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Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Religion in America) PDF

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Preview Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Religion in America)

NOAH’S CURSE Recenttitlesin RELIGION IN AMERICA SERIES Harry S. Stout,GeneralEditor SaintsinExile:TheHoliness-Pentecostal TenaciousofTheirLiberties:The ExperienceinAfricanAmericanReligion CongregationalistsinColonialMassachusetts andCulture JamesF.CooperJr. CherylJ.Sanders InDiscordancewiththeScriptures: DemocraticReligion:Freedom,Authority, AmericanProtestantBattlesoverTranslating andChurchDisciplineintheBaptistSouth, theBible 1785–1900 PeterJ.Thuesen GregoryA.Wills TheGospelWorkingUp:Progressandthe TheCharacterofGod:RecoveringtheLost PulpitinNineteenth-CenturyVirginia LiteraryPowerofAmericanProtestantism BethBartonSchweiger ThomasE.Jenkins BlackZion:AfricanAmericanReligious TheRevivalof1857–58:Interpretingan EncounterswithJudaism AmericanReligiousAwakening EditedbyYvonneChireauand KathrynTeresaLong NathanielDeutsch TakingHeavenbyStorm:Methodismand ReligionandSexinAmericanPublicLife theRiseofPopularChristianityinAmerica EditedbyKathleenM.Sands JohnH.Wigger TransgressingtheBounds:Subversive EncounterswithGod:AnApproachtothe EnterprisesamongPuritanElitein TheologyofJonathanEdwards Massachusetts,1630–1692 MichaelJ.McClymond LouiseA.Breen EvangelicalsandScienceinHistorical TheChurchontheWorld’sTurf:An Perspective EvangelicalChristianGroupataSecular EditedbyDavidN.Livingston,D.G. University Hart,andMarkANoll PaulA.Bramadat MethodismandtheSouthernMind, TheUniversalistMovementinAmerica,1770– 1770–1810 1880 CynthiaLynnLyerly AnnLeeBressler PrincetonintheNation’sService:Religious ARepublicofRighteousness:ThePublic IdealsandEducationalPractice,1868–1928 ChristianityoftheSouthernNewEngland P.C.Kemeny Clergy,1783–1833 JonathanD.Sassi ChurchPeopleintheStruggle:TheNational CouncilofChurchesandtheBlackFreedom Noah’sCurse:TheBiblicalJustificationof Movement,1950–1970 AmericanSlavery JamesF.FindlayJr. StephenR.Haynes NOAH’S CURSE The Biblical Justification of American Slavery  .  1  1 Oxford NewYork Athens Auckland Bangkok Bogota´ BuenosAires CapeTown Chennai DaresSalaam Delhi Florence HongKong Istanbul Karachi Kolkata KualaLumpur Madrid Melbourne MexicoCity Mumbai Nairobi Paris Sa˜oPaulo Shanghai Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto Warsaw andassociatedcompaniesin Berlin Ibadan Copyright(cid:1) 2002by StephenR. Haynes PublishedbyOxfordUniversityPress,Inc. 198MadisonAvenue,NewYork,NewYork10016 OxfordisaregisteredtrademarkofOxfordUniversityPress,Inc. Allrightsreserved.Nopartofthispublicationmaybereproduced, storedinaretrievalsystem,ortransmitted,inanyformorbyanymeans, electronic,mechanical,photocopying,recording,orotherwise, withoutthepriorpermissionofOxfordUniversityPress. LibraryofCongressCataloging-in-PublicationData Haynes,StephenR. Noah’scurse:thebiblicaljustificationofAmericanslavery/ StephenR.Haynes. p. cm.—(ReligioninAmericaseries) Includesbibliographicalreferencesandindex. ISBN0-19-514279-9 1. Bible.O.T.GenesisIX–XI—Criticism,interpretation,etc. 2. Slavery—Justification. 3. Ham(Biblicalfigure) 4. UnitedStates— Churchhistory. I. Title. II. ReligioninAmericaseries(OxfordUniversityPress) BS1235.2.H3572001 222'.1106—dc21 2001021800 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2 PrintedintheUnitedStatesofAmerica onacid-freepaper Preface My interest in the book of Genesis as a source for American racial discourse was piqued about 1990, when, in an informal conversation with erstwhile colleague Valarie Ziegler, I learned that Benjamin M. Palmer (1818–1902)— the “father” of Rhodes College—was a vociferous advocate of slavery who reliedontheso-calledcurseofHamtojustifytheSouth’speculiarinstitution. When I indicated my desire to learn more about Palmer and his proslavery worldview, Valarie suggested I consult the “Palmer Memorial Tablet” that hangs in a dimly lit corner of Palmer Hall, the oldest and most prominent building on the Rhodes campus. Finding the tablet, I read these dedicatory words: To the Glory of God and In GratefulRecognition of the generosityof the peo- ple