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Timothy Larsen

Enlightened Racism

Not from the Bible.

The secular mind is apt to assume that the Bible has been an immense drag on human progress. Over the past several centuries, Western culture has moved triumphantly toward affirming the noble goals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This march has been slowed, however, because of the dead weight of biblical authority. An antiquated tome from the days when the propriety of oppression was taken for granted has continually blocked the road. Slavery and racism held on so long in the United States and apartheid in South Africa because white Christians stubbornly clung to ancient texts as the last word on human relations.

Colin Kidd's well-researched, wide-ranging, and insightful book, The Forging of the Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, demolishes such assumptions when it comes to the issue of race. Kidd's persuasive and learned monograph is no gloating work of Christian apologetics. If anything, he seems slightly embarrassed by how well orthodox Christianity comes out in his narrative, trying to tone it down with mitigating statements calculated to make the accounts look more balanced than they actually are. What are in fact the obvious conclusions from his evidence repeatedly appear coyly as questions. Kidd also has a habit of using refracted or muted language.

Nevertheless, there is no effective way to offset the decisive direction in which his evidence takes us. Even the Old Testament—that vast, stagnant pond in which all manner of offensive viewpoints are supposed to lurk—offers no support to racists. Kidd admits this candidly: "the Bible is itself colour-blind with regard to racial difference." Racists have often quoted Scripture when expounding their views, but Kidd observes that they imported these racial readings into the text rather than finding them there. The New Testament teaches unequivocally that God "hath made of one blood all nations of men" (Acts 17:26 KJV). In traditional scientific terms, this is a denial of polygenism and an assertion of the monogenesis of the human race (thus all homo sapiens should consider each other as part of their extended family). Monogenesis is by no means a self-evident hypothesis. Traditional cultures uninfluenced by the biblical narrative—in  China and Japan, for example—assumed polygenesis. As Kidd puts it, "Scripture has the benign capacity to render racial Otherness as a type of cousinage or remote kinship."

Moreover, far from this being the incidental implication of a few verses, orthodox Christians have consistently recognized the solidarity of the human race as a core theme of both the biblical narrative and formal Christian theology: the image of God in humanity, the Fall, and original sin are predicated on the understanding that all human beings are bound together in a single, common origin, lineage, and family. The Christian tradition has consistently discerned that this doctrinal teaching has substantial implications when it comes to the issue of race. To take a typical example, the 18th-century conservative biblical scholar Nathaniel Lardner averred: "all men ought to love one another as brethren. For they are all descended from the same parents, and cannot but have like powers, and weaknesses, and wants … . For notwithstanding some differences of outward condition, we have all the same nature, and are brethren."

By contrast, the eighteenth-century Deists, freed from the constraints of Holy Scripture, wandered into polygenism. Voltaire abandoned old-fashioned, orthodox ideas regarding the universal brotherhood of humanity and replaced them with enlightened racism. Likewise the religious skeptic David Hume was eager to lead the way to a more reasonable age: "I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation … . Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men." America's preeminent forward-thinker, the Deist Thomas Jefferson, also found polygenism alluring.

In the 19th century, polygenesis (and the racism it unleashed) was often promoted as the truly scientific position. When the conservative clergyman (and future archbishop of Canterbury) John Bird Sumner defended the intellectual legitimacy of monogenesis in A Treatise on the Records of the Creation (1819), his work could be dismissed by secularists as an example of an evangelical obscurantist not facing scientific facts. As the 19th century progressed, the intellectual action was supposed to be with the freethinking, polygenesis-championing Anthropological Society of London. The fuddy-duddy alternative was the Ethnological Society of London, which defended monogenesis and had its roots in an anti-racist organization founded by evangelicals, the Aborigines Protection Society. Its motto, evoking Acts 17:26, was ab uno sanguine ("from one blood"). Scientific racism—more racist than past theories precisely because it was untethered from the Bible and Christianity—was the order of the day. (One of the more delightful implications of Kidd's research is that it reveals how Darwinism saved Christian orthodoxy from its scientific critics. Monogenesis was generally accepted by those holding Darwin's theory of evolution and thus, after the publication of On the Origin of the Species in 1859, the way opened for the traditional Christian view to be rehabilitated as scientifically sound.)

The Bible, therefore, has actually been a roadblock in the way of racists—although a barrier that all too many Christians, alas, have managed to find their way around. Kidd forcefully explains how it would have been so much easier for white southerners to have defended their "peculiar institution" ideologically if they could have accepted polygenesis. A few voices made the tempting argument that blacks were closer to soulless beasts than blood brothers but, as southerners were not generally ready to throw away their Bibles, they did not win out. The truths revealed in Scripture remained present to bear witness against them: African Americans were their brothers and sisters, co-recipients of the plan of redemption in the one, human family that is made in the image of God. The Bible was even an obstacle when it came to the stand against miscegenation: for example, was it not patently clear from the scriptural narrative that Moses had married a black woman? Even the pro-apartheid Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa was forced to concede that the Bible permitted interracial marriages.

Again and again, Kidd's unfolding story shows that when racist thoughts won out they tempted people to move away from the Bible and Christian orthodoxy. Hence 19th-century theological liberals such as the Frenchman Ernest Renan and the German biblical critics of the Tübingen school, who were willing to abandon traditional Christian thought, used this freedom in order to express unencumbered anti-Semitism by draining their depictions of Jesus, the message of the New Testament, and the Christian faith of their Jewish elements. Kidd tracks cultural innovators as their racist impulses led them to reject Christian orthodoxy and create new religious movements. These include a theory of Anglo-Saxons as God's chosen people (in Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God) and the Mormon leader Brigham Young's teaching that blacks were cursed and therefore barred from the priesthood. The deeply racist World Church of the Creator is explicitly non-Christian.

As the flipside of the same coin, Kidd also highlights how African Americans have found the Bible to be a powerful weapon in their struggles for racial equality. Frederick Douglass denounced polygenesis (which he knew well was bad news for people of color) as an attack on the Word of God. There was a long tradition of African Americans observing that the "one drop" rule of racial classification meant that whites were rejecting their own Savior. These writers pointed to the diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds of the people identified in Christ's genealogy. W. L. Hunter made this argument in Jesus Christ had Negro Blood in his Veins (1901).

Indeed, in this brief exploration of the Bible and race in modern Western culture prompted by Kidd's research, it is fitting to allow an African American to have the last word. In the same hermeneutical and rhetorical tradition as Hunter, Bishop Albert Cleage, Jr., proclaimed the subversive power of the Bible in his unsettling and influential The Black Messiah (1968): "In America, one drop of black makes you black. So by American law, God is black."

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press), and he is at work on a book about the Bible in the 19th century.

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