Christians And Slavery (1/3)

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

4th century AD: Isidore of Pelusium writes to a slaveholder saying ‘I did not think that the man who loves Christ, and knows the grace which makes us all free, would still hold slaves

4th century AD: Ambrose, bishop of Milan, orders church property to be sold in order to raise funds to purchase and set free slaves:

‘The Lord will say to us, ‘why are so many unfortunate beings subject to slavery, even death, for want of being redeemed? Men are better worth preserving than metals.’

What have you to reply? Must we deprive the temples of their ornaments? But the Lord will say—’It is not necessary that the sacred things be clothed in gold.’

4th-5th century AD: Augustine teaches that Christian law forbids treating humans as property, and encourages freeing slaves as a religious virtue

506 AD: The Council of Agde commands that slaves made free by their masters should not be oppressed or taken advantage of, and that the church was to care for and protect them. Bishops were commanded to provide resources for those they freed:

‘7. Concerning slaves of the Church, if any bishop shall reasonably have bestowed liberty freely upon well-deserving cases, it is pleasing that the liberty conferred should be cared for by his successors, with whatever the manumitter conferred on them in granting liberty; yet nevertheless we order him to give them the sum of twenty solidi and to set bounds to their lands, little vineyards, or house.

Whatever was given above this the Church will revoke after the death of the manumitter. But little things, or things less useful to the Church, to pilgrims, or to the clergy, we permit to remain for their use, saving the right of the Church.’

’29. The Church shall take care of freedmen legitimately freed by their masters if necessity demands it; but if any one presume to plunder them or to oppress them before the hearing of their case, he shall be prevented by the Church.’

549 AD: The Fifth Council of Orleans forbids taking freed slaves back into custody, and commands that their rights as free men be protected:

‘7. And because on the suggestion of many we have found for a certainty that those, who were freed from slavery in the churches according to the custom of the country, have been recalled to slavery again on the whim of all kinds of people, we have deemed it impious that those who have been freed from the yoke of servitude in the Church out of consideration for God should be disregarded.

Therefore, because of its piety, it is pleasing to the common council that it be observed, that, whatever slaves be released from servitude by free masters, shall remain in that freedom which they then received from their lords. Also liberty of this kind, if it be questioned by any one shall be defended with justice by the churches, except for those faults for which the laws ordered revocation of the liberties conferred on slaves.’

The Council also commanded that those who had sold themselves into indentured service for a sum should be permitted to redeem themselves with the same sum. In addition, all children born to them by free men or women were also counted as free:

’14. Concerning freemen who sell themselves for money or other things, or who have pledged themselves, it is our pleasure that if they can find the price, as much as was given for them, when the price is given, they shall be restored to their former status without delay, nor shall more be required than was given for them. And meanwhile, if one of them shall have married a free wife, or if one of them, being a woman, shall have taken a freeman as husband, the children who are born of them shall remain free.’

However, the Council requred churches to return runaway slaves to their masters if the master gave an oath that the slave would not be mistreated. Non-Christian masters had to provide Christian witnesses to support their oath. Once the oath had been given, the slave was required to return to their master, regardless of whether or not the slave wished to go.

This was in direct contradiction to the Law of Moses, which forbade the return of runaway servants to their masters, and commanded that all servants who had left their masters were to be immediately considered free men, and permitted to live where they chose (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

5th-6th century AD: Remigius writes to the king of France, telling him ‘Let the gate of your palace be open to all, that every one may have recourse to you for justice. Employ your great revenues in redeeming slaves

5th-6th century AD: When Christians in Arles were being sold in the market as a result of being captured in recent wars, the bishop Caesarius stripped his church of its expensive silver plate and utensils, in order to purchase those who had been enslaved and set them free, saying ‘Our Lord celebrated his last supper in mean earthen dishes, not in [silver] plate, and we need not scruple to part with his vessels to ransom those he has redeemed with his life’

c.630 AD: Eligius, Bishop of Noyon, frees large numbers of slaves by purchasing them with church funds and then giving them their liberty:

‘Religious men from all parts came to him, foreigners also and monks, and in whatever way he could serve he would either give them the money or share the price of the captives; for he had the greatest enthusiasm for this kind of work.

