The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
‘Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for[a] Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.’
After the flood Noah lived for three hundred and fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.
Slavery is not necessarily associated with skin colour. Slaves in ancient Rome were descended from conquered peoples or had incurred unrepayable debt. They could be highly educated and successful business people. Neither Ham nor his son Canaan are ever stated in the Bible to be black or brown (the supposed link between Ham’s name and those colours is a mistaken etymology).
Nevertheless, when it became economically convenient for the British empire to enslave black people, this passage was quarried to provide a justification for their enslavement. Unsurprisingly, this pernicious interpretation was never adopted by African Christians, such as the Coptic Church. Some white Christians also, including many of the missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS), stood out against it.
Too many, however, found it convincing – and pointed out that the Bible never condemns slavery (we will question this on Saturday). Christians and churches believed they could proclaim the Gospel while also owning slaves. In 2021, the Council for World Mission (successor of LMS) held an “Act of Repentance and Apology” to acknowledge past profits from slavery. In January 2023, the Church of England established a £100m fund as part reparation for its previous involvement with the slave trade. It is calculated, however, that the true profit would be closer to £1.3bn – and the fund will be controlled by the Church Commissioners rather than by the descendants of slaves.
The Windrush 75th anniversary reminded us that when some of the supposed “descendants of Ham” turned up in British churches, of all denominations, in the 1940s and 50s, this was too much to stomach for many in their white congregations. The subsequent growth in numbers and vibrancy of Black majority churches in the UK while ‘traditional’ churches decline may be seen as God’s judgement on colonial theology and lack of welcome.
Loving God, who made people of all colours and ethnicities in your own image, we thank you for the witness to the gospel of love by Christians of colour in the UK and across the world. We thank you also for those white Christians in Britain and elsewhere who rejected the false theology of domination and saw Your image in everyone. May we do the same. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is the Policy Officer for Cytûn: Churches Together in Wales and a member of Parkminster URC