W.A. Criswell and the “Curse of Ham”


Recently, Southern Baptist Pastor Dwight McKissic published an article, “A Road Map on Race: After Phoenix ’17 and the Alt-Right Resolution”.

W._A._Criswell_by_Blair_Buswell_1993_Criswell_College_Dallas_Texas

In it, he proposed that the SBC adopt a resolution to renounce the Curse of Ham theology— a false doctrine that was used to justify slavery.

On one SBC forum, I was surprised to see that many were questioning whether the Curse of Ham was ever really taught in the SBC. Here are some highlights from the comment section:

“Of course, I’ve read the Curse of Ham theology – but it was from the past, from the defenders of slavery. Or it was from extremists like KKK guys…”

“I am unaware of the curse of Ham being taught in any SBC institution or by any SBC professor or leader. If Mrs. criswell taught it years ago at least some valid evidence for such should be presented rather than unsubstantiated accusations. Wally had a racial epiphany along the way. I suspect she did also.”

“We seem to be arguing over a non-existent problem.”

“I HAVE YET TO SEE WHERE ANY OFFICIAL DOCUMENT OF THE SBC TAUGHT THE CURSE OF HAM THEORY, EVEN ONES FROM FOUNDERS OF THE SBC PRIOR TO CIVIL WAR.”

“This is one of the problems that arises out of our sacred church autonomy polity… Joe Blow at first Baptist Church so-and-so town can say or teach anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s official SPC position… And i’m just not sure it’s reasonable, feasible, or appropriate for the whole of the convention to apologize for every bit of stupidity that may or may not have been taught in a Sunday school class decades ago.”

“I have heard this from individuals (very rarely) but never in a church… Southern Baptist, Methodist or any other type.”

“Are any of the people/churches/groups cited as teaching the curse SBC?”

Pastor McKissic pointed out several examples and offshoots of this theology in SBC history. One of those examples was a tape recording he heard of W.A. Criswell’s wife teaching the Curse of Ham in her Sunday school class.

Even the validity of this example was called into question.The Curse of Ham 1

But Mrs. Criswell wasn’t the only one teaching this doctrine.

W.A. Criswell taught it too— from the pulpit and in the public square.

I thought this was common knowledge but did not see anyone address it in the comments, even though many were asking for proof. So for what it’s worth, here are some examples from an article in The Journal of Southern Religion.

“‘Never Had I Been So Blind’: W. A. Criswell’s ‘Change’ on Racial Segregation” gives three instances of Criswell promoting the Curse of Ham.

  1. In Criswell’s sermon “The Scarlett Thread”.
  2. In a 1958 baccalaureate address to the graduating seniors at W. W. Samuell High School. (Criswell chose the Curse of Ham as the theme, arguing that it justified segregation.)
  3. In the Criswell Study Bible, published in 1979 – after Criswell’s address to the SBC executive committee expressing his change of heart towards blacks.

 

The Scarlett Thread

Broadman Press published The Scarlett Thread in 1970 but edited out the reference to the Curse of Ham.

The scrubbed version is presented on www.wacriswell.com and by the Gospel Project.

 

“The sons of Japheth became what one would call the Aryans, the Indo-Europeans. The second son, Ham, became the father of the Canaanites, of the Egyptians, of the Africans, of the Philistines. The third, Shem, was the father of the Semites, the Elamites, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Syrians, the Hebrew families, the Arabians.”

But I also found the unscrubbed version buried in the archives.

“All the nations of the earth are divided into three parts; the sons of Noah were Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

The sons of Japheth are what you would call the Aryans, the Indo-Europeans, that great family to the north and to the west, of whom we here tonight are a part. God shall enlarge the tent of Japheth. Japheth is the great, multiplied wing of Noah’s family, Japheth.

The second: Ham. Ham is the father of the Canaanites, of the Egyptians, of the Africans, of the Philistines, and all of those people who live in Africa. And the Canaanites and the Philistines who were the enemies of the people of God, they are the children of Ham. And God said they should be a servant people.”

