Cursed be Ham the Father of Canaan: From Myth to Reality
The story of the Curse of Ham in the early modern era began with a forger and ends with another ambitious cleric who didn’t forge but did falsify. Annius forged the Antiquities for personal gain and aspiration. His forgery was a stunning success that was quoted as an authority as late as the nineteenth century. In the 1750s, a social-climbing priest of the Church of England would pen one of the most important defenses of the Curse of Ham ever written. In doing so, Thomas Newton knowingly distorted sources. In what can only be regarded as an example of sheer audacity, he also disregarded more than two centuries of critical examination of biblical text sources while claiming to “correct the text, as we should any classic author in a like case.”1 When he had finished, he had made the case that the biblical text itself should be changed to read, “Cursed be Cham the Father of Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be.” His work was not the result of homiletical laziness the likes of which we saw popularize the direct curse upon Ham in earlier generations. He revised the story with purpose and forethought. Soon after the first edition of his Dissertations on the Prophecies appeared, Newton secured the type of post for which he had schemed much of his career and was elevated to the See of Bristol. In all editions after his elevation, his position as bishop is noted on the title page. The added prestige of an episcopal office conferred a new level of authority on Newton’s words. This helped elevate Newton
1 Thomas Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies, Which Have Remarkably Been
into “a useful weapon in the American struggle to justify the peculiar institution” of slavery.2 In fact, following Newton, the use of the Curse of Ham would become what Theodore Weld in 1837 called the “vade mecum of slaveholders, and they never venture abroad without it; it is a pocket-piece for sudden occasion, a keepsake to dote over, a charm to spell-bind opposition…”3 Unmasking the falsification of an argument is much like uncovering the workings of a crime – we must know something of the author, his method, and his motivation.