The Gospel Coalition


The Baptism of Early Virginia

Rebecca Anne Goetz | Review by: Thabiti Anyabwile

Rebecca Anna Goetz. The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. 240 pp. $55.00.

In The Baptism of Early Virginia, Rebecca Anne Goetz retraces the theological and legal steps taken to create “race” in 17th-century Virginia. Using court records, journals, and other original sources, Goetz, professor of history at Rice University in Houston, tells the story of early colonization in Virginia­—a story of ethnic contact, trade, war, and religion. At the heart of The Baptism of Early Virginia is an effort to show how the Anglican Church and English settlers forged a new set of social identities and relationships to justify both English privilege and also the subjugation of Africans and Indians.

Goetz argues we owe our modern understanding of “race” to the early Anglican notion of “hereditary heathenism—the notion that Indians and Africans could never become Christian” (3). “Hereditary heathenism” assumed that the spiritual state of Africans and Indians was an inherited trait associated with factors like skin color and ideological notions of “civilization.” “Making race was a process,” Goetz explains, born out of complex interactions between laws passed by the nascent planter elite and the practice of everyday life” (6). She continues:

Not only did they [English settlers] effectively reimagine what it meant to be Christian but they also invented an entirely new concept—what it meant to be “white.” In courtrooms and legislative chambers, in their homes and in their public spaces, and while at war with themselves and with Indians, Anglo-Virginians redefined the meaning of these words and created new racial categories. They increasingly connected physical differences such as skin color with a budding idea of hereditary heathenism. . . . As they began to think of Indians and Africans not as potential Christians but as people incapable of Christian conversion, Anglo-Virginians laid the foundations for an emergent idea of race and an ideology of racism. (2-3)

Overview: Creating 'Race' and 'Racism' in Six Easy Steps

We might read the six chapters of The Baptism of Early Virginia as an almost step-wise description of how “race” was made in the early colony.

Step 1: Twist the Scripture

Chapter 1, “English Christians among the Blackest of Nations,” recounts the developing theological and “scientific” debates about race. Early biblical tradition maintained that all humanity descended from the same original parents, Adam and Eve. But during the 17th century, new theories developed. While the settlers correctly rejected polygenesis, they erred in adopting curse of Ham mythology (from Genesis 9) to explain assumed biological and real cultural and religious differences among Indians and Africans.

This first step provided false but powerful theological grounds for a “racialized” worldview. Without this misstep, no traditional Christian anthropology could easily survive.

Step 2: Socially Categorize People as 'Other'

Chapter 2, “The Rise and Fall of the Anglo-Indian Christian Commonwealth,” retraces the failed English effort to convert and assimilate Indians into English society. There were some examples of conversion, intermarriage, and shared social space. Nonetheless, Goetz asserts, “Repression of Indians was the main mode of English engagement with native people around the Atlantic throughout the 1620s” and beyond (59). With theological justification in hand, English settlers defined Indians as “indissoluble other” and “unassimilable alien.”

Goetz helps us see how social space and social scripts reify perceived difference. “Race” and “racism” depend on xenophobia and the control of social boundaries. “Race” entrenches alien-ness in the social and religious conscience.

Step 3: Make It Law

Chapter 3, “Faith in the Blood,” chronicles English debates over intermarriage, lineage, heritable privileges, and “taints.” Would English-Indian or English-African marriages be valid? How would fornication across racial lines be punished? Should offspring from such unions be regarded as English or “other,” and what rights would they have? As Goetz puts it, “Christianity was a matter of lineage and blood as well as belief, and by the end of the century the English had condemned the offspring produced in a union of one Christian and one non-Christian to perpetual paganism” (62, italics added). In addition, “God had a Covenant with Christians, and that Covenant was passed from parent to offspring as a heritable privilege (or burden), and moreover, that Covenant was particular to English people” (63, italics added).

With “Christian” neatly identified as a synonym for “English,” religion and faith became property of one “race.” Making religion a property to be controlled rather than a rule to be obeyed furthered the ability of slaveowners to justify holding people as property. “Race” and “racism” were written into the legal framework of both colony and church. These 17th-century experiments would, of course, lay the groundwork for centuries of “racialized” law in the country.