This quote is the Curse of Ham theology in a nutshell. Without apology, Criswell tells his segregated white church (historic FBC Dallas) that they are “sons of Japheth…what you would call Aryans”, and that “God shall enlarge the tent of Japheth.” He then explains that “Ham is the father…of the Africans…all of those people who live in Africa,” and that “God said they should be a servant people.”

 

W. W. Samuell High School Baccalaureate Address

The source for this cited in the JSR article is an “interview with Stanley Hauerwas, who was among the 1958 graduates that heard the speech.” (Hauerwas is still living; I’m sure that one of you SBC guys could give him a call and ask him about it yourself.)

 

The Criswell Study Bible

Excerpt from the Criswell Study Bible, courtesy W. A. Criswell Sermon Library.

“Although the reference to the curse of Ham was removed by the Broadman Press editors when his sermon on “The Scarlet Thread” was published in 1970, it reappeared in the notes to Genesis 9:25 of The Criswell Study Bible in 1979. Though he described “the curse of Canaan” as “more a word of prophecy than the pronouncement of a curse,” he still declared that the “degradation . . . of Ham will not be without influence on Canaan and his descendants.” It is clear then that even a decade after his views on race and the biblical support for segregation supposedly changed, Criswell continued to conjure up the spirits of white supremacy and implicitly endorsed the resulting racialized social arrangements.”

Journal of Southern Religion; Vol. X, 2007  |  Never Had I Been So Blind”: W. A. Criswell’s “Change” on Racial Segregation”  |  http://jsr.fsu.edu/Volume10/Freeman.pdf; Curtis W. Freeman 

 

The fact that the Curse of Ham was preached by this early leader of the conservative resurgence should lay to rest any question as to whether it was accepted in the SBC.

No, it didn’t make its way into the Baptist Faith & Message. But coming from one of the most respected leaders in SBC history, from the pulpit of historic megachurch First Baptist Dallas (which reached a membership of 28,000 under Criswell), one thing is sure.

It did make its way into the ears and hearts of many Southern Baptists.

 

________________________________________

SOURCES

  • Here are the sources cited in the Journal of Southern Religion.

Journal of Southern Religion; Vol. X, 2007  |  “Never Had I Been So Blind”: W. A. Criswell’s “Change” on Racial Segregation”  |  http://jsr.fsu.edu/Volume10/Freeman.pdf; Curtis W. Freeman

PAGE 22 Criswell preached the sermon “The Scarlet Thread Through The Bible”at First Baptist Dallas on December 31, 1961. (http://www.wacriswell.com/index.cfm/FuseAction/Search.Transcripts/sermon/1638.cfm) accessed March 3, 2007. W. A. Criswell, The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), 26. The Criswell Study Bible, notes on Gen 9:25 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Publishers, 1979), 19. Interview with Stanley Hauerwas, who was among the 1958 graduates that heard the speech.

  • Here is the magazine article pictured above that talks about the Curse of Ham, segregation, and Criswell.

Texas Monthly  |  October 1984  |  “The Politics of Armageddon”, pp. 242-244

 

________________________________________

*This article was amended on 11/28/17 to include a larger sample of the quote from “The Scarlett Thread”, commentary on Criswell’s identification of his congregation as “Aryan,” and a picture of the actual notes in the Criswell Study Bible.

________________________________________

*This article was amended on 5/6/18 to include a chain of communication with Sam Hull (below), director of the W.A. Criswell Sermon Library.

Mr. Hull originally commented on 10/5/17. He apologized for being less than polite, and expressed his desire to “provide an edited version of my response that is more irenic in tone.” I agreed to refrain from publishing the original comment and invited him to do so.

Mr. Hull provided a picture of the study notes from the Criswell Study Bible. The purpose was to show the full context of clips referenced in Curtis W. Freeman’s article.

As Mr. Hull’s 3/29/18 comment mischaracterized our discussion, I made the decision to publish his previous comments as well as our unedited email thread.

