Christianity and Slavery

Christian views on slavery are varied both regionally and historically. In the early years of Christianity, slavery was a normal feature of the economy and society in the Roman Empire, and well into the Middle Ages and beyond.[1] Most Christian figures in that early period, such as Saint Augustine, supported continuing slavery whereas several figures such as Saint Patrick were opposed. Centuries later, as the abolition movement took shape across the globe, groups who advocated slavery's abolition used Christian teachings in support of their positions, using the 'spirit of Christianity', biblical verses against slavery, and textual argumentation.[2]

The issue of Christianity and slavery is one that has seen intense conflict. While Christian abolitionists were a principal force in the abolition of slavery, the Bible sanctioned the use of regulated slavery in the Old Testament and whether or not the New Testament condemned or sanctioned slavery has been disputed. Passages in the Bible have historically been used by both pro-slavery advocates and slavery abolitionists to support their respective views.

Biblical references

Main article: The Bible and slavery

The Bible uses the Hebrew term ebed to refer to slavery; however, ebed has a much wider meaning than the English term slavery, and in several circumstances it is more accurately translated into English as servant or hired worker.[3]

Old Testament

Historically, slavery was not just an Old Testament phenomenon. Slavery was practiced in every ancient culture: Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman and Israelite. Slavery was an integral part of ancient commerce, taxation, and temple religion.[4]

In the book of Genesis, Noah condemns Ham and his descendents to perpetual servitude: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers" (Gn 9:25). T. David Curp notes that this episode has been used to justify racialized slavery, since "Christians and even some Muslims eventually identified Ham's descendents as black Africans".[5] Anthony Pagden argued that "This reading of the Book of Genesis merged easily into a medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always depicted as black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African skull shapes, dental structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find an unassailable argument—rooted in whatever the most persuasive contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural science—why one part of the human race should live in perpetual indebtedness to another."[6]

The Canaanites settled in Palestine, rather than Africa, where Ham's other sons, Cush and Put, mostly likely settled. Noah's curse only applied to Canaan, and according to biblical commentator, Gleason L. Archer, this curse was fulfilled when Joshua conquered Palestine in 1400 B.C. The Canaanites were put under the subjection of the Israel people.[4]

Some forms of servitude, customary in ancient times, were condoned by the Torah.[7] Hebrew legislation maintained kinship rights (Exodus 21:3, 9, Leviticus 25:41, 47-49, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), marriage rights (Exodus 21:4, 10-11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage), personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of conduct (Exodus 21:8, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind, and Leviticus 25:39-41, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), freedom of movement, and access to liberty (Exodus 21:8, 11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Leviticus 25:40-45, 48, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants, and Deuteronomy 15:1, 12; 23:15, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind).

Hebrews could be punished if they beat a slave to death if they died immediately, though not if they lingered for a day or two,[8] and would have to let a slave go free if they destroyed a slave's eye or tooth,[9] force a slave to work on the Sabbath,[10] return an escaped slave of another people who had taken refuge among the Israelites,[11] or to slander a slave.[12] It was common for a person to voluntarily sell oneself into slavery for a fixed period of time either to pay off debts or to get food and shelter.[13] It was seen as legitimate to enslave captives obtained through warfare,[14] but not through kidnapping[15][16] for the purpose of enslaving them. Children could also be sold into debt bondage,[17] which was sometimes ordered by a court of law.[18][19][20]

The Bible does set minimum rules for the conditions under which slaves were to be kept. Slaves were to be treated as part of an extended family;[21] they were allowed to celebrate the Sukkot festival,[21] and expected to honor Shabbat.[22] Israelite slaves could not to be compelled to work with rigor,[23][24] and debtors who sold themselves as slaves to their creditors had to be treated the same as a hired servant.[25] If a master harmed a slave in one of the ways covered by the lex talionis, the slave was to be compensated by manumission;[26] if the slave died within 24 to 48 hours, it was to be avenged[27] (whether this refers to the death penalty[20][28] or not[29] is uncertain).

Israelite slaves were automatically manumitted after six years of work, and/or at the next Jubilee (occurring either every 49 or every 50 years, depending on interpretation), although the latter would not apply if the slave was owned by an Israelite and wasn't in debt bondage.[30] Slaves released automatically in their 7th year of service, which did not include female slaves,[31] or[32][33] did,[34] were to be given livestock, grain, and wine, as a parting gift[35] (possibly hung round their necks[20]). This 7th-year manumission could be voluntarily renounced (for example, the Bible says, if the slave wishes to stay with a wife that his owner gave to him), which would be signified, as in other Ancient Near Eastern nations,[36] by the slave gaining a ritual ear piercing;[37] after such renunciation, the individual was enslaved forever (and not released at the Jubilee).[38] Non-Israelite slaves could be enslaved indefinitely and were to be treated as inheritable property.[39]

