A Sinner With A Heart for Frontier Missions
As we mark the 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the new world, we find a great deal of controversy regarding whether he was a hero or a villain. He seems to have gotten caught up in the struggle between the Christian western culture which he sought to spread and the attempts of eastern philosophy to tear down anything Christian. The history of Columbus is being twisted and facts omitted in order to serve the purposes of the various interest groups participating in the debate.
Most Americans are unaware that some of the Pilgrims and Puritans came to the new world as missionaries to bring the gospel to the unreached. So also the story of Columbus taught in our schools has been warped to eliminate any understanding of the spiritual motivation that led him and others to risk everything for the sake of their mission.
I will not gloss over Columbus's mistakes, failures, and sins, of which there are many. But he was not the barbarous villain that some have portrayed him as. Much is said about his hunger for wealth being the motivation for his voyage. But the deep passion that drove Columbus forward through years of ridicule and rejection is not easily explained by such a simple answer. Much of the evidence of his true motivation has been ignored by people who cannot understand it and who do not want others to imitate it. Based on the following evidence, the motivation of his heart is clear.
His Driving Passion
After his third voyage Columbus wrote his Book of Prophecies to explain the biblical significance of what he had done. It had remained lost until 1892 and just last year it was translated into English. This book, as well as his journals, give us the true picture of the heart and passion that drove Christopher Columbus. What these writings reveal is a man with the heart of a frontier missionary called by God and led forth by the power of the Holy Spirit. In his own words Columbus writes:
"At this time I have seen and put in study to look into all the Scriptures which the Lord has opened to my understanding.
"It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous inspiration from the Holy Scriptures...
"I am a most unworthy sinner, but I have cried out to the Lord for grace and mercy, and they have covered me completely. I have found the sweetest consolation since I made it my whole purpose to enjoy His marvelous presence. For the execution of the journey to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps. It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied...
"The Lord made me a messenger of the new heavens and the new earth of which Isaiah speaks and St. John in the book of the Revelation. And He showed me the place where to find it...
"No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His holy service. The working out of all things has been assigned to each person by our Lord, but it all happens according to His sovereign will, even though He gives advice. He lacks nothing that is in the power of men to give Him. Oh, what a gracious Lord, who desires that people should perform for Him those things for which He holds Himself responsible! Day and night, moment by moment, everyone should express their most devoted gratitude to Him."
Simply put, the primary thing that drove Columbus was the confident belief that God had called him and set him apart as a holy servant to bring the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.
Author Kay Brigham, who translated Columbus's Book of Prophecies into English, says, "He believed that He was fulfilling Psalm 19:4, that the words of the Lord would go out to the uttermost parts of the world. He believed that he was the bearer of Christ to do this."
This was central to Columbus's view of himself. In his journal he would quote passages from Isaiah that meant so much to him:
"Listen to me O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name...I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" Isaiah 49:1, 6.
The writings of Marco Polo also had a bearing on the burden that Columbus carried. He had read where Polo recorded that the great Khan of China had asked for Christian missionaries and yet none had been sent. Columbus wanted to rectify this situation.
Columbus also felt driven to help usher in the second coming of Christ. He was a Biblical scholar who, 480 years before the initiation of the Perspectives class, took notice of the words of Matthew 24:14.
"And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come."
He felt the call of God upon his life to fulfill this verse, but one thing stood in his way. The city to which Christ would return was, at that time, in the hands of the Muslims and therefore had to be liberated. Kay Brigham says, "He believed that his enterprise was for the purpose of rescuing Jerusalem. He wanted to find the mines of Solomon and the gold of Ophir mentioned in Scripture." It was his desire to personally fund a new crusade to liberate Jerusalem with the wealth he sought to gain from the Indies. Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella saying:
"For I maintained to your Highnesses that all profits from this enterprise should be devoted to the conquest of Jerusalem and your Highnesses smiled and said that such was your will, and that even without these gains, you had the same earnest desire."
