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 Randal Maurice Jelks
for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Colin Kidd has written an important book about how the Protestant Bible shaped racial discourse in the Atlantic world. As he explains, "The subject matter of this book concerns not so much the physical powers of coercion enjoyed by one race over another as ways in which the apparent 'facts' of race threatened the intellectual authority of Christian scripture. This involves re-centering the narrative of race, with the power of the Word displacing power relations as the focal point of our story" (2). What Kidd wants readers to understand is that the fictive notion of race was more than a sociological construct or pseudo-biological one; it was also a "theological construct." He writes, "It is one of the central arguments of this book that, although many social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to western constructions of race, scripture has been for much of the early modern and modern eras the primary cultural influence of forging races. 'Race-as-theology' should be an important constituent of the humanistic study of racial constructs alongside accounts of 'race-as-biology,' 'race-as-ethnicity,' and 'race-as-class or caste.'" Kidd's big question is to what extent "the dethronement of scripture from its dominant position in western intellectual life in the centuries following the Enlightenment has contributed to a reconfiguration of racial attitudes. It asks how far a decline in the authority of scripture opened up an ideological space for the uninhibited articulation of racialist sentiments" (19).
|"The problem of race in early modern Europe began as a theological problem, as Northern Europeans became familiar with the Americas."
Kidd correctly observes that the scriptures are nearly silent about "race" in terms of physical pigmentation, but do refer to lineages. It is the biblical ambiguity about lineages that "has tempted theologians and other readers of scripture, including anthropologists, race scientists and ideologues of all sorts, to import racial meanings and categories into the Bible" (20). The problem of race in early modern Europe began as a theological problem, as Northern Europeans became familiar with the Americas. Did God create the universe and the first human family, Adam and Eve, as non-Europeans? Categorically for them the answer was yes.
This biblical theological imperative, though unable to prevent globally exploitative behavior by many north European Protestants, did place limits upon "biological understandings and sociological uses of race" (25). Theology served as a restraining influence and focused various discussions about "race,"—which Kidd defines as socially fictive—toward seeking a unitary explanation of human behavior. The irony of this, as Kidd notes, is that attempts to maintain a Protestant orthodoxy regarding the theological reading of scriptures, especially about the problem of race, failed to reinforce the legitimacy and coherence of the biblical text. Some heterodox theological thinkers drew different conclusions about how to explain monogenesis through polygenesis convolutions. Other thinkers moved away from orthodox theology toward a more naturalistic explanation and drew yet other explanations about the racial unity of human beings. In all these debates, as Kidd rightly points out, the subject of human origins was theologically framed by the freedom to engage scripture for oneself as a result of the Reformation. This "Protestant culture of hermeneutic freedom" came to have an important impact on intellectual thought in the Atlantic world (53).
In setting this framework Kidd makes a vital contribution by digging deep into diverse Enlightenment sources, especially Scottish ones, on the question of race and scripture. As he explains, "[t]he Enlightenment did give birth to a de-Christianised 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 would be recycled as a sustaining ideology for Christian missions" (120). The more pernicious form of polygenesis anthropology would find its voice through the French enlightenment and its later imitators of the nineteenth century.
In addition to the Enlightenment, Kidd demonstrates that nineteenth century Europe and the United States witnessed a great crisis of faith. He comments, "[a]lthough Christian disillusionment arose from a variety of causes, race turns out to have been a significant, if sometimes neglected, feature in the wider ecology of religious crisis." The religious crisis of the nineteenth century even had a telling effect on white slaveholding southerners. "Race slavery…would have been much easier for its Southern champions in the United States to defend had they not been so troubled by the heretical implications of polygenesis," according to Kidd (122). The eclipse of the biblical narrative, to use the theologian Hans Frei's descriptive phrase, opened the door for polygenesis viewpoints. Biblical criticism challenged the southern American orthodox Christian thinkers in two ways, as Kidd explains:
"In the United States during the ante-bellum era there were two principal lines of division in the theological debate over race, and these did not run parallel. The crisis of faith and in particular the vexed question of spiritual interpretation intersected with the debate over the morality and legitimacy of race slavery. Regardless of one's views, it was impossible to obtain absolute consistency between one's position on scriptural interpretation and one's stance on the subordination of blacks. Inconveniently for all concerned, scripture contained apparent endorsements of both slavery and monogenesis. In other words, the scripture seemed to offer a legitimation of slavery, but also upheld the unity and brotherhood of all races" (137).