New Testament

During the first century New Testament times, slaves converted to Christianity, were regarded as freedman brothers in Christ and included in Christ's kingdom inheritance.[4] These slaves were told to serve their masters as if they were serving Christ, with morals, faithfulness, and respectfullness (Ephesians 6:5-8 KJV).[4] Slaves were told by Paul the Apostle in his first Corinthian Epistle that they were to seek or purchase their freedom whenever possible. (I Corinthians 7:21 KJV) [4]

Avery Robert Dulles held the opinion that "Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution", and believes that the writers of the New Testament did not oppose slavery either.[40]

In several Pauline epistles, and the First Epistle of Peter, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, as to the Lord, and not to men.[41][42][43][44][45] Masters were also told to serve their slaves in the same way.[46] Slaves were told that their suffering was similar to the suffering that Christ endured.[47] Paul also puts forward that (NIV version) "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus",[48] suggesting that Christians take off these titles because they are now clothed in Christ.[49] The Epistle to Philemon has become an important text in regard to slavery, being used by pro-slavery advocates as well as by abolitionists.[50] In the epistle, Paul writes that he is returning Onesimus, a fugitive slave, back to his master Philemon. Paul also entreats Philemon to regard Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ.[51] Cardinal Dulles points out that, "while discreetly suggesting that he manumit Onesimus, [Paul] does not say that Philemon is morally obliged to free Onesimus and any other slaves he may have had."[40] He does, however, encourage Philemon to welcome Onesimus "not as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother".[52] According to tradition, Philemon did free Onesimus, and both were eventually recognized as saints by the Church. T. David Curp asserts that, "Given that the Church received Philemon as inspired Scripture, Paul's ambiguity effectively blocked the early Fathers of the Church from denouncing slavery outright." Curp points out that St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on Philemon, considers Paul's sending Onesimus back to his master a sign that slavery should not be abolished.[5]

In the Epistle of Paul to Titus, Paul appears to support the servitude of slaves: "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior." [53]

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul stated (here in the New American Standard Bible wording) that "Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called" while specifically adding that "Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that."[54]

History of institutional slavery

The Church initially accepted slavery as a social institution in antiquity and even into the Early Medieval period. Some Catholics such as Saint Bathilde, Saint Anskar, Saint Wulfstan and Saint Anselm campaigned against slavery and the slave trade. By the end of the Medieval period, enslavement of Christians had been largely abolished throughout Europe, although enslavement of non-Christians remained an open question. Although Catholic clergy, religious orders and even popes owned slaves, Catholic teaching began to turn towards the abolition of slavery beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. A number of Popes issued papal bulls condemning enslavement and mistreatment of Native Americans by Spanish and Portuguese colonials; however, these were largely ignored despite the threat of excommunication. In spite of a resounding condemnation of slavery by Pope Gregory XVI in his bull In Supremo Apostolatus issued in 1839, the American Catholic Church continued to support slaveholding interests until the abolition of slavery.[55] The Church has maintained its teaching against slavery and continues to campaign against it in whatever form it takes around the world.

Avery Cardinal Dulles makes the following observations about the Catholic Church and the institution of slavery

  1. For many centuries the Church was part of a slave-holding society.
  2. The popes themselves held slaves, including at times hundreds of Muslim captives to man their galleys.
  3. Throughout Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages, theologians generally followed St. Augustine in holding that although slavery was not written into the natural moral law it was not absolutely forbidden by that law.
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin were all Augustinian on this point. Although the subjection of one person to another was not part of the primary intention of the natural law, St. Thomas taught, it was appropriate and socially useful in a world impaired by original sin.
  5. No Father or Doctor of the Church was an unqualified abolitionist.
  6. No pope or council ever made a sweeping condemnation of slavery as such.
  7. But they constantly sought to alleviate the evils of slavery and repeatedly denounced the mass enslavement of conquered populations and the infamous slave trade, thereby undermining slavery at its sources.[56]

Slavery and Middle Ages serfdom were not synonymous, nor was serfdom the evolution of slavery. Serfs chose whom they married, they did not have their families broken up, they paid rent for their land and worked the land at their own pace. Under the agreement that serfs owed their lord a set amount of labor per year, it was agreed upon beforehand and looked similar to hired labor. Serfs rented land from lords, but feudalism was a mutual obligation, not brutal ownership. Lords also upheld their end of a contract to those renting their land.[57]

In the Roman Empire

Slavery was the bedrock of the Roman and World economy. Some estimate that the slave population in the 1st century constituted approximately one third of the total population.[58] An estimated one million slaves were owned by the richest five per cent of Roman citizens. Most slaves were employed in domestic service in households and likely had an easier life than slaves working the land, or in mines or on ships.[59] Slavery could be very cruel in the Roman Empire, and revolts severely punished, and professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways, with advertisements containing precise descriptions of fugitives being publicly posted and offering rewards.[60]

The Book of Acts refers to a synagogue of Libertines (Λιβερτίνων), in Jerusalem.[61] As a Latin term this would refer to freedmen, and it is therefore occasionally suggested that the Jews captured by Pompey, in 63 BC, gathered into a distinct group after their individual manumissions.[20] However, the Book of Acts was written in Greek, and the name appears in a list of five synagogues, the other four being named after cities or countries; for these reasons, its now more often suggested that this biblical reference is a typographical error for Libystines (Λιβυστίνων),[20] in reference to Libya (in other words, referring to Libyans).[62][63]

Christianity's changing view

Early Christian thought exhibited some signs of kindness towards slaves. Christianity recognised marriage of sorts among slaves,[64] freeing slaves was regarded as an act of charity,[65] and when slaves were buried in Christian cemeteries, the grave seldom included any indication that the person buried had been a slave.

