Due to the strong support provided for the African slave trade by many Christians, and the well known historical resistance of Christians in the Southern States of the USA to the abolition of slavery, Christianity has acquired an unfortunate reputation for sanctioning and even encouraging slavery. Whilst it is certainly true that Christians have been responsible throughout the centuries for sanctioning, encouraging, and even enforcing slavery, it is also true that there has existed at the same time a strong Christian resistance to slavery.
The following is a brief historical review of Christian opposition to slavery from the 1st to the 19th centuries. Much of the following material has been taken from Edward Roger’s comprehensive work ‘Slavery Illegality in All Ages and Nations‘ (1855).
1st-2nd centuries AD: Polycarp and Ignatius, Christian leaders, free their slaves
3rd century AD: Christians in Asia Minor ‘decried the lawfulness of it, denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection’ (following the commandments in the Old and New Testaments)
3rd century AD: Cyprian, bishop of Carthage condemned a local slaveholder in uncompromising terms, condemning slavery as incompatible with Christianity:
‘You, man of a day, expect from your slave obedience. Is he less a man than you? By birth he is your equal. He is endowed with the same organs, with the same reasoning soul, called to the same hopes, subject to the same laws of life in this and in the world to come. You subject him to your dominion. If he, as a man, disregard or forget your claim, what miseries you heap upon him. Impious master, pitiless despot! You spare neither blows nor whips, nor privations; you chastise him with hunger and thirst, you load him with chains, you incarcerate him within black walls; miserable man! While you thus maintain your despotism over a man, you are not willing to recognize the Master and Lord of all men.’
2nd-4th centuries AD: Christians throughout the empire regularly collect money and go to the slave markets, buying slaves and setting them free immediately afterwards
4th century AD: The emperor Constantine gives bishops the authority to free slaves and forbids the separation of families who are, but maintains the old Roman punishments against runaway slaves, as well as the punishments masters were permitted to inflict on their slaves