The eclipsing biblical narrative invited new and more dangerous forms of racialized religion. This came in tandem with European scholars who advanced the study of biological selection, ethnology, and philology. These new methodologies offered new ways to compare religious systems. According to Kidd, "[i]t was but a short step from the study of race through language to the contemplation of religion as an aspect of race….Where once Christian theologians during the early modern era had explained the religious diversity of mankind in terms of corruption and distortion of an ancient patriarchal religion, now nineteenth-century anthropologists began to explain religious phenomena as manifestations of racial mentalities" (171). Of course, one of the first philological studies to have a great impact on Western thought was the discovery of Aryanism. This, as we all know now, had a horrendous role in German politics in the third decade of the twentieth century. Although critical study of the bible and other religions yielded great insight, these new methodological approaches were also "inflected with contemporary racialist assumptions" (203). The door was opened for such things as British Israelism, which "provided a justification for the wide-reaching claims of British imperialism" and "also provided prophetic sustenance for the manifest destiny and global responsibilities of the United States" (213). The list goes on into the contemporary history—the Christian identity movement, Mormonism in the late nineteenth and throughout most of the twentieth century, and Theosophy.
Kidd concludes his volume by analyzing the Protestant traditions and body of writings of African Americans whose various theologies served as a theological counterpoint. In the black tradition he sees another form of "racialised religion." He argues, "[n]ot only have black theologians participated, naturally enough, in the defence of monogenist orthodoxy against polygenist heresies whose logical tendencies appeared to be racialist; in addition, they have appropriated some of the less attractive elements of nineteenth-century racialism in the (otherwise perfectly reasonable) defence of the black race against white slurs" (247). Kidd is correct that African Americans have been as prone to racialist viewpoints as their counterparts. However, rarely did they justify their racialist counterpunches with the Protestant scriptures. Rather, with few exceptions, African Americans, both in the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, used a cultural nationalist's interpretation of the Protestant scriptures as a hermeneutic of liberation. That is, they were trying to free themselves from the stigmatization of slavery either by immigration schemes to Africa (in the case of Henry McNeil Turner and Marcus Garvey) or creating ethnic institutions that supported African Americans as Protestant Christians (such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church). One can agree with Kidd that groups like the Nation of Islam, in their earliest incarnations did espouse a racial theology. However, there is a great deal of difference between a group of ten to fifteen thousand members across the United States and the Aryan notions that the German-nation state promoted as its ruling civil theology. African Americans argued back and forth over this theology. Frederick Douglass, a strong advocate of monogenesis theory, was skeptical of much of Henry McNeil Turner's theology and so on.
And here's where we see the great problem of Kidd's book. He is not familiar enough with the varieties of black theologies or the histories of African Americans to make a fully convincing argument. Those black activists, intellectuals, and religious thinkers to whom he refers were not, in the end, trying to support a form of Protestant Christendom, or any other kind of state religion, as they critiqued the racist propensities of their white counterparts and lifted up the justice and the spiritual concerns of African Americans. For the most part, they were trying to develop a truer Christianity in response to state enforced racism, both during slavery and its wake. It is amazing that one of the founders of the AME church, Richard Allen, converted his own slaveholder to Christianity and paid him for his freedom. This radical evangelical tradition of liberating black people from the bonds of oppression is even seen in the theology of James Cone, the chief proponent of Black Theology. In Cone's work, blackness is a metaphor for the humanity of those who suffer injustice in North America. Cone argued that African Americans' sufferings needed to be of paramount concern to black churches. He further contended that if white American Christians truly wanted to understand the gospel they had to know suffering or be "black." This is certainly dissimilar to the subtext of Kidd's book which shows that biblical theology was one of the main instruments that Protestants used in their efforts to gain control of European Christendom and have dominant power over the non-European world.
Lastly, there is one more omission in Kidd's fine book. It would have been helpful to the reader had he more thoroughly introduced the sixteenth century biblical theology of John Calvin. The underlying biblical theology that guided much of the orthodox theological discussion in Britain, Scotland, and the United States was Calvinist. It saw the Bible as the word of God and the sole guide to Christian life. Unfortunately, Kidd assumes the readers know a great deal about the subject, which is far from the truth in the academy today. As he cogently discussed race and racialism over four hundred years, he should have also explained the guiding theological principles that actually informed biblical theology beginning in the seventeenth century.
Forging of Races, is, nevertheless, a thoughtful, well-researched, and fine intellectual history that should be recommended and read.
Randal Maurice Jelks, 2008 Langston Hughes Visiting Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas