Conservative Christians have always found something in the Bible to justify all kinds of hate and evil. A history
White folks and colored folks, you listen to me. You cannot
run over God’s plan and God’s established order without
having trouble. God never meant to have one race. It was not
His purpose at all. God has a purpose for each race.
—BOB JONES SR.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said in 1963, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Fifty years later this remains true as America’s churches lag behind its schools, businesses, military, and almost every other institution in escaping old taboos about mixing the races. Compare the diversity in the pages of Christianity Today to that of Sports Illustrated. The greatest humiliation of American Christianity is its long endorsement of slavery, and even longer endorsement of racism—a dark cloud still clearly visible at eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings. And many other places besides churches on Sunday morning as well: open any issue of Christianity Today—the flagship magazine of evangelical Christianity—and you will see almost exclusively white faces, most of them male.
In yet another centuries-old context extending into the present we find Christians looking to Genesis to make sense of race, even questioning the humanity of tribes that did not appear to be descended from Adam. How did the corners of the earth become populated with so many different tribes if humanity began with two people in the Middle East fewer than ten thousand years ago? How was the earth populated so rapidly that Adam’s son Cain could travel to Nod and build a city? And how could Adam’s descendants in a few thousand years have turned into Eskimos, Pygmies, Aryans, and Aborigines?
The unwelcome answer that emerged in the nineteenth century was that the received biblical history was not history at all. The early chapters of Genesis were ancient Near Eastern myths, bearing no relation to the origin of humanity. The earth was much older than the Bible suggested; humanity did not originate in the supernatural creation of Adam and Eve; and Noah’s ark never held every living human. Wrestling with these concerns, however, was a task embraced by few Christians of that period. Even today, most evangelical denominations avoid the conversation, with disastrous results. One of these disasters is the wholesale rejection of science by young-earth creationists. I want to look at an even more unfortunate disaster, that of racism and slavery; I want to engage the disturbing truth that white Christians once appealed to the Bible to justify owning, whipping, and lynching black people.
The story begins with a biblical explanation for the planet’s rapid population growth based on the great ages assigned to the first generations. “Adam,” we read in Genesis 5, “lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.” That eulogy creates the puzzle of human longevity before the flood. Eve, we presume, enjoyed a comparably long life, although the Bible omits this information for her and for other women. Adam was a typical antediluvian patriarch in terms of his longevity. Noah’s grandfather, the venerable Methuselah, lived to be 969 years old.
Almost three hundred years ago, the London minister Thomas Ridgley (1667–1734) used these great ages to counter emerging claims that Adam was not the first man. In a massive work titled “Body of Divinity,” published in 1731, he targeted the “bold writer” (La Peyrère, whom we met in an earlier chapter) for suggesting that Adam was not the first man. To protect the biblical story from charges of implausible claims about population growth, Ridgley argued that Adam and Eve were incredibly prolific. If they had children at the typical rate of one every two years or so, and did not lose their procreative prowess until late in life, say forty years before they died, they could have produced hundreds of children. By the time Eve was pregnant with her tenth child, for example, her first daughter could be pregnant with the first child of the third generation. Her hundredth child would be born into a gigantic extended family. Such “hyper-fecundity,” as historian of science David Livingstone calls it, could populate the entire Middle East in no time, and account for the origins of Cain’s wife, the posse that chases him when he murders Abel, and the citizenry to populate his city in Nod. The incestuous character of all this gave some pause, of course, but this was Adam and Eve, the first humans who walked with God in the cool of the evening. Surely their offspring could have borne children together without complications.
Primordial fecundity, then, eliminates the need to invoke other non-Adamic tribes. But what of the variations cataloged by the explorers? How do we account for white Northern Europeans, olive-skinned Mediterraneans, and black Africans? They can’t all be descended from the same white Adam, can they? Some argued, of course, that not all these people were descended from Adam; but most Christians insisted on the universality of the human condition implied by their theology—the “brotherhood of man,” which would become a key emphasis of the abolitionists.
