It is common knowledge that those who owned and traded in enslaved people as well as various governments, civil institutions, and judicial courts twisted theological and Biblical writings and teachings to be used as justifications for the enslavement of Africans throughout the Atlantic slave trade and for the ongoing disenfranchisement of Africans and Afro-Diasporic peoples after the trade itself had formally been abolished. In particular, the story of “The Curse of Ham” still stands as the most well-known example of these kinds of theological abuses. In fact, we will be exploring the origins and history of how that particular story was revised to serve nefarious purposes a bit later in this section. However, the history of theological—specifically Biblical—justifications for racism goes back to the earliest stirrings of Christianity itself and were therefore embedded in the Christianity that found its way to the British Isles during the Roman conquest of what would become known as England.
On the face of it, Christian theology seems antithetical to racism, given its universalizing claims that all peoples, and in fact all creatures on Earth, are the creations of God and beloved by God. In fact, as Denise Kimber Buell points out, Christian scriptures highlight the movement as having a “universal scope” both “by portraying its founding members - the apostles - as part of a movement with global spread when they receive the ability to speak all the languages of the Jewish diaspora (Acts 2:5-11)” and by underscoring the global reach of the faith in showing “an Ethiopian court official [as] one of the first named men to be baptized (Acts 8:26-38)” (110). Hence not only are the theological commitments of early Christianity necessarily inclusive, there are specific instances of ethnic and racial diversity and community in the Bible itself.
While early Christian theology was inclusive, even universalist, as Buell describes, it also had both “antiracist” and “racist potential” (110). Moreover, the racism implicit in early Christian thought and theology was connected to older patterns of discrimination and carried these into the faith, extending support for contemporary racist thought and action (111). This is of course the significant point for the racial implications of early Christian beliefs and attitudes toward race for the study of the role of race and racism in medieval and early modern Britain. The fact that racist and denigrating attitudes, messages, and teachings were baked into Christian theology and writings meant that these destructive ideas were elevated, spread, and reinforced along with Christianity itself throughout Britain's history. Buell finds much of this racist and protoracist potential in what she calls “ethnic reasoning,” a “rhetorical strategy that employs ideas of peoplehood to communicate what it means to become and be Christian” (111). Certainly modern Christianity is very familiar with notions of rebirth into a new Christian life or life inside the church, and thus the idea that one becomes a new person living a new life once one accepts Christ and joins a church. Buell identifies the origins of such notions in “Christian texts from the late first through the early third centuries” (111). She argues that these early texts “do not simply instruct readers to understand themselves as simply members of a new ‘religion’” (111). Alternatively, the earlier Christian texts and teachings “explicitly guide their audiences to see their birth into their lives as Christians as transformational, that is to say evolving from” one descent group, tribe, people, or citizenship to a new and better one (111-112). While such theology is not in itself necessarily racist, the potential of bigotry is clearly present in that “claims that Christian belonging is both membership in God’s people and the full expression of humanness” imply (and sometimes state outright) that to be a Christian is both to exist on a higher plane than non-Christians and to be more human than non-Christians (113). This conception would have especially appealed to racists in England, where the largely white inhabitants would easily transfer their attitudes of superiority stemming from their religious teachings onto the physical and cultural characteristics of other peoples and races they would increasingly encounter.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share historical and theological roots and figures; as a result, many sites are of sacred significance in all three religious traditions. Tensions surrounding control of these shared holy sites, most notably Jerusalem, continue to this day, and the centuries-long violence associated with these tensions has claimed untold millions. Notable in this history of violence are the Crusades, a series of wars launched from various parts of Europe, including England, to take the “Holy Land” from Muslim control, and also to pursue the more general goal of destroying those seen as enemies of Christ throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. There were eight separate crusades, with many smaller incursions and campaigns from the end of the eleventh century through the end of the thirteenth century. While no significant lands were permanently claimed by European Christians throughout the Crusades, the cultural, historical, political, and religious impacts of the Crusades cannot be overstated and still have impacts today. For our purposes here, one of the most significant results of the Crusades was how they shaped attitudes toward race in the minds of Europeans, including the English.
