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Unpacking the Origins of Racism Through Christianity: Perpetuating the Curse of Ham Through Mormon Interpretations

By Dr. Darron Smith


There are reportedly some 2 billion self-identified Christians in the world—followers of the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ—with two of the largest denominations here in the United States being of the Catholic and Protestant traditions. Early Christians came to colonial America racially primed with old-world theologies about the nature and disposition of black Africans as the literal descendants of Ham, the biblical counterfigure who was supposedly under a divine curse after for seeing his father, Noah, drunk and naked in the wilderness (click here).  These old-world Christian-based articulations date back to the 4th century at the time when the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, converted to Christianity and introduced sacred Jewish texts (what is now the Old Testament) and translated Greek text (the New Testament) into Roman society after the ancient First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.

These ideas about blackness informed early American thought, despite attempts to refute scriptural interpretations and condemn slavery by early Puritan Judge Samuel Sewall (click here). By the 17th century, contemporary religious practice in America relied heavily on white-framed racist inclinations about people of African descent as an accursed and stigmatized group who fell out of favor with God to justify the enslavement of Blacks. During the transatlantic slave trade, black Africans were commodified as cheap labor on stolen Native American land in conditions that are unimaginable today to build the coffers of wealth in the rapidly expanding colonial United States.

These racist understandings developed over centuries, but came into their own as the American colonies forced two emerging economies (agrarian and industrial) that relied on the buying and selling of human flesh. Along with the institution of slavery, Christian (mis)interpretations of the so-called curse of Ham thesis provided fodder for wealth and wealth-generating opportunities for Whites. Christianity had yet to unite the country as a whole, something the framers of the constitution feared and anticipated by refusing to establish a national religion. Christianity did succeed, however, in establishing a racial standard that all practitioners of faith could agree upon—that chattel slavery and Native American land theft was a divinely sanctioned enterprise, which later gave rise to the theocratic vision of Manifest Destiny.

What all Christians share are the common teachings of Christ, which preach love, acceptance, forgiveness, charity, and humility among other things. Yet early Christians introduced religious doctrine to justify the horrors of African slavery through Biblical teachings. Widespread notions that biblically (though falsely) linked Ham to black people were firmly established in U.S. popular culture and religious folklore into the nineteenth century. Because blacks had been “cursed” by God, they were doomed to perpetual servitude at the hands of the Japeth, the father of White folks, so the myth goes. The so-called “curse of Ham” ideology was used repeatedly in the American South as divine exculpation to brutalize Africans as Frederick Douglass witnessed in his own life as a slave. He noted that Christian slave masters were the most detestable because they often called on God while beating, raping, and dehumanizing black people. These white-framed interpretations of Ham were deeply engrained in Western religious thought in early America.

 Mormonism’s use of the biblical text was very much intertwined with its own rapidly expanding body of canonized holy works from the mouth of its founder Joseph Smith, who believed that blacks were the descendants of Ham (click here). But Mormons gave further interpretations to the curse on Black people. In addition to the curse of Ham, which is the only Latter day Saint scripture used to explicitly justify the enslavement of black people in Mormondum (click here), a belief emerged that the origins of the curse began with Cain for having committed the world’s first murder against his brother, Abel. God’s displeasure with Cain caused a sore cursing to fall upon him, which many LDS faithful believe was the skin of blackness. And still additional dogma was created in the LDS Church when contemporary Mormon leaders developed racist insights into the descendants of Ham and Cain by promulgating the theory that perhaps Blacks could not decide who to serve in the great war in heaven between Michael, the arch angel, and Lucifer, the son of morning. These differing interpretations of why Blacks were denied the priesthood in the Mormon faith were nothing more than racist creations to serve as justification of bigotry.

Systemic racism touched every major institution in society, including the sanctity of the church. African Americans responded by forging churches of there own, and presently, 90% of African Americans worship in predominately black churches across the country. Black Christian churches invoked a more social justice interpretation of Jesus, thus, problematizing the interpretation of white Christianity and its debasing views of black people. Over time, various Christian-based white churches began to distance themselves from the racist rhetoric and teachings of their faith. The LDS Church, however, remained steadfast in its persistence of racist folklore well beyond the Civil Rights era. Though the Church did eventually change its position on blacks in 1978, they actually did so with a generic message, which did not (and has yet to) address specifically their mistreatment of Blacks. While the Catholic Church and other Protestant based faiths—Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, Southern Baptist, Lutheran—have since made peace with their racist past and issued public apologies for their role in slavery, Jim Crow racism, and their participation in the mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of misguided Christians (click here), the LDS Church remains unshakable, convinced that its policy was divinely sanctioned by God and that no such apology is needed. The recent remarks by now former Brigham Young University religion professor, Randy Bott, brought unwanted attention to the LDS faith’s racist past, causing a swift reaction from Church headquarters, but despite the rebuttal from the Church, it missed an opportunity to make an undisputed and official apology for the actions of its members and leaders (click here). By not accepting fault and admitting wrongdoing of past church leaders and their misinterpretation and understanding of God’s word as it pertained to Blacks, the Church is seen as scapegoating God, as if He was the author of confusion and discrimination, while holding white folks harmless in the matter. 

Christianity has been around for 2000 years, and we are still struggling to fully to implement its teachings (click here). Or maybe its teachings are implemented in ways that make sense for the elite white males that run this country. But as Jesus taught us compassion, forgiveness, and love for all mankind, we are still failing to capture the meaning of basic human rights for one another—allowing equal rights under the law for gays, equal pay for women, and social justice for people of color. The most sorrowful calamity is the state of black America (early death, high unemployment, health care inequalities, low educational attainment and high crime), who are often blamed for their circumstances. No one contemplated the gross inequalities that Christianity has yet to undo. For the Mormon Church, the first step toward institutional forgiveness is by acknowledging and reconciling its racist past with a long-overdue, official apology.

Please sign the change.org petition to ask the Mormon Church to issue an official, public apology: (click here)

Follow me on twitter @DrDarronSmith or visit me at www.darronsmith.com