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Reviewed by:
  • The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000
  • Kathryn Lofton
The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000. By Colin Kidd. (New York, Cambridge University Pres, 2006) 309 pp. $27.00 paper

Innovation should not be the hallmark of historical accomplishment. The copious historical record requires some understanding before any postulation about its rationale. The Forging of Races is a carefully crafted contribution to the history of such textual commentary. It is the translation of the discursive thread within Western letters devoted to the pernicious scriptural justification of racial categorization. Kidd's classificatory focus is on the many ways in which Biblical interpreters have used scripture to develop theories of race and ethnicity. More significantly, Kidd profiles how colonial encounter and cross-cultural knowledge threatened the grip of Christendom, eliciting elaborate and eccentric theories of race to save Protestantism from pluralist interlopers.

At his most adamant, Kidd states that scripture has been "the primary cultural influence on the forging of races" (19). Since the evidentiary weight of the volume is that of Biblical interpretation, Kidd cannot prove such an exclusive claim in any comparative way. But he does and can demand that "the construction of race has been significantly restricted in its articulation and meanings by theological imperatives" (25). Historians of the last five centuries would find The Forging of Races indispensable reading, particularly if their scope includes the interpretation of racial politics, colonial justification, and Protestant progress into modernity. For those writers, Kidd has done the labor of accumulating and categorizing a vast swath of dense intellectual treatises devoted to racial taxonomy. This band of merry theologians, natural scientists, and philosophers is an impressively creative troop, including such figures as [End Page 622] Etienne Serres, a French scientist (1786–1868) who constructed a hierarchical racial taxonomy based on variations in the position of the navel and umbilical cord in the embryos of different human types. Kidd demonstrates definitively the complete conjure of racial profiling, showing that race exists as "a property of our minds, not of their bodies" (18).

Kidd's secondary claim is that our minds are largely the domain of theology, the field that produced not only the most activist interpretive tendencies but also had a heavy hand in the emergence of medical science, natural history, and anthropology. The post-Reformation success of Christianity required an explanation for the concurrent contestations to Biblical truth, such as the discovery of the New World and the awareness of global monotheisms and polytheisms seemingly uninterested in a risen savior. The expansion of European empire goaded men like Friedrich Gesenius (1786–1842), a German Biblical scholar, James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848), a British ethnologist, and John W. Draper (1811–1882), an American rationalist, to reconcile Biblical information with empirical contestation. Sacred histories, sacred geographies, and sacred geologies were written to make scientific the archetypal descriptions of Genesis, Exodus, and Paul's letters. Was Jesus, Adam, Cain, Ham, or the bride of Moses black? The racial schema developed within Enlightenment philosophies, early natural histories, and abolitionist literature dramatized this phenotypic problem into a grand postulation. Kidd observes raptly the finest versions of this drama, as intellectuals struggled to shoehorn Anglo-Protestantism into ancient Biblical paradigms and plots. If Adam were not white, then how could we be so sure of our election? If Ham were white, then how can we keep these slaves?

Kidd offers no overarching mechanism to explain why such acrobatics were performed on behalf of racial superiority. "There is, it transpires, no simple or reductive way of categorizing a person's racialist sentiments on the basis of his or her doctrinal preferences," he writes. "Nevertheless, doctrinal preference was a crucial determinant of racial attitudes, albeit not in any simple or straightforward way" (272). Kidd's role is largely that of the archivist, itemizing for other scholars the massive documentary effort to make scripture of cultural difference. As Kidd shows, the Enlightenment offered a secular scientific racism and a carefully classified racial portrait to endorse Christian missions. Likewise, the Bible seemed to offer an endorsement of slavery alongside endorsements of the unity and brotherhood of all...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 622-624
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-12
Open Access
No
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