Acts 4:32-4:33 in a sermon entitled, "Should we not make it a heaven on earth?", stated, "I will not speak of slaves, since at that time there was no such thing, but doubtless such as were slaves they set at liberty...

Nevertheless, early Christianity rarely criticised the actual institution of slavery. Though the Pentateuch gave protection to fugitive slaves,[66] the Roman church often condemned with anathema slaves who fled from their masters, and refused them Eucharistic communion.[67]

Since the Middle Ages, the Christian understanding of slavery has seen significant internal conflict and endured dramatic change. Nearly all Christian leaders before the late 17th century regarded slavery as consistent with Christian theology. For example, the Protestant Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned the Codrington Plantation, in Barbados, containing several hundred slaves; all slaves in the plantation were branded on their chests, using the traditional red hot iron, with the word Society, to signify their ownership by the Christian organisation - the Church of England has since apologised for the "sinfulness of our predecessors" with this instance in mind.[68][69] Today, nearly all Christians are united in the condemnation of modern slavery as wrong and contrary to God's will.

It is contended that as slavery fell into moral disfavor, some Biblical translations began to translate references to slavery using softer language, and often replacing the word 'slave' with the word 'servant.' Others say the word "slave" carried with it a different meaning at the time the Bible was written,[70] and that while the key aspect of slavery is ownership by another, sometimes "servant" better conveys to a contemporary audience what the text originally meant.[71]

Patristic era

In 340 the Synod of Gangra in Armenia, condemned certain Manicheans for a list of twenty practices including forbidding marriage, not eating meat, urging that slaves should liberate themselves, abandoning their families, asceticism and reviling married priests.[72] The later Council of Chalcedon, declared that the canons of the Synod of Gangra were ecumenical (in other words, they were viewed as conclusively representative of the wider church).

Several prominent early church fathers advocated slavery, either directly or indirectly. Augustine of Hippo, who renounced his former Manicheanism, argued that slavery was part of the mechanism to preserve the natural order of things.[73][74] John Chrysostom, while he described slavery as the fruit of covetousness, of extravagance, of insatiable greediness in his Epist. ad Ephes,[75] also argued that slaves should be resigned to their fate, as by obeying his master he is obeying God.[76]

Saint Patrick (415-493), himself a former slave, argued for the abolition of slavery, as had Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394), and Acacius of Amida (400-425). Origen (c.185-254) favoured the Jewish practice of freeing slaves after six years.[77][78] Saint Eligius (588-650) used his vast wealth to purchase British and Saxon slaves in groups of 50 and 100 in order to set them free.[79]

Middle Ages

During the Reconquista, captured Muslims were enslaved; in the 12th century, the Muslim slaves carried out the grand reconstruction of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that, although the subjection of one person to another (servitus) was not part of the primary intention of the natural law, it was appropriate and socially useful in a world impaired by original sin.[80]

"St Thomas Aquinas in mid-thirteenth century accepted the new Aristotelian view of slavery as well as the titles of slave ownership derived from Roman civil law, and attempted - without complete success - to reconcile them wit Christian patristic tradition. He takes the patristic theme ... that slavery exists is a consequence of original sin and says that it exists according to the "second intention" of nature; it would not have existed in the state of original innocence according to the "first intention" of nature; in this way he can explain the Aristotelian teaching that some people are slaves "by nature" like inanimate instruments, because of their personal sins; for since the slave cannot work for his own benefit slavery is necessarily a punishment. He accepts the symbiotic master-slave relationship as being mutually beneficial. There should be no punishment without some crime, so slavery as a penalty is a matter of positive law.[81] St Thomas' explanation continued to be expounded at least until the end of the 18th century." [82]

Jarrett asserts that Aquinas considered slavery as a result of sin and was justifiable for that reason.[83][84]

Christian abolitionism

Main article: Abolitionism

Although many abolitionists opposed slavery on purely philosophical reasons, anti-slavery movements attracted strong religious elements. Throughout Europe and the United States, Christians, usually from 'un-institutional' Christian faith movements, not directly connected with traditional state churches, or "non-conformist" believers within established churches, were to be found at the forefront of the abolitionist movements.[85][86]

Although not explicitly expressing an abolitionist point of view, the Portuguese Dominican Gaspar da Cruz in 1569 strongly criticized the Portuguese traffic in Chinese slaves, explaining that any arguments by the slave traders that they "legally" purchased already-enslaved children were bogus.[87]

