Defining the True Meaning of Racism:
The Law & Religion of Colonial America
Part I

Audra L. Savage

“Slave Ship: Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On” by J.M.W. Turner 1840 / Wikimedia / PD

This article is part of our “Race, Religion, and Law” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

This is the first installment of a three-part series that explores legal, religious, and racial dimensions of American slavery. Part I will explain some of the reasons why white Europeans selected Africans, out of all racial and ethnic groups, for forced, unpaid labor. Part II will then describe some of the ways Black people were used as tools to achieve the goals of white people. Part III will conclude with a description of the manner in which the personhood, humanity, and agency of Black people were ignored and denied. 


“Racism” and “racist” are common words in today’s vernacular; however, their meaning and use are often distorted, with each speaker attaching their own understanding to their significance. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides general definitions of “racism”: “(1) a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; or (2) a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles.” While this definition is adequate, racism has a more particular meaning in the context of this country’s original sin―slavery.

Racism, in the historical American context, is the use of Black people to achieve the goals of white people without respect to the personhood, humanity, and agency of Blacks. This definition is created by considering the condition of Black Americans from the time they were first introduced to America until the drafting of the Constitution (and then well beyond into the 21st century), which was shaped by the twin institutions of law and religion in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Black Skin

The first group of Africans arrived in America in the Virginia colony in 1619 and were originally slaves on a Spanish ship when the Dutch encountered them. Africans then began entering the new British colonies. As the population of Africans grew during those early years, Africans and those descended from Africans in the colonies could be free, work as indentured servants, or work as slaves, or some mixture of the three. Although there may have been a diversity in status, one thing remained constant for all Africans and those descended from Africans: they were marked for difference.

“Slaves working in 17th-century Virginia,” 1670 / Wikimedia / PD

Two early cases in Virginia demonstrate the beginning of singling Blacks out from the general population. In one case known as Re Davis, a white man was ordered to be whipped before an assembly of Blacks in 1630 for defiling his body with “the shame of Christianity” by having sexual relations with a Black person. Not only is it notable that there was dishonor and shame by lying with a Black person, but also it is the first time in recorded legal history in Virginia that the word “negro” is used, demonstrating the beginning of singling Blacks out from the population. In the next case known as Re Sweat, ten years after Re Davis, a white man was ordered to do penance in church for getting a Black woman pregnant, and the Black woman was ordered to be whipped. In both cases, there was punishment for whites interacting with Blacks.

Religion also singled out the African and African descendent for difference. Initially in the early colonies, slavery was a condition reserved solely for people who were not Christian. In parallel with the principle that Christians do not enslave other Christians was the belief that God created inequality, and therefore God made people in different stations and situations in life. Taken together, these doctrines endorsed the idea that slavery was morally acceptable provided that whites did not enslave other Christians (i.e. whites). This required English enslavers to view their targets as individuals and groups not possessing religion and therefore worthy of forced labor.

By the 16th century, not only did the English encounter Africans as a group with dark skin, but they were people with dark skin and no religion. The effect of this combination would cement the perspective of whites against Black people: that the latter were “heathens” and “savages.”

Upon encountering Africans in Africa, one aspect of culture that was noticed immediately was the lack of religion (or at least a religion discernible to the English). By the 16th century, not only did the English encounter Africans as a group with dark skin, but they were people with dark skin and no religion. The effect of this combination would cement the perspective of whites against Black people: that the latter were “heathens” and “savages.” The English were not outright denying Africans had no religion―instead they denigrated their pagan religion as it did not conform to the Protestant norm. This undergirded one particularly popular argument in defense of slavery as the benefit of bringing heathen Africans to America in order to expose them to Christianity. In essence, slavery was necessary in order to save their soul. 

