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Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

Southern Honor, Social Order, and Slavery

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Noah's Curse Slavery

Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

Interpretations of the sins of Ham were not the only factors involved in southern Christians‘ defense slavery and segregation on religious grounds. Just as important have been the concepts of honor and social order. Together they constituted important foundations of southern society — honor on the personal level and social order on the larger social level.

Honor meant protecting one’s personal image. It didn’t matter, for example, if one was honest or dishonest, but it did matter that no one said that you were dishonest. Black Africans, as the descendants of Ham, were perceived as lacking any honor and therefore deserving of slavery:

    “[W]hite Bible readers understood the transgression as a violation of familial loyalty that marked Ham and his African descendants as utterly devoid of honor and thus fit for slavery.“

Social order was significant in that the differential stations of the races were perceived as being fundamental to the divinely mandated order for society — God separated the races and made one subservient to the other, so any attempts to change that were also attempts to defy God:

    “In [Virginian George] Fitzhugh’s view [Fitzhugh being the most respected slavery apologist of the decades prior to the Civil War], abolitionists sought nothing less than the reorganization of American society. They wished “to abolish...or greatly modify, the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, the institution of private property of all kinds, but especially separate ownership of lands, and the institution of Christian churches as now existing in America.” If they are successful, Fitzhugh warned, government, law, religion, and marriage would be among the casualties. Just as abolitionists could not recognize the South apart from its support for human servitude, Fitzhugh perceived Northern social ills as by-products of a free society, whose principles were at war with “all government, all subordination, all order.” If slavery is wrong, he reasoned, then all human government is wrong.”

Well, that’s an awful lot of damage that abolition would cause, isn’t it? Nearly the same complaints were raised by opponents of civil rights. If you read the above carefully, you’ll also find that it bears remarkable similarity to the doom and gloom predictions of those who oppose same-sex marriage — a group which is not coincidentally based in the South. They, too, fear that the legalization of gay marriage will mean the end of social order as we know it.

If all that sounds contrary to basic American principles of liberty and democracy, you’d be right. Southern defenders of slavery, secession, and segregation may have at times used the rhetoric of states’ rights, but they invariably promoted social and political ideals contrary to those expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Noah's Curse Slavery

Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

Southern slave owners had little interest in general liberty or maintaining a democratic republic. Their ideals were founded upon patriarchy, timocracy, and authoritarianism — not liberty, democracy, or other values people tend to take for granted today. In effect, Christianity constituted an important basis for anti-democratic movements in the South designed to deny liberty to large numbers of people, primarily (though not solely) slaves.

Haynes‘ book is a fantastic examination of the various ways in which biblical texts were interpreted and re-interpreted in order to defend the cultural and social values of the South both before and after the Civil War. Christianity didn’t cause slavery, but it unquestionably played an important role in justifying and rationalizing it, thus allowing it to continue longer than it might otherwise have done. Haynes’ interdisciplinary approach incorporates history, anthropology, psychology, and biblical analysis to create a fascinating portrait of a religion and culture which have not entirely died out, even today.

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