ONE LAST QUESTION CONCERNING THE NEW TESTAMENT APPROACH TO SLAVERY:
DID IT WORK?
In the last several articles of this series, we examined the New Testament and what its writers had to say about slavery. (See a list of past articles below.) But did the New Testament writers know what they were talking about? Did their guidance to slaves and slave-owners of their time end slavery in Rome? In fact, did the Christian way spread past the Roman Empire and end slavery in other cultures, even future ones, such as slavery in the United States?
As sociologist Rodney Stark writes in his book The Triumph of Christianity,
“All classical societies were slave societies – both Plato and Aristotle were slave-owners, as were most free residents of Greek city-states. In fact, all known societies above the very primitive level have been slave societies – even many of the Northwest American Indian tribes had slaves long before Columbus’s voyage. Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom.”
In another book, For the Glory of God, Stark writes, “[O]nly in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition” and, except for some Jewish sects, “Christian theology was unique in eventually developing an abolitionist perspective.”
SLAVERY: A UNIVERSAL HUMAN EVIL
All early civilizations, including Babylon, Egypt, China, and India, used slave labor extensively, but the Greeks and Romans were the first true slave societies. Major Roman markets were capable of handling 20,000 slaves a day.
No records exist of any protests against slavery in the ancient Middle East cultures like Babylon or Assyria. In fact, the Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.) says helping a slave to escape is punishable by death.
No famous Greek philosopher every condemned slavery. Aristotle argued that it was the slave’s nature to be a slave, and thus, it was to the benefit of both society and the slave for the slave to remain a slave. He argued that “a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore there can be no friendship with a slave as slave” (Nichomachean Ethics 8.11). Plato thought no differently, felt slaves should be treated harshly, and owned at least five slaves at the time of his death.
No record of any pagan Roman protest against slavery exists or any evidence of any move to eradicate slavery either. In fact, several histories point out that even the semi-successful famous slave revolt involving Spartacus never had ending slavery as a goal. Personal freedom was their goal; eradicating the institution of slavery was not even on their radar.
About 600 years after Christ, Mohammad bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves. Thus, long before European slave-trading in the Americas, Muslim slave-trading began. Slavery didn’t officially end in Muslim nations until recently (some only because of pressure by Western nations) and still continues “unofficially” in some.
Stark’s book, For the Glory of God, includes a photo taken in 1900 of a Muslim Moroccan merchant with his new African slave. At least 1.2 million slaves were transported into Muslim nations between 1800 and 1900. Saudi Arabia didn’t legally abolish slavery until 1962, and Mauritania didn’t abolish it until 1981!
Furthermore, Islamic and European slave-buyers were dependent on native African suppliers because “slavery and slave-trading were well established in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans.” Most, if not all, precolonial African societies had systems of slavery, and it continues in parts of Africa today, including in Sudan, Africa’s largest country.
Let’s not forget, some Native American cultures practiced slavery too.
Ethiopia had slavery until 1942; Peru until 1964; and India until 1976.
In modern thinking, abolitionism finds itself lacking champions too in the secular philosophies. Stark states a “virtual Who’s Who of ‘Enlightenment’ figures fully accepted slavery.” This includes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, who even “dismissed abolitionists as religious fanatics.”
So who were these “religious fanatics” fighting against slavery? And where in the world did they get such a crazy idea in a world where slavery was a normal part of almost all human civilizations?
The First Several Centuries
Steven Weinberg in “A Designer Universe?” wrote that Christianity “lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries.” Not exactly.
First, we have to remember that Christianity for its first 300 years until it was legalized by Emperor Constantine was an often-persecuted religious minority with no political power.
Once Constantine and Rome began to embrace Christian values and its high view of human life, things like gladiator fights and the common practice of abandoning for dead unwanted newborns soon disappeared. Likewise, slavery, a pillar of Roman civilization, eventually faded from Christendom and was replaced with the medieval feudal system.
It’s impossible to know how many, but Christian clergy in the early church were known for freeing slaves. Evidence shows that the early church, long before Constantine, considered slaves as equal worth to all people. The early church was know for baptizing slaves into Christ’s church.