 

Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>

Confirmation of comments on “W.A. Criswell and the Curse of Ham”
6 messages

Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com> Tue, Oct 24, 2017 at 1:13 PM
To: Sam Hull <admin@wacriswell.com>

Mr. Hull,

My name is Monica Dennington. I’m writing to confirm that comments made on my blog, “W.A. Criswell and the Curse of Ham” were made by you.
The name on the account is Sam Hull, and the email address is the one listed for Criswell’s ministry, admin@wacriswell.com. However, there is no profile for the user. In addition, the IPS address is located in Oklahoma, which is different from the ministry address provided on wacriswell.com.
I’d like to confirm this is not a sock account before responding publicly.
The blog I’m referencing can be found at this link:
Thanks for your time.
In Christ,

Monica Dennington


Sam Hull <admin@wacriswell.com> Wed, Oct 25, 2017 at 9:14 AM
To: Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>

Hi Monica,

Yes – I am the author of the response to your blog post.  I should probably have phrased my remarks more politely, and I apologize for the tone in places; it is a little frustrating to see criticisms of Dr. Criswell posted without any contact with us to verify pertinent facts.  Again, in all of the archive material we possess, published and unpublished, going all the way back to Dr. Criswell’s days in seminary, we have nothing indicating that he ever believed, preached, or taught “the curse of Ham” in association with people of color.  There is no one more familiar with his work than I am, and in my 15-plus years at the Criswell Foundation working with these materials on a daily basis I have never run across a single note, paper, or sermon text that contain the phrase or even the idea.

The bottom line is simple: I am sure in the past there were pastors who, unfortunately and regrettably, preached the curse of Ham notion; but Dr. Criswell is not one of them.  If you decide to keep your article online, I can provide an edited version of my response that is more irenic in tone.  My suggestion would be to simply take it down, since I think you unknowingly included several errors of fact in it.

Thank you for your note.

In Christ,

Sam

Sam Hull

Director, W. A. Criswell Sermon Library


From: Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>
Sent: Tuesday, October 24, 2017 3:13:54 PM
To: Sam Hull
Subject: Confirmation of comments on “W.A. Criswell and the Curse of Ham”

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Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com> Wed, Oct 25, 2017 at 1:10 PM
To: Sam Hull <admin@wacriswell.com>

Hi Sam,

Thanks for your reply, and your apology. I happily accept and thank you for your time.
My only goal in this post is to speak to the facts, there is no other agenda. I’m happy to be in correspondence with you for that reason.
I would love to see the Criswell Bible notes in question. I have tried quite hard to find a copy of the first edition. World Cat says there are zero copies in Arizona libraries, and it’s considered to be a rare book on ebay. If you would like to take a picture of that particular page, I will amend my post to include it.
I do believe the source that I quoted is credible. However, the Criswell Bible quote from that source is only partial. If you feel the note in context says something different, I’m even more interested to see it.
I will answer your other concerns publicly so you have the opportunity to share your perspective on the post itself.
I look forward to hearing from you.
In Christ,

Monica Dennington

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Sam Hull <admin@wacriswell.com> Thu, Oct 26, 2017 at 11:10 AM
To: Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>

Hi Monica,

I appreciate you forgiving my bad manners 🙂    I took a picture of the Genesis 9 note as you suggested (page 19 in the CSB) and have included it here.  Let me know what you think.

A lot of people quote the Freeman article you referenced but they don’t always notice how much of it is more interpretation than actual fact.  A quick example (one of many) is on page 5 in the JSR, where he says:

Because of Criswell’s well-known record of support for segregation, his election as
president of the SBC seems strikingly incongruous with the convention’s approval of the progressive statement on race.
In reality Dr. Criswell did *not* have a “well-known record of support for segregation” in 1968.  He had been stung severely by the backlash from his 1956 remarks (which were a mistake by his own account even though he felt his point was misunderstood) and he made no further comment on the issue in public or from the pulpit for more than a decade afterward.  That is precisely why they were able to put him forward for the SBC presidency.  His relations with local black pastors in Dallas were excellent throughout the sixties, and those who knew him personally throughout the country supported his candidacy. It is a somewhat later example, but typical, if you listen to the tape of his address to the black pastor’s conference at Good St. Baptist Church in 1985 and their reception of him on that occasion:

