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. 10:20â??21, Gal. 4:8â??9, John 8:44 for examples). Christians considered pagans who converted to be morally cleansed and â??purified.â??
Christians called pagans and Jews who rejected conversion â??obstinate,â?? â??atheists,â?? and an â??infectionâ?? 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 â??heresiesâ?? that had roots in pagan philosophies. Christians were certain that pagans â??knewâ?? the truth of Christianity, but were so hopelessly snared by Satan that they stubbornly rejected Christianityâ??s summons (Rom. 1:18â??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 Satanâ??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 â??road of darkness, under the power of â??the Black One,â?? 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 Barnabasâ?? use of the terms â??blackâ?? and â??blacknessâ?? 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.â??
Russell added that the Devilâ??s dark color represented his lack of goodness and light, and did not have a racial connectionâ??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 â??he appeared to Anthony like a black boy, taking a visible shape in accordance with the colour of his mind. . . . .â??
In a 7th-century biography of clergy in Merida, Spain, a man had a vision in which he saw â??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.â?? A similar linkage of the Devil to Africans also appeared in the â??Passion of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity.â??
A popular medieval story, â??The Voyage of St. Brendan,â?? said the Devil once corrupted a monk. â??. . . 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,â?? who had stolen a necklace. Later, Brendan and other monks â??see a little Ethiopian boy pop out of the culpritâ??s breast and cry out: â??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.â??â??
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 â??a horde of wicked spirits . . . then one, who from the blackness of his dusky face and his exalted position seemed to be their chief.â??
The 12th-century English historian Orderuc Vitalis claimed St. Taurin battled demons in the 3rd-century French city of Evreux. â??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.â??
So by the 16th century, when Martin Luther claimed that Jews chose â??to look into the devilâ??s black, dark, lying behind, and worship his stench,â?? many of his readers likely pictured an African, not just a generic demon.
Christians eventually turned to their scriptures to â??proveâ?? 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.