Indeed, whenever he understood that a slave was being offered for sale, he hastened with the utmost speed in his mercy and immediately gave the price and freed the captive. Occasionally he redeemed from captivity at the same time as many as twenty, thirty, or even fifty; sometimes even the whole body of slaves up to a hundred souls, coming from various peoples, and of both sexes, he would free as they left the ship; there were Romans, Gauls, and Britons also, and men of Marseilles, but they were chiefly men of Saxony, who at that time in large numbers like flocks were expelled from their own lands and scattered in diderent countries.’

Monumenta Germaniae Historiae, Scriptores, Bruno Krusch, ed., (Hanover, 1902), Tome IV, p. 677; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 292-293.

633 AD: The Fourth Council of Toledo forbids Jews to keep Christian slaves (ordering slaves to be freed from all Jewish masters), required slaves freed by the church to remain Christians, and permitted freed slaves to take holy orders:

’66. By the decree of the most glorious prince this sacred council ordered that Jews should not be allowed to have Christian slaves nor to buy Christian slaves, nor to obtain them by the kindness of any one; for it is not right that the members of Christ should serve the ministers of Anti-Christ. But if henceforward Jews presume to have Christian slaves or handmaidens they shall be taken from their domination and shall go free.’

’70. Men freed by the Church (since the one who freed them will never die) must never withdraw from the Church’s patronage. Neither, indeed, must their posterity, according to the decrees of former canons. But lest perchance their freedom should not be apparent in their children, and lest their posterity should struggle against their natural state of being free, and remove themselves from the patronage of the Church, it is necessary that these same freedmen as well as their children should make a profession before their bishop, by which they acknowledge that from being slaves of the Church they have been made freedmen. And they must never leave the patronage of the Church, but let them rather, according to its value render submission or obedience to this patronage or protection.’

’73. Those who have been so freed by their masters, that the patron requires absolutely no submission from them-those, if they be free from all crime, may freely take clerical orders; for it is known that they are absolved by direct manumission. Those who are manumitted, yet owe some submission to their patron, for the reason that they are held subject by the patron in servitude, are positively not to be promoted to the ecclesiastical order, lest when the master so wishes slaves should be made from clerics.

74. Concerning the slaves of the Church, it is allowed to make them priests and deacons in parishes; nevertheless, let right living and honest habits commend them; also for that reason let them be previously manumitted and receive the full liberty of their new status, and at length let them succeed to ecclesiastical honors; for it is contrary to religion for those to remain subject to serfdom, who have received the dignity of holy orders. But whatever has been granted to such men through their freedom, or whatever has been theirs by right of inheritance, or conferred by anyone in any manner whatsoever, they may not transfer to other people in any way; but all their goods ought to belong after their death to the Church by which they were manumitted.’

6th-7th century AD: Maximus the Confessor preaches and writes against slavery

6th-7th century AD: Johannes Eleemosynarius, patriarch of Alexandria, condemns a slaveholder, saying ‘Tell me what price can man pay to purchase a man, who was created in the image of God? Hast thou a different soul? Is he not in all things thy equal? There is neither bond nor free; all are one in Christ. We are all equal before Christ. What then is the gold you have paid for a child of God?’

6th-7th century AD: Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome, officially declares slavery is ‘a cruel evil, ‘a great crime‘, and commands any bishop who permits it in his diocese to be punished. Speaking of the importance of freeing slaves, he said ‘a good and salutary thing is done when men, whom nature from the beginning created free, and whom the customs of nations had subjected to the yoke of servitude, are presented again with the freedom in which they were born‘.

Gregory made generous pronouncements on the freeing of serfs and slaves, encouraging the use of church funds to obtain their freedom and stating that those who had been freed with money would not have to pay it back to the church:

‘Since our Redeemer, the Creator of all creatures, wished to assume human flesh, so that by the grace of His divinity He might restore us to our pristine liberty, which has been taken away from us so that we are thereby held captive under the yoke of servitude, it is done wisely if those whom nature brought forth as free men in the beginning, and whom the law of nations placed under the yoke of servitude, are returned in freedom to that state of nature in which they were born by the benefits of manumission. So, moved by consideration of this and by feelings of piety, we make you, Montana and Thomas, serfs of the Holy Roman Church, over which with the help of God we rule, free and Roman citizens from this day, and we free all property held by you in serfdom.

