Colin Kidd. The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 318 pp. ISBN 0521797292. Reviewed by Edward J. Blum for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In an odd stroke of autobiographical prose, African American civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois created a series of fictional conversations in his Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940).  One related the story of a white Episcopal minister who in the pulpit preached a Christianity of peace, good will, liberty, and poverty, but in everyday affairs sanctioned war, hate, suspicion, exploitation, and empire. How could he and his congregation hold such discordant views? According to Du Bois, it was possible only through a series of sleights of hand. Take the peace-to-war transformation. To have peace, the minister reasoned, a society must protect itself and have a military. If a nation fears that another will harm it, the country must bring war to its would-be opponents in order to maintain peace. And the same is true of differing and hostile racial groups. Although the Bible taught that God made all men and women “of one blood,” modern society certainly had proven that this was not so, or at least that it did not mean equality. “In order to defend America and make an efficient, desirable country,” the fictive minister explained, “we must have authority and discipline. This may not sound like the Good Will of the Christian but at bottom, it is. There is no use pretending any longer that all men are equal. We know perfectly well that Negroes, Chinamen, Mexicans and a lot of others who are presuming to exercise authority in this country are not our equals.” Hence, subtle redefinitions of Christianity–peace into war, equality into racial hierarchy–were essential to white American understandings of faith, race, and power. They allowed white Protestants to regard themselves as noble Christians while believing in racial categories and behaving as aggressive devils.(1)

"This is an expansive examination of racialized intellectual approaches to the Bible that flies through four centuries of Atlantic World history."  


Just as Du Bois considered the core of true Christianity to be antithetical with ideas of permanent racial difference so too does historian Colin Kidd in his The Forging of Races. Well known for his work on nationalism, Kidd now turns his gaze to the arena of race and religion. This is an expansive examination of racialized intellectual approaches to the Bible that flies through four centuries of Atlantic World history. Examples from intellectuals in Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and a smattering of missionaries across the globe trace a complex narrative of religious and racial interaction. Kidd shows how the creation of modern notions of race intersected with broader theological and scriptural problems. In fact, the very idea of racial difference flew in the face of biblical human universalism. According to Kidd, the Bible was used on multiple sides in the race making (and unmaking) projects of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The idea of one unitary human creation (as told in the book of Genesis and referred to as monogenesis) provided a great bulwark against racialized thinking. Yet, for those intent on creating notions of racial difference, the Bible became a storehouse of useable prophecies and predictions, truths and tells. Ultimately, in an innovative argument, Kidd suggests that Protestantism did as much (if not more) to inhibit racialized thinking as it did to promote it.

In Kidd’s first two chapters, perhaps the finest portions of the book, he outlines two main points: the instability, mutability, and ambiguity of race and the interrelations of biblical interpretation and racial thought. Kidd shows how Americans and Europeans read notions of racial division into the Bible, debating whether Jesus was white or black (curiously few considered him Jewish), whether Moses provided a precedent for miscegenation by marrying an Ethiopian woman, whether Adam was white, black, or red, and other such topics. Kidd is at his best probing the innumerable answers given to these questions and the oftentimes perplexing logics employed. In the rest of the book, Kidd traces how universalist Christian theology interacted with growing ideas of racial categories and difference.

While other reviewers have been asked to analyze Kidd’s arguments regarding the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries, I want to focus on his claims regarding the nineteenth century and African American religion. In the nineteenth century, a series of religious and social anxieties troubled white Protestants. Slavery came under fire from abolitionist forces, while Darwinism challenged the core tenets of the Genesis account. Kidd traces an array of struggles between monogenists and polygenists on the one hand and pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces on the other. By and large, southern white Protestants claimed biblical sanction for slavery but refused the “heresy” of multiple creations. They wanted to have their Bible and their slaves so they turned to the Curse of Canaan, Noah’s utterance that the children of Canaan (read black) would serve the children of Japheth (read white). Following slavery’s demise and responding to Darwinian theories of evolution, many Protestants resurrected the idea of pre-Adamism, that humans had been created before Adam in the Genesis account. In this reading of the Bible, while there were people with minds and bodies before Adam, he and Eve were the first individuals endowed with immortal souls. Thus, they could have unique relationships with God unlike the pre-Adamite people. Quite easily, white supremacist theologians (who had earlier toyed with pre-Adamism) grabbed onto it and claimed that Adam was the first white person, and hence people of color had no souls.

Kidd also discusses the rise of Aryan religious thought (the conjecture that the lineage of Jesus was linked to a white race while his Jewish opponents were of another group) and the role of comparative theology, linguistics, and phrenology in racial discussions. Kidd also shows how racialized thinking informed several new religious traditions in the nineteenth century. British Israelism and its hyper-racialist Christian Identity offspring justified British imperialism, American subjugation of African Americans and Native Americans, and racial segregation. Mormonism, which emerged in early-nineteenth-century upstate New York, taught a sacred history of light-skinned and righteous Native Americans destroyed by dark-skinned natives. And even Theosophy, a supposedly anti-racialist spiritual faith that sought to harmonize all of the great religious traditions of the world, suggested that Genesis narrated the histories of various races.