Climate was invoked to explain the different-toned races. Descendants of Adam in hot regions were blackened by the local climate. Just as an individual grows darker by exposure to the sun, so a tribe grows darker after generations of such exposure. The skin of the African was in fact a darkened skin—colored would become the standard term—that had once been white when the tribe had migrated from the Middle East. Those in cooler regions retained their primordial white skin. And those in temperate regions like the Mediterranean were in between.
The process that darkened Adam’s white offspring was quite mysterious. Dark tans were presumably passed on to offspring through Lamarck’s “inheritance of acquired characteristics” explained in the previous chapter. Although the details are obscure, many believed that as women were more attracted to the darker skin of their mates, they psychically influenced the lives in their wombs so they were born darker still. The mysterious mechanisms were powerful: “It is not improbable that people of the fairest complexion, when removed into a very hot climate, may, in a few generations, become perfect negroes.”
The French philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755) used climate to explain everything from courage to cunning, from the tendency toward alcoholism to a preference for different religious practices. Montesquieu claimed without foundation that heat affected the “fibres” in human cardiovascular systems, altering the blood flow in ways that made white Europeans robust, energetic, and successful, and black Africans lazy, dull, and inclined toward drunkenness. The influential French naturalist Buffon also argued that climate was responsible for human diversity: “It is the same identical being who is varnished with black under the Torrid Zone, and tawned and contracted by extreme cold under the Polar Circle.”
The claim that all the human races were climate-modified tribes descended from Adam grounded the “brotherhood of man” understanding of humanity. Everyone is related to everyone else, since Adam is at the top of everyone’s family tree. This encouraging view of human unity could have given birth to a paradigm of humanequality if Christians had not understood human diversity within the racist imperialism of Western Europe. This unshakeable, deeply rooted, racial prejudice led Christians to interpret the distinctive African, Asian, Indian, and American races asdeteriorations rather than variations of a superior white race. Humans may all be biologically related but some of the distant cousins had serious problems. The hot sun not only made the Negro darker; it made him lazy and stupid as well.
The belief that Adam was the biological father of a human race baked by the sun into different tribes was known as monogenesis, for its rejection of separate creations of the different tribes. Abolitionists embraced this view, as it undermined—but did not refute—arguments that some tribes were different in ways that justified enslaving them. And while the influential climate hypothesis was speculative at best, with no supporting evidence—beyond the observation that people in Ethiopia were darker than those in England—it was a serious attempt to explain how the world encountered by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christians had changed so much since God created it.
The climate hypothesis preserved the veracity of scripture and the doctrine of original sin, but it was hard to square with the facts. Critics noted that identical climates did not always produce identical skin tones. South America had no dark-skinned natives despite having a similar climate to that of Africa. One critic objected that “Several European colonies have subsisted in the torrid zone of America more than two centuries; and yet even that length of time has not familiarized them to the climate: they cannot bear heat like the original inhabitants.”
The Royal Navy surgeon John Atkins (1685–1757) challenged monogenesis directly: “I am persuaded the black and white Race have, ab origine, sprung from different-colored first Parents.” Such polygenetic views took countless forms, some of them sinister.
At a minimum, polygenesis implied for Christians that God had created multiple Adams—a black Adam for Africa, a white Adam for Northern Europe, Native American Adams for the New World, Oriental Asian Adams for the Far East—and accompanying Eves. This view seems like a reasonable extrapolation of the creation story that undergirded eighteenth-century explanations of the flora and fauna of the planet. God could have placed different tribes—and plants and animals—in different locations. The wisdom of God would explain why dark-skinned humans flourished in locations where dark skin was beneficial, just as God’s wisdom explained why fish were so well adapted for living in the water and birds were so good at flying. European encounters with other tribes, however, led to racist comparisons, and polygenesis fed this tendency in the worst way by providing a natural, divinely ordained template with which to rank the races.
