In part one of this series, we looked at the history of an ancient heresy known as the curse of Ham. We examined the historic origins of the teaching and how it was used by Muslims and then Christians to justify stealing African men and women and forcing them into slavery. We pick up the narrative in antebellum America.
American Antebellum Appropriation of the Curse of Ham
The use of the curse of Ham to justify the enslavement of Africans reached its greatest prominence in America in the decades leading up the Civil War. As abolitionists used the Bible to call for an end to the institution, pro-slavery preachers picked up the same book to defend it. Their first and most important text was Genesis 9.
In his 1844 work, Slavery: A Treatise Showing That Slavery Is Neither a Moral, Political, nor Social Evil, Patrick H. Mell, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1863 to 1871 and again from 1880 to 1887, wrote: “From Ham were descended the nations that occupied the land of Canaan and those that now constitute the African or negro race. Their inheritance, according to prophecy, has been and will continue to be slavery.” (1)
Thornton Stringfellow, a Virginia pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote the Biblical argument for slavery in his contrbution to the 1860 book, Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments. After quoting Genesis 9 he writes, “Here, language is used, showing the favor which God would exercise to the posterity of Shem and Japheth, while they were holding the posterity of Ham in a state of abject bondage. May it not be said in truth, that God decreed this institution before it existed; and has he not connected its existence with prophetic tokens of special favor, to those who should be slave owners or masters?” (2)
Following the Civil War, Southern Baptist professors would renounce this deployment of the curse of Ham. But the belief that black inferiority and servitude were Biblically defensible lingered in the church. Throughout the African-American struggle for civil rights, the curse of Ham was used to deny black people equal rights or demand their segregation from white people. Regarding the latter, a 1954 booklet called God’s Answer to Segregation by a Baptist pastor in Mississippi used the curse of Ham to make these claims:
Descendants of Ham… should be educated and should have rights of citizenship, but all the laws and decrees of men can never lift them out of their physical, social, and mental inferiority. They are doomed to that by the decree of Almighty God…. Their continent remains ‘dark’ Africa, except for what progress white men have made there…. This race is now, and shall ever remain dependent on, and in servitude to, other races (3).
How can we change the narrative? We can start by going back to God’s word to see what it actually says about the curse of Ham.
The Truth About the Curse of Ham
What if I told you there is no curse of Ham?
Really, it isn’t there. That is what makes the entire history of oppression and subjugation of Africans exponentially tragic: it was executed in the name of a perversion of Scripture.
Noah did not curse Ham. He cursed Ham’s son, Canaan. Setting aside why Noah did this (the views of scholars vary), the fact remains that Noah did not curse Ham. Neither did Noah curse Ham’s sons who would father African peoples. He cursed Canaan, the one son whose descendants did not primarily populate Africa. Six chapters after the curse, God mentions Canaan’s descendants in relation to the land God promised to Abraham, telling Israel’s father that his descendants “shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites [a representative Canaanite people] is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).
This and other texts suggest that there was indeed a connection between Ham’s sin and judgment, but it had nothing to do with skin color. The judgment would be meted out on the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan as they continued in sin. Leviticus 18 enumerates a host of sexual sins God forbade, all expressed in terms of uncovering nakedness that were practiced “in the land of Canaan” (Leviticus 18:3). As the Canaanites committed the sins of their father Ham, they faced God’s judgment through Israel’s conquest. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel—their descendants who were left after them in the land, whom the people of Israel were unable to devote to destruction—these Solomon drafted to be slaves, and so they are to this day” (1 Kings 9:20–21, see also Joshua 9:23). Noah’s curse came to fruition not through the enslavement of Africans but in the conquest of Canaan.
The false teaching of the curse of Ham, when checked against the rest of Scripture, is problematic for a variety of other reasons:
God weaves the stories of many Africans throughout the pages of Scripture: Moses’ Cushite wife; the Queen of Sheba; the Ethiopian eunuch; and two of the prophets and teachers of the early Antioch church, “Simeon who was called Niger [and] Lucius of Cyrene” (Acts 13:1). There is no hint in any of these accounts of inferiority or servitude, only equality as image bearers of God.
Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) makes clear what our posture toward “all nations,” whether descendants of Shem, Ham, or Japheth, should be: make disciples, not servants or slaves.
Even as the early church functioned within the context of Roman slavery, there was no place for superiority. Rather, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Just as poor exegesis was a tool, rather than the source, in the service of subjugation and exploitation of Africans, so good exegesis will only go so far in undoing the damage. Along with “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) we must also commit ourselves to confront the insinuations of black inferiority that we find in our own hearts, churches, workplaces, schools, and communities. We believe in ontological equality from creation in God’s image to the consummation of all things, when every tribe, tongue, people, and nation of God’s redeemed will worship around the throne. Let’s be vigilant to assert that equality now.
(1) Quoted in The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2018), 15, available at https://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/sbts/uploads/2018/12/Racism-and-the-Legacy-of-Slavery-Report-v4.pdf.
(2) Thornton Stringfellow, “The Bible Argument: or, Slavery in Light of Divine Revelation,” in Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments: Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on This Important Subject, ed. E. N. Elliott (Augusta, Ga.: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, 1860), 463, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28148/28148-h/28148-h.htm.
(3) John W Duggar, God’s Answer to Segregation: A Scriptural Treatment of the Racial Question (Laurel, MS: Office Supply Co., 1954), 21.
- Pray that God would root out this false, harmful teaching from the pulpits and schools in which it is still taught.
- Pray that individual Christians and churches that harbor a belief in black inferiority would be convicted and convinced of our equal standing as image bearers and, for believers, as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
- Pray that the church in America would model unity and racial harmony to our fractured culture, magnifying the transcendent worth of Christ.