Finally, Kidd examines how African Americans responded to the racialized religious projects of white Christians.  Kidd maintains that while some blacks held firm to univeralist Christianity (exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr.), others fell into the trap of reading race into the scriptures. Leaders in the Nation of Islam, for example, turned white supremacist theology on its head to create a black supremacist faith where whites were the bastard creation of the diabolical mad scientist Yacub. Liberation theologians, such as Albert Cleage and James Cone, then racialized Jesus to be black in ways similar to that done by whites who racialized Jesus as white. Alas, Kidd sums, in certain respects “black racialized religion constituted a mirror image of its white counterparts.” (249)

There is much to admire in The Forging of Races. Most race theorists have neglected religion and religious ideas, basically suggesting that religious defenses of racial formation were unimportant or epiphenomenal. Only recently have whiteness studies in the United States started to take religion seriously, and the number of works is small. Kidd shows that one cannot understand racial construction and re-construction without taking religious ideas into account. Moreover, this impressive work spans four centuries in less than three hundred pages. The Forging of Races details intellectual trends from a host of nations, peoples, traditions, and backgrounds. For anyone interested in religion or race in western history, this is certainly a must read.

Kidd attempts so much, though, that he invariably makes some problematic claims. For all of its breadth, the book is fairly limited in scope of source material. Granted, Kidd acknowledges that he intends his study to be suggestive, rather than comprehensive, and I do not want to criticize him for not writing some other book or for not writing it the way that I would have. Yet his approach—to look at what myriad intellectuals thought and said—has drawbacks. The Forging of Races reads as a grand intellectual conversation among various educated and scholarly individuals. It jumps from tract to tract, book to book, intellectual to intellectual with little sense of the broader historical forces and contours. At no point does late-nineteenth-century immigration to the United States play a major factor, nor does the ending of chattel slavery in the United States. One wonders what impact did these intellectuals have?  Did racial ideas trickle down or did they rise up? Kidd tends to rely on the number of reprints as a kind of proxy for public influence, but certainly number of prints does little to indicate power of persuasion.

The focus on scribblers and intellectuals leads to serious problems in the study of race and religion. When studying race, should one focus on what people say or what they do? How many “I’m not racist” whites in the United States would refuse to allow their children to marry a person of color or would be irked if too many black families moved into the neighborhood? More importantly, perhaps, is religion mostly an aspect of the mind, a game of ideas disembodied from emotions, lived experiences, material and popular culture? Is there a way to approach religion as more than just cerebral? Can we integrate it with culture, community, social power, psychology, and material life?

As a case in point, take the lynchings of black men, a hallmark of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.  According to Orlando Patterson, Donald Mathews, Trudier Harris, and my own work, many lynchings (real ones and as they were remembered and imagined) resonated with notions of religious exorcism and blood atonement rituals.(2) For whites, lynchings reinforced notions of white sanctity (protecting the supposedly angelic white women of the South) and black evil (the rhetoric of demons and deviltry was ubiquitous in discussions of lynching). Some lynchings served as religious and racial rituals that brought together ideas, emotions, cultural artifacts, and communal memory. In lynchings, we can see how all of these factors intersected to bind race and religion in disturbing and powerful ways.

Future scholarship, I would hope, will investigate the inner workings of race and religion with far more depth. How did Sunday School cards of white Christs and angels influence American youth? Why do “color blind” evangelicals today segregate their churches so rigorously? How have women and men imagined heaven and hell as racialized spaces? How have Protestant hymns reinforced or challenged structures of racial thought?

Finally, I found Kidd’s portrayal of African American religious responses to racialized religious thought oversimplified. In large part, this stems from Kidd’s decision to de-emphasize historical lived realities and experiences. According to Kidd, black racialized religion was a defense against “white slurs” (247). Only at a superficial level is this true. The aligning of African Americans with the sacred was a defense against real, terrifying, and tangible violence. Malcolm X, James Cone, Albert Cleage, Henry McNeal Turner, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey (and a host of black women such as Alice Walker and Kelly Douglas Brown) responded to rampant violence and tangible discrimination. Consider the well-known story of the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were not just upset with slurs or prejudice; they felt disgraced by physical violence. It was the corporeal moving of Jones while he was praying, the laying of violent hands onto his person in a sacred space, that stood at the heart of their need to form new congregations. Moreover, the conflation of a crucified Jesus Christ with lynched black men in black literature and theology throughout the twentieth century was not a claim to black superiority. It was to somehow redeem the deaths of innocent scapegoats, to find sacred meaning amid white violence, to pray to a “god of a godless land,” as Du Bois put it.

Power matters. And it should be factored into any study of race and religion. White supremacist theology resulted in mob murderers who considered themselves social saviors. Black “supremacist” theology resulted in the moral and psychological uplift of oppressed people, anxieties for the dominant white culture, and resounding calls against racial discrimination. If one factors in social power, then liberation theology, the creation narratives of the Nation of Islam, and womanist theology (unmentioned in The Forging of Races) can each be seen as creative spiritual responses to a white Christianity that endeavored to dehumanize and destroy the souls of black folk.

The Forging of Races should be read by race theorists, religious studies scholars, and historians of the Atlantic World. Ideally, and I think Kidd intended it for this purpose, it will become a point of debate and departure. For American historians, and particularly southern historians, there are other books that should be read with it, including Forrest Wood’s The Arrogance of Faith, Paul Harvey’s Freedom’s Coming, my Reforging the White Republic, and Stephen Haynes’s Noah’s Curse. Kidd must be applauded for his breadth of thought and vision. Certainly his work will provide new avenues of debate on the study of religion and race.

Edward J. Blum, San Diego State University

1.W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940, reprint; New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 154-164. For more on Du Bois and religion, see Edward J. Blum, W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

2. Donald G. Mathews, “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice,” Journal of Southern Religion 3 (2000) (http://jsr.as.wvu.edu/mathews.htm); Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, D.C.: Civitas Counterpoint, 1998); Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

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