The Crusades themselves were not discrete, well-organized campaigns. Even the First Crusade, the only invasion that actually captured Jerusalem, was hardly a well-conceived military operation. Rather, disparate groups of Europeans, many not trained soldiers, made their largely uncoordinated ways from Europe into the Middle East over several years. Thus many Europeans from various nations and from all walks of life found themselves in hostile and radically unfamiliar lands facing difficult terrain, starvation, thirst, disease, and death; they also suffered and inflicted the horrifying tactics and actions of war, all conducted in the name of God. This collectively contributed to what Geradine Heng calls the “process of race-making” (119). Heng argues that the enemies Europeans encountered were not perceived as “fully human” by the invading force. Similarly Tomaz Mastnak argues that the racially-other inhabitants of the Middle East were often viewed as a kind of living “dirt”—as Bernard of Clairvaux writes “pagan dirt [which] had to be eliminated from the Holy Land” (Bernard, quoted in Mastnak 128). Hence, as is often the case in wars, especially between peoples of marked racial difference, the enemy is figured as “less than human,” an evaluation articulated along lines of racial inferiority.
In fact, there are direct parallels between the figurations of Muslim peoples and Islamic regions during the Crusades that align directly with figurations of the same peoples, religious stereotypes, and regional affiliations that persist into the twenty-first century. Perhaps the clearest example of these parallels is the myths of the Assassins of Alamut. As various legends have it, the assassins were a secretive group of heretical Muslims who were highly trained killers devoted to a mysterious leader often referred to as “The Old Man of the Mountain.” This group was purported to operate from the mountainous regions of Persia, Iraq, and Syria, exerting enormous power through their assassinations of highly ranked political, social, and religious figures who opposed them. While these legends were largely without historical truth, as Farhad Daftary explains, these myths “found wide currency in Europe, where the knowledge of all things Islamic verged on complete ignorance and the romantic and fascinating tales told by returning Crusaders could achieve ready popularity” (2). The far-reaching appeal of the assassins legend in Europe was spread widely through various mouthpieces, but by none more so than through Mandeville’s Travels. This medieval text appeared in every major European language and hundreds of copies still exist to this day. The significance of the Travels cannot be overstated in regards to how it shaped European attitudes and beliefs about the Islamic world and Muslims in general. Though Heng notes that the Travels offers examples of different peoples and locations from the region, he observes that “it also remarkably demonstrates how Islamic civilization can be compactly and economically summoned by means of a single cultural fantasy with which it was linked for centuries—the fantasy of the Assassins” (127). The figurations of Islamic peoples as violent, secretive murderers should sound very familiar to twenty-first century ears. In fact, the assassins legend still holds enough sway even into the twenty-first century that scholars such as Salam Abdulqadir Abdulrahman have drawn parallels between the Assassins and modern suicide bombers.
During the Renaissance the Bible underwent an explosion of production, translation, and reinterpretation across all of Europe. The introduction of movable type printing allowed the mass production of books, which led to the famous Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s. Martin Luther’s influence on the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s instilled the desire for Bibles translated out of Latin and into the many languages spoken by the people of Europe, the most well-known example of these being The King James Bible, which King James I of England commissioned in 1604. A team of nearly fifty clergy worked for a decade producing what has become the most widely published and distributed Bible in the world. Across the vast array of versions, translations, and reinterpretations, various political, social, and cultural commitments and agendas were woven into the these Bibles including expressions of and justifications for racism and slavery.
Abdulrahman, Salam Abdulqadir. “The Assassins: Ancestors of Modern Suicide Bombers.” JUHD: Journal of University of Human Development, vol. 2, no. 4, 2016: 399-409.
Daftary, Farhad. “Introduction,” The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis. The
Institute of Islamic Studies, 2003.
Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge
University Press, 2018.
Kimber Buell, Denise. “Early Christian Universalism and Modern Forms of Racism.” The
Origins of Racism in the West. Edited by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac,
and Joseph Ziegler. Cambridge University Press, 2009: 109-131
Mastnak, Tomaz. Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and the Western
Political Order. University of California Press, 2002.
Bethencourt, Francisco. Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century.
Princeton University Press, 2013.
Byron, Gay L. Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature.
Hood, Robert E. Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks and Blackness.
Isbell, Charles David. “The Curse of Ham: Biblical Justification for Racial Inequality.”
Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Morality, vol. 2, no. 2,