Slavery: divinely inspired and medically approved 

Since the first slave ships arrived in the English North American colonies in 1619, there have been numerous myths about the physiological, intellectual and emotional differences between black and white people. For example, it was routinely believed that blacks had larger sex organs and smaller skulls than whites, making black Africans significantly more promiscuous and less intelligent than Europeans. 

Writing for the New York Times 1619 Project (a collection of essays on the cultural, social, political and economic history of African Americans), journalist Linda Villarosa states that while many of these myths were used to justify human bondage, two are especially important: that black people were impervious to pain, and they had weak lungs. Buying into these myths allowed white people to enslave and brutally treat millions of black Africans with a guilt-free conscience. 

In a 1787 manual, “A Treatise on the Tropical Diseases; and on The Climate of the West Indies,” British physician Benjamin Mosely (1742-1819) noted, “what would be the cause of insupportable pain to a white man, a Negro could almost disregard.” To emphasize this point, Mosely stated, “I have amputated the legs of many Negroes who have held the upper part of the limb themselves.”

In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) stated there was “a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus” between black and white people, with blacks having deficient lung capacity. Villarosa states that over the years, “physicians and scientists embraced Jefferson’s unproven theories,” often suggesting that a cure for African lung deficiency was hard physical labor — a treatment that conformed nicely with slavery. 

Back-breaking slave labor in cotton, tobacco and rice fields could now be construed as a form of physical therapy, with the well-being of slaves in mind. Since blacks were believed to have a higher tolerance for heat than whites, toiling long hours in the hot sun would cause them minimal discomfort. And because blacks were thought to have a significantly higher tolerance for pain than white people, slaves could be whipped in the righteous belief their bleeding and mangled flesh (sometimes laced with salt) was not hurting them to any significant degree, despite the screams.

Samuel Cartwright (1793-1863), a physician at Louisiana University (now Tulane University), stated that slaves were prone to a disease of the mind he called “drapetomania,” a psychological  condition akin to madness. Slaves attempting to escape were not fleeing inhumane conditions; rather, black flight was a consequence of drapetomania, which Cartwright assured plantation owners could be cured by “whipping the devil” out of their slaves. From this perspective, beating men, women and children was not punishment but a necessary intervention for the good of all concerned. “Happy” slaves who knew — and accepted — their servitude and didn’t contemplate escape made for happy plantation owners. (Drapetomania was listed as a disease in some medical books as late as 1914). 

These pseudo-medical science explanations for black inferiority and human bondage were buttressed by Southern preachers who provided religious justifications for slavery. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school at Howard University, notes that “So much of early American Christianity is predicated on a pro-slavery theology. From the naming of slave ships, to the fact that much of American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined with slaveholding.” 

In an 1850s publication, “Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery,” Thornton Stringfellow (1788-1869), a Virginia preacher, stated that Jesus Christ recognized the institution of slavery “as one that was lawful among men. … I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; and second, I affirm, he has introduced no moral principal which can work its destruction.” For Stringfellow, the institution of slavery was in the best interest of black Africans and “full of mercy.”

Pro-slavery preachers viewed black servitude as God’s way of bringing heathen Africans to the new world and introducing them to Christianity — the one true path to eternal salvation.  Should this spiritual “carrot” prove to be less than convincing, slaves were told (the spiritual “stick”) that disobeying their earthly masters was the same as disobeying their heavenly father, and they would be punished accordingly. No doubt Colossians 3:22 was an often repeated passage: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only to please them while they are watching, but with sincerity of heart and fear of the Lord.”

New York Times religion reporter Felicia Lee states the belief that Africans were the descendants of Ham was “a primary justification for slavery among Southern Christians.” In the Bible, Ham discovers his father Noah drunk and naked in the older man’s tent, then informs his brothers — Shem and Japheth — who cover their father without gazing at him. When Noah learns what has transpired, he curses Ham’s son Canaan, proclaiming he will be “a servant of servants onto his brethren.” 

Although Noah and his family were not characterized in racial terms, Lee states that over the centuries Canaan came to be portrayed as black. It was at this point that “blackness, servitude and the idea of racial hierarchy became inextricably linked.” Middle Eastern historian Benjamin Braude of Boston College states that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Genesis account of Ham became a “foundation for a degradation myth in Europe and the Americas, trotted out as God’s reason for condemning generations of dark-skinned peoples from Africa to slavery.” 

In a widely distributed Thanksgiving sermon two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the Rev. Benjamin M. Palmer (1818-1902), pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, said that it was the South’s “providential trust … to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery … we are required, dogmatically to affirm that it will subsist through all time … this system of servitude underlies and supports our material interests … that our wealth consists in our lands and the serfs who till them.” No doubt with divine inspiration, the good reverend neatly joined  the South’s “providential trust” to its “material interests.”

Millions of people unequivocally accepted the interpretation of scripture related to them by clergy. If, as stated in the Bible, a clearly delineated group had been condemned to perpetual servitude, it must be true. Religion’s legitimization of human bondage, coupled with the bogus “science” of individuals such as Samuel Cartwright (“drapetomania”), gave Southerners — as well as a significant number of people in the North — a rock-solid justification for slavery and the horrors of that “peculiar institution.”

P.S. While the barbarous work of slavery took place in the South, many people in the North benefitted — and some grew rich — from human bondage. In their book, “Complicity: How the North, Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery,” journalist Anne Farrow and her colleagues state, “From seed to cloth, Northern merchants, shippers and financial institutions, many based in New York, controlled nearly every aspect of cotton production and trade.” 

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


“Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s ‘Thanksgiving Sermon’ November 29, 1860” (accessed 2020), Civil War Causes, www.civilwarcauses.com 

Braun, L. (2015) “Race, ethnicity and lung function: A brief history,” National Institutes of Health, www.ncbi.nim.hih.gov 

Cline, A. (March 25,2018) “Slavery and Racism in the Bible,” Learn Religion, www.learnreligion.com 

Dimuro, G. (2018) “Southerners Actually Thought Slaves Escaping Was a Sign of Mental Illness,” All That Is Interesting, www.allthatisinteresting.com 

Haynes, S. (2002) Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of Slavery, New York: Oxford University Press 

Lee, F. (Nov. 1, 2003) “From Noah’s Curse to Slavery’s Rationale,” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com  

Villarosa, L. (Aug. 14, 2019) “Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery — and are still believed by doctors today,” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com 

Zausmer, J. (April 30, 2019) “The Bible was used to justify slavery. Then Africans made it their path to freedom,” The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com 


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