September 26, 2022

What Was Jim Crow Theology?

Jim Crow Theology was an informal group of biased beliefs derived from eisegetical misinterpretation of the Bible which are purported (falsely) to be exegetically correct Biblical theology, but which aided and abetted the racial caste system known in the U.S. as Jim Crow, and globally as White Supremacy.

Although the so-called curse of Ham would lose its appeal with the demise of slavery, proslavery interpreters’ habit of racializing Noah’s descendants and reading Noah’s prophecy (Genesis 9), the Table of Nations (Genesis 10), and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in light of one another made this section of Scripture of continued interest to racist Bible readers in the century after the Civil War.

It is true that the sort of assured biblical and theological claims one associates with slavery apologists are often missing from the writings of the Christian defenders of racial segregation. But the “distinction and dispersal” tradition represents an important substantive link between the way nineteenth-century Southerners utilized the Bible and its invocation by twentieth-century advocates of segregation.

The most obvious reflections of this tradition in the literature of support for Jim Crow are tracts that recast the tale of Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:20–27—which climaxes in Noah’s exclamation, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers”—as having to do not with the imposition of slavery but with the necessity of “racial” separation. Among these was South Carolina Baptist Humphrey K. Ezell’s The Christian Problem of Racial Segregation, published in 1959. Ezell contended that in Noah’s curse, “God has segregated the races. Shem and Japheth are to dwell in tents together; but a curse is placed upon Ham and his descendants, and they are to be servants to Shem and Japheth.” What is the connection between the prophecy of Ham/Canaan’s servitude and the necessity of racial separation? Ezell explains that since Ham’s descendants were to serve those of Shem and Japheth, “it is not God’s plan for [them] to intermarry.”10 

The Distinction and Dispersal Tradition and the Biblical Argument for Segregation

With these clues in mind, let us peruse some notable sermons and addresses by religious advocates of racial segregation for traces of this distinction and dispersal tradition with particular attention to images of distinction among Noah’s sons, God’s intended separation of the groups descended from them, and condemnation of attempts to resist this divine plan of dispersal. A good place to start is the widely circulated and oft-cited speech of G. T. Gillespie, Presbyterian pastor and president of Mississippi’s Belhaven College, who was one of the more prominent religious figures in the years after Brown v. Board of Education to articulate a theology for segregation. Gillespie’s infamous address to the Presbyterian Synod of Mississippi in 1954, subsequently published by the Mississippi Citizens Council as A Christian View of Segregation, contended that segregation is not a function of “race prejudice” and does not necessarily entail discrimination.18 On the contrary, Gillespie argued, segregation tends to diminish friction and prevent “such intimacies as might lead to intermarriage and the amalgamation of the races.”19 

it is important to note what Gillespie believed Scripture does contain—“considerable data from which valid inferences may be drawn in support of the general principle of segregation as an important feature of the Divine purpose and Providence throughout the ages” 

A younger colleague of Gillespie at Belhaven College during the 1950s was Bible professor Morton H. Smith. In a Southern Presbyterian Review column written for church women in 1957

Smith extracts a lesson for the present-day:

[I]t is certain that in the combined accounts of the genealogies of the sons of Noah and the dispersion at the Tower of Babel we find God’s direct action of separation of different elements of the human race into different groups. On the basis of this fact, it would seem that the principle of separation of peoples or of segregation is not necessarily wrong per se. In fact, it seems clearly to be God’s order of things .25

If, as Smith’s reading of the Tower episode suggests, “ethnic pluriformity” is the revealed will of God, then “it is highly questionable whether the Christian can have part in any program that would seek to erase all ethnic distinctions.

Smith concluded his argument with an effort to communicate the Babel episode’s import for white suburban Christians: “One wonders, when he looks at the parallel of the great city planned at Babel, and the intervention of God to prevent sin’s growth, and the modern large cities with their high crime rates, whether the principle of separation started at Babel should not be continued today.”31

he Southern Presbyterian Journal (SPJ, after 1959, The Presbyterian Journal), which between 1942 and 1973 was the publication of choice for members of the Presbyterian Church (US) concerned with nascent liberalism in the denomination.32

Between the mid-1940s and late 1950s the SPJ regularly ran articles and editorials that defended segregation, at times with direct reference to the Bible. The first application of the distinction and dispersal tradition to race relations seems to have appeared in March 1944 in an editorial response to the Annual Race Relations Message of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) by journal founder L. Nelson Bell. One looks in vain at this FCC statement, Bell noted, for recognition of the fact that between “friendly race relations” and “unrestricted social equality” is “a line which must not be crossed.” This “God-ordained racial line,” Bell went on, “was established by God when he made men of different races.” “Why God saw fit to make some men white and some men black may go back to Genesis 9,” Bell observed.33

In 1946 the SPJ included an article by B. W. Crouch, a Presbyterian elder from South Carolina, titled “Dr. Palmer on Racial Barriers.” How “sensible” was Palmer, Crouch noted wistfully, compared to those who wish to pull down God-established barriers between the races.34

In 1956 another Baptist, New Yorker Kenneth R. Kinney, presented a biblical argument for segregation in The Baptist Bulletin that creatively recapitulated the distinction and dispersal tradition as it had come to be applied to racial segregation.43 

 Kinney’s solution for Hamite rebellion resonates with the themes of massive resistance:

[They should] return to the proper observation of God’s order; thus to develop their own culture. Thus, we believe, to return to the principle of separate but equal cultures…[I]t would seem that as it was the Hamitic family of old which rebelled against God’s “order,” so their descendants are doing today, aided and abetted by spurious liberals whose bleeding hearts are likely more concerned about votes than about the people involved.45

Evidence of the distinction and dispersal tradition in the writings of Christian spokesmen as diverse as Gillespie, Smith, Daniel, Kinney and Dake suggests that it was a well-established and persistent element in the broader Christian defense of segregation

Previous reference has been made to Benjamin M. Palmer, who between the 1850s and his death in 1902 studiously applied Genesis 9–11 to the shifting realities of America’s racial landscape. As the appeals to Palmer’s 1872 lecture at Washington and Lee University by B. W. Crouch and Morton H. Smith attest, Palmer’s segregationist reading of Genesis remained well-known into the mid-twentieth century, particularly among Southern Presbyterians. As we have seen, Crouch and Smith found particularly relevant Palmer’s claim that God was determined to “break the human family into sections” in order to limit postdiluvial wickedness. According to Palmer, the first “insurrection” against this plan was the Hamite Nimrod’s plan of consolidation at Babel, which became a paradigm for all subsequent schemes to force together distinct human groups.52

n 1887 Palmer again utilized Genesis as a basis for maintaining separation when he argued against an overture for reunion with Northern Presbyterians. In reminding Southern Presbyterians that “the race problem” constituted “an insuperable barrier” to reunification, Palmer appealed again to Genesis, claiming, “God has divided the human race into several distinct groups, for the sake of keeping them apart.” Having promised Noah that the world would not again be destroyed by flood, God restrained human wickedness by breaking “the unity of human speech” and scattering the tower builders “upon the face of all the earth.”53Facing a rising tide of pro-reunion sentiment, Palmer stood fast on Scriptural ground he had occupied since the 1850s, alleging that the postdiluvian dispensation in human history is regulated by a divine law of separation. When this law is violated, condemnation is inevitable, as “all the attempts to restore the original unity of the race by the amalgamation of these severed parts” are destined for divine judgment.54

Another postbellum writer who sought to maintain the relevance of Genesis 9–11 for American race relations was J. W. Sandell, a Confederate veteran who was extolling the virtues of the Old South as late as 1907. In The United States in Scripture, Sandell reiterated the efficacy of Noah’s curse, though four decades after the Emancipation Proclamation he was obliged to view it in terms of ungovernability rather than servitude. More importantly, Sandell found the legend of Nimrod and the Tower eminently serviceable as a biblical rationale for racial segregation. God’s response to the Tower of Babel, Sandell wrote, proved that “it is an outrage upon nature to undertake to force the extremes of the races to equality with each other.”55

That American Bible readers continued to find in Genesis 9–11 a useful resource for interpreting social and political movements into the middle of the twentieth century is reflected in Harry Lacey’s God and the Nations (1947). Deeply concerned by the trend toward postwar internationalism, Lacey advanced the familiar argument that following the Deluge God prepared each land “with a view toward separating the sons of Adam.” God’s decision to divide the human race “rather than communising it,” according to Lacey, contained a clear lesson for the postwar world: current attempts to unify humankind “will be as anti-God in [their] object and prove as disastrous in [their] end as original Babel was.”57

For one reason, it is easy to miss. As we have seen, among the segregationist documents that play on this tradition is G. E. Gillespie’s A Christian View of Segregation, which includes an extended discussion of Providence’s role in creating “distinct racial characteristics,” “segregat[ing] racial groups across the centuries and in our time,” and “scattering” the earth’s peoples as a bulwark against their “permanent integration.” Nevertheless, if one is not attuned to the deeply rooted traditions of biblical interpretation on which Gillespie is drawing, it is easy to be distracted by the essentially demographic approach to the problem of race relations he assumes in the first half of the tract, summarized in boilerplate “secular” claims that segregation is not born of race prejudice, is one of nature’s universal laws, tends to promote progress and does not imply discrimination.

Without doubt the religious argument for segregation was more tentative and muted than the argument for slavery a century earlier. The weakness of the segregationist case is particularly evident when well-known advocates failed even to mention the Bible in their publications, when some who did displayed little confidence or passion, and when leading conservatives such as L. Nelson Bell claimed that “there is no biblical or legal justification for segregation.”61 But these expressions of ambivalence should not obscure an important thread of continuity in the American tapestry of white supremacy, namely segregationists’ reliance on the distinction and dispersal tradition that since the antebellum era had been central to white attempts to establish and reinforce purportedly God-ordained racial destinies.

For more information on New JIm Crow Theology on this site, see