The biblical identity politics of the Demerara Slave Rebellion
The British missionary enterprise disseminated the Bible across the empire with often unintended consequences. The reception of the Protestant Scriptures among colonial subjects was anything but passive. Readers and hearers appropriated scriptural texts in their own distinctive, even subversive ways. Surviving sources, however, are often less revealing about this process than we might like, and it can be hard to get beyond the voice of the missionary to that of the native convert. This chapter explores a unique set of sources: the trial records of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionary John Smith, who was prosecuted (and died in prison) for allegedly ‘exciting the negroes to rebellion’ in the sugar colony of Demerara in 1823. Smith and his black congregants were cross-questioned at length about the use and abuse of the Bible. The records offer a unique window on the use of the Bible in missionary chapels, its reception among enslaved hearers, and the sensitivities of colonial authorities. It was also emblematic of a larger shift – the growing identification of black Protestants with Old Testament Israel, and the problematising of Britain’s identity as a new Israel.
The concluding afterword assesses the contribution of the preceding chapters to current debates about the roles of science and religion in shaping notions of identity, genealogy and legacy in the nineteenth century. Drawing on examples from various parts of the globe, the chapter posits the career of the American scientist, racist and biblical apologist Alexander Winchell as emblematic of some of the new directions and questions raised by this volume. The issues of identity and genealogy which pervade Winchell’s ethno-biblical science, and its enduring legacy, resonate with many of the topics interrogated by the volume. The preceding chapters confirm just how significant the Bible has been in the manufacturing and moulding of various identities. Lines of descent were also critical to the task of securing and stabilising identities. Whether human languages were of monogenetic or polygenetic origin exercised the minds of numerous students of philology. The use of the labels Hamitic, Japhetic and Semitic to designate lines of linguistic ancestry discloses how intimately connected the early science of language was with biblical thought-forms. The chapter concludes by exploring the pervasive legacy of the ideas and movements scrutinised in the volume in the present day.
Until challenged by evolution, Christians believed on excellent biblical authority that the ‘nations of men’ were God’s creation and that there were no fundamental divisions between them. From this it followed that all the extraordinary cultural diversity exhibited by the peoples of the world as revealed by European explorers disguised an essential unity; despite appearances to the contrary, they were ‘one blood’. This chapter considers the efforts made by missionary linguists to bolster biblical narratives by demonstrating that the languages of the world could be traced to the descendants of the three sons of Noah (Genesis 10). In particular, it examines the work of the Scottish-born schoolmaster Dr John Fraser (1834–1904), who sought to prove the Hamitic origins of the Australian Aborigines and their affinity to the Dravidian peoples of southern India. Fraser’s views were published as part of his 1892 edition of the works of the missionary linguist Lancelot Threlkeld (1788–1859), though modern commentators have found his biblical genealogy for the Australian Aborigines to be distracting, if not bizarre. This chapter demonstrates that Fraser’s worldview fits him firmly within a well-defined intellectual tradition that used language to demonstrate the Judaeo-Christian foundations of the whole world.
This chapter examines the British and Foreign Bible Society’s (BFBS) Arabic Bible translations in the context of European imperial expansion, the global missionary project and emergent Arab nationalism. Unlike the American Bible Society, the BFBS did not produce its own Bible in literary Arabic. They instead published editions in forms of Arabic that were regionally and socially variable and that closely resembled what people spoke. The choice of the BFBS to translate and publish in colloquial Arabic had political implications. By undermining the primacy of literary Arabic during an age of incipient anticolonial Arab nationalism, and by fostering a new and more popular culture of Arabic reading that included men and women from modest social classes, these BFBS editions had the potential to shift extant social hierarchies. The distribution of vernacular Arabic Bibles had the potential to make and remake communities of readers within territories that bore comparison to the colonial borders which Britain and France were imposing during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These colloquial North African Arabic Bibles contributed to a convoluted history that tied together Britain and America; North Africa and western Asia (or ‘the Middle East’); and other parts of the globe.