Scientific perspectives, unfortunately, supported racist rankings well into the twentieth century. In 1800 an influential member of the British Royal Society, Edward King (ca. 1734 1807), published a “Dissertation Concerning the Creation of Man,” claiming that human tribes were different species. Such classifications raised questions about God’s intentions. If God created separate races, would it not be wrong to undermine the separation? Such thinking led to volatile discussions of racialmixing and purity of bloodlines. King viewed the Adamic line leading to white Europeans as the “Transcending Class, supereminent in all qualifications.” Christ, of course, was born into this “unmixed line of pure descent.” Cain, on the other hand, had “debased his descent from Adam” by marrying into an “inferior cast, or species of mankind.” White Europeans were certain, of course, that Adam looked like them and not like everyone else in the Middle East, as we can see in the portrayals on the Sistine Chapel.
The relationship between Adam and the races that either coexisted with him or descended—deteriorated—from him became a proxy for the moral and political status of exploited tribes. The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), whose work inspired William Wilberforce (1759–1833), pressed the climate hypothesis to explain race, even arguing for an olive-skinned Adam to make the necessary transformations to white and black easier and remove the primacy of the white tribe. “There is great reason to presume,” he wrote in “Essay on Slavery and Commerce,” “that the purest white is as far removed from the primitive colour as the deepest black.”
Slavery loomed large in these conversations. The practice seems to have been accepted as a part of the natural order for as long as there have been human tribes. Many cultures believed slave classes or castes to be as natural as the divine right of kings to govern or the right of fathers to give their daughters to political allies. Aristotle taught that some humans were by nature slaves with specifically slavish characteristics. And even the Bible spoke without condemnation of slavery as though it were legitimate. Abolitionists like Wilberforce in England and William Lloyd Garrison in the United States were innovative in claiming slavery violated basic Christian principles. Their opposition, however, provided ever more disturbing reasons— some of them biblical—for why black Africans were appropriately enslaved. And, I note reluctantly, even the most progressive abolitionists did not argue—or believe, as near as we can tell—that all humans were equal. Their charity was that of a “superior” white hand reaching out— down?—to the “inferior” black brother.
The controversy about slavery is striking in the degree to which it was adjudicated by appealing to the story of Adam and Eve. From the first century to the present day, countless Christians have supposed that God set up a social order that we must preserve. Unfortunately, the biblical basis for this claim is so ambiguous, piecemeal, and contradictory that exegetes can seemingly find whatever they want in the Bible. The status of the black man was no exception. When the United States went to war over slavery, both sides claimed a biblical mandate for their position.
In the “History of Jamaica” (1774), a Christian apologist for slavery appears to have attacked the climate hypothesis because he found polygenesis more congenial to his belief that Africans deserved to be enslaved. They were, he wrote, subhuman and “brutish, ignorant, idle, crafty, treacherous, bloody, thievish, mistrustful and superstitious,” as well as “incestuous, savage, cruel and vindictive, devourers of human flesh, and quaffers of human blood.” He compared blacks to orangutans and claimed that African tribes had had sexual relations with primates. “The Negroes themselves,” he wrote, “bear witness that such intercourses actually happen.”
The reasoning is clear: climate could not possibly have made Africans so different from whites, converting Adam’s original tribe into one so dramatically inferior. Thus the black African cannot be a part of the human race; he must have been separately created. And here the conclusion becomes chilling. If the Negro was neither descended from Adam nor part of a human tribe created by God, then what was he? When was he created? The only option—and what a convenient one it was—is that, like the animals, the Negro was one of the creatures God placed in Eden to serve Adam. The Negro would thus have been in the line of creatures, queued up with the cow and the dog, brought by God to Adam to name in anticipation of ruling over them. He would later have boarded Noah’s ark with the animals.
As evidenced in the quote from Bob Jones that opened this chapter, muted echoes of these troubling views reverberate today. Creative interpretation of the early stories in Genesis justified abuse of the hapless African. Christian slave owners in the United States operated within a tradition that provided biblical justification for owning slaves in the same way that one owned horses. The arguments were manifold. Did not the Ten Commandments instruct us not to “covet our neighbor’s manservant (= slave)”? Did not Abraham have slaves? Didn’t Paul return a runaway slave to his master? Why didn’t Jesus condemn the widespread slavery in the Roman world?
The mark of Cain offered further justification for slavery. In Genesis 4 we read of God placing a “mark” on Cain for murdering his brother and lying about it when God asked what had happened. As early as the fifth century Cain’s curse was interpreted as black skin. When the Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845 over the issue of slavery, Southern Baptists were using Cain’s curse to justify slavery.
A human marked with black skin, however, is still a human. The most pernicious claims were those denying Adamic ancestry of blacks implying they have no souls.
An elaborate argument put forth by the Southern clergyman the Reverend Buckner Payne, in his widely read tract “The Negro: What Is His Ethnological Status” (1867), illustrates the uses of biblical literalism and proof-texting to support this kind of claim. Piecing together Old and New Testament texts referring to Noah’s ark, Payne notes that since blacks are present with us today, they “must have been in the ark.” (This acknowledges the impossibility of climate turning a white man black in four thousand years.) Referencing the New Testament passage 1 Peter 3:20, “God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water,” Payne does the math: if only eight souls were saved in the ark, and they are fully accounted for by Noah’s family, then “the negro being in the ark, was not one of those eight souls.” If “negroes” were on the ark but were not a part of the eight that have souls, then they must have been on the ark in the same capacity as horses and cows. And so Payne concludes his biblical argument that “The negro was in the ark; and God thus testifies that he has no soul.”
In 1900 the American Book and Bible House published “The Negro a Beast,” by Charles Carroll, extending Payne’s argument. The book enjoyed a wide readership and helped inspire the contemporary Christian Identity Movement, a small but noisy theological backwater where America’s most racist attitudes still flourish. Carroll took aim at the emerging scientific classification scheme that, although clearly racist, still placed Negroes in the same species as whites. “The Atheist,” he writes, “takes the negro which God made an ape and thrusts him violently into the family of man as a lower race of the human species, and enlightened Christianity receives him with open arms.”
Such explanations justified mistreatment of Africans: perhaps they are not even human; or maybe they are a vast tribe that God has “marked” for slavery; perhaps they are deteriorated into a childlike state and need owners to look after them. Actual equality for the African was, of course, unthinkable for Christians convinced that God had ordained the racial distinctions that separated the human tribes. Denominations with Northern and Southern adherents were houses divided. The national Presbyterian Church split first, in 1837, over theological and social issues, including slavery. American Methodists then separated over the slave owners’ role in the church. In 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention split from the Northerners, who refused to appoint slave owners as missionaries. In the late 1840s the Mormons barred Africans from their priesthood.
The splits derived from the conviction that God himself was a racist and had ordained a racially separatist socioeconomic order. Regardless of their position on the morality of slavery or the economics of abolitionism, many feared that God’s creative intent would be compromised if the white and black races intermingled, interbred, and slowly merged into one. The fear of being “mixed” into the African race terrified many whites. Sending white children to “colored schools” was unimaginable. Carroll and others lamented the burden this imposed on white families in areas where the student population was predominantly black: “Since they have not yet become so negroized as to send their children to the ‘colored schools’ they must either employ a tutor for them or allow them to grow up in ignorance.” The fear of racial mixing—negroization—is palpable here and, as our ongoing failure to integrate our communities and institutions makes only too clear, difficult to dislodge.
Biblically based assaults on blacks have waned but never fully disappeared. The Methodist and Presbyterian schisms were officially healed in 1939 and 1983, respectively. Mormon leaders got a timely revelation in 1978 to rescind their priestly racist exclusivism. The Southern Baptists never reconciled, but then Baptists never do. They did apologize in 1995, however, for their endorsement of slavery, segregation, and white supremacism. And in 2012 the sixteen-million-member body elected its first African American president to preside over an encouragingly diverse community.