I hope this material is helpful – let me know if there is anything else I can address.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Blessings in Christ,

Sam


From: Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>
Sent: Wednesday, October 25, 2017 3:10:55 PM
To: Sam Hull
Subject: Re: Confirmation of comments on “W.A. Criswell and the Curse of Ham”

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Sam Hull <admin@wacriswell.com> Thu, Oct 26, 2017 at 12:46 PM
To: Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>

Hi Monica,

Not to overdo things, but speaking of 1956, here is an interesting excerpt from a December sermon that year called “The Age of Redemption” that may help illuminate Dr. Criswell’s feelings:

—————

And in Africa this last Thursday morning, Dale Moore, once our young people’s leader – we sent her to Africa: gave her a check for $2,500 from us to buy a Jeep to help her in the jungles in Africa and bought her an outboard motor.  The only place by which she can get to her work is in a canoe – bought her an outboard motor for the little boat when she drives the Jeep to the edge of the river, then get in the boat and go to her missions station.  We bought her the Jeep, and we bought her the outboard motor and sent her away to Africa.

And just before, we sent out Dr. and Mrs. Wayne Logan from our church to Ibadan [Ibadan, Nigeria], the largest black native city in the world, but when you go over there and look at that work, bring tears to your eyes.  For every one Christian that we win, for every one Christian that we make, the Moslem is there making ten for our one – ten!  There are sections in Johannesburg, Africa that once were solidly Christian that are now solidly Moslem. And the day is soon coming, not a long way off – soon, immediate – the day is soon coming when Africa will be almost a solid Moslem continent.  And there is no fiercer antagonist of the Christian faith than the sons of Ishmael as he wars with Isaac and the children of God.

But I must haste.  This is also an age of grace.  Thank God the Holy Spirit is not yet withdrawn. He still is here.  This is the age of the open door.  This is the age of our greatest challenge and opportunity, and this is the age of our greatest response.  Wherever, wherever a man will stand up and faithfully, courageously preach the unsearchable riches of God in Christ Jesus, there God’s Spirit is outpoured and converts are made.

—————-

From these and many other remarks over the years, I personally have never gotten the sense that Dr. Criswell had a “curse of Ham” view anywhere in his thinking.  Attached are a couple of photos from 1970 taken during his second personal mission trip to Africa.  The first such visit was detailed in his 1951 book with Duke McCall titled Passport to the World.  He talks about both trips in this sermon: https://www.wacriswell.com/sermons/1971/new-drums-over-africa/

Thanks,

Sam


From: Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com>
Sent: Wednesday, October 25, 2017 3:10:55 PM
To: Sam Hull
Subject: Re: Confirmation of comments on “W.A. Criswell and the Curse of Ham”

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Monica Dennington <monicadennington@gmail.com> Thu, Oct 26, 2017 at 2:19 PM
To: Sam Hull <admin@wacriswell.com>

Hi Sam,

Thanks for providing the Criswell Bible Study notes, extremely helpful.
I’m looking over the other materials you sent. Though the scope of my post is limited to establishing that the Curse of Ham theology was present in mainstream Southern Baptist circles, I understand that Mr. Freeman’s article brings up other issues concerning Dr. Criswell. I appreciate your desire that those issues be handled fairly.
No need to apologize for “overdoing” anything. You are an excellent resource and I’m grateful for your time and information.
Some of your statements are counter to other things I’ve read, so I will be revisiting those sources. I know I will have some questions, if you can find the time.
My schedule is full for the next two days, but I’ll have time on Saturday to work on this.
In the meantime, my door is open. Please send anything you wish.
Blessings In Christ,

Monica Dennington

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4 Responses to “W.A. Criswell and the “Curse of Ham””

