Enlightenment Thinkers Were Racists

Christopher Hitchens appeared on an interview with Bill Maher where he built up Jefferson and Paine as great philosophers and thinkers. He’s also spoken in debates about the just society he thought would be created by the likes of Jefferson, Hume, and Spinoza.

In that same interview he excoriates Mormonism as a “crackpot organization,” because “until 1965, which is quite recently, the Mormon Church was officially a racist organization. It said that black people were of a different and inferior species.”

Before Hitchens becomes so self-righteous and self-assured about his supposedly “skeptical” heroes, perhaps he should take a closer look at what they believed. Thomas Jefferson (the deist) and David Hume (the atheist) were both “scientific racists.” This is the belief that there were several sub-species of humanity.

While Christians insisted that all humans proceeded from Adam and Eve and were of “one blood,” (known as “monogenism”) polygenists believed that they were using empirical evidence and observation to prove that the races had separate ancestral lineages and were therefore unequal.

Hume wrote:

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences . . . such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.”

Jefferson, who considered himself to be “enlightened” and emphasized scientific observation in his Notes on Virginia, wrote a long description of the “negro” in scientific language (reticular membrane, transpiration, secretion, pulmonary apparatus, principle regulator, etc. . .) saying that they were inferior because of the way they looked and smelled, and mentioned that they had no ability to plan or give forethought to their actions, were easily aroused sexually, and had no reasoning skills. Here is a small portion of his thoughts on the black race:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”

Voltaire, another skeptic (a deist), was also a scientific racist. He said this about the blacks:

“Their round eyes, their flat nose, their lips which are always thick, their differently shaped ears, the wool on their head, the measure even of their intelligence establishes between them and other species of men prodigious differences. If their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application of ideas, and seemed formed neither in the advantages nor the abuses of our philosophy.”

And Immanuel Kant, that great Enlightenment philosopher, had this to say about the Africans:

“The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. Hume invites anyone to quote a single example of a Negro who has exhibited talents. He asserts that among the hundred thousands of blacks who have been seduced away from their own countries, although very many of them have been set free, yet not a single one has ever been found that has performed anything great whether in art or science or in any other laudable subject; but among the whites, people constantly rise up from the lowest rabble and acquire esteem through their superior gifts.”

Their belief that polygenism was scientifically supported would lead to the now-defunct pseudo-science of phrenology. George Morton, who was the president of the National Academy of Science, would develop a racial theory based on the measurement of skull size. His Crania America would describe blacks in a way that was similar to other “Enlightened” persons:

“Characterized by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick, and the mouth wide; the head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheekbones prominent, the jaws protruding, and the chin small.”

Morton’s disciples, George Gliddon and Josiah Nott, would write Types of Mankind (or Ethnological Research), which would be used by Southern slaveholders as a justification for slavery. This racial theory would be taught to an entire generation of students, even at great intellectual institutions such as Harvard.

What the Mormons did was wrong, but to say they are “crackpots” while the “skeptics” Jefferson and Hume were reasonable and enlightened is revisionist history!

The real heroes in this story are those who remained faithful to the Word when it said, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth (Acts 17:26).” The Bible-believing Christians would form an organization known as The Ethnological Society of London, whose membership consisted of Thomas Hodgkin, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Joseph Lister, Thomas Clarkson, Joseph Sturge, Henry Christy, and William Allen. Their motto was “ab uno sanguire” (from one blood) and they would battle against polygenistic theories on the origin of man.

John Bird Sumner also argued against polygenism in A Treatise on the Records of Creation, but would end up being ridiculed as an evangelical whose trust in the Scriptures made him blind to scientific facts.

Frederick Douglass countered the concept of polygenism in a speech he gave at Western Reserve College in 1854, entitled, The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,” in which he argued:

“Which of these answers [yes or no to monogeny] is most in accordance with the facts, with reason, with the welfare of the world . . . On which side is the weight of the argument, rather than which side is absolutely proved. It must be admitted . . . that, viewed apart from the authority of the Bible, neither the unity nor diversity of origin of the human family, can be demonstrated. To use the terse expression of the Rev. Dr. Anderson [President of the University of Rochester] . . . ‘It is impossible to get far enough back for that.’ This much, however, can be done. The evidence on both sides can be accurately weighed and the truth arrived at with almost absolute certainty.”

Douglass, a committed Christian, was saying that the truthfulness of a belief should be determined by how it impacted humanity. Since polygenists said he was sub-human, then it couldn’t be true. He would also insist that the United States live up to the language in the Declaration of Independence which declared that “all men are created equal,” even though he knew that the latest scientific knowledge had allowed Enlightenment thinkers to justify slavery by classifying Africans as a sub-species.

How many have abandoned God and his Word because they believe that science is somehow an undisputed fact? Even Christians give in to this pressure, but the truth is that the Word is dependable. Over and over, those who remained faithful to it were the heroes of history.


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