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.

 

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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

 

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*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.

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