The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000

“Race, it should be clear by now, exists as a property of our minds, not of their bodies. It is a bogus scientific category rather than a fact of nature, and belongs not so much to the realm of objective biology as to the quite distinct realm of human subjectivity.” Thus concludes the prologue to this very substantial exploration of the origins and consequences of the notions about race that permeated the culture of most of the Protestant world, including that of the Latter-day Saints, until very recent times. Colin Kidd is a professor of modern history at the University of Glasgow and has written several other books on the historical construction of ethnic identities in Scotland and Britain. His general approach is clearly in line with the “social constructionist” epistemology at the basis of the social sciences during the past half century. In this book, he explains in detail how the arguments over biblical exegesis, and between theologians and Enlightenment secularists, have been implicated in the construction of “racialist” definitions of “the Other.”

The scope of the book is “Protestantism within the Atlantic world” during the past four centuries, by which the author means western Europe and North America, with reference mainly (though not exclusively) to the English-speaking world. He does not explain why the Catholic world is not included in his purview, but my own assumption is that the Catholic Church has traditionally maintained greater central control over the creation and promulgation of doctrine. By contrast, as Kidd demonstrates, doctrinal speculation, argument, and conflict over racial definitions (as over other questions) has always been rife among Protestants, even within the various Protestant communions. This proliferation of theories, furthermore, began as soon as Europeans discovered the varieties of human “Others” in the world and well before black slavery itself became an issue in European and American experience. Otherness was eventually implicated in slavery, but for most of this period the Otherness of slaves lay in their pagan origins, not in their color or race. Ham’s descendants were simply the chief perpetrators of paganism in the world, according to the unfolding Protestant ethnology.

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