Distinction and dispersal
The nineteenth-century roots of segregationist folk theology in the American South
in Chosen peoples
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Scholarship on the Christian defence of Jim Crow-era racial segregation has tended to downplay its similarities with antebellum support for slavery. The prevailing view is that religious apologies for segregation had little if anything in common with the robust pro-slavery arguments from Scripture developed in the nineteenth century. However, slavery apologists had compensated for the absence of biblical racism by interpreting one text (Genesis 9:20–7) in ways that would prove a boon to segregationists. Although the so-called curse of Ham would lose its appeal with the demise of slavery, proslavery interpreters’ habit of racialising Noah’s descendants made this section of Scripture of continued interest to racist Bible readers in the century after the Civil War. Understood as a narrative disclosure of God’s will for distinct ethnic groups in the postdiluvian dispensation, Genesis 9–11 became basis for a biblical defence of Jim Crow. Surveying examples from both elite and non-elite contexts makes it possible to identify the dominant forms and persistent themes of a ‘distinction and dispersal’ tradition of biblical interpretation that reveals surprising connections between the religious defences of slavery and segregation.

Chosen peoples

The Bible, race and empire in the long nineteenth century

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