- The Book of Acts and the Origin of the Races in Evangelical Thought
And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men.— Kjv Acts 17:26
While It is entertaining for scholars to quote those Victorians who defied established scientific knowledge on religious grounds, many evangelical ministers and theologians were actually quite willing to modify their Biblical interpretations in the light of advancing knowledge. They by and large adjusted quickly and painlessly to the old earth findings of nineteenth-century geology. They were likewise ready to reread the deluge as a local rather than universal event when scientific critiques made the latter possibility appear more and more untenable. For example, in 1839, the eminent evangelical theologian, John Pye Smith, published his influential book On the Relation between the Holy Scriptures and Some Parts of Geological Science.1 In this well-received volume, Pye Smith accepted not only an old earth and a local flood but also an array of other changes to traditional readings of the Bible in order to accommodate new scientific evidence.2
This adaptive approach was a common one and well within the boundaries of permissible evangelical thought. Evangelicals never tired of saying that the Bible was not a science book and that the book of Genesis, in particular, should not be read in a wooden way. No doubt what it said was true, but in their view it was a communication of theological (not scientific) truth, written to be comprehensible to primitive peoples in an ancient and very different cultural and literary context and in a language that contained words and idioms whose meaning could no longer be interpreted with certainty.
Of Biblical statements concerning human origins that had scientific implications, evangelicals actually found the clearest statement not in Genesis but in the book of Acts. According to Acts, while speaking in Athens, the apostle [End Page 35] Paul declared that God had made all the peoples of the earth “of one blood” (Acts 17:26). This was straightforward apostolic teaching, and evangelicals were therefore unwilling to budge from it.
The idea of “one blood” had specific import on the origin of the races. Evangelicals insisted that Europeans, Africans, Asians—indeed, all the peoples of the globe—were part of the same human family. Scientifically, this was a stance on the side of the monogenesis of the human race. It had direct implications for race relations.
Acts 17:26 was a frequent text for sermons and discourses, and it was even more often evoked by evangelicals in scientific, anthropological, and racial discussions. For example, the Congregational minister and editor of the Evangelical Magazine, John Morison, preached and then published a sermon with Acts 17:26 printed at the head of his text, The Unity of the Race, with Its Correlative Claims: Thoughts Suggested by the Great Exhibition (1851). Morison observes of the apostle Paul’s assertion: “He taught expressly, and without a particle of ambiguity or reserve … an expression distinctly indicating an identity of race,—a common origin,—a constitutional affinity,—a destiny one and the same” (6–7). Morison then insists that this conviction is not at variance with the findings of science, despite the fact that some “Infidel Philosophers” had made this claim (10). He quotes the well-regarded work of ethnologist James C. Pritchard (himself an evangelical Christian) in order to demonstrate that at least some current men of science were on his side in this debate. Morison’s main aim, however, was to influence action. He passionately elucidates the political and social implications of this doctrine, including the conviction that slavery is wrong and that the exploitation of aboriginal tribes is unjustifiable.
The fusion of these confessional and scientific strands was achieved in the Aborigines Protection Society, a humanitarian organization founded in 1837. Its anti-racist stance was fueled by its evangelical ethos. Its motto was ab uno sanguine (of one blood)—a quotation from Acts 17:26. Out of it emerged, in 1843, the Ethnological Society of London, which had an intellectual rather than activist mandate, while still maintaining an evangelical constituency and flavour. Its journal repeats the belief that Acts 17:26 establishes the unity...