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 Rebecca A. Goetz for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Historians have long been vexed by questions of race in the early modern world: how did early modern Europeans think about bodily difference?  How did they harness visible physical and cultural differences to build (and then dismantle) the Atlantic system of race-based slavery?  Such questions have informed the work of numerous historians; most recently scholars of the early modern world have been concerned primarily with how the interaction of systems of class, gender, and power together brought about a European understanding of both American Indian inferiority and of Africans' hereditary suitability for lifelong slavery.  But historians have overlooked the overwhelming role religion and scriptural exegesis played in describing and explaining human difference in the early modern world.  Colin Kidd corrects this oversight in his new book, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, with an insightful and revealing new set of questions exploring the connections between Christian theology and the contested meanings of race in the Protestant Atlantic world.  Kidd argues that "[g]iven that race is a cultural construct, it should occasion little surprise that the dominant feature of western cultural life—Christianity—should have exerted an enormous influence on its articulation" (19).   Kidd's book thus traces the tortuous process by which Protestant Christianity alternately created and dismantled, and reinforced and undermined race in the Atlantic world.  This review will focus primarily on the relevance of Kidd's thesis for historians of North America and the American South prior to 1800.

"Kidd's book . . . traces the tortuous process by which Protestant Christianity alternately created and dismantled, and reinforced and undermined race in the Atlantic world."  


Kidd's other scholarly works have focused on questions of nationalism, nation, and ethnicity.  In Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity, 1689-1830, and in British Identities Before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800, Kidd wrote about ethnocentric histories and mythologies and the creation of national identities in the British isles.(1) In the latter work especially, Kidd explored what he termed "ethnic theology," Kidd's contention that early modern English theologians explained cultural and linguistic differences among peoples with commonplace Christian understandings of the Mosaic history of the world.  The Bible's descriptions and explanations of cultural and linguistic differences were the means of explaining different ethnicities while simultaneously supporting the underlying unity of all mankind.  In the early modern era, all living persons, no matter how different, were still descendants of Noah and his sons Shem, Cham [Ham], and Japhet.  Medieval and early modern theologians used the Table of Nations in the book of Genesis and Noachic genealogies both to study and explain human difference (and sameness).  Kidd returns to interpreting this way of thinking about difference in The Forging of Races by asking and answering the kinds of questions that exercised early modern Europeans.

Kidd opens with a brief and quite accessible review of recent scientific literature on race as a biological entity, concluding that race is "in the eye of the beholder."  Race, in other words, is not an actual category of human biology, but rather a social construct whose meanings and uses have changed over time.  In the absence of "race" as a biological reality, Kidd is able to reconstruct the many meanings of race historically.  Kidd's early modern "race" was not monolithic; indeed, it was a multi-faceted, much disputed category at the time of its inception in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Protestant Atlantic world.  The result was a complex system in which Christian belief and Biblical exegesis both resisted and reinforced an emerging race concept.

Indeed, Kidd argues that the encounter among early modern Europeans, Africans, and the denizens of the New World served to reinforce the Biblical notion of common human descent among European Christians.  European commentators almost universally accepted the notion of monogenesis—that all human beings descended from Adam.  (The notable exception to this rule was the publication of Isaac La Peyrère's 1655 treatise Prae-Adamitae, which theorized the existence of men before Adam whom God had presumably not created.  Peyrère's work quickly appeared in Dutch and English translations and sent a thrill of horror down the spines of Catholic and Protestant Europeans alike.  The responding tracts enthusiastically affirmed monogenesis.)  Despite this firm attachment to the principle of the unity of mankind, some Biblical interpretations pointed to a definite hierarchy among men.  Of particular note was the supposed "Curse of Ham," a remarkable reading of a passage of Genesis in which Noah supposedly cursed the descendants of his son Ham to be the servants of his son Japhet.  The blackness of Africans, many Europeans supposed, was the result of this curse, and the curse also served as a convenient Biblical excuse for race-based slavery.  But as Kidd points out, not all Europeans agreed that this was a proper reading of the story of Noah and his sons.  Instead, Kidd writes, "[t]heological orthodoxy and the narratives of sacred history underpinned notions of the family of man and brotherhood of mankind…." (78).

Kidd also turns historical conventional wisdom on its head by arguing that the major philosophical movement of the eighteenth century—the Enlightenment—was not only Christian in nature but despite a few well-known exceptions, members of the English and Scottish Enlightenments continued to insist on an interpretation of the Bible that emphasized the unity of mankind.  While many historians have preferred to see the Enlightenment as the triumph of reason over religion, and thus the triumph of pseudoscience in the categorization of peoples by "race," Kidd shows readers an Enlightenment that continued to confirm the Biblical principle of monogenesis.  Scottish and English theorists used emerging biological and anthropological principles to affirm earlier interpretations of Genesis rather than to undercut them.  Kidd presents a complicated Enlightenment: "[t]he Enlightenment did give birth to a de-Christianized form of scientific racism, but equally the moderate form of Enlightenment taught in the Scottish universities during the eighteenth century and exported throughout the Anglophone world would be recycled as a sustaining ideology for Christian missions" (120). 

Kidd's optimistic reading of the intellectual developments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries seems to belie what happened in the New World in particular.  The particular brutality of the dispossession (and often the enslavement) of Indians as well as the establishment of hereditary, lifelong servitude for Africans in the American South were both largely a product of the seventeenth century, precisely when Kidd argues that the Biblical defense of monogenesis was at its most powerful and persuasive.  The English-trained Anglican minister Morgan Godwyn, who ministered to congregations in Virginia and Barbados in the 1670s, later lamented the "Hellish Principles, viz. that Negroes are Creatures destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts..."(2) Godwyn's encounters with Anglican parishioners in the second half of the seventeenth century suggest that English planters were more likely to deny the humanity of their slaves than to uphold it—perhaps English intellectuals' particular attachment to monogenesis was not as popular or powerful on North American and Caribbean plantations.

Nevertheless, historians of religion and of the South will learn from Kidd's contribution that race is a much more complicated historical category than scholars have previously thought—more fluid, contentious, and driven by interpretations of the Bible and Biblical notions of human history and categorization than we have previously recognized.   Kidd's imaginative and informative work should have the effect of taking historians by the scruffs of their necks and reminding them that religion, belief, and Biblical interpretation matter in our collective quest to understand the emergence of that singularly damaging idea of race.

I do wish that Cambridge University Press had insisted on translating quotes from works in French into English, in order to make Kidd's evidence more accessible to readers who have not achieved fluency in that language.

Rebecca A. Goetz, Rice University.

1. Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity, 1689-1830 (Cambridge, Eng. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Kidd, British Identities Before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

2. Morgan Godwyn, "A Brief Account of Religion, in the Plantations.....," in Francis Brokesby, Some Proposals towards Promoting of the Gospel in Our American Plantations (London, 1708), 3.  (Godwyn's piece was probably written, along with his other missives, in the early 1680s.)

Search The Journal of Southern Religion
This site was designed by Randall J. Stephens and is  maintained by Arthur Remillard. © 1998-2007 by
The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253