The Christian Origin of Racism: That Old Black Devil
by William Sierichs, Jr.
Racism is rooted in the founding Christian belief
that all non-Christians were servants/soldiers of Satan, the relentless
and cunning enemy of the Christian god and all morality (1 Cor.
10:20–21, Gal. 4:8–9, John 8:44 for examples). Christians considered
pagans who converted to be morally cleansed and “purified.”
Christians called pagans and Jews who rejected
conversion “obstinate,” “atheists,” and an “infection” in the
world, and treated them as a constant threat to Christian purity. This was
because on many occasions, Christians had turned to paganism or Judaism or
to “heresies” that had roots in pagan philosophies. Christians were
certain that pagans “knew” the truth of Christianity, but were so
hopelessly snared by Satan that they stubbornly rejected Christianity’s
summons (Rom. 1:18–20, for example).
By force or persuasion, Christians converted the
light-skinned pagans of Europe and northwestern Asia in a millennium of
expansion. In the 15th century, Christian explorers, merchants, and
settlers encountered new groups of dark-skinned pagans. Many Christians
initially were optimistic about converting them. For various reasons,
however, the new pagans proved highly resistant.
Christians had equated the color black with evil as
early as the second century. In Satan—The Early Christian Tradition,
historian Jeffrey Burton Russell said the second-century Epistle of
Barnabas portrayed a war between God and Satan, with clear choices. One
could follow a path to heaven, while a “road of darkness, under the
power of ‘the Black One,’ leads to ruin. The equation of evil,
darkness, and blackness, a source of later racial stereotypes, occurs here
for the first time in Christian literature. The immediate sources of
Barnabas’ use of the terms ‘black’ and ‘blackness’ are Jewish,
Ebonite, and Greek. Behind these is the Mazdaist idea of the darkness of
Ahriman, and behind Ahriman is the worldwide, almost universal, use of
blackness as a symbol of evil.”
Russell added that the Devil’s dark color
represented his lack of goodness and light, and did not have a racial
connection—he might be black but have European features.
Some Christians from an early period, however, did
depict Satan and his demons as African or in a context that linked black
skin to Satan. An influential 4th-century biography said Satan repeatedly
tempted the monk St. Anthony, who was living in the Egyptian desert, and
once “he appeared to Anthony like a black boy, taking a visible shape in
accordance with the colour of his mind. . . . .”
In a 7th-century biography of clergy in Merida,
Spain, a man had a vision in which he saw “some hideous and terrifying
Ethiopians, giants, most vile to behold in their darkness, so that from
their restless gaze and jet-black faces he was given to understand as he
saw them clearly that they were beyond doubt servants of hell.” A
similar linkage of the Devil to Africans also appeared in the “Passion
of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity.”
A popular medieval story, “The Voyage of St.
Brendan,” said the Devil once corrupted a monk. “. . . St. Brendan
witnessed the machinations of the evil one. He saw a little Ethiopian boy
holding out a silver necklace and juggling with it in front of the
monk,” who had stolen a necklace. Later, Brendan and other monks “see
a little Ethiopian boy pop out of the culprit’s breast and cry out:
‘Man of God, why are you expelling me from the home I have lived in
these past seven years? You are casting me off from my inheritance.’”
The eighth-century English historian Bede recounted a
story by King Coenred of Mercia who, on his deathbed, claimed that he had
been visited by “a horde of wicked spirits . . . then one, who from the
blackness of his dusky face and his exalted position seemed to be their
The 12th-century English historian Orderuc Vitalis
claimed St. Taurin battled demons in the 3rd-century French city of Evreux.
“After this Taurin entered the temple of Diana, and by the power of God
commanded the devil to come forth before the people. At the sight of him
the heathen populace trembled in fear. For he appeared to them clearly as
an Ethiopian, black as soot, with a flowing beard, breathing sparks of
fire from his mouth.”
So by the 16th century, when Martin Luther claimed
that Jews chose “to look into the devil’s black, dark, lying behind,
and worship his stench,” many of his readers likely pictured an African,
not just a generic demon.
Christians eventually turned to their scriptures to
“prove” Africans, American Indians, and Asians had dark skin from some
divine curse. Long before that, though, they had made a connection between
skin color, Satan worship, and a predisposition to immorality.
To be continued.
William Sierichs, Jr. is a copy editor on The Advocate in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana. This material is from a book he is writing, The Christian
Origin of Totalitarianism.