|ROM MY VANTAGE POINT ON THE EASTERN SHORE, THE WIDE MISSOURI River shimmers in the dusklight, a golden highway stretching toward the Sabbath-bringing sun. The leaves of cottonwoods on the sandbars tremble reverently in the breeze that idles down the river valley. Meadowlarks, some satisfied with the day’s searching through the grass, float a chorus of fluted praise across the prairie flowers and sedges.
I worship here, pulled into the grand serenity of earth and sky and water, tasting something of that Sabbath peace for which we were created. At moments like this, it is not hard to sing with the psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).*
But it is “they who dwell therein” that concern me this quiet Friday evening, or more specifically, they who dwelt “therein.” My footpath winds through the Double Ditch State Historic Site, just north of Bismarck, North Dakota, a striking archaeological site of a Native American community long gone and almost forgotten.
Five hundred years ago this hilltop just above the Missouri was home to several thousand Mandan villagers, as rings of fortification mounds and earthlodge foundations amply testify. These Plains Indians, unlike the nomadic and warrior tribes more famous in American history, were farmers and village dwellers, occupying this site for more than 300 years. They built on this terraced hillside a community larger than 95 percent of all the towns and cities in the modern state of North Dakota. Their community was rich through farming and trade; their way of life a gentle reminder of how most people groups have chosen to live for the last 6,000 years.
On how many ancient Friday evenings did Mandan men and women stand where I now stand, attentive to the matchless harmony of grasses, birdsongs, sky, and shining water? What stirred in them when they looked westward toward the shadowed buttes along the river? Did they, like me, search in the poverty of language to find some offering for the God they sensed in all of this?
And how did He, the Lord of all, the God of David, Ruth, and Paul—the God of Sinai, Zion, and Calvary—respond to worshippers on this hill who knew Him by some other name and in some other language? They had few opportunities to understand the gospel as I know it: we can speculate, but only that, on what the Mandan may have learned of Jesus from occasional Jesuit missionaries and rough fur traders before this village succumbed to the smallpox epidemic that swept the continent in the 1780s.
Did they go down to Christless graves, unsaved because they were unwarned? Or is there in the plentitude of grace some way in which God honors faith, however formed, however phrased?
A woman of great insight and great grace reminded us a century ago that among those who have not heard the Christian message “are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.”†
Her wisdom echoes that of Scripture, in which we learn of a God who cannot be bound by any language, culture, or people group. He is not held to Western ways or held in check by our poor ways of sharing Him. On this cool Friday evening, these words, first scribed in Hebrew, speak a larger truth than maybe even David knew:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4).
In such assurances, I find the Sabbath I am always seeking, the day on which, on another golden hill, “‘All flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the Lord” (Isa. 66:23).
*Bible texts are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 638.
Bill Knott is editor of Adventist Review.