The statutes of the holy canons and lawful authority permit that the goods of Holy Church may be used for the redemption of captives. And so because we were taught by you, before we reached the age of eighteen, that a certain holy man named Fabius, Bishop of the church of Firman, used eleven pounds of silver from that same church for your redemption and for the redemption of your father Passivus, your brother and co-bishop, a priest at that time, and also of your mother, from the enemy, and on account of this fact you are obsessed by the fear that what was paid will be required of you after a certain interval of time, we wish to see your fear allayed by this command, that you and your heirs suffer no molestation at any time by reason of any demand for this money, nor shall you be harassed by any questioning, for the spirit of charity demands that what pious zeal expends ought not to be imposed as a burden or affliction on the redeemed. ‘

However, although Gregory was generous towards Christian serfs and slaves, he inconsistently sanctioned the enslaving of pagans.

733 AD: Pope Gregory II forbids Christians to be sold to pagans, an act to be punished as equivalent to homicide:

‘8. Among other crimes committed in those parts you have mentioned this, that certain of the faithful sell their slaves to the pagans for sacrifices. Which thing, brother, we think should be corrected, and we do not think you should allow it to proceed further; for it is a disgrace and an impiety. To those therefore who have done these things you should mete out the same punishment as for homicide.’

755 AD: Lullo, the Archbishop of Mainz, complains to the pope regarding a priest who has sold church serfs into slavery:

‘But let your Holiness judge what is right and just about these things and not only of these but of all which he did perversely during his life and which are here made clear. For he took the goods and serfs of the church committed to his care, Faegenolph our serf, and his two sons Raegenolph and Amanolph, and his wife Leobthruthe, and her daughter Amalthruthe, and he took them to Saxony and exchanged them there against a horse belonging to a man named Huelp. But Willefrid sent Raegenolph beyond the sea with Enred and gave him together with his mother into slavery.’

8th-9th century AD: Theodorus Studita commands ‘not to employ those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves

876 AD: The German Council of Worms rules that masters who have killed their slaves without the knowledge of the judges’ on account of an offence legally punishable by death, should be excommunicated, or given penance for two years:

’38. If any one shall kill his own slave without the knowledge of the judges—a slave who has committed such thing as may be worthy of death—he shall emend the guilt of blood by excommunication or by a penance for two years.’

This was not a ruling containing a great deal of Christian charity, but did establish the principle that masters did not have the power of life and death over their slaves, and had to be subject to the judicial ruling.

The Council also passed a ruling regarding women who were responsible for the murder or manslaughter of their slaves in a fit of jealousy, and though the penalties do not seem particularly harsh it would depend on the precise nature of the penance inflicted on the guilty woman:

’39. If any woman incensed by a fit of jealousy should beat her slave, so that within three days she [the slave] should die in torment, so that it be uncertain whether she killed her intentionally or by accident, she shall do lawful penance for five years, if it be by chance, but for seven years if she do it intentionally.’

Still, this ruling lacked true Christian charity, and should have required the woman to face legal charges of manslaughter or murder.

922 AD: The German Christian Council of Koblenz establishes the death penalty for enslaving Christians:

‘Also the question was put what should be done concerning him who led away a Christian man and then sold him; and the reply of all was that he should be guilty of homicide.’

1080 AD: William the Conqueror forbids the slave trade, and provides for the orderly freeing of serfs, who are to be provided for by their lord on their release:

’41. Also we forbid any one to sell a Christian into a foreign land and especially to heathens. For let great care be taken lest their souls for which Christ gave His life be sold into damnation.’

’15. And we prohibit any one to sell a man out of the country. But if he, who wishes to make his serf free, hand him over to the sheriff by his right hand in full assembly, he must proclaim him quit of the yoke of his servitude by manumission, and show him free ways and gates and give him arms, viz., lance and sword; finally the man is made free.’

1102 AD: In England the Christian Council of Londone under the Archbishop of Canterbury forbids the slave trade:

’27. Let no one presume for the future to enter into that nefarious business by which they were accustomed hitherto to sell men like brute animals in England.’

1120 AD
: In a letter to Peter the Venerable, Bernard of Clairvaux opposes the church practice of keeping serfs, which he sees as worldly and unGodly:

‘But what will you [Peter the Venerable] have to say about secular possessions which are held by you after the manner of secular persons, since in this respect you seem to differ from them in no way? For towns, villas, serfs, servants, and handmaidens, and, what is worse, the gain arising from toll duties, and practically all of this gain you accept without distinction, retain illegally, and guard in every way against those who would strive against your practice.’