We may criticize Columbus for his plans for a crusade, but such ideas were, like him, a product of the times in which he lived. In 1492, in order to obey their own faith, Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella waged a war with the muslim Moors and expelled them from the country. They also ordered all unconverted Jews to do the same. The crusades were only recent history for them. To Columbus, a crusade seemed to be the logical means of success. This kind of willful determination to bring about Christ's return through human effort would lead to other problems for Columbus in the new world--and for us today.
On August 3rd 1492, Columbus knelt on the dock in the pre-dawn light to receive holy communion. Moments later the Santa Maria weighed anchor, and set sail "in the name of Jesus." On August 9th they reached the Canary Islands where they stayed until September 8th when they set sail for the new world.
With each passing day they traveled further from land and fear tightened its grip on the hearts of the crew. By the time they had reached 30 days at sea the crew was ready to throw Columbus overboard and head back to Spain. Columbus got a concession of three more days before turning back. He hoped it would be enough. The next day they traveled an incredible 200 miles. On October 12th they sighted land. Columbus was the first ashore. The men kissed the white coral beach. Columbus then christened the island, San Salvador--Holy Savior-- and prayed:
"O Lord, Almighty and everlasting God, by Thy Holy Word Thou hast created the heaven, and the earth, and the sea; blessed and glorified be Thy Name, and praised be Thy Majesty, which hath deigned to use us, Thy humble servants, that Thy holy Name may be proclaimed in this second part of the earth."
Secular Americans do not talk quite like this--even to win an election. This is why Columbus is so misunderstood.
Shortly thereafter they met the first natives and Columbus records the following account.
"So that they might be well disposed towards us, for I knew that they were a people to be delivered and converted to our holy faith rather by love than by force, I gave to some red caps and to others glass beads, which they hung around their necks, and many other things. ... At this they were greatly pleased and became so entirely our friends that it was a wonder to see... I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for it seemed to me that they had no religion of their own. Our Lord willing, when I depart, I shall bring back six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn to talk our language."
His heart seemed to be in the right place here with the focus on bringing them to faith in Christ through love. But then his other goal of finding gold to liberate Jerusalem crept in to smother his love for lost souls. He noticed some of the natives wearing gold ornaments. Columbus reports:
"From signs, I was able to understand that in the south there was a king who had large vessels of gold and possessed much of it. I endeavored to make them take me there, but later I saw that they had no desire to make the journey... So I resolved to go southwest, to search for gold and jewels."
Peter Marshall in his book, The Light and the Glory says, "On every island at which they stopped, Columbus had his men erect a large wooden cross, 'as a token of Jesus Christ our Lord and in honor of the Christian faith.' Almost always, they found the inhabitants peaceful, innocent and trusting, and the Admiral gave strict orders that they were not to be molested or maltreated in any way. He had determined that their own reputation, which was obviously preceding them through the islands, would be as favorable as possible."
At one point the Santa Maria ran aground and had to be offloaded. It was at this place that they discovered the quantities of gold that they had sought. Columbus felt God wanted him to place a settlement there which he named La Navidad, for the Nativity. Marshall reports:
"Thirty-nine men gladly volunteered to remain behind, and Columbus was confident that, upon his return in a year's time, through diligent trading with the Indians, they would have gained a whole barrelful of gold. Moreover, he counted on them discovering the mine which was supplying the gold, so that within three years the Sovereigns would have the finances to equip the greatest expedition of all: the crusade that would finally liberate the Holy Land. "
His Second Voyage
After his triumphal return to Spain, Columbus returned to the New World with a complement of 17 ships and 1,000 men. They arrived at La Navidad to find all the men left behind dead--some by each other's hand, most of them by tribes of Indians other than the ones they had befriended.
Marshall reports that, "No sooner had the Nina departed the year before, than the men had started indulging their lust with the Indian women. Nor were they satisfied with one each but took as many as they could get.
"No longer did they barter for gold. They simply seized it, doing violence to any Indians who protested. Quarrelling among themselves and killing one another, they had split into factions, and were thus easily ambushed and overrun. "
It was in this situation that Columbus found himself totally unable to meet the challenge of governing. He cannot be blamed for what others did in his absence but his failure to deal with the situation adequately upon his return has provided ample evidence for his critics to use against him.