In particular, the effects of the Second Great Awakening resulted in many evangelicals working to see the theoretical Christian view, that all people are essentially equal, made more of a practical reality. Freedom of expression within the Western world also helped in enabling opportunity to express their position. Prominent among these abolitionists was Parliamentarian William Wilberforce in England, who wrote in his diary when he was 28 that, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and Reformation of Morals."[88] With others he labored, despite determined opposition, to finally abolish the British slave trade. The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon had some of his sermons burned in America due to his censure of slavery, calling it "the foulest blot" and which "may have to be washed out in blood."[89] Methodist founder John Wesley denounced human bondage as "the sum of all villainies," and detailed its abuses.[90] In Georgia, primitive Methodists united with brethren elsewhere in condemning slavery. Many evangelical leaders in the United States such as Presbyterian Charles Finney and Theodore Weld, and women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (daughter of abolitionist Lyman Beecher) and Sojourner Truth motivated hearers to support abolition. Finney preached that slavery was a moral sin, and so supported its elimination. "I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it.[91] Repentance from slavery was required of souls, once enlightened of the subject, while continued support of the system incurred "the greatest guilt" upon them.[92]

Quakers in particular were early leaders in abolitionism. In 1688 Dutch Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, sent an antislavery petition to the Monthly Meeting of Quakers. By 1727 British Quakers had expressed their official disapproval of the slave trade.[93] Three Quaker abolitionists, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet, devoted their lives to the abolitionist effort from the 1730s to the 1760s, with Lay founding the Negro School in 1770, which would serve more than 250 pupils.[94] In June 1783 a petition from the London Yearly Meeting and signed by over 300 Quakers was presented to Parliament protesting the slave trade.[95]

In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, with 9 of the 12 founder members being Quakers. During the same year, William Wilberforce was persuaded to take up their cause; as an MP, Wilberforce was able to introduce a bill to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce first attempted to abolish the trade in 1791, but could only muster half the necessary votes; however, after transferring his support to the Whigs, it became an election issue. Abolitionist pressure had changed popular opinion, and in the 1806 election enough abolitionists entered parliament for Wilberforce to be able to see the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807. The Royal Navy subsequently declared that the slave trade was equal to piracy, the West Africa Squadron choosing to seize ships involved in the transfer of slaves and liberate the slaves on board, effectively crippling the transatlantic trade. Through abolitionist efforts, popular opinion continued to mount against slavery, and in 1833 slavery itself was outlawed throughout the British Empire - at that time containing roughly 1/6 of the world's population (rising to 1/4 towards the end of the century).

The abolition movement faced much opposition. Bertram Wyatt-Brown notes that the appearance of the Christian abolitionist movement "with its religious ideology alarmed newsmen, politicians, and ordinary citizens. They angrily predicted the endangerment of secular democracy, the mongrelization, as it was called, of white society, and the destruction of the federal union. Speakers at huge rallies and editors of conservative papers in the North denounced these newcomers to radical reform as the same old “church-and-state” zealots, who tried to shut down post offices, taverns, carriage companies, shops, and other public places on Sundays. Mob violence sometimes ensued." A postal campaign in 1835 by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AA-SS) - founded by African-American Presbyterian clergyman Theodore S. Wright - sent bundles of tracts and newspapers(over 100,000) to prominent clerical, legal, and political figures throughout the whole country, and culminated in massive demonstrations throughout the North and South.[96] In attempting to stop these mailings, New York Postmaster Samuel L.Gouverneur unsuccessfully requested the AA-SS to cease sending it to the South. He therefore decided that he would “aid in preserving the public peace” by refusing to allow the mails to carry abolition pamphlets to the South himself, with the new Postmaster General Amos Kendall affirming, even though he admitted he had no legal authority to do so.[97][98][99][100] This resulted in the AA-SS resorting to other and clandestine means of dissemination.

Despite such determined opposition, many Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian members freed their slaves and sponsored black congregations, in which many black ministers encouraged slaves to believe that freedom could be gained during their lifetime. After a great revival occurred in 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, American Methodists made anti-slavery sentiments a condition of church membership.[101] Abolitionist writings, such as "A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument" (1845) by George Bourne,[102] and "God Against Slavery" (1857) by George B. Cheever,[103] used the Bible, logic and reason extensively in contending against the institution of slavery, and in particular the chattel form of it as seen in the South.

Other Protestant missionaries of the Great Awakening initially opposed slavery in the South, but by the early decades of the 19th century, many Baptist and Methodist preachers in the South had come to an accommodation with it in order to evangelize the farmers and workers. Disagreements between the newer way of thinking and the old often created schisms within denominations at the time. Differences in views toward slavery resulted in the Baptist and Methodist churches dividing into regional associations by the beginning of the Civil War.[104]

Roman Catholic statements also became increasingly vehement against slavery during this era. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV condemned slavery generally. In 1815 Pope Pius VII demanded of the Congress of Vienna the suppression of the slave trade. In the Bull of Canonization of Peter Claver, one of the most illustrious adversaries of slavery, Pope Pius IX branded the "supreme villainy" (summum nefas) of the slave traders;[105]

In 1839 Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade in In Supremo Apostolatus;[106] and in 1888 Pope Leo XIII condemned slavery in In Plurimis.[107]

Roman Catholic efforts extended to the Americas. The Roman Catholic leader of the Irish in Ireland, Daniel O'Connell, supported the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and in America. With the black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond, and the temperance priest Theobold Mayhew, he organized a petition with 60,000 signatures urging the Irish of the United States to support abolition. O'Connell also spoke in the United States for abolition.

