1st Edition

The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery

By David M. Whitford Copyright 2009

    For hundreds of years, the biblical story of the Curse of Ham was marshalled as a justification of serfdom, slavery and human bondage. According to the myth, having seen his father Noah naked, Ham's is cursed to have his descendants be forever slaves. In this new book the Curse of Ham is explored in its Reformation context, revealing how it became the cornerstone of the Christian defence of slavery and the slave trade for the next four hundred years. It shows how broader medieval interpretations of the story became marginalized in the early modern period as writers such as Annius of Viterbo and George Best began to weave the legend of Ham into their own books, expanding and adding to the legend in ways that established a firm connection between Ham, Africa, slavery and race. For although in the original biblical text Ham himself is not cursed and race is never mentioned, these writers helped develop the story of Ham into an ideological and theological defence for African slavery, at the precise time that the Transatlantic Slave Trade began to establish itself as a major part of the European economy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Skilfully weaving together elements of theology, literature and history, this book provides a fascinating insight into the ways that issues of religion, economics and race could collide in the Reformation world. It will prove essential reading, not only for those with an interest in early modern history, but for anyone wishing to try to comprehend the origins of arguments used to justify slavery and segregation right up to the 1960s.

    Contents: Preface; The Bible and slavery; The sons of Noah and the estates of Man; Gods, giants, and kings; Losing Canaan: early modern exegesis of Genesis 9; This heavy curse: popularizing the Curse of Ham; Cursed be Ham the Father of Canaan: from myth to reality; The self-interpreting Bible; Bibliography; Index


    David M. Whitford, United Theological Seminary, USA

    ’...very interesting and finely researched...Recommended.’ Choice 'Displaying much erudition, the author has exhaustively revealed new details from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries about the emergence and diffusion of the Curse.' Catholic Historical Review 'David M. Whitford's outstanding exegetical and intellectual history completes the scholarly picture of the origins and uses of Genesis 9 to justify slavery... Whitford displays tremendous learning and scholarship as well as good judgement in uncovering the twisted history of this biblical myth and the eventual cobbling together of the "Frankenstein creation" of Ham as a black African slave.' American Historical Review 'This topic's resonance with contemporary issues of social justice, racism, and the role of scholarship in effecting justice makes this a valuable book for not only scholars of the early modern period, but also for those who study American religious history.' Sixteenth Century Journal ’Whitford’s important study is a masterful work of intellectual history and historical exegesis that follows Noah’s curse through centuries of interpretation and development.’ Lutheran Quarterly