No one questions his failure to govern the new world well, but his critics should also note that the Indians were not sinless members of a utopian society as has often been portrayed. On his second voyage Columbus found cannibalism of adults and children, human sacrifice, and idol worship.
We have seen that Columbus was a man with a mission to bring the knowledge of Christ to the ends of the earth as a frontier missionary. We have also seen that his lust for the finances to fund his mission led directly to the failures and sins for which he is criticized today. But Peter Marshall (The Light and the Glory) states well why we should honor Columbus in spite of his sins.
"Because Columbus had dedicated his life to serving Christ, God had given him an assignment that would test him to the limit, and indeed, much of the hardest testing had come before he set sail for the Indies. For the sake of Christ, Columbus had been willing to be taken for a fool--not once or twice, but over and over again for eight long years. And then, as the days at sea became weeks, and pressure mounted on him to turn back, he had remained obedient to his call and pressed on into the dim unknown, when perhaps not another ship captain on earth would have done so.
"Despite all his shortcomings, Columbus had time and again remained faithful to the point of death. He had poured himself out totally, holding nothing back. He had won the victory."
In addition to his commitment and courage, Columbus is worthy of honor and respect for his heroic mission and vision to bring the Gospel to the unreached peoples of his world. His biblical understanding of the conection between world evangelization and the second coming as given in Matthew 24:14 was centuries ahead of his time. His concept of achieving this through a new Crusade was obviously warped and unenlightened, but at least he had a heart for the glory of God and the completion of the task. It has only been in recent decades that many Christians have even noticed this verse or taken the frontiers seriously. If all the Christians of this world were to have the same kind of burden as Columbus, to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, there would be little need for mission mobilization and this magazine, Mission Frontiers.
So, I applaud his vision to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, while at the same time recognizing that he personally failed miserably to do so. His dependence on gold to accomplish his mission ended up devouring his passion for converting lost souls. Today we must beware of this same tendency to allow the quest for the resources to advance our mission to overshadow our mission itself.
Another problem Columbus had was that he was totally unprepared to accomplish the task of evangelizing the natives. Unfortunately, all of his good intentions were not enough. He was not trained in this and neither was his crew. It became clear upon Columbus's return on his second voyage that his crew had failed the cultural sensitivity test. Based on their behavior, one realizes that few such men were believers. One of his failures may have been the lack of careful screening of the crew to make sure they were all prepared to be missionaries. But considering the poor state of the Catholic church and of missions in general at the time, good people may have been hard to find. Certainly the lesson for us is that missionary candidates should be well educated and prepared for their mission and for whatever they encounter.
Columbus did succeed, however, in leading a movement of colonization in the new world that resulted in North America becoming a bastion of Christianity and the largest base for sending missionaries to the frontiers that the world has yet known. Out of tragedy God has brought great growth to His church all over the world.
In recent years, Latin America, where Columbus landed, has become an area of vibrant Christianity and a sending base for missionaries to the unreached peoples of the world. In spite of all the tragedy that resulted, the discovery of the new world, "was above all the triumph of Christianity," says Kay Brigham. I think Columbus would be pleased with this.
As we consider the legacy of Columbus and how to view this man, we are torn between his great vision and accomplishments on one hand and his great failures on the other, like many people in Scripture whom God called and used mightily.
It is clear that God worked in and through Columbus to see the gospel come to the lost sinners in the Americas. God worked through a sinner to see these people, some of whom were locked into idol worship, human sacrifice, and cannibalism, saved. The fact that Columbus sinned in the process should not keep us from honoring those things he did well. We cannot heap on Columbus the collective greed and sin of all the Europeans who followed him.
Marshall Jr., Peter and Manuel, David. The Light and The Glory. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977.
Brigham, Kay. Transcription of Interview broadcast on the 700 Club, Virginia Beach Virginia: Christian Broadcasting Network, October 12, 1992.