Catholics–and Providentialism

It would be easy now to pile on the Catholic Church—especially its hierarchy. The Vatican’s recent “repudiation” of the Doctrine of Discovery has been followed by the Maryland Attorney General’s announcement of “staggering sexual abuse” by church officials in his state. The Associated Press reported that “More than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused over 600 children and often escaped accountability.” The documented abuse occurred over a span of 80 years, and was accompanied by decades of coverups. More money was spent on treatment and rehabilitation of perpetrators than on that of victims. And the Attorney General said that similar studies were addressing abuse in other dioceses.

This follows on the now two-decade old Boston Globe disclosure of abuse in the Boston Archdiocese—and a 2015 movie, “Spotlight,” based on the Globe investigations and stories.

And it follows on Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland’s study of boarding school abuses and commitment to visit every one of 38 or 39 US boarding school graveyards her study discovered to visit survivors and descendants of survivors. It followed on revelations of similar abuses and unmarked gravesites in Canada. For a more up-close examination of how sexual abuse of Native students happened, read the book “Indian Horse,” by Canadian Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamase, or watch the movie of the same name.

It would be easy to continue the “pile on”—I know I can find other instances, big and small, of Catholic sins. But—before doing that, we might take a look at Protestant sins against the Indigenous tribes of North America. It was Anglo-Protestants who perpetrated the first massacre of Natives in North America:

“The Mystic massacre – also known as the Pequot massacre – took place on May 26, 1637, during the Pequot War, when Connecticut colonizers under Captain John Mason and their Narrangansett and Mohegan allies set fire to the Peqout Fort near the Mystic River. They shot anyone who tried to escape the wooden palisade fortress and murdered most of the village. There were between 400 and 700 Pequot civilians killed during the massacre.” (Wikipedia)

But, rather than tally up the Anglo-Protestant encroachments on Native grounds over the next two centuries, we can jump ahead to about 1830 and Indian Removal.

Although President Jackson was a Presbyterian, like the Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and most Baptists who dominated the region, he rejected Calvinism, emphasized the virtue of common people, and advocated personal spirituality, salvation through faith in Christ, and individual interpretation of the Bible. Jackson repeatedly insisted that God controlled military battles, illness and death, natural disasters, and political developments. Jackson’s faith strongly affected how he viewed the events of his own life and his nation.

And Jackson was of course known as an Indian fighter, an Indian hater, and the man who presided over the removal of most Indians east of the Mississippi River to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. Removal also involved thousands who died on the march to their new, supposedly secure homes.

Protestants, like their Catholic cousins, all participated in atrocities toward Native inhabitants. But the more I read history, the more that I see American exclusionism and exceptionalism as a Protestant program, often aimed at Catholics of European heritage as well as at indigenous peoples.

It all tumbled onto my screen with the recent books on the Whitman killings at Walla Walla. It was called the “Whitman Massacre” for decades, work of the Presbyterian missionary Henry Spalding. Spalding hated Catholics, and blamed the Whitman killings on Catholics urging the Cayuse into the deed (it had to do with Dr. Whitman’s failings as a healer, but that is another story.) Spalding painted Whitman as a Protestant martyr to Catholic and heathen causes in the God-given project of Anglo-Protestant Expansion to the West.

“Manifest Destiny” got a few political lines in our long-ago history books. Sarah Koenig, an academic historian who wrote Providence and the Invention of American History, calls this Protestant assault on Western lands “Providentialism.” God gave the Protestants, starting, as Native activist Sarah Augustine says in her new book on The Doctrine of Discovery, The Land is Not Empty, began with the Puritans, exclusive rights to the new lands in North America.

So we know less of the fur trade and its collaboration of Natives and French voyageurs that provided much wealth to early America—and intermarried and gave us the Metis, mixed blood Native-French who became largely Catholic. We know less of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which gave the US the present-day states California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. It was an odd lot of Indigenous, mestizo Mexicans—and mostly Catholic! We followed Jefferson’s Ango-Protestant march across the continent in our history books.

President Biden is only our second Catholic president. When John Kennedy ran in 1960, the word in my Lutheran church and among many Protestants was that the Pope would be running America.

Not forgiving Catholic institutions and leaders their sins, but acknowledging that they were not alone—and time to focus on the Protestant run boarding schools, the Protestant role in slavery, and the narrative of exceptionalism and Protestant Providentialism that permeates our history and infects attitudes to this day.