of New Orleans by whom thisbuildingwas erected In Memoryof BenjaminMorgan Palmer for forty five yearspastor of The FirstPresbyterianChurch of New Orleans Born in Charleston,SC 1818 Died in New Orleans1902 The fatherof thisinstitution which was the first to place the vi  Bibleas a requiredtextbookin its curriculum and whichthrough all the years continuesto enshrine thisideal of Christianeducation A Patriot,A Scholar,An Educator an EcclesiasticalStatesman and a pulpit Orator unsurpassed.1 ReflectingonthistributetoPalmer’slegacy,Ibegantoformaquestion:What “ideal of Christian education” has Palmer bequeathed to my college, and to what extent is it separable from his use of the Bible to sanction slavery, se- cession, segregation, and genocide? Though I have not arrivedataconclusive answertothisquestion,itcontinuestoexercisemymindandsoul.Thisbook is a public attempt to place it in larger historical, theological, and cultural perspective. In this sense, Benjamin Palmer occupies a central place in this study for reasons that have much to do with the author. For the man provokes in me complex urges of hostility and desire, just as his portrait on my office wall is an object of awe and repulsion alike. As I have struggled to come to terms withmyownidentityasaSoutherner,aPresbyterian,andaclergyman,Palmer has been my wrestling partner. For years we have grappled over the Bible he read, the ideas he espoused, and the institutions to which he was dedicated. One of those institutions is Rhodes College, my first and only home as a professional academic. Founded in 1848, Rhodes was reorganized under Pal- mer’s leadership in 1875 as Southwestern Presbyterian University. Until his death in 1902, the institution remained extremely dear to him. JustonedocumentfromPalmer’shandhasbeenpreservedintheRhodes College archives, but it typifies his great fondness for the place. In May of 1889, Palmer wrote from New Orleans to inform Chancellor C. C. Hersman that lingering illness would prevent him from making the trip to Clarksville, Tennessee,toattendSPU’scommencement.Thoughhewouldliveforanother thirteen years, chronically poor health and failing eyesight convinced Palmer that the days of his association with the university were numbered. He la- mented that he would be “compelled to decline reappointment”totheboard ofdirectors.“InthisprospectiveseveranceofmyrelationswiththeDirectors,” Palmer wrote, “permit me to say to them that, during a long life, no associ- ation has been more pleasant or profitable than with my Brethren of the Board...Andthetearsblindme,asIwritetheselinesoffarewelltoBrethren whom I have learned to love in Christ Jesus....”2 It is not surprising that Palmer wept as he contemplatedthetermination of his service to Southwestern Presbyterian University. The establishment of a viable Presbyterian institution of higher learning in the Old Southwest had been one of his preoccupations since he arrived in the region in 1855. This heartyandactivemanhadoutlivedhiswifeandallbutoneofhisfivechildren,  vii he had survived the Civil War as a refugee and fugitive, and he had bravely ministered to victims of New Orleans’s yellow fever epidemic in 1858. His stature as a religious leader was unsurpassed in the region. But now, through some inscrutable movement of Providence, failing health forced him to sever official ties with the institution he helped bring to life just as it entered its heyday. Given that Palmer probably composed thousands of letters during his adult life, it is strangely appropriate that this one alone is preserved on the campus of his beloved college. Not only does it offer a personal glimpse of themanhonoredastheinstitution’s“father,”butitsreferencetosightlessness is eerily prophetic. For in the succeeding years physical blindness would dis- able Palmer and ultimately hasten his death. According to eyewitnesses, Pal- mer never saw the streetcar that struck him down in 1902whileheattempted tocrosstherailsnearhisNewOrleanshome.Theimageofblindnessinvoked by Palmer in 1889 was prophetic in another way as well. A century after his death, it is impossible to ignore Palmer’s theological myopia. In fact, any honest reckoning of Palmer’s legacy must