Step 4: Neutralize Faith and Secularize 'Race'

Chapter 4, “Baptism and the Birth of Race,” takes a look at the way Anglo-Virginians and the Anglican Church extended or withheld baptism in keeping with the notion of hereditary heathenism. Virginia lawmakers passed a law in 1667 designed to encourage the evangelization of slaves while explicitly denying that Christian baptism in any way necessitated freeing slaves. Arguing baptism was “a crucial building block of English community,” Goetz shows how the sacrament was used to “cast suspicion on those who did not partake in the ritual” (89). Baptism became “a tool of conquest,” conferring “civilization” on some and denying it to others, particularly dark-skinned Africans and Indians.

Step 5: Privilege One 'Race'

Chapter 5, “Becoming Christian, Becoming White,” explores the way Anglo-Virginians used the law to protect the status and rights of whites while simultaneously denying any real rights to blacks except as property. Goetz avers, “Anglo-Virginian planters emphasized whiteness and Christianity as the two bonds that held English people together against Indians who threatened from without and enslaved people who threatened from within” (133).

The Baptism of Early Virginia helpfully illustrates how privilege always had “race” as its handmaiden. While we may debate the nature and extent of privilege today, Goetz weaves a tale that irrefutably shows that the creation and protection of privilege was the intent in early Virginia. “Race” served that intent.

Step 6: Keep Changing the Rules

Chapter 6, “The Children of Israel,” concludes the main body of the book. Goetz provides a helpful look at the ways enslaved African Americans and Indians reshaped Christianity to create space and resources for resistance and advocacy. Virginia’s experiment ended with new and entrenched categories of “race” and two significantly different streams of Christianity—black and white. The brief epilogue provides more attention to African American resistance and reformulations, surveying the abolitionist writing of Lemuel Haynes and drawing the reader’s attention to the continuing link between Christianity, “race,” the civil rights movement, and contemporary struggles.

These last two chapters show us “race” is not a static category. We imagine it to be as simple as skin color. But, in fact, from its inception “race” has been a shape-shifting idea, molded and redefined in efforts to keep some ethnic groups disenfranchised and others empowered. Consequently, some groups have been kept perpetually at the margins of society, with even their protests for inclusion further marking them out as “other” and “different.”

Five Responses

The Baptism of Early Virginia deserves and will repay careful reading. Goetz authors a smooth tale of colonization, ethnic relations and strife, slavery, church history and theology, and codification of law to form what we now take for granted: “race” and a “racialized” worldview. Any fan of early American history, church history, or race studies will profit immensely from this contribution.

The book achieves the historical and literary equivalent of time-lapse photography, showing in slow motion how a bedrock social construction came into being. In slowing down and detailing the story, Goetz provides us an opportunity to imagine our own creative response. Among the varied possible responses, five seem necessary:

1. We need to advance a new anthropology that takes seriously humanity’s kinship in Adam (Gen. 3:20; Acts 17:26) and the rejection of “race” and “racism”;

2. We need to challenge the abusive and disenfranchising actions of civil and ecclesiastical authority in the name of “race,” “culture,” or “civilization”;

3. We need to challenge the equating of “Christian” with one culture or one ethnicity;

4. We need to embrace and articulate union with Christ as a new spiritual ethnicity, a new people created by the cross; and,

5. We need to recognize the subtle and systemic nature of “race” and “racism” so that we might limit its reach and effects in this fallen world.

I’m thankful for this careful, scholarly, and readable treatment of the creation of “race.” And as a Christian, I’m thankful to see that the mantel of change falls to God’s people. May we take up the challenge with full faith.

Thabiti Anyabwile is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of numerous books, including The Decline of African American Theology, The Faithful PreacherWhat Is a Healthy Church Member?, The Gospel for MuslimsFinding Faithful Elders and Deacons, and The Life of God in the Soul of the Church.

blog comments powered by Disqus