Roots: A historical understanding of climate change denial, creationism and slavery – 1629-1775

What do black slavery, creationism and climate change denial all have in common?  In the US, at least, a biblical justification and a fascinating geographic overlap.  We look at the issues and then try to understand their historical roots, looking back to the early waves of British immigrants to the US between 1629-1775.

First, lets start with some geography.  The map below shows the pre Civil War split between slave states, in red, and free states plus free territories, in green. The brown territories were up for contention, with a leaning towards being slave states.  If the green territories became  free states, and the brown territories were not allowed to become slave states, the number of free states would exceed the slave states, enabling anti slavery laws to be passed.  This threat was the main driving force for southern secession  and thus the Civil War as the North tried to stop the South from seceding. 

It is worth reminding ourselves that at this point in time the Republicans were the party of the North and the more populated areas, as the map below shows, and that Republicans were anti slavery and Democrats were generally pro slavery.

The inversion of Republican / Democrat states did not happen until Kennedy (Massachusetts) and Johnson (Texas), who realised that his push for Civil Rights for African Americans would alienate the South and would result in the loss of the South for Democrats for a generation.  Johnson was right about losing the South, but wrong about how long it would take, as the 2008 Presidential election shows.  With exception of Florida, whose population is boosted by Democratic retirees fleeing the North for warmer weather, the map looks remarkably like that of the Free / Slave states above.

If you then look at a map of Baptists, who are more conservative Christians, as a percentage of all residents in 2000, you see an interesting overlap between Baptist church adherence and the South.  In addition, Lutherans and Mormons top up modern Republican states in Indiana, Utah, Arizona and North and South Dakota.

Understanding religious beliefs is important as the pre Civil War South maintained their belief that slavery was justified by the Bible, based on Genesis 9:25-27.  Noah’s son, Ham had seen “the nakedness of his father”, while Noah was passed out, drunk.  As a punishment for being humiliated by his son, Noah thought fit to curse Ham’s son, Canaan:

“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave’. “

Since Canaan supposedly then settled in Africa, African people’ dark skin became associated with Cannan’s curse.  Thus, since Noah, who was beloved by God, had cursed Canaan, and Canaan’s descendants were black slaves,  it was okay for Southern plantation owners to also own black slaves.  A perfectly logical conclusion.

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Evolution cant happen because the Earth is not old enough

This same Biblical logic is at work with creationism and why conservative Christians believe evolution cannot exist.  The main religious problem with evolution, if you set aside the fact that the Book of Genesis clearly states that Man was created at the same time as all of the beasts and thus fully formed and not evolved, is one of time.  Scientists say that evolutionary biology needs a very long time in order for it to work.

Early geological work in 19th Century Britain was highly controversial as it suggested the age of the Earth as being much longer than what Christian research had led everybody to believe: that God had created the Earth at 9am on the 23rd October 4004 BC.  Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was also radically opposed by leading minds in the late to mid 19th Century Britain as being preposterous as his evolutionary time frame required far longer than what was  deemed available.

Modern science, which is the bedrock of our industrial and medical society, has presented strong evidence that the Universe is over 14.6 billion years old, that the Earth is over 4.5 billion years old and that evolution is the foundation of all modern biology.  Conservative Christians, however, do not accept that the writings in a 3,000 year old religious document might be wrong.

Global warming wont destroy planet because God promised Noah

Can it be surprising then, when conservative Christians deny that climate change is taking place?  As with slavery and creationism, conservative Christians have solid Biblical justification for denying climate change.  The first good reason is that there are natural cycles and that God promised Noah not to flood the Earth again, as The Cornwall Alliance: For the Stewardship of Creation helpfully points out:

The natural cycles necessary for human and ecosystem thriving (summer and winter, planting and harvest, cold and heat, day and night) will continue as long as Heaven and Earth endure (Genesis 8:22), and (2) that flood waters will never again cover the Earth (Genesis 9:11– 12, 15–16; Psalm 104:9; Jeremiah 5:22).