The earliest known record about Christians by a Roman (Pliny, a pagan Roman senator, written in about 111 A.D.) tells of interrogating two slave women who were Christian deaconesses. This, along with the New Testament itself (as we’ve seen), shows that slaves (and women) have always been part of Christ’s church and even held positions of prominence within the church.
Augustine (354-430), who is still renowned today by Christians, wrote in his classic work The City of God (19.15) that slavery was the product of sin and opposed to God’s divine plan, and many of the clergy under him in Hippo freed their slaves. Chrysostom (349-407), another influential father of the early church, proclaimed that “in Christ Jesus there is no slave,” and he encouraged Christians to buy slaves, teach them a skill with which to support themselves, and then set them free (Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 10).
In the 400s, St. Patrick fought against slavery in Ireland. In the 600s, Saint Bathilda (wife of King Clovis II) campaigned to stop slave-trading and to free all slaves. In 851, Saint Anskar began efforts to stop the Viking slave trade.
The Anti-Slavery Popes
The great Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) pronounced slavery a sin, and a series of popes beginning in 1435 said the same thing. Sadly, biases against the Catholic Church by secularists and even Protestant Christian historians have ignored the fact that many popes were the first of influential Christians to take strong stands against slavery in official church documents. (As a Reformed Protestant, I’m no fan of the Catholic Church or the papacy, but let’s be fair; this is a matter of historic fact.)
Pope Paul III in 1537 made three major pronouncements (called “bulls”) against slavery, imposing excommunication for anyone involved in slavery. The popes were encouraged to stand against slavery by many Catholic missionaries who were witnessing the evils of slavery firsthand. Later, Pope Pius VII (1815) and Pope Gregory XVI (1839) demanded the end of the slave trade.
As Starks puts it: “The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard and most of them did not listen. In this era, popes had little or no influence over the Spanish and the Portuguese,” and if the pope had little influence in Europe, he had even less in the New World colonies. So, the problem wasn’t that the Catholic Church stayed silent; the problem was so-called Catholics weren’t listening.
In one case, Pope Urban VIII’s bull against slavery was read publicly by Jesuit priests in Rio de Janeiro and the pro-slavery locals in turn attacked the local Jesuit college and injured several priests. In Santos, a mob trampled a Jesuit for trying to publish the anti-slavery bull and the Jesuits were forced out of Sao Paulo all together.
It’s sadly ironic that once the Europeans became involved in slave-trading, the French and Spanish colonies gave slaves more rights and treated them much more humanely than the British because of their Catholic beliefs. It seems the French and Spanish allowed their religious convictions to have some superficial impact on their anti-biblical practice of slavery, where the Protestant British (and also the Dutch) shamefully ignored their supposed Christian faith all together and treated slaves harshly.
Sadly, there were prominent Christians throughout history that kept slaves and even approved of slavery, including Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Pope Paul III. So, we have to ask: Which group of Christians were influenced by their culture and which were influenced by God’s Word?
If you have been following this series, I think it’s clear God’s Word does not condone slavery. And where we’re not denying that those that called themselves Christians sometimes approved of slavery and even at times tried to use the Bible to justify slavery, history shows that Christians who faithfully studied God’s Word and tried their best to live accordingly fought against slavery (as we have seen and will see more as we continue).
In America: Quakers, Puritans & More
America’s first formal proclamation against slavery was written in 1688 by Franz Daniel Pastorius, a German immigrant, a lawyer, and a Mennonite. But the American abolitionist movement was really started by the Quakers at a yearly meeting in Philadelphia, prompted by the 1746 anti-slavery pamphlet by Quaker John Woolers. In it, he quotes Matthew 25:40 (And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’), saying to enslave anyone is to enslave Christ.
The following year, the Quakers published their own anti-slavery tracts, stating if you profit from slavery “the influence of the Holy Spirit is not the prevailing principle in you.” Shortly after, several Quaker meetings on the East Coast prohibited members from owning slaves under penalty of exclusion. The well-organized and influential Quakers were essential to the anti-slavery movement.
Further, in 1790, every state in the U.S. had slavery except Massachusetts and Maine because the Puritans had made it illegal in those states in 1771. On June 19, 1700, Samuel Sewall, a devout Puritan, had published the first abolitionist tract written in America, The Selling of Joseph.
Abolition groups and publications sprang up everywhere, all clearly connected to devout Christians and their biblical beliefs, including the American Anti-Slavery Society, which appointed traveling agents to specific territories. Fifty-two percent of the traveling agents were ordained ministers, and 75% of local agents were clergy. “Two-thirds of the abolitionists in the mid-1830s were Christian clergymen,” writes Alvin Schmidt in How Christianity Changed the World.
Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian clergyman, is considered the first martyr of the abolitionist movement, killed by pro-slavery rioters at his printing office in 1837. An ally of Lovejoy, Edward Beecher (another Presbyterian clergyman) was a promoter of abolition and the president of Illinois College, which allowed black students to attend. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is considered a major force leading to the Civil War. Stowe’s Christian faith is evident throughout the novel. Their father, Lyman Beecher, an evangelistic preacher, was also an influential Christian leader in the anti-slavery movement.
Finally, we can’t forget the huge contributions black churches gave to the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.
Sadly, major schisms occurred within Protestant denominations between anti-slavery and pro-slavery people. (This led to the founding of the very denomination I belong to, the Southern Baptists, who were, shamefully, pro-slavery and have since publicly repented of this clear sin.) Regardless, abolitionism spread throughout the North through Christian churches.
In Britain: More Quakers, Wesley & Of Course, Wilberforce
The American Quakers influenced their cousins in Britain, so the Quakers in Britain kicked off the anti-slavery movement there (though documents show a London church council condemning slavery as early as 1102.) With this, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, began a preaching campaign against slavery and wrote anti-slavery tracts.
Of course, the juggernaut of the abolition movement in Britain was William Wilberforce. A strong Christian, Wilberforce led the anti-slavery movement in the House of Commons. At the same time, Thomas Clarkson, another Christian, mobilized public opinion, started a petition campaign, and started calling on Parliament to end the slave trade. These petitions gave Wilberforce “powerful ammunition” in Parliament.
In 1791, on his deathbed, John Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be won out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Be not weary in well-doing.”
In 1807, a bill to abolish the slave trade throughout the British colonies was approved overwhelmingly in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons thanks to Wilberforce’s and Clarkson’s efforts. Then, in 1833, just a month after Wilberforce’s death, an act was passed ending slavery in all of the British empire.
Meanwhile, Methodists and Baptists continued to be heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement both in Britain and the U.S. Unfortunately, the violence against anti-slavery preachers caused some of them to quiet down.
Today, Christian groups like Christian Solidarity International buys slaves in Sudan and sets them free. Many Christian groups are also involved in fighting the underground slave trade (human trafficking), including within the U.S., such as Love True.
As I stated before, the question isn’t whether “Christians” supported slavery. There were certainly people who claimed to be Christian who supported and practiced slavery and probably even true Christians who allowed themselves to be influenced by things other than God’s Word. But the question is, Who was truly following their faith?
If I did my job well in this series, you would have seen that anyone who believes the Bible is the Word of God cannot condone slavery. While there has been Christians who have supported slavery, they have not done so consistently with their faith’s teachings. As this short history has shown, the Bible inspired Christians who worked to obey the God’s Word faithfully to become the essential force in ending slavery.
Stark writes, “The larger point is that the abolitionists, whether popes or evangelists, spoke almost exclusively in the language of Christian faith. And although many Southern clergy proposed theological defenses of slavery, pro-slavery rhetoric was overwhelmingly secular — references were made to ‘liberty’ and ‘states’ rights,’ not to ‘sin’ or ‘salvation.'”
Steven J. Keillor in his book This Rebellious House states, “Where [Christian] doctrine and economics conflicted, the [plantation owners] insisted that the church back down.”
I think it’s safe to say “Christian” slave-owners were influenced by money much more than their faith in Christ.
Stark goes on to point out that the Christian worldview was a “necessary basis” for the anti-slavery movement because “only those religious thinkers working within the Christian tradition were able to reach anti-slavery conclusions.”
NEXT: We wanted examine slavery and the Old Testament, but this series has already gone on much longer than we originally intended, so we will be taking a break from slavery for a time but we will return to address the Old Testament later. In the meantime, the first article of this series did address some of what the Old Testament says about slavery.
Slavery & the Bible GFTM Series…
Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency
Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal
Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image
Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt
Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses
Read Part 8: Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves?
Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.