Southerner Christians pointed to the so-called “curse of Ham” as a biblical justification to hold slaves. What was the “curse of Ham?” Here is the story as it’s found in Genesis 9:18-27, KJV:
“And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ And he said, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.’”
Those who believed slavery should be abolished made passionate arguments against the supporters of slavery, who claimed that the “cursed” descendants of Ham had settled in Africa, were dark-skinned, and destined to subjugation.
When James A. Sloane published his pro-slavery treatise, The Great Question Answered; or Is Slavery a Sin in Itself? Answered According to the Teaching of the Scriptures, David R. Kerr, editor of The United Presbyterian Quarterly Review, gave Sloane credit for making the Bible “the only rule for faith and practice,” but then he slammed him for his weak biblical arguments concerning the curse of Ham. At one point he laughed at the absurdity of Sloane’s position and proclaimed: “Risum teneatis, amici?!” (Can you help laughing, my friends?!) (2)
Why was the pro-slavery teaching on the biblical “curse of Ham” so laughable to abolitionists?
For one thing, notice in the above scriptures that only the descendant of Ham (Canaan) was cursed. Genesis 9:25 says, “Cursed be Canaan.” It doesn’t even say, “cursed be Ham.” According to Josiah Priest, writing in his book, Bible Defence [sic]of Slavery, the authority to expand the curse to Ham came from the Arabic translation of the Bible, not the Hebrew Bible itself:
But lest the reader should become perplexed, respecting the application of this anathema, on account of the text above referred to being, in the English, “cursed Canaan” instead of “cursed Ham,” as it should have been translated; we state that the Arabic copy of the book of Genesis, which is a language of equal authority with the Hebrew, and originally the very same, reads “cursed Ham,” [emphasis added] the father of Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. (3)
The pro-slavery defense took liberty with the Scriptures by using the Arabic translation of Genesis as their authority for changing the word Canaan into Ham!
Secondly, according to Genesis 10:6-20, Ham’s sons were Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The sons of Cush settled in Babylon (his son was Nimrod, the builder of the Tower of Babel), Egypt would become the father of the Egyptians and the Philistines, and Canaan would become the father of the tribes that spread from Sidon to Gaza to Sodom and Gomorrah (the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites, etc. . .). Put settled in modern Libya and northern Africa. None of Ham’s descendants even settled in sub-Saharan Africa, the place from where Southern slaves were taken.
Finally, according to Sloane, the name Ham meant “black,” but Kerr argued that this was untrue. The word Ham is never used for the word black. Instead the Hebrew word used for black is shachar or shachor. The Hebrew word for Ham is cham and it means “hot.”
The Bible was abused by Southern theologians. They weren’t literalists! There is no “curse of Ham” found in the Scriptures. Those who wanted to hold slaves for their own profit had to become biblical contortionists.
There were two groups of “Christians” involved in the debate over slavery. One group was “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, ESV) while the other distorted the Bible and used it as “a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5, ESV).
- David R. Kerr. “Article II: Sloan on Color and Slavery” The United Presbyterian Review, Volume 2. (Pittsburgh, PA: Publication Office, No. 76 Thirds St., 1861), 336.
- Josiah Priest, Bible Defense of Slavery (Louisville, KY: J. F. Brennan, 1851), 91.