White Supremacy Was Rooted in Social Darwinism

Unfortunately, the scourge of racism didn’t end after the Civil War. In the last half of the 19th century, polygenism would be replaced with “social Darwinism” as a justification for white supremacy. So now instead of racism being based on the belief that blacks were a sub-species of humanity, the darker races were considered inferior because they were less evolved.

One example of the prevalence of this Victorian ideology could be found at the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Along the Midway, a type of human zoo was set up, which allowed those who attended to walk through the evolutionary history of man. Beginning with the Africans and moving through the red and yellow races, villages were set up and people of color were put on display. The exhibit ended with European villages and culminated with the glorious “White City” of marble buildings which was the final goal toward which mankind was moving. This endeavor is recorded in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, published by the Chicago Historical Society:

By Kilburn, B. W. (Benjamin West), 1827-1909 — Photographer – This image is available from the New York Public Library’s Digital Library under the digital ID G90F186_170F: digitalgallery.nypl.org → digitalcollections.nypl.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7302702

To lend anthropological legitimacy to their enterprise, Chicago’s exposition directors placed the Midway under the nominal direction of Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam who had already been chosen to organize an Anthropology Building at the fair. Putnam envisioned the Midway as a living outdoor museum of primitive human beings that would afford visitors the opportunity to measure the progress of humanity toward the ideal of civilization presented in the White City. (1)

This wasn’t a sideshow. It was a scientific endeavor! The best minds were put to the task since the goal of the Columbian Exposition was to showcase humanity’s progress.

The impact of social Darwinism is rarely even heard about today, but its supporters could read like a “Who’s Who” of money, power, and intellect. Virtually every major influencer of the late 19th and early 20th century was a social Darwinist. Politicians, industrialists, sociologists, educators, philosophers, theologians, and lawyers were all under the influence of its founder, Herbert Spencer (who coined the term “survival of the fittest” in his book The Principles of Biology) and who, according to the Atlantic Monthly, represented “the scientific spirit of the age.” (2)

Christians would also adopt this anti-biblical perspective. William Graham Sumner, the Episcopal clergyman and professor at Yale University, was a proponent of social Darwinism. Josiah Strong, a Congregationalist minister and author of the very popular book, Our Country, argued that the “Anglo-Saxon” was commissioned by God to be his brother’s keeper and to civilize the weaker races. But to Strong, this involved the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) carrying the “white man’s burden,” which included colonial expansion in the name of God:

Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of races for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled . . . Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the wealth of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization . . . will spread itself over the earth. . . And does anyone doubt the result of this competition of races will be the “survival of the fittest?” (3)

Notice how the name of Christ is being blended with Darwinist ideology! This social Darwinist belief was held by Charles Gardner, professor of sociology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who believed that the only way blacks would advance was through mixing the blood of whites and blacks, causing the black race to evolve.

It is the simple truth to say that the negro race has never risen appreciable except by mixture with a superior race. Whether this mulatto product of race fusion can become a stable, permanent race is an open question; by a process of natural selection, there will ultimately appear a definite and relatively fixed race-type of mulattoes. (4)

Of course, this “scientific” view also led to the belief that “race fusion” could cause the devolution of the white race. This is one reason (as we will discover later) why intermarriage was frowned upon, and it was also one of the main justifications, along with a faulty exegesis of Acts 17:26b (“and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation”) for racial segregation. (5)

If only Gardner would have been faithful to Jesus. If only he wouldn’t have held to worldly sociological, philosophical, and scientific beliefs over, or alongside of, Christian doctrine, perhaps the Southern Baptist Convention would not be carrying the “stain of racism” to this day. The apostle James warned us about embracing worldly views: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” — James 4:4

1) Robert W. Rydell, “World’s Columbian Exposition,” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society, 2006. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1386.html.

2) “Reviews and Literary Notices,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 13, No. 80, June, 1864. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19827/19827-h/19827-h.htm.

3) Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York: The American Home Missionary Society, 1885), 174-175.

4) Charles Spurgeon Gardner, “The Negro and the White Man,” typescript, pp. 4-6, Charles S. Gardner Papers, SBTS. As quoted in “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” p. 57.

5) Bob Jones, Sr. used this scripture as a proof text for the support of segregation. (Justin Taylor, “Is Segregation Scriptural? A Radio Address from Bob Jones on Easter 1960.” July 26, 2016, The Gospel Coalitionhttps://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/is-segregation-scriptural-a-radio-address-from-bob-jones-on-easter-of-1960/) The argument being that at the Tower of Babel each nation was scattered and given a boundary and that people were to remain within those bounds, even for the purposes of marriage and procreation. And yet we know that Moses—the man God used to give the law—married a Midianite woman. We also know that the disciples were commanded to go out into the world and preach the gospel to all nations. Languages were used as a form of separation at Babel, but at Pentecost all languages were able to be understood by those who listened to the preaching of the gospel. The church never limited missionaries from learning other languages, translating the Word, and preaching the gospel. It seems that Acts 17:26b was used inappropriately as a prohibition against interracial marriage. The Bible never prohibits marriage between races, but it does prohibit marriage between different faiths (2 Cor. 6:14). It was science that forbade intermarriage. Especially eugenics.


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