Religion and Rethinking the "Unthinking Decision"

Paul Harvey

The holiday season; no better time to catch up on piled-up volumes of journals (if only to scan and put them back on the pile to read later, like next year at this time). But I did belatedly get to this piece, which I recommend to all for a concise state of the art article: Rebecca Goetz, “Rethinking the ‘Unthinking Decision’: Old Questions and New Problems in the History of Slavery and Race in the Colonial South,” Journal of Southern History LXXV (August 2009): 599-612. The bulk of the piece covers recent scholarship in the colonial-era South, concluding that “slavery became entrenched much earlier than we have previously supposed,” and that “even inchoate ideas of race -- racial idiom--seemingly emerged earlier than we have thought and apparently did not require either institutionalized slavery or the Enlightenment to attain their full articulation.” A brief part at the end explores the interaction of religion with slavery and race in the early South, and Goetz’s ideas here shed fresh light on the question:

Using religion as a category of analysis in the construction of race and slavery could have interesting implications for both aspects of the origins debate. Far from making an ‘unthinking decision’ to adopt the concept of race, Europeans clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about race and human variety. . . whatever role religion played in making race, it is also clear that by the early nineteenth century, religion was beginning to play a dual role in both justifying slavery and condemning it. The patterns of proslavery Christianity and abolitionist Christianity that are so familiar to scholars of the antebellum South have their origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In looking at early literature about key passages of Genesis, Goetz finds that “in debates over the construction of Noachic genealogies, Europeans began to define human difference as sanctioned by scripture, even as the Bible seemed also to point to the common ancestry” of Europeans, Indians and Africans.

Goetz calls for more exploration of the colonial era interaction of religion with the developing concept of race, especially how "Christian belief and biblical exegesis simultaneously resisted and reinforced the emergence of race." Colin Kidd's book The Forging of Races emphasizes the "resisted" part, while Goetz's dissertation and forthcoming book stresses the "reinforced" part. At any rate, seventeenth-century folk, it would appear, were far more self-conscious in thinking through the "unthinking decision" than we have thought.


Rebecca said…
Harvey, you rock! I hadn't noticed you gave me such an awesome shout-out!