In 1917, the Roman Catholic Church's Canon Law was officially expanded to specify that "selling a human being into slavery or for any other evil purpose" is a crime.[108]

Opposition to abolitionism

Passages in the Bible on the use and regulation of slavery have been used throughout history as justification for the keeping of slaves, and for guidance in how it should be done. Therefore, when abolition was proposed, many Christians spoke vociferously against it, citing the Bible's acceptance of slavery as 'proof' that it was part of the normal condition. George Whitefield, famed for his sparking of the so-called Great Awakening of American evangelicalism, campaigned, in the Province of Georgia, for the legalisation of slavery;[109][110] slavery had been outlawed in Georgia, but it was legalised in 1751 due in large part to Whitefield's efforts.

In both Europe and the United States many Christians went further, arguing that slavery was actually justified by the words and doctrines of the Bible.

[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts - Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America [111]
Every hope of the existence of church and state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage - Robert Dabney, a prominent 19th century Southern Presbyterian pastor
... the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example - Richard Furman, President, South Carolina Baptist Convention[112][113]

In 1837, southerners in the Presbyterian denomination joined forces with conservative northerners to drive the antislavery New School Presbyterians out of the denomination. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into northern and southern wings over the issue of slavery. In 1845, the Baptists in the South formed the Southern Baptist Convention due to disputes with Northern Baptists over slavery and missions.[114]

Some members of fringe Christian groups like the Christian Identity movement, and the Ku Klux Klan (an organization dedicated to the "empowerment of the white race"), and Aryan Nations still argue that slavery is justified by Christian doctrine today.

Slavery in the Americas

The Christianisation of Europe in the Dark Ages saw the traditional slavery disappearing in Europe and being replaced with feudalism. But this consensus was broken in the slave states of the United States, where the justification switched from religion (the slaves are heathens) to race (Africans are the descendants of Ham); indeed, in 1667, Virginia's assembly enacted a bill declaring that baptism did not grant freedom to slaves. In contrast to the British colonies, following 1680, the Spanish government of Florida offered freedom to escaped slaves who made it into their territory and converted to Catholicism. This offer was repeated multiple times.[115] The opposition to the U.S. Civil Rights movement in the 20th century was founded in part on the same religious ideas that had been used to justify slavery in the 19th century.

Slavery was by no means relegated to the continental United States, as in addition to vast numbers of Native Americans slaves, it is estimated that for every slave who went to North America, South America imported nearly twelve slaves, with the West Indies importing over ten.[116] By 1570 56,000 inhabitants were of African origin in the Caribbean.[117]

The introduction of Catholic Spanish colonies to the Americas resulted in forced conversions, indentured servitude and even slavery to the indigenous peoples. Some Portuguese and Spanish explorers were quick to enslave the indigenous peoples encountered in the New World. The Papacy was firmly against this practice. In 1435 Pope Eugene IV issued an attack against slavery in the papal bull Sicut Dudum that included the excommunication of all those who engage in the slave trade. Later In the bull Sublimus Dei (1537), Pope Paul III forbade the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (called Indians of the West and the South) and all other people. Paul characterized enslavers as allies of the devil and declared attempts to justify such slavery "null and void."

...The exalted God loved the human race so much that He created man in such a condition that he was not only a sharer in good as are other creatures, but also that he would be able to reach and see face to face the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good ... Seeing this and envying it, the enemy of the human race, who always opposes all good men so that the race may perish, has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving word of God from being preached to the nations. He (Satan) has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians ... be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking the Catholic faith. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals ... by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples - even though they are outside the faith - ... should not be deprived of their liberty ... Rather they are to be able to use and enjoy this liberty and this ownership of property freely and licitly, and are not to be reduced to slavery ...[118]

Many Catholic priests worked against slavery, like Peter Claver and Jesuit priests of the Jesuit Reductions[119] in Brazil and Paraguay. Father Bartolomé de las Casas worked to protect Native Americans from slavery, and later Africans. The Haitian Revolution, which ended French colonial slavery in Haiti, was led by the devout Catholic ex-slave Toussaint L'Overture.

In 1810, a Mexican Catholic Priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who is also the Father of the Mexican nation, declared slavery abolished, but it wasn't official until the War of Independence finished.

In 1888 Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery completely, although in 1871 it had ensured that eventual result with the gradualist method of freeing in the womb.[120] See Abolition of slavery timeline for other dates.

