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Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

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Noah's Curse Slavery

Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

The history of slavery in America may not be hidden, but widely unknown is the degree to which Christianity was used to defend not only slavery but also later segregation and discrimination. This secret alliance between religion and bigotry is a largely untold story which more people need to learn about in order to dispel the notion that religion generally or Christianity in particular is necessarily a force for good.


Title: Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery
Author: Stephen R. Haynes
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195142799

•  Interdisciplinary approach draws on history, anthropology, psychology, and biblical studies
•  Provides a multifaceted view of Southern culture and religion
•  Very approachable for non-academics

•  Inadequate index

•  Analysis of the ways in which the Bible and Christian doctrines have been used to defend slavery
•  Explores the relationship between the Bible and Southern conception of honor
•  Explains how white Christians found it easy to enslave black Africans


Book Review

Stephen R. Haynes, in his book Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, takes apart the Christian defense of slavery in great detail in order help others better understand the relationship between Christian beliefs and American slavery.

A professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and a Presbyterian minister, Haynes was inspired to explore his issue by the fact that Benjamin M. Palmer, the “father” of Rhodes College, himself used Christianity for extensive defenses of slavery and discrimination. How, he wondered, could an educator and a Christian advocate such evils?

The primary focus of those using Christianity to defend slavery and segregation is asserted right away in Haynes’ title: the story of Noah, and specifically the part where his son Ham is cursed to serve his brothers. This story has long functioned as a model for Christians to insist that God meant for Africans to be marked as the servants of others because they are descended from Ham. Somewhat secondarily they use the story of the Tower of Babel as a model for God’s desire to separate people generally rather than have them united in common cause and purpose.

Slavery of course didn’t exist because of how people read these stories; instead, the stories were read in a way to justify how people wanted to act anyway:

    “In western Europe prior to the modern period, the curse was invoked to explain the origins of slavery, the provenance of black skin, and the exile of Hamites to the less wholesome regions of the Earth. But these aspects of malediction were not integrated in an explicit justification for racial slavery until the fifteenth century, when dark-skinned people were enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese, and the European slave stereotype was stabilized. Thus, only with the growth of the slave trade and the increasing reliance on sub-Saharan Africa as a source for slaves did the curse’s role as a justification for racial slavery eclipse its function as a scriptural explanation of either “blackness” in particular or servitude in general.”

Also, Christian interpretations of Ham changed a great deal over time:

    “Augustine figured him as “the symbol of the man in isolation, the clanless, lawless, hearthless man who, like heathen ethnics, did not know God.” ...[T]he medieval portrait of Ham recalled earlier affirmations of his craftiness, prodigious sexuality, and affiliation with magic and the Devil.
Noah's Curse Slavery

Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

    ...For Luther, Ham’s laughter at his father’s nakedness is a serious offense indicating that Ham “regard[s] himself as more righteous, holier, and more pious than his father.”...Bible readers have blamed Ham and his progeny for everything from the existence of slavery and serfdom, to the perpetuation of sexual license and perversion, to the introduction of magical arts, astrology, idolatry, witchcraft, and heathen religion. They have associated Hamites with tyranny, theft, heresy, blasphemy, rebellion, war, and even deicide. Benjamin Braude’s observation that during the Middle Ages Ham was “an archetypical Other, the example of qualities not to be emulated,” could be fairly applied to the entire history of interpretation.”

Part of the problem for poor Ham is that the biblical text is rather silent on what exactly he did wrong. All it says is that the saw his father naked and told his brothers — hardly a good reason to curse all of his descendants. That, however, is what the Bible says the punishment was so it must be a fair and just punishment. Thus, readers have sought ever since to find a just explanation — and the supposed descendants of Ham have had to pay the price.

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