conclude that despite the respect and recognition accorded him during his lifetime, he was profoundly near- sighted in matters relating to race. Specifically, his worldview lacked utterly the baptismal vision of Christian unity that has been the church’s ideal since Paul proclaimed to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Even if the apostle failed to keep this goalin sight, it marks the acme of his ascent toward Christ’s kingdom. Palmer is guiltyofignoringthevisionofunityattheheartofthegospelandofreplacing it with a myth of racial hierarchy. The infusion of Christian anthropology withracialornationalmythshasalwaysspelledapostasy,asitdidinPalmer’s case. Graciously, Palmer was afforded a final opportunity tocorrecthisflawed vision. His biographer relates that after being struck by a streetcar near the intersection of St. Charles and Palmer Avenues, a group of Negro laborers “hurriedtothescene,tookupthebruisedformofthevenerableoldmanand bore him tenderly back to his home.”3 If Palmer’s story were to be writtenin the tragic vein, this episode of “reversal”—the Chosen Race’svenerablepriest is rescued by “sons of Ham” who may have been former slaves—wouldissue in a scene of “recognition.” Just before his death, the black men’s humane deed would move the white victim to an epiphany of the rainbow people of God.ButPalmer’sbiographeroffersnoevidenceofsucharecognition,forcing us to conclude that Palmer’s fate, physically and spiritually, was blindness. The American religious and cultural forces that have obscured the Christian ideal of community rooted in creation are the subject of this study. Secondary literature on the religious justification for slavery is voluminous. Twostudies were particularlyhelpfulasIbegantoexploretheso-calledcurse viii  of Ham and its role in American racial discourse. The first is Illusions of Innocence, in which RichardT. Hughes and C.LeonardAllenanalyzetheway Noah’s curse functioned for Southern proslavery intellectuals as a “world- defining myth” whose appeal was based in part on Noah’s traditional asso- ciation with the invention of agriculture and his role as the patriarch of the first postdiluvian family.4 The second work is Thomas V.Peterson’sHamand Japheth in America, which traces the contours of the curse in the collective mind of the Old South and elucidates the ways it functioned to sustain the worldview of antebellum Southerners when their peculiar institution came under attack after 1830.5 Peterson clarifies the “mythic” quality of the curse bycarefullynotingtheculturalfunctionsofGenesis9:20–27intheOldSouth. Drawing on the work of anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Claude Le´vi- Strauss,Petersondefinesmythsassharedculturalsymbolsthatupholdasocial order.Accordingtothisdefinition,thestoryofNoahandhissonsfunctioned mythicallyintheOldSouthinasmuchasthecharactersandactionsitnarrated symbolized Southern cultural beliefs, institutions, and attitudes, successfully bringingtogetherwhites’“racialstereotypes,politicaltheories,religiousbeliefs and economic realities.”6 As will be evident in the pages that follow, I am deeply indebted to Peterson’sfinestudy.Byexploringthecurseinthelightofsymbol,myth,and sacred history, he clarifies how Noah’s malediction became a pivotal element in the biblical argument for slavery. Peterson also cites a great many works by proslavery intellectuals, many of which are referred to in this study. Nev- ertheless,thisprojectexpandsonPeterson’sworkinimportantways:byplac- ingAmericanreadingsofGenesis9withinthelonghistoryofWesternbiblical interpretation; by attending to texts dealing with Nimrod (Genesis 10:6–12) and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), without which the role of Noah’s curse in American history cannot be properly understood; and by analyzing the way Genesis 9 and its cognate texts were employed in American racial discourse after the demise of slavery, when white Southerners found them- selvesmoreinneedthaneverofbiblicalsanctionsfortheinferiorityofblacks, the evil of miscegenation, and the necessity—or at least permissibility—of racial segregation. Thisstudyisthoroughlyandunapologeticallyinterdisciplinary.Itincorporates methodologies