These arguments and their endorsers, of course, do not disappear when an official pronouncement cancels them or undermines them in some way. In 1998 the influential fundamentalist school Bob Jones University—perhaps the purest expression of educated Southern fundamentalism left in America—denied admission to a white male student on the grounds that he was married to a black woman: “Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers that God has established. It mixes that which God separated and intends to keep separate.” The university’s longstanding prohibition of interracial dating—considered a gateway to mixed marriage became such a political issue that Bob Jones personally appeared on Larry King in March 2000 to announce that the rule was being suspended, but not because the underlying theological rationale had been rejected. On the same program students from the university were shown saying things like, “I think you should be free to date whoever you want . . . but I wouldn’t probably date ‘opposite’ because of the reactions of other people,” and, “God has made races perfect. . . . He hasn’t given us any reason to intermix those races. . . . This is not a policy that discriminates.” In principle at least, the policy retains the centuries-old belief that God created separate races for a reason, but without the negative view of nonwhites. These graduates of Bob Jones University would be in their thirties as of this writing. The university estimates it has graduated more than thirty-five thousand students since its founding in 1927.
I would love to write at this point that biblically based racism flew in the face of science, just as heliocentricity flew in the face of biblically based astronomy; I wish it were true that if conservative Christians had been better informed the story would have been different. But this is not the case. In interpreting the Bible’s story about the first man the reality is that scientific and religious arguments conspired into the middle of the twentieth century and even beyond to rob the black man—and other nonwhite tribes—of whatever intrinsic value he may have possessed in seeming proportion to his extrinsic value as a slave. Rarely have science and religion—uneasy bedfellows at best for the past few centuries—collaborated so effectively to buttress a repulsive economic and moral argument.
Throughout the nineteenth century biblically based racism found an unwitting ally in science. Scientists, in an effort to quantify the intelligence they believed was distributed so unequally among human tribes, administered tests and measured skulls. They established with the certainty that flows from quantitative measurements that their Caucasian brains were bigger and better than those of Africans and Native Americans. Evidence was amassed that the human races were very different and that the superior Caucasians should not intermarry with the inferior races and dilute the white line.
A conviction that such racial mixing was a crime against both God and nature—and eventually the state—took root in America. More than a few black men were lynched in the South on suspicion of having had sex with white women. States passed laws outlawing marriage and even sexual relations between the races. The Supreme Court finally ruled in 1967, when I was in middle school, that such laws were unconstitutional. At the time sixteen states had such laws, and it was not until 2001 that the last holdout—Alabama—repealed their comatose law forbidding interracial marriages.
High school textbooks ranked the races with the same straightforward certainty with which they explained pollination. “Civic Biology,” the textbook from which John Scopes supposedly taught evolution in 1925, encouraged students to choose their mates carefully for the good of the species. In a section headed “The Races of Man,” we read the following description:
At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.
Scientifically based racism is not my quarry here, but I cannot help noting that echoes of such views are still with us. In 1994 two elite social scientists published the massive survey “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” and argued—dispassionately and with copious documentation—for race-based influences on intelligence. The Nobel laureate in physics William Shockley destroyed his career with a clumsy detour into the relationship between race and intelligence, arguing that comparing the children of randomly chosen whites and randomly chosen blacks will reveal that the “black children will be, as far as the IQ tests are concerned, inferior to the white children.”
The racist ideas emerging from science have just about run their course. Genetics has all but demolished the very concept of race, and with it the possibility of any kind of racial ranking system. Fortunately, the positions espoused by Scopes’s biology text, William Shockley, and Bob Jones University no longer represent in a conscious way in either science or Christianity as a whole but persist as disturbing echoes of a past that most people are trying to forget. Ironically, John Scopes has become a cultural hero and champion of enlightenment for daring to teach evolution in violation of Tennessee law. And yet the contents of the textbook he used would set off alarm bells in almost every quarter of American society today.
Excerpted from “Saving The Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire and Make Sense of the World,” by Karl. W. Giberson (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.