Historical Events

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“But can't you see to it,” they asked him, “that the whales do not come on Sunday and that a northeaster does not blow too hard while we are away from our boats? God controls the winds and the movements of the whales; can't you ask Him to have the whales come on week days only, and can't you ask Him to keep our boats and gear safe?”

December 27, 1908

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 6

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

It has been true in Greenland, and wherever Christianity has long had root among the Eskimo, that it has taken upon itself develop ments such as those just indicated, which are strange to our European ideas, and which the European missionaries are entirely powerless to check. So it was with Dr. Marsh at Point Barrow. He tried to combat certain doctrines, which to his mind were narrow-minded and which were certainly of local growth, with the result that his own congregation judged him a man who was opposed to the Kingdom of God and one whom they did not desire to have as a missionary. The case is interesting, and although the ending of it does not fall at this point of our narrative chronologically, it may be as well to take it up here, seeing that I, in a measure, deserve the blame for urging Dr. Marsh into a conflict in which I might have known he was sure to be defeated. 


Some of Dr. Marsh's more serious difficulties with his flock grew out of matters pertaining to whaling. The whaling season at Point Barrow in the spring is about six weeks long, beginning generally the first of May. At that time northeasterly winds usually blow, with the result that a lead opens up, commonly somewhere between a half and five miles offshore. This lead may be anything from a few yards to several hundred yards in width, and extends southwest along the coast to Bering Straits, forming a path of open water along which the whales come in the spring on their annual migration from the Pacific to the Beaufort Sea. Whether the land-floe be half a mile or five miles wide, the whalemen must go to the outer edge of it with their boats and whaling gear and wait there for the coming of the whales. There is no regularity about the migration of the animals, and often at the height of the whaling season the crews may be encamped for a week at a time without seeing any; and then, all in one day, scores of whales may come along and pass on to the eastward. This day of opportunity is, according to our modern way of thinking, as likely as not to be a Sunday. When the Eskimo learned that God had forbidden work upon the Sabbath they took the point of view that it does not profit a man that he gain the whole world if he lose his own soul, and although the catching of whales was the one thing in the world which all of them most desired, nevertheless they agreed that the loss of one's soul was too great a price to pay for even a bow-head whale. Accordingly they would commence on Saturday afternoon to pull back their boats from the edge of the ice and get everything ready for the Sabbath observance. Saturday evening the men themselves would abandon temporarily their boats and gear, on the outer edge of the shore ice, to go ashore and remain there all day Sunday. It usually took them half of Monday to get everything ready for work again. In this manner they lost two days out of every seven from a harvest season of only six weeks in the year. 


It was in vain that Dr. Marsh expostulated with the people, and pointed out that not only were they losing the chance of getting whales but that they also ran a serious risk of losing their boats and whaling gear in case a strong northeaster should happen to blow up while they were ashore. This would carry all of their belongings out to sea in the break - up of the ice that was sure to occur under a strong offshore wind. “But can't you see to it,” they asked him, “that the whales do not come on Sunday and that a northeaster does not blow too hard while we are away from our boats? God controls the winds and the movements of the whales; can't you ask Him to have the whales come on week days only, and can't you ask Him to keep our boats and gear safe?” Dr. Marsh explained to them that, according to his view, the Lord governed the earth by certain laws with the operation of which he was not likely to interfere even in response to the most heartfelt prayers. He explained further in the most modern way the subjective efficacy of prayer and how , if they prayed rightly and sincerely, a balm would descend upon their souls and make them stronger and better men. But they did not want a balm they wanted a change of wind, and they began to mutter among themselves that this was a fine sort of missionary to have, who was unable to control the winds and help them in whaling. They re minded themselves how their own medicine men had been able not only to control the comings and goings of the whales, but had even been able to make the whales willing to be killed. They also in quired from their countrymen in other districts, who reported that the missionaries whom they had assured them that, if they prayed to God in the right way, He would do for them whatever they asked Him. That was the kind of missionary to have, and why could not they, too, have such a missionary? And so they formulated charges, which were written down by the scholars among them and forwarded to the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, in New York . There were a good many counts in the charges, but the ones of the greatest importance to the Eskimo mind were these : that Dr. Marsh encourages Sabbath-breaking; that Dr. Marsh teaches that prayers are of no avail; and that Dr. Marsh encourages immodesty by taking off his coat in the Eskimo houses. 


With reference to the last charge it may be said that it was the Eskimo custom for men and women , whenever they entered their superheated dwellings, to take off their coats and sit naked to the waist, while children were commonly allowed to go entirely naked up to the age of six years. The fact that the human form is essentially vile and must be kept from sight was not known to the primitive Eskimo, but was accepted unquestioningly by them, along with the other truths of Christianity, so soon as they heard of it. 


When a missionary or any one connected with the church tells the Eskimo anything, they always take it as coming directly from God, or else as a downright falsehood. It had been so with the shamans before the missionaries the good and honorable ones spoke the simple truth as they received it from the spirits; the bad shamans were merely liars, who pretended to represent the spirits but did not. The missionary, who in the mind of the Eskimo is a new and in certain ways a superior kind of shaman, does not, therefore, speak as a private individual; he is in their eyes but the mouth piece of the Lord. When some missionary somewhere in Alaska had said that sitting stripped to the waist was wrong, the Eskimo had understood it as one of the things which if done would lead to damnation. When Dr. Marsh had failed to fall in with this view, but on the other hand considered taking off his coat the only sensible thing to do in the overheated houses, they believed him in error either through malice or lack of knowledge of the taboo in question, and considered he was encouraging a practice that endangered the eternal welfare of those who might follow it.


I have no information at hand to indicate why the Board of Home Missions in New York dismissed Dr. Marsh from his post at Point Barrow, as they eventually did the summer of 1912. But I do know why his congregation thought him dismissed. The Eskimo at Point Barrow consider that it was done on the basis of the complaints which they themselves had sent to the Mission Board, the vital points of which , to their minds, are the three cited above; and I do know that they expressed great satisfaction in securing a missionary, in 1912, who believed with them that prayers would have a material and immediate answer of the sort they desired. 


But while the Point Barrow Eskimo rejoiced that they were getting a missionary with more orthodox views and whose influence with the Lord was more immediate and effective than that of Dr. Marsh, they also realized their loss in being compelled, in the future, to go without his constant medical care as a doctor. There was many a chronic invalid at Point Barrow whom I saw him visit every day for months on end, and many a woman whose life he had saved at childbirth. Especially when the day of his leaving had come, when they saw their minister's family packing up their things in preparation for departure, this aspect of the case began to strike the people more forcibly, and on that day (when I was about to take the revenue cutter at Point Barrow in 1912) a number of them came to me saying that they were the ones who had signed the complaint against Dr. Marsh and that they were now sorry they had done it. They wanted me to intercede with the captain of the revenue cutter, whom they supposed all-powerful, to get him to permit Dr. Marsh to stay after all . Of course I had to tell them that the revenue cutter had nothing to do with it —that Dr. Marsh was going, never to return, and that they would now have to depend upon the efficacy of prayer for the cure of their ailments as well as for the success of their whaling.