In addition, in order for:

humanity to fulfill the stipulation of Genesis 1:28 to multiply and to fill, subdue, and rule the Earth—a stipulation repeated in God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1–17)

mankind cannot have a negative impact on the Earth as it would be contrary to God’s commandment.  Hence, there should be no concerns about overpopulation.  Finally, what God made during the creation of Earth was “good” (Genesis 1:31).  Thus to suggest that mankind can harm the planet that God has made “good” by doing what God has asked mankind to do (fill, subdue and rule the Earth (Genesis 1:28)) clearly cannot make sense. Population growth should be encouraged and the environment cannot be damaged.

This brings us to our next important question.

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Why is there a North South split in the United States?

Why are people in the Northern, more populated states, less likely to deny global warming is happening, less likely to believe in creationism and less likely to have supported slavery than people who live in the South? Surely they all came from pretty similar British stock.  The answer to that is “no” and at this point we turn to one of the finest books on early American history by David Hacket Fischer called Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: A Cultural History).  

Fischer does a comparative analysis of four major British settler groups in America and looks back to how they lived in Britain and how they brought their distinctive cultural and social values to the Americas.  The book is nearly a 1,000 pages long and a challenge to summarise.  However, the four waves of settlers are:

  1. Wave one,  to the North, consisted predominantly of the Puritans from East Anglia who settled in New England between 1629 and 1640, the years immediately preceding the English Civil War in which Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan army defeated and beheaded King Charles I.  This group was dominated by families who had higher levels of literacy and yeomanry than average and were very religious.  Socially, they were essentially the same class, with minor variations. While their strong religious beliefs could have kept them on the path of creationism and climate change denial, high levels of literacy and an emphasis on education (eg founding Harvard University in the US and Cambridge University educated in Britain) made them more receptive to the Enlightenment and concepts of science that were emerging in Britain.
  2. Wave two, to the South, consisted of the defeated (or soon to be defeated) supporters of the king and the (Anglican) Church of England, primarily from the south and west of England, who settled in the Chesapeake Bay regions of Virginia and Maryland between 1642 and 1675.  This group brought their concepts of social hierarchy and quasi Roman Catholicism.  Future settlers came from the same rich farm lands of England and were frequently the second sons of aristocrats who founded dynasties in America.  Washington, Jefferson and General Lee were all archetypes. The non elite typically came over as indentured servants, people who sold their labour in advance for long term contracts in return for the cost of transport to America.  Used to feudalism and semi feudalism back home, slavery as a concept was not hard to adopt when cotton farming made it particularly lucrative.  Educating black slaves was at times illegal.
  3. Wave three, to the North, was the migration of Quakers from the English midlands (and their religious kin from various German sects) who settled in the Delaware Valley (southeast Pennsylvania, west New Jersey, north Delaware) between 1675 and 1715. They were socially even more egalitarian than the Puritans. Formal schooling was important.  Many of them founded businesses with a social contract, both in Britain and in America.  Pacifist in nature (Pennsylvania was one of the last states to vote for independence prior to the Revolution) their views became very dominant in the anti slavery movement of the 1800s and women’s rights at the end of the 19th / early 20th centuries.  American idealism comes from this group.
  4. Wave four, to the South, were the “Scotch-Irish”, referring collectively to immigrants from the north of England, lowland Scotland, and Ulster who settled the Appalachian backcountry from Pennsylvania southwest through Virginia, the Carolinas, and into Tennessee and Kentucky from 1717 to 1775.  They were less homogenous in religion than the prior waves.   The Scotch-Irish were a mixture of Presbyterians, the dominant group, and Anglicans, a significant minority.  Their home territories were the least developed in Britain and historic blood feuding between massively extended family networks were not uncommon (and reprisals there were a key feature of the War of Independence).  One of their key characteristics was wanting to be left alone by government and they had strong views about the rights of States vs the US Federal government.

New, non British, immigration has made significant changes to societies since the initial British migratory waves.  Catholics from Ireland, Poland and Italy, accompanied by Christian Orthodox from eastern Europe and Russia, settled heavily in the North East.

However, the establishment of an industrial, egalitarian, educated class in the North and a more rural, less equal and less educated class in the South had already formed the bedrock of their respective societies.

It is by understanding our history that we can best understand the present.  By understanding the present we are able to understand how our societies will develop in the future.

This is what History, Future. Now. is all about.


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