Iliff School of Theology was the subject of a TV documentary about a controversial book owned by the institution’s library and the complex process necessary to come to terms with its legacy in dialogue with Native American leaders in the United States.
This process involves a book on History of Christianity, published in Latin in 1752, which eventually received a cover made of the skin of a murdered Native American. According to research done at the Iliff, this was the result of a crime committed in 1779, when a white farmer who was occupying Lenape land in Western Virginia, in the United States, killed two Native Americans because they were “walking across what he considered his own property.” The skin of one of the Lenape natives was flayed, “so that it could be some sort of a trophy or a treasure,” as George “Tink” Tinker and his wife Loring Abeyta – two faculty members at Iliff – recounted to the TV channel Rocky Mountain PBS. Later on, the skin of the Lenape victim was used to bind the book, which was treasured by the farmer’s family and was then owned by a Methodist minister, R.M. Barns, who moved to Colorado. Barns donated the book to Iliff School of Theology in 1893, where the object was proudly displayed in a glass case at the entrance to the library at the seminary, being in possession of the institution for 129 years.
This story became known and the book became a controversial subject for decades. Coming to terms with the history of this book required a complex process, especially as Iliff School of Theology became recognized for its progressive emphasis on peace, justice, and ethics, which are values in blatant contradiction to the tragic and grotesque facts surrounding the book. With the help of George “Tink” Tinker, Thomas Wolfe initiated a process to face and address the legacy of the book, the way it represented racism and colonialism, and how it affected Native Americans directly, especially the Lenape People. As part of this process, Iliff Theological School held two conferences to address the controversial issues in relation to this book. The first was in March 2019, featuring six Native American speakers discussing the issue, while non-native participants were limited to listening. The second conference was held in October of 2019, with presentations from Native American scholars. The last step in this series of consultations was concluded on April 20, 2023.
The experience of Iliff School of Theology in dealing with this matter and establishing a dialogue with the Lenape generated many lessons which are now being shared. This is the subject of a special documentary by the TV channel Rocky Mountain PBS as well as articles in various venues. Watch the documentary on PBS and read the articles published on the PBS website and on the United Methodist New Service. The IAMSCU Conference in the United Kingdom (April 25-May 2, 2023) will dedicate two sessions to discuss this matter.