he named San Salvador and wrote that its inhabitants were “a people who could better be freed and converted to our Holy Faith by love rather than by force.” He added, “I believe that they would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they belonged to no religion.” Four days later, on October 16, he wrote of them, “I don’t recognize in them any religion, and I believe that very promptly they would turn Christians, for they are of very good understanding.”
Certainly Columbus looked for gold. Purchasing and outfitting three ships, hiring and provisioning crews for those ships and paying them for a voyage that could last for years, takes a lot of money. To get this expedition off the ground, and to interest investors in future expeditions, Columbus had to find ways to make the expeditions profitable. My advice to stuffy academics who decry Columbus as materialistic or greedy is this: Try thinking of it as a “research grant.”
The aftermath of Columbus’s expedition should remind us that Christian motives are not enough; we must act upon those motives with sound biblical principles. But despite the Spaniards’ sins and failures, Columbus succeeded where his predecessors had failed: he brought the Old World and the New World together in a way that they could never be separate again. And because he did so, hundreds of millions have heard the Gospel and trusted Jesus Christ for salvation, and biblical principles of law and government have taken root in the United States and have spread throughout the world.
In fact, the contact between Columbus and the Taino, between Europe and America, between the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere, between the Old World and the New World, has been called the most important inter-cultural meeting in world history.
Because he initiated that contact, Christopher Columbus deserves to be called a “discoverer,” while Chief Nordwall does not.
John Eidsmoe is a frequent lecturer and debater at colleges, universities, churches, and civics groups and the author of 12 books, including Christianity & the Constitution and Columbus and Cortez. As a constitutional attorney, he has successfully litigated court cases involving First Amendment religious freedom and has defended home education and Christian schools, championed the right of students and teachers to study the Bible in public schools, debated ACLU attorneys on radio and television, and served on the Ten Commandments Legal Defense Team. He is an ordained pastor in the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, and with his family, he lives in rural Pike Road, Alabama. Learn more about Dr. Eidsmoe at his website. His books are available for purchase at Amazon.com