1171 AD: In Ireland a Christian synod at Amargh condemns the Irish involvement in the trade of English slaves, and orders all English slaves to be freed:

‘When these things were done the clergy of all Ireland were called to Armagh, and upon the arrival of foreigners in the island after more negotiation and deliberation the opinion of all was as follows:

On account of the sins of the people, especially because at one time they were accustomed to buy Englishmen both from merchants, thieves, and pirates, here and there, and to reduce them to servitude, this trouble had come upon them by the severity of divine vengeance, so that they themselves were in turn reduced by the same people to servitude. For the English people hitherto throughout the whole of their kingdom to the common injury of their people, had become accustomed to selling their sons and relatives in Ireland, to expose their children for sale as slaves, rather than suffer any need or want.

Wherefore, it may be believed, just as they were sellers and buyers once, so now they deserve the yoke of servitude for such an enormity. And so it is decreed in the said council, and declared with the public consent of all, that wherever the English are throughout the island they shall be freed from the bond of slavery, and shall receive the liberty they formerly had.’

During the Medieval era there was no organized slave trade, but laws of serfdom and vassalage reduced many people to the effective position of slaves to despotic lords. Few rulers were prepared to reform society, since the feudal system supported the aristocracy, and unfortunately many Christian leaders were equally to blame for enjoying the fruit of feudalism with no thought for those who laboured to supported it.

1315: Louis X condemns slavery and unreasonable vassalage, insisting his kingdom will be a dominion of free men:

‘As all men are by nature free born, and as this kingdom is called the Kingdom of Franks [freemen], it shall be so in reality. It is therefore decreed that enfranchisements shall be granted throughout the whole kingdom upon just and reasonable conditions.’

Over the next couple of centuries, the Roman Catholic Church discovered the profitability of the African slave trade. The result was that a line of popes gave their sanction to the enslavement and selling of the African Negroes:

1417-1431: Martin V

1431-1447: Eugene IV

1447-1455: Nicholas V

1455-1458: Calixtus III

1462: Pius II condemns the Portuguese who enslave Christians, but sanctions the enslavement of non-Christian Africans

1471-1484: Sextus IV

The result was a death toll higher than the number killed by the Roman Catholic Crusades and Inquisitions combined.

There was little improvement in guidance from the Roman Catholic Church over the next 200 years:

1534-1549: Paul III condemned the slavery of the South American Indians, but not the African Negroes

1639: Urban VIII likewise condemned the slavery of the South American and East Indians, but not the African Negroes

It was not until well after the Reformation that the Christian fight against slavery was renewed in earnest. Unsurprisingly, it was not taken up by the Roman Catholic Church but by the most marginal of the post-Reformation Christian sects. In particular, the Quakers (or ‘Society of Friends’), arguably protested longer, louder, and to far greater effect, than any other Christian group up to the 19th century.

1655: Puritan Richard Baxter protests against slavery, condeming those who ‘catch up poor Negroes…and…make them slaves and sell them…one of the worst kinds of thefts in the world…such persons are to be taken as the common enemies of mankind’

1657: George Fox, founder of the Quakers, writes ‘To Friends beyond sea, that have Blacks and Indian Slaves, expressing concerns over slavery

1671: A group of Quakers visit plantations in Barbados, and encounter resistance from plantation owners when preaching them to treat their slaves humanely

1673: Richard Baxter publishes ‘A Christian directory, or, a summ of practical theologie, and cases of conscience’, containing more anti-slavery material

1676: George Fox publishes ‘Gospel Family-Order, being a short discourse concerning the Ordering of Families, both of Whites, Blacks and Indians’, in which he exhorts the Quakers in North America to treat slaves humanely

1676: Quakers in West New Jersey outlawed slavery in their region

1680: Anglican Morgan Goodwyn publishes ‘The Negro’s and Indians advocate, suing for their admission into the Church’, arguing against the segregation of non-whites from Christian worship, and against slavery

1683: The Christian Anabaptists protest against slavery

1684: Englishman Thomas Tryon publishes ‘The Negro’s Complaint of Their