Christian conversion and indigenous African religions

Slavery witnessed the lack of synchronization of Christian belief with folk religion of African origin. African-American slaves did not have any organized spirituality other than what they were taught. Slavery in the United States devastated traditional culture and religion among Africans. Slaves in the 18th century came from various African societies, cultures, and nations, such as the Igbo, Ashanti and Yoruba on the West African Coast. Consequently, slaves from differing ethnic groups displayed few commonalities. Africans were black, but did not experience a homogenous existence; they shared little of their traditional cultures and religions.

Ibo, Yoruba, and Ashanti religions did not survive the Middle Passage. The institution of slavery, and the influx of Christian conversions helped in eliminating traditional African religions in the United States.

While the existence of Christianity in Africa is so old that some describe it as an "indigenous, traditional and African religion," [121] it was a minority faith. In America, owners often resisted conversion of slaves to Christianity, fearing that if they saw themselves as spiritually equal then a movement for civil equality would follow, a fear which was not without substance. Others were persuaded by certain evangelists that allowing conversions would work to make better slaves. While this may have been the case, and southern slave owners saw no discrepancy between kidnapping and enslavement of Africans with their own Christian beliefs, yet Christian slaves and free blacks and the growing body of abolitionists realized that the religious principles practiced and believed by them conflicted with those who supported slavery.[122][123]

In addition, missionaries and clergymen wrote of the indifference of masters to their own religious welfare,[124] and some owners held that Negroes did not have souls. And although some others openly encouraged religious meetings among the slaves, yet the expression of their Christian faith was typically suppressed by owners. Former slave Wash Wilson recalled,

"When de niggers go round singin' 'Steal Away to Jesus,' dat mean dere gwine be a 'ligious meetin' dat night. De masters ... didn't like dem 'ligious meetin's so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. Sometimes us sing and pray all night."[125]

United States

For additional context, see Slavery in the United States

The first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, when a Dutch slave trader bartered his African 'cargo' for food. These Africans became indentured servants, possessing a legal position similar to many poor Englishmen.[126] It was not until around the 1680s that the popular idea of a racial-based slave system became reality.[127]

Additionally, "New World slavery was a unique conjunction of features. Its use of slaves was strikingly specialized as unfree labor-producing commodities, such as cotton and sugar, for a world market."[128] "By 1850 nearly two-thirds of the plantation slaves were engaged in the production of cotton...the South was totally transformed by the presences of slavery.[129]

For the most part, the Pilgrims who had settled at Plymouth Massachusetts in 1620 had servants and not slaves, meaning that after turning 25 years old most black servants were offered their freedom, which was a contractual arrangement similar to that of English apprenticeships.[130]

Opposition to slavery in the United States predates the nation's independence. As early as 1688, congregations of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) actively protested slavery. The Quaker Testimony of Equality would have an influence on slavery in Pennsylvania. However, at independence the nation adopted a Constitution which forbade states from liberating slaves who had fled from other states, and instructed them to return such fugitive slaves[131]

The rise of abolitionism in 19th century politics was mirrored in religious debate; slavery among Christians was generally dependent on the attitudes of the community they lived in. This was true in Protestant and Catholic churches.[132] Religious integrity affected the white slave-holding Christian population. Slaveholders, priests, and those tied to the Church undermined the beliefs of the millions of African-American converts.

As abolitionism gained popularity in the northern states, it strained relations between northern and southern churches. Northern preachers increasingly preached against slavery in the 1830s. In the 1840s, slavery began to divide denominations.[133] This, in turn, weakened social ties between the North and South, allowing the nation to become even more divided in the 1850s.[134][135]

The issue of slavery in the United States came to a conclusion with the American Civil War. Although the war began as a political struggle over the preservation of the nation, it took on religious overtones as southern preachers called for a defense of their homeland and northern abolitionists preached the good news of liberation for slaves. Gerrit Smith and William Lloyd Garrison abandoned pacifism, and Garrison changed the motto of The Liberator to Leviticus 25:10, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof." The YMCA joined with other societies to found the United States Christian Commission, with the goal of supporting Union soldiers, and churches collected $6 million for their cause.[136]

Harriet Tubman, considered by many to be a prophet due to her success as a liberator with the Underground Railroad, warned "God won't let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing" by emancipating slaves. Popular songs such as John Brown's Body (later The Battle Hymn of the Republic) contained verses which painted the northern war effort as a religious struggle to end slavery. Even Abraham Lincoln appealed to religious sentiments, suggesting in various speeches that God had brought on the war as punishment for slavery,[137] while acknowledging in his Inaugural Address that both sides "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

With the Union victory in the war and a constitutional ban on slavery, abolitionist Christians also declared a religious victory over their slave-holding brethren in the South. Southern religious leaders who had preached a message of divine protection were now left to reconsider their theology.


By the 1830s, tension had begun to mount between Northern and Southern Baptist churches. The support of Baptists in the South for slavery can be ascribed to economic and social reasons. However, Baptists in the North claimed that God would not "condone treating one race as superior to another". Southerners, on the other hand, held that God intended the races to be separate. Finally, around 1835, Southern states began complaining that they were being slighted in the allocation of funds for missionary work.