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Image is of Missionary Henry Spalding (US Park Service)


  1. Marie Dorian’s life and history is an example of the French/Indian/Catholic heritage that dominated so much of the West prior to the Anglo-Protestant cultural shift.

    “Marie Dorion, of Sioux and Iowa descent, traveled west early on. Marie was twenty, living in St. Louis with Pierre Dorion, who was of French Canadian and Yankton descent. His father had been an interpreter for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1804–1806, making young Dorion a valuable recruit.

    Marie was pregnant and also had her two young sons with her. Despite her third child dying along the way shortly after birth, Marie Dorion, in the words of Washington Irving, Astoria (1836), “kept pace with the best of the pedestrians.” They arrived at the fur trade post of Astoria, on the south shore at the mouth of the Columbia River, in early 1812.

    During a trapping party two years later, Pierre Dorion was killed by Shoshone-Bannocks in their home territory along the Boise River in present-day Idaho. Marie was warned about the impending attack and ran with her two sons to warn the men. She arrived too late to rescue them, but, she and her sons managed to flee, surviving the winter on their own resources.

    The next April, Astoria clerk Gabriel Franchère was on his way to Montreal as part of a brigade when, he recorded in his journal, they “saw a number of canoes hastening towards us but we paid little heed to them until a child’s voice called to us several times in French: ‘Stop, stop!’” They “recognized the wife and children of Pierre Dorion.” She and her sons had survived the winter, owing to her skills as an Indigenous woman, and come the spring she had, as explained Franchère, “awaited the arrival of the canoes that she knew would be coming up-river in the spring.”

    Marie Dorion found a new partner in trapper Louis Joseph Vagnier. Likely living at Fort Walla Walla, about 250 miles east of Astoria, they had a daughter, Marguerite, in 1820. A year later, Vagnier was sent home at the end of his contract rather than being kept on. A year or two later, Marie Dorion, as she continued to be known, partnered with Jean Toupin. A half dozen years younger than Marie, Toupin had joined the fur trade from Quebec and had been dispatched to Walla Walla as a trapper and interpreter.

    Marie’s story has been told many times as she made her way west with her babies enduring difficult trials. She was honored by her White neighbors and historians earning her the name “Madame” Dorion.

    Her relationship with Toupin held through their lifetimes and was formalized by Catholic marriage in 1841, a year or two after it was possible to do so in the Pacific Northwest. The couple and their three children, along with Marie’s sons by Dorion and her daughter by Vagnier, settled in the mid-Willamette Valley, where an enclave of retired fur traders had taken up farming. Their children married into established Willamette Valley families. Marie Dorion died on September 3, 1850.”

    Source: Marie Dorion, by Jean Barman for Oregon Encyclopedia

    The stone monument memorializing Madame Dorian’s grave is located in St. Louis, Oregon in the heart of what came to be known as the French Prairie. The stone is set in front of the St. Louis Catholic Church, which according to their website was established on November 3rd, 1847 as the third Catholic parish to be established in Oregon. Behind the church is a small graveyard marking the graves of various French trappers whom had settled the French Prairie.

    Interesting note in Wikipedia: “After Dorion Venier Toupin died on September 5, 1850, she was buried inside the original log Catholic church in Saint Louis. When the church burned down in 1880 and the current church built, the location of Dorion’s grave was forgotten and remains unknown to this day. It was only when the church register was translated from French into English many years after the original church burned down that it was learned that Dorion had been buried there. There is no record of why she received this honor instead of being buried in the nearby cemetery, but church burial requires special dispensation and may have indicated that Dorion was especially devout.”

    Much beloved, Madame Dorian’s name is also one of the 158 names of people important to Oregon’s history that are painted in the chambers of the Oregon State Capitol. Her name is in the Senate chamber.

  2. Thanks Jeff, Have run across her many times, but never followed the entire story. I don’t know how deep the anti-Catholicism was or how long it stayed in Oregon. The KKK was primarily anti-Catholic in the 1920s, and was pretty big in Oregon. And in La Grande, where a German Catholic butcher was held in contempt. There were crosses burned here, and the Enterprise Christian Church had a KKK pew, according to current minister.

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