associated with history, biblical studies, literary criticism, the history of interpretation, theology, and anthropology. In part because aca- demic forces at the professional and institutional levels mitigate against this sort of interdisciplinary scholarship, I have made an effort to transgress tra- ditional boundaries of scholarly inquiry. One of the book’s goals, in fact, is to foster dialogue between scholars who work in separatecornersofacademe and who too often are unaware of others’ labors. Our immature scholarly understanding of Noah’s curse and its role in Americanhistoryisdueinpart tothedisciplinaryisolationthatdiscouragesstudentsofAmericancultureand  ix history from interacting with scholars of the Bible. This study seeks to over- come this isolation by exploring the intersection between racial readings of Genesis 9–11 and the history and cultural patterns thathave influencedthem. Finally, because this book treats biblicaltextsthathavebeenobjectsofexten- sivehistorical-criticalanalysis,itisnecessarytodefenditsfocusonthehistory of biblical interpretation—that is, on how Genesis 9–11 has been read, rather than on how it ought to be read. Modern scholars have been keen to employ critical tools to defuse the pernicious social influence of the Bible in Western history. But doing so does not alter the textual forces that have encouraged misinterpretation or the penchant of Bible readers to read in self-justifying ways. Among the unifying themes of this study aretheconvictionsthatread- ers—whatever their qualifications, background, or official status—make meaning of biblical texts and that the meanings they make, however foreign theyappeartomindsconditionedbybiblicalliteralismorthehistorical-critical method, are significant in their own right. They demonstrate how personal, theological, and social forces affect every act of interpretation. John Sawyer has recently lamented biblical criticism’s studied ignorance ofthehistoryofinterpretation:Theconcernofmostmodernbiblicalexperts, he notes, “has been with the original meaning of the original text: anything later that that is rejected as at best unimportant, at worst pious rubbish. If anything, they want their main contribution to the study of the Bible to be a corrective one, explicitly rejecting what people believe about it: ‘Ah, but that is not what the original Hebrew meant!’”7 Studies of Noah’s curse by Bible scholars confirm Sawyer’s observation. Many seek to recover the prehistory of Genesis 9:20–27asawayoflimitingtheparametersofvalidinterpretation. In opposition to this narrow interest in uncovering original meanings, how- ever, the method of analysis employed here foregroundspostbiblicaldata.8As Sawyer argues, this approach is “no less historical or critical” than the historical-critical method, because “there is just as much evidence for what people believe the text means, or what they are told to believe it means, as there is for what the original author intended, and this can be treated with just the same degree of sensitivity andscientific rigorasareconstructedorig- inal Hebrew text or any other ancient near eastern text.” Sawyer adds that “what people believe a text means has often been far more interesting and important, theologically, politically, morally and aesthetically,...thanwhatit originally meant.”9 The focus on Bible readers willbe evidentthroughoutthisstudy.Genesis 9–11’s history of interpretation is explored in detail in part I. Part II analyzes thedistinctivewaysNoah’scursewasinterpretedandexpandedinantebellum America. Part III deals with the role played byGenesis 9–11in thetheological and social thought of influential Presbyterian divine Benjamin Morgan Pal- mer. And part IV revisits the history of interpretation, focuses on traditions of counterreading, and offers a redemptive interpretation of Noah’s curse.

"A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." So reads Noah's curse on his son Ham, and all his descendants, in Genesis 9:25. Over centuries of interpretation, Ham came to be identified as the ancestor of black Africans, and Noah's curse to be seen as biblical justification for American sla
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