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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Hereditary Heathenism


In The Baptism of Early Virginia, Rebecca Anne Goetz outlines conceptions of race in colonial Virginia, particularly the concept of “hereditary heathenism.” “Hereditary heathenism” posits that certain groups of people have “a hereditary inability to experience true Christian conversion” (Goetz 4). The earliest settlers did not apply this concept to Native Americans. Instead, they believed Indians “could be made to see the error of their ways and convert to the true faith” (14). They also identified the Indians as descendants of Noah’s son, Ham (21). As such, they “had once known God and…they could and should know God again” (22). Yet, as descendants of Ham, they also inherited the curse Noah placed on Ham’s son, Canaan, in Genesis 9 (27). After years of fierce tensions between the two communities and a lack of Indian conversions, settlers focused on the curse as “the Indians’ inherent unfitness for Christianity” (60). Virginia settlers applied this theological conclusion to laws regarding marriage and sexual relations. They prohibited sexual relations and marriage between the settlers and both Indians and Africans, particularly those who had not converted to Christianity to present “mixing [a] Christian body with a heathen one” (73). These laws, designed to prevent Christians from marrying those outside the faith, divided the faith communities across racial lines. "They also used religious criteria both to codify perceived differences between English bodies and African bodies and to judge the appropriateness of interracial sexual contact. In doing so, they automatically defined Africans as non-Christians, despite the fact that many Africans arrived in Virginia already Christian or shortly thereafter converted (79)."

The concept of hereditary heathenism stands against St. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 (NRSV): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In colonial Virginia, St. Paul might very well have said, “There is no longer English or Indian.” The testimony of the New Testament is that all stand equal before the cross and empty tomb of Christ, equally damnable and equally savable. The people of England, like the Jews before them, had no advantage before God. In the same way, the Indians, just like the Greeks, had no disadvantage before God when compared to the English. The earliest settlers, who believed Indians “had once known God and…they could and should know God again” (22), were far closer to the truth than their descendants.


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