Engraved on the backside of the obelisk of the Clark monument is a phrase that may have a meaning which most visitors today may not fully understand. The phrase from Deuteronomy 1:XXI states: “Behold the Lord Thy God Hath Set the Land Before Thee: Go Up and Possess It.”
The phrase is part of a message by Moses when he stood on Mount Horeb and addressed followers to offer a clearer view of their quest for the Promised Land. The entire quotation—depending on which Bible version is read—is, “Behold, the Lord thy God hath set the land before thee: go up and possess it, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath said unto thee; fear not, neither be discouraged.”
On the surface, there seems to be little reason to dwell on the meaning. After all, President Thomas Jefferson designed the scope of the expedition with the behind-the-scenes goal of possessing land for the United States. In the same vein, some of Clark’s actions in the decades after the journey can be described as land-acquisition efforts to benefit the U.S. However, looking at the implications of the meaning behind the obelisk phrase may offer more insights into Clark.
Like his friend Meriwether Lewis, President Jefferson and many others of their historical times, Clark is considered by some modern historians to have been a Deist, someone who believes in God and rational points of view but is not necessarily a sectarian, a strong believer in churches. This style of religious belief was subscribed to by French philosophers like Voltaire. It could also be seen in the writings of Thomas Paine, the leading American proponent of Deism. Clark probably would not have been called a Deist in his time; it seems to be more of a label put on him by more modern historians.
At its basic level in relation to Clark and his co-leader Lewis, Deism can be understood as it is described in lewis-clark.org: “Whereas prior generations had despised and feared wildness in Nature as the domain of the Devil and the object lesson of a vengeful God, Deism taught Lewis and Clark to deal with every new situation using plain common sense, and when confronted with circumstances that defied rational explanation and methodical resolution, either to accept them thankfully as the gifts of a benign divinity, or else to consign them to a fateful and irreversible chapter of accidents” that can be viewed as unforeseen challenges. An example of a “chapter of accidents” experience occurred during the explorers’ dangerous encounters with grizzly bears.
Clark was aligned with the St. Louis Protestant Episcopal parish, which he helped to establish in 1819. So he believed in a divine presence. Yet, he possessed and used a keen power of inquiry, empirical reasoning and common sense. The combination of all of these traits may have helped him more easily accept and deal with the trials and tribulations of the trail, as well as challenges in the post-expedition years.
There is always a danger, of course, of reading too much into the “whys” and “how comes” and speculative thoughts when trying to understand the actions and thinking of historical figures. And it may be the case here with Clark.
But the engraved phrase on his monument that invokes the command from God to possess “the land before thee” seems to make more sense when interpreted through the eyes of Deism—and perhaps gives us more insight into Clark’s philosophy of life: the belief in a divine being while also believing in the empirical—the logical—rational of possessing land.