The break was triggered in 1844, when the Home Mission Society announced that a person could not be a missionary and still keep his slaves as property. Faced with this challenge, the Baptists in the south assembled in May 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, and organized the Southern Baptist Convention, which fully supported slavery (though later renounced it in the mid 20th Century).


Two slaveholding states, Maryland and Louisiana, had large contingents of Catholic residents; however both states had also the largest numbers of former slaves who were freed. Archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland John Carroll, had two black servants - one free and one a slave. The Society of Jesus in Maryland owned slaves who worked on the community's farms. The Jesuits began selling off their slaves in 1837. As Catholics only started to become a significant part of the US population in the 1840s with the arrival of poor Irish and southern Italian immigrants who congregated in urban (non-slave holding) environments, the overwhelming majority of slaveholders in the USA were the white elite (Protestants).

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued the Bull In Supremo Apostolatus. Its main focus was against slave trading, but it also clearly condemned racial slavery:

"[We]... admonish and adjure in the Lord all believers in Christ, of whatsoever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, Negroes, or other men of this sort; or to spoil them of their goods; or to reduce them to slavery; or to extend help or favour to others who perpetuate such things against them; or to excuse that inhuman trade by which Negroes, as if they were not men, but mere animals, howsoever reduced to slavery, are, without any distinction, contrary to the laws of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and doomed sometimes to the most severe and exhausting labours."[138]

Some American bishops misinterpreted In Supremo as condemning only the slave trade and not slavery itself. Bishop John England of Charleston actually wrote several letters to the Secretary of State under President Martin Van Buren explaining that the Pope, in In Supremo, did not condemn slavery but only the slave trade.[139]

Daniel O'Connell, the lawyer fighting for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, supported the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and in America. Garrison recruited him to the cause of American abolitionism. O'Connell, the black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond, and the temperance priest Theobold Mathew organized a petition with 60,000 signatures urging the Irish of the United States to support abolition. O'Connell also spoke in the United States for abolition. The Bishop of New York denounced O'Connell's petition as a forgery, and if genuine, an unwarranted foreign interference. The Bishop of Charleston declared that, while Catholic tradition opposed slave trading, it had nothing against slavery.

One outspoken critic of slavery, Archbishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote:

"When the slave power predominates, religion is nominal. There is no life in it. It is the hard-working laboring man who builds the church, the school house, the orphan asylum, not the slaveholder, as a general rule. Religion flourishes in a slave state only in proportion to its intimacy with a free state, or as it is adjacent to it."[140]

Between 1821 and 1836 when Mexico opened up its territory of Texas to American settlers, many of the settlers had problems bringing slaves into Catholic Mexico (which did not allow slavery).

During the Civil War, Bishop Patrick Neeson Lynch was named by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to be its delegate to the Holy See which maintained diplomatic relations in the name of the Papal States. Pope Pius IX, as had his predecessors, condemned chattel slavery. Despite Bishop Lynch's mission, and an earlier mission by A. Dudley Mann, the Vatican never recognized the Confederacy, and the Pope received Bishop Lynch only in his ecclesiastical capacity.[141]

William T. Sherman, a prominent General during the Civil War, freed many slaves during his campaigns. George Meade who defeated Confederacy General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, was a Catholic.


Methodists believed that the institution of slavery contradicted their strict morality and abolitionist principles. Methodists were long at the forefront of slavery opposition movements. The Christian denomination attempted to help slaves and subsequently freed blacks through philanthropic agencies such as the American Colonization Society and the Mission to the Slaves. It was during the 1780s that American Methodist preachers and religious leaders formally denounced African-American Slavery. The founder of Methodism, the Anglican priest John Wesley, believed that "slavery was one of the greatest evils that a Christian should fight". 18th-century and early 19th-century Methodists had anti-slavery sentiments, as well as the moral responsibility to bring an end to African-American Slavery. However in the United States some members of the Methodist Church owned slaves and the Methodist Church itself split on the issue in 1850, with the Southern Methodist churches actively supporting slavery until after the American civil War. Pressure from US Methodist churches in this period prevented some general condemnations of slavery by the worldwide church.

Following Emancipation, African-Americans believed that true freedom was to be found through the communal and nurturing aspects of the Church. The Methodist Church was at the forefront of freed-slave agency in the South. Denominations in the southern states included the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) churches. These institutions were led by blacks that explicitly resisted white charity, believing it would have displayed white supremacy to the black congregations. The AME, AMEZ, and African-American churches throughout the South provided social services such as ordained marriages, baptisms, funerals, communal support, and educational services. Education was highly regarded. Methodists taught former slaves how to read and write, consequently enriching a literate African-American society. Blacks were instructed through Biblical stories and passages. Church buildings became schoolhouses, and funds were raised for teachers and students.


