William Carpenter Bompas and the Spiritual Borderlands of the Far Canadian North

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Editor’s Note: This is the third post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.

In his 40-year career in the far Canadian north Bishop William Carpenter Bompas ministered to peoples as far west as the Pacific and north as the Arctic Ocean at a time of profound political and religious transition.[1] Border crossings were the leitmotiv of his life and work. On his first trip north in 1865 he crossed the 49th Parallel from the Dakotas into today’s Manitoba. Believing that his convoy might be mistaken by the Sioux for the American Army, he seized some bits of rag and cloth and “extemporiz[ed] a Union Jack and hoisted it from the top of one of [his] carriages.” He wrote, “We ought to be none the less thankful because we were preserved not only from harm, but even from danger.[2] From Fort Yukon in 1869, he witnessed the American Navy hoist the stars and stripes after it was discovered the fort lie just west of the 141st Meridian, the border separating Alaska and the Yukon. Bompas thus lived with the consequences of national and settler development in the far north. 

Older man in religious regalia reading a Bible
General Synod Archive, image P7517-199. “Portrait of William Carpenter Bompas Reading.”

But borders can only achieve cartographic clarity on a two dimensional map. For him, they were inherently spiritual in nature. Probably because he crossed them so often, he became something of a theorist of them. “Division,” he wrote, “is the divinely constituted state of the earth.”[3] His conception of borders transcended the merely political or even natural world. The spiritual borderland existed in a sort of gray area between the extremes of “light and darkness” and served as the locus where the drama of human existence played out in the context of God’s creation.[4]

If the north is characterized by extremes, it was at the borderland where the extremes collided:  Indigenous peoples, “sunk in heathenism and savagery,” and “a pious …and enlightened Christian” met and negotiated the path towards salvation.[5] In the mission field, he was a zealot; he did not think twice about replacing Indigenous religious traditions with the introduction of Christianity.

Bompas was tasked by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to minister to Indigenous people according to the “Native Church Policy.” This policy was first articulated by Henry Venn (1796-1873), one of the founders of the CMS. In this, the minister was to work with Indigenous people in the context of their own cultures and languages and raise up a native pastorate. The intent was to be “able to resign all pastoral work into [native] hands, and gradually relax…superintendence over the Pastors themselves, till it insensibly ceases…”. [6] Ministers were thus to learn Indigenous languages and understand Indigenous culture to facilitate meaningful conversion.

But a key question quickly arose: What exactly constitutes Indigenous culture and language? Bompas lived at a time when Darwinian ideas of evolutionary science and racialist conceptions of humanity were becoming common currency in nationalist and imperial debates. But Bompas eschewed these ready categories of belonging and otherness. To him, contemporary racial and cultural differences were largely inconsequential: We’re children of God after all. And God was, of course, everywhere

Taken to its logical conclusion, a providentialist interpretation of reality and a literalist interpretation of Scripture—such as was Bompas’s intellectual orientation—produced an exceptionally curious northern ministry. For Bompas, The Book of Genesis was the key text because it offered a blueprint for an analysis of northern people and the foundational creation story of every human “race.” He possessed an almost puritanical belief that God’s True intentions could be apprehended—and heaven on earth restored—if people simply had access to an original, pristine version of the Bible.

The remarkable thing is, Bompas believed himself to be just the man to produce one. He had family in Britain send him copies of ancient texts and criticism literally by the boatload. A colleague who visited him in 1903 wrote that Bompas’ book collection was “…numerous, up to date, and as choice as any two excellent scholars could wish.”[7] In July 1882 his assistant at Fort Resolution Augusta Morris noted that there was “a bustle in the house” because “[t]he men were busy putting up [a] bookshelf.”[8]

General Synod Archive, image P7565-95. “A Corner in Bishop Bompas’ Library at Fortymile, YT, [between 1891-1905].”