Laws regarding Africans articulated and enforced the religious understanding of Black skin. By the middle of the 17th century, it was clear that there was a systematic legislative agenda to transition the status of Blacks from servitude to slavery throughout the colonies. This transition never occurred with white indentured servants. The first part of the transition was to define slaves as Africans and Native Americans. Laws clearly delineated the second aspect of the transition from servant to slave for the Black person: lifelong servitude. Another part of the transition was legally defining the status of a child born to a slave, leading to the adoption of partus sequitur ventrem, which meant the slave status followed the condition of the mother (thus reversing the patrilineal principle of the common law in favor of a principle from the foreign civil law system). If the traditional patrilineal principle were followed, thousands of Black and mulatto children would have been free. By changing the principle to partus sequitir ventrem, a slave owner gained an economic advantage―his illicit children would be slaves, thereby eliminating the cost of purchasing an infant slave. Soon after, the law guaranteed the perpetual enslavement of Africans by mandating that baptism does not equal emancipation for slaves. 

The adoption of partus sequitur ventrem … meant the slave status followed the condition of the mother (thus reversing the patrilineal principle of the common law in favor of a principle from the foreign civil law system).

Within a few short decades, the law acknowledged the connection of slavery with Black people, and more importantly, it disconnected the bond between enslavement and heathenism. It mattered not whether the African/African-American was or became a Christian; they were seen as part of the slave class, a status that meant―in most cases―perpetual, hereditary bondage.

“Carl Linnaeus” by Alexander Roslin 1775 / Wikimedia / PD

Along with the Biblical and religious support for enslaving Blacks, there were secular (including scientific) reasons justifying slavery. In the 1730s, Carolus Linnaeus created the Systema naturae, a biological classification system for plants and animals. Although there was no hierarchical description of human beings per se, the Linnaean classification formed the basis for scientific racism against Blacks. He divided all humans into six types, four defined primarily by color. The African classification was described as ugly, lazy, moody and unpredictable, while the European one was described as having beauty, creativity and order.

The Linnaean classification fit nicely into the older concept of the Great Chain of Being. This concept, tracing back to antiquity, created a hierarchy of life from rocks to animals to humans to angels. Using the Linnaean classification with the Chain, human types were reordered with results that were not surprising. The Hottentot peoples of South Africa were the lowest humans, just above the apes, with Europeans being the highest human form, directly below the angels.

This field of dubious science was joined in the 18th century by anthropologists and amateur scientists, like Johann Bluenbach, who linked physical characteristics with intellectual ones, thereby creating an even more prejudiced classification.

The inferiority of Africans translated into laws against manumission in Virginia in the late 17th century. An act in 1691 prohibited setting Blacks free unless the owner paid for the slave to leave the country within six months of releasing them from slavery. A similar law was repeated in 1723, but this time manumission was only allowed upon approval by the governor and council, who would then grant a license. It was undesirable to have the intermingling of Blacks with whites once they were freed―this shows racist attitudes had hardened by the turn of the 18th century. 

The Black skin of the African marked them as different, special, and set apart, but not in an advantageous way. Instead, their skin color designated them for perpetual slavery and allowed early Americans to rationalize and justify their enslavement based on certain proposed properties related to this color. Enslaving the Africans was just the beginning. Their history in America shows their bodies and souls would be used for much more.

Further Reading

Finkelman, Paul. “The Centrality of the Peculiar Institution in American Legal Development.” 68 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 1009 (1993). 

Frey, Sylvia R., and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. 

Higginbotham, A. Leon. In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 

Kidd, Thomas. “Protestant Evangelicalism in Eighteenth-Century America.” 1 The Cambridge History of Religions in America (Volume I: Pre-Columbian Times to 1790). Stephen J. Stein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 

Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 

Wiecek, William M. “The Origins of the Law of Slavery in British North America.” 27 Cardozo L. Rev. 1711 (1996).

Audra L. Savage, SJD is Senior Lecturer and Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University School of Law and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, as well as a McDonald Distinguished Fellow.  Her work examines the law’s effect on the rights of racial and religious minorities, engaging several different fields of study.

Recommended Citation

Savage, Audra L. “Defining the True Meaning of Racism: The Law & Religion of Colonial America – Part I.” Canopy Forum, March 25, 2020.