  1. You greatly overstate your case. First of all, nothing was “scrubbed” from the Scarlet Thread sermon; there were hundreds of changes made by Zondervan from the raw transcript to finished book. The full unedited audio and transcript have never been “buried” in the archives; the sermon has been featured by name on the home page at wacriswell.com for fifteen years, and it is still easily accessible by simply typing Scarlet Thread into the search box. (The new website features video sermons, otherwise Scarlet Thread through the Bible and other audio-only sermons would still be directly linked.) Listen to the original audio; I believe you will find the statements made are consistent with any Bible you care to check. The word “curse” is not used. In fact, in over 4,125 sermons at wacriswell.com you will never find the phrase “curse of Ham” used, and it has never been editorially “scrubbed” from any of them. Second, you obviously failed to actually check the Criswell Study Bible notes on Genesis 9:18-25, which say nothing even remotely or indirectly about race; not to mention the fact that Dr. Criswell did not personally write the notes on Genesis in the first place. Third, there is no recording, transcript, or other documentary evidence of any kind for the supposed baccalaureate address in 1958, only hearsay from a single individual. In short, your claim that the “Curse of Ham was *preached* by this early leader of the conservative resurgence” is completely unsupported by fact. He never preached it in over 50 years of high-visibility, well-documented ministry.

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  2. Evidently my comments will be “awaiting moderation” until Jesus returns. If you don’t have the courage or integrity to post them, at least take down your inaccurate and unfair article.

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  3. Well, Monica – I am disappointed to see that you stand by the falsehood in your article that the Scarlet Thread transcript on our website was “scrubbed.” Dr. Criswell’s original 12/31/1961 three-part sermon text has been available complete and unaltered since the Library website launched in 2002, and you didn’t discover it “buried” anywhere – I sent you the link, and it is as easy to access as any other sermon in the library. For over fourteen years the “Scarlet Thread Through the Bible” has been prominently featured as a “Criswell Classic” on the site’s home page. For proof, check https://web.archive.org/web/20090716095814/http://wacriswell.com . Pull up any other date you like. “Buried” and “scrubbed” are slander, pure and simple, made worse because these are conscious lies directed at fellow believers which you are unwilling to retract, much less apologize for.

    Your reference to a so-called “scrubbed” version points to a completely different sermon with the same title delivered by Dr. Criswell 24 years later in 1995. It is clearly dated in the header and is manifestly NOT an edited copy of the 1961 sermon. Worse, you repeatedly put “Curse of Ham” in quotes when the phrase was never used by Dr. Criswell at any time, anywhere. How was it “edited out” by Broadman when it was never present to begin with? Because Freeman says so? Given your sloppy and indiscriminate use of sources it is little wonder there are so many other bogosities in that article and elsewhere on your site. I suppose sensationalism is a necessary card to play when truth is not your strong suit.

    I see you posted (without asking) my picture of the Study Bible note while failing to correct Freeman’s blatant distortion of it. Ever study the illegitimate use of ellipses? Monica Denning says, “When we sow a seed into God’s kingdom … the apostles teach us to look for a material harvest.” Really? That little gem is “buried” right here on your website.

    Don’t trouble to respond. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8

    Like

  4. Monica Dennington Reply May 6, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Sam, when I emailed you to confirm this was not a sock account and that you are indeed the director of the W. A. Criswell Sermon Library, you wrote, “I should probably have phrased my remarks more politely, and I apologize for the tone in places.” I accepted. You replied, “I appreciate you forgiving my bad manners :-)”

    We proceeded to have what I thought was a civil email conversation about your concerns. You provided a picture of the Criswell Study Bible notes to give full context to commentary quoted from Curtis Freeman’s article.

    On 11/1/17 you apologized for being less than polite and asked to “provide an edited version of my response that is more irenic in tone.” I agreed to refrain from publishing the original comment.

    I did not hear from you until you put in this last comment on 4/29/18.

    It seems your apology was insincere.

    Because you mischaracterized our conversation, I’m publishing all of your comments, as well as all of our email communications.

    I think they speak for themselves.

    Like

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