A good example of Bompas’s approach is found at Fort Resolution in the early 1880s where he quickly put Morris to school. [9] Morris assisted Bompas and his wife Selina running school and keeping the household in order. But surprisingly the bishop also insisted on teaching her ancient Hebrew, and she dutifully worked with him on a translation of Genesis. She wrote to her father, “The Bishop is very anxious to teach me Hebrew and Greek; indeed we have already begun the former.”[10] She went on, “[the Bishop] thinks…people ought to learn to read the Bible in the original more than they do, & he has a plan by which he thinks they might learn very easily so he is going to experiment on me.”[11] Bompas’ pedagogical “experiment” is rather murky from the diary. Apparently, it worked. She mentions her regular Hebrew lessons and assisting Bompas with his translations.[12]

Bompas’ studies into Genesis and conversion of Indigenous Peoples were all intimately linked. Gwich’in, Dene, and Inuit were part of a biblically connected “Lost Tribes of Israel.”[13] His ministry and translations were thus part of the same endeavor: Once Bompas instructed God’s chosen people, they would convert, and Christ’s ultimate mission would be fulfilled thus hastening His return.

Translating ancient biblical texts and the reunion of the Lost Tribes with Christ was Bompas’ lodestar, directing his ministry until his death in 1906. His commitment to the “race[s]” of the north was unwavering.[14] He was present in today’s Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush and witnessed what to him might be described as the apocalypse: Indigenous dispossession, settler colonialism, and environmental devastation. 

His death on June 9th 1906 occasioned an outpouring of emotion and sense of loss from the First Nations community in Carcross where he established St. Saviour’s Church. The canoe that brought him to his grave was navigated by what were then Yukon celebrities: Skookum Jim (Keish) one of the discoverers of Klondike gold and his brother Tagish John (Kaajinéek’). Bompas requested to be buried with his flock and atop his casket children placed wildflowers as his he arrived at his final resting place.[15]

Bishop Bompas’s funeral, Monday June 11th 1906. The oarsman is Skookum Jim with his brother Tagish John. Selina Bompas (right) and Mrs. A.H. Cody (left) are in the rear. A special thanks to Jim James of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Leslie Hamson, and Helene Dobrowolsky for their assistance in identifying the people in this picture. General Synod Archive, image P7517-199  “W.C. Bompas funeral, [1906].” 

By 1906, the spiritual borderland that Bompas navigated over the course of his career hardened as the Klondike gold rush brought settlers, government, and industry north. As a border crosser, Bompas defies easy categorization, and his complex legacy is felt today across the north from the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers where he spent his life and work. 

Bishop Bompas gravestone, October 4, 2018. Author’s photo.
Feature Image: Aurora Borealis. Photo by J. Luedee.


[1] Bompas was Bishop of the following northern diocese: Athabasca 1874-1884, Mackenzie River 1884-1891, & Selkirk 1891-1904.
[2] McCord Museum. William Carpenter Bompas Fonds. Bompas to his Sister. Lake Winnipeg. August 17, 1865. 
[3] William Carpenter Bompas, Northern Lights on the Bible: Drawn from a Bishop’s Experience During Twenty-Five Years in the Great North-West (London: J. Nisbet and Co., 1893), 3.
[4] Bompas, Northern Lights on the Bible,1.
[5] Bompas, Northern Lights on the Bible, 4.
[6] William Knight, Memoir of the Henry Venn, B.D. Prebendary of St. Paul’s, and Honorary Secretary of the Church Missionary Society. (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1882), 413-414.
[7] Cited in: Selina Bompas & S.A. Archer, comp,. A Heroine of the North, Memoires of Charlotte Selina Bompas (1830-1917) With Extracts From Her Journal and Letters (Toronto: MacMillan Company of Canada, 1929), 181. 
[8] Augusta Morris. Diary, 12 May 1881-September 6 1882. National Archives, Kew [UK]. Reel 4M72, 42. The originals are held at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg.
[9] Not much is known about Augusta Morris. Her father was an associate with the Anglican Church and she worked as a teacher for the CMS. See the introduction to Augusta E. Morris, Diary and Correspondence, 1881-1883, Reel 4M72.
[10] Augusta Morris. Correspondence with Her Father. National Archives, Kew [UK]. Reel 4M72, 25.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Morris, Diary, January 1882, 20.
[13] See for instance: William R. Morrison and Kenneth S. Coates (eds), An Apostle of the North: Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas, by H.A. Cody. Western Canada Reprint Series (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002), 119. 
[14] William Carpenter Bompas to the CMS Secretaries. La Pierre’s House. 6 December 1872. Church Missionary Society Archive. CC1O10 Letters and Papers of Individual Missionaries, Catechists, and Others: Rev. William Carpenter Bompas, 1865-1874. Microfilm Reel 32.
[15] An Apostle of the North, 322. 
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