Mormon scripture condemns slavery, teaching "it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another."(4 Nephi 1:3)

However, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, issued a number of conflicting statements regarding the church's position regarding slavery and the abolitionist movement.

Smith published an article in the Messenger and Advocate on April 1836, which became known as "The Prophet's Views on Abolition" as found in the History of the Church Volume 2 chapter 30. [2] Smith writes:

I am aware that many, who profess to preach the Gospel, complain against their brethren of the same faith, who reside in the South, and are ready to withdraw the hand of fellowship, because they will not renounce the principle of slavery...They advance in an opposition calculated to lay waste the fair states of the South, and let loose upon the world a community of people, who might, peradventure, overrun our country, and violate the most sacred principles of human society, chastity and virtue.

...I do not believe that the people of the North have any more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall.

After having expressed myself so freely upon this subject, I do not doubt, but those who have been forward in raising their voices against the South, will cry out against me as being uncharitable, unfeeling, unkind, and wholly unacquainted with the Gospel of Christ. It is my privilege then to name certain passages from the Bible, and examine the teachings of the ancients upon the matter as the fact is uncontrovertible that the first mention we have of slavery is found in the Holy Bible, pronounced by a man who was perfect in his generation, and walked with God. And so far from that prediction being averse to the mind of God, it remains as a lasting monument of the decree of Jehovah, to the shame and confusion of all who have cried out against the South, in consequence of their holding the sons of Ham in servitude. "And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." "Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant" (Gen. 9:25, 26).

...What could have been the design of the Almighty in this singular occurrence is not for me to say; but I can say, the curse is not yet taken off from the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great a power as caused it to come; and the people who interfere the least with the purposes of God in this matter, will come under the least condemnation before Him...

...Before closing this communication, I beg leave to drop a word to the traveling Elders. You know, brethren, that great responsibility rests upon you; and that you are accountable to God, for all you teach the world. In my opinion, you will do well to search the Book of Covenants, in which you will see the belief of the Church, concerning masters and servants. All men are to be taught to repent; but we have no right to interfere with slaves, contrary to the mind and will of their masters...

I do most sincerely hope that no one who is authorized from this Church to preach the Gospel, will so far depart from the Scriptures, as to be found stirring up strife and sedition against our brethren of the South...

/s/ Joseph Smith, Jun.

In 1832 Joseph Smith claimed to receive the following revelation from the Lord, "Verily, thus saith the Lord concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls; 2 And the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place. 3 For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States, and the Southern States will call on other nations, even the nation of Great Britain, as it is called, and they shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations; and then awar shall be poured out upon all nations. 4 And it shall come to pass, after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters, who shall be marshaled and disciplined for war." (D&C 87:1).

Some people consider that Smith got the timing wrong because in 1832 he said the war would "shortly come to pass." The Civil War started in 1861. Mormons respond that the war's start within 30 years falls within the period "shortly," especially given the long history of slavery.

In 1842, in another letter for publication, Smith wrote, "it makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people,"[142] but he continued to preach the importance of upholding the law of the land,[143] which included legalized slavery.

Smith would eventually argue that blacks should then be given equal employment opportunities as whites.[144] He believed that given equal chances as whites, blacks would be like whites.[145] In his personal journal, he wrote that the slaves owned by Mormons should be brought "into a free country and set ... free—Educate them and give them equal rights."[146] Later in his life, living in Illinois and running for the presidency of the United States, Smith wrote a political platform containing a plan to abolish slavery.[144]

Smith was killed in 1844. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, endorsed the doctrine that the curse of Cain was "the flat nose and black skin," and that blacks were further cursed to be "servant of servants" until that curse was removed (Journal of Discourses, 7:290).

By 1848, the LDS church instituted its "priesthood ban", wherein any Mormon with one black ancestor was barred from worshipping at the temple, and such males became ineligible for the priesthood (otherwise available to male Mormons beginning at age 12). That ban was not lifted until 1978.[147]

In June 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, the current president at the time of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after "supplicating the Lord for divine guidance" claimed to receive a revelation that "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."(D&C OD-2)

In a 1997 TV interview, President Gordon B. Hinckley said of the "priesthood ban", "No, I don't think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There's a reason for them."[148]

See also

Christianity portal


Further reading

  • Lossing, Benson J., LL.D. Matthew Brady's Illustrated History of the Civil War 1861-65 and the Causes That Led Up To the Great Conflict. Random House. ISBN 0-517-20974-8.
  • Lewis, Bernard (1992). Race and Slavery in the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505326-5.
  • Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861. ©1950, Charles Scribner's Sons. SBN 684-10416-4.
  • E. Wyn James, 'Welsh Ballads and American Slavery',[3] The Welsh Journal of Religious History, 2 (2007), pp. 59–86. ISSN 0967-3938.

External links

  • Louis W. Cable - SLAVERY and the BIBLE
  • African Holocaust
  • Christianity and Slavery
  • DeBow's Review (September 1850): "Slavery and the Bible"
  • Passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)
  • Christianity and slavery on
  • Bible "Contradiction" answers, # 30

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