Chosen peoples demonstrates how biblical themes, ideas and metaphors shaped narratives of racial, national and imperial identity in the long nineteenth century. Even and indeed especially amid spreading secularism, the development of professionalised science and the proclamation of ‘modernity’, biblical notions of lineage, descent and inheritance continued to inform understandings of race, nation and character at every level from the popular to the academic. Although new ideas and discoveries were challenging the historicity of the Bible, even markedly secular thinkers chose to explain their complex and radical ideas through biblical analogy. Denizens of the seething industrial cities of America and Europe championed or criticised them as New Jerusalems and Modern Babylons, while modern nation states were contrasted with or likened to Egypt, Greece and Israel. Imperial expansion prompted people to draw scriptural parallels, as European settler movements portrayed ‘new’ territories across the seas as lands of Canaan. Yet such language did not just travel in one direction. If many colonised and conquered peoples resisted the imposition of biblical narratives, they also appropriated biblical tropes to their own ends. These original case studies, by emerging and established scholars, throw new light on familiar areas such as slavery, colonialism and the missionary project, while opening up exciting cross-comparisons between race, identity and the politics of biblical translation and interpretation in South Africa, Egypt, Australia, America and Ireland. The book will be essential reading for academic, graduate and undergraduate readers in empire, race and global religion in the long nineteenth century.
The Western quest for origins received an initial formulation in the recognition of a philological relationship between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and other languages of Europe. Already in the Enlightenment, there was much speculation regarding India, its culture, language and peoples. Many of the uninformed assessments of this time would resurface in subsequent Orientalist scholarship, Romantic mythography, nineteenth-century linguistic science, and race theory. Excited by the linguistic affinity between Sanskrit and other languages, Orientalist scholars fostered the comparative science of religion and mythology that developed a vision of an Aryan race as the originator of Indian and European culture. The belief in Indo-European origins further spurred European interest in Vedic Aryan sources. The chapter focuses on the work of Voltaire, Herder, German Romantic mythographers and Max Müller, who established a vision of the Aryan through their reading the Veda and posited Sanskrit scripture as an alternative to the Bible. Speculation regarding the Aryan provided a means whereby Indian history could be used to create a fresh historical tradition that expressed specifically European political and ideological interests. What Europeans sought in India, the chapter argues, was not Indo-European religion but a reassessment of Judaeo-Christianity.
The nineteenth-century roots of segregationist folk theology in the American South
Stephen R. Haynes
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.
In the highly politicised world of nineteenth-century Russian religious culture, translation of the Bible became a source of major conflict. Who had the right to translate the Bible? What base texts were authoritative? What was to be the language of the modern Russian Bible? This chapter focuses on the controversy dividing Russian prelates in the 1850s over the renewal of Russian biblical translation efforts following the thirty-year hiatus imposed by Emperor Nicholas I. The chapter explores four touchstone moments when the politics of empire and nation came to be sharply represented in conflicts over biblical translation: (1) the conflict in the early nineteenth century over the imperially sanctioned Russian Bible Society; (2) the internal debate of the 1850s in the Holy Synod over the reopening of modern Russian biblical translation; (3) the conflicts linking the Jewish question with biblical translation in the last half of the nineteenth century; and, briefly, (4) the contemporary issue of biblical translation in the context of the current international conflict over Ukraine. The chapter argues that these fault lines reflected deep divisions over how best to accommodate ethnic diversity and incipient secularisation within Russian religious culture from the nineteenth century to the present day.
The introduction begins by positioning the volume in relation to current debates and developments in a number of related fields: religious history, biblical studies, postcolonialism, literary studies, imperial history and histories of scholarship and the book. Making a claim for the centrality of biblical narratives to the shaping of modern notions of race, nation and empire in the nineteenth century, the introduction discusses some of the reasons why this aspect has been downplayed in accounts of ‘scientific racism’ on one hand and the emergence of European empires on the other. Introducing the two interlinked sections of the book, we stress the importance of biblical ideas of exile, peoples and ‘lands’ to notions of identity and belonging in a variety of nineteenth-century contexts. Furthermore, we explore the explosion of textual transmission and translation in the period, which allowed these tropes and themes to be transmitted across global networks of transport, power and print.
Medieval and early modern historiography had encouraged the integration of biblical and Gaelic chronologies, and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Irish antiquarians, poets and romantic nationalists began to think of themselves as ‘Milesians’, the displaced descendants of a wandering Phoenician tribe. This chapter focuses on the British Israelites, a loose Protestant sect united by their belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel and that biblical prophecies on the future of ‘Israel’ referred to the British Empire. The British Israelites argued that the ancient Irish king, Ollamh Fodhla, was actually the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. This myth-history was deployed in support of the British-Israel claim that the Anglo-Saxons were the true heirs to the biblical Kingdom of David. Yet despite their fascination with the mysteries of pre-Christian Ireland, most British Israelites were arch-imperialists, staunch anti-Catholics and opponents of Irish Home Rule. The chapter explores shifting notions of British and Irish racial identity in relation to scriptural genealogy, and argues that Old Testament narratives were co-opted to serve conflicting political and religious agendas.