Reading the “Curse of Ham” with America’s first ordained black preacher

Portrait of Lemuel Haynes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

During my senior year in college, I presented my first academic paper at a conference. (In Sioux Falls, South Dakota of all places!) In the middle of the windy prairie flatlands, I nervously presented my research to a modest audience of undergraduate students and their advisors. My topic? The devastating reception history behind Genesis 9:18-27, in which Noah curses the offspring of his son Ham.

This peculiar little biblical passage was a popular one in the Antebellum South, repeatedly manipulated and distorted into justifying American slavery. In Genesis 9:18-27, Noah had three sons who were the ancestors of all the peoples of the world: Shem, Japheth, and Ham. One day, their father Noah drank too much wine and passed out naked in his tent. Ham walked in, saw his father’s nakedness, then went and told his brothers.

The text is somewhat vague about the details of Ham’s alleged crime. Was Ham’s only crime accidentally walking in on his father naked? Or was it that he told his brothers? As you can imagine, biased interpreters took to excessively speculating about Ham’s sexual impropriety. Regardless, Shem and Japheth “covered the nakedness of their faither” with a piece of clothing, supposedly without seeing their father with their own eyes. And when Noah regained consciousness, he somehow knew exactly “what his youngest son had done to him.” Noah admonished, “Cursed be Canaan! Lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

According to racist myth, because Ham was believed to be the father of all the nations of Africa, Noah’s curse gives biblical sanction for their enslavement. Never mind that Canaan is the recipient of the curse. Canaan was cursed as a result of his father’s sin—and in the twisted rationale of white slaveholders, black slavery must be the all-time consequence.

Why am I recalling this tragic biblical interpretation? Because this week I am reading some of the writings of Lemuel Haynes, our country’s first ordained black minister. Though in his day, Genesis 9:18-27 was a favorite text of white slaveholders, Rev. Haynes was courageously offering a very different interpretation of this exact same passage!

In 1776, America’s first ordained black preacher wrote in rebuke of this biblical text being used to justify slavery. Lemuel Haynes writes, “Whethear [sic] the Negros are of Canaans posterity or not, perhaps it is not known By any mortal under Heaven. But allowing they were actually of Canaans posterity, yet we have no reason to think that this Curs Lasted any Longer than the comeing of Christ: when that Sun of riteousness arose this wall of partition was Broken Down.”

Haynes clearly casts doubt upon the belief that Ham’s son Canaan is the progenitor of the African people. Here, one of my former biblical studies professors, Lisa Bowens, helps us parse out the roots of Hayne’s criticism. Dr. Bowens writes, “…part of Haynes critique of this story’s interpretation lies in recognizing the improbability of knowing the identity of Canaan’s descendants.” Bowens goes on to note the importance of the New Testament for understanding Hayne’s reading of this Old Testament story. Bowens notes that in Haynes’ above critique, he draws upon the Letters of the Apostle Paul. [1]

Bowens states, “In Ephesians 2:14, where Paul discusses Christ’s destruction of the wall between Jew and gentile, Haynes understands the partition as the one prevalent in his day, the wall erected between black and white, slave and free, and insists that Christ destroyed these humanly instituted barriers also. Moreover, in Galatians 3:13 the apostle states, ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law…’ Using the apostle’s language, Haynes grants that even if black were descendants of Canaan, Christ’s death removes this curse and therefore delegitimizes the use of the Ham narrative.” [2]

In the 18th century, we must remind ourselves that Haynes was writing in and for a much different time. Nevertheless, the burden of having to debunk any supposed “biblical curse” over one’s people is ludicrous and tragic. But what I find fascinating about Haynes’ reading of this story is that, despite the pain and trauma associated with it, Haynes still finds Christ as our source of liberation and grace. Whatever walls, he says, human beings construct to divide each other and whatever curse we may have once lived under as a result of sin, Christ has saved us from all sin and bondage! He declares, “But now our glorious hygh [sic] priest hath visably appear’d in the flesh and hath Establish’d a more glorious Oeconemy. He hath not only visably Broken Down that wall of partision that interposed…” Haynes goes to say that these walls have been rendered “obsolete!”

Lemuel Haynes lifted up his Christ-centered rebuke of Genesis 9:18-27 as a part of an essay entitled, “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping.” His refutation of the “Curse of Ham” is one piece of a much broader argument against slavery. The distinct courage of Haynes is clearly demonstrated by his rejection of lazy interpretations of white preachers. He challenges slavery in light of the grace and freedom promised to all through the victory of Christ’s Resurrection. Finally, Haynes reclaims a biblical text for those abused and traumatized by its centuries of misreading and misuse, lifting up a liberating reading of this passage that is, above all else, the Good News. Thanks be to God!

[1] Bowens, Lisa M. African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. E-Book. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020.

[2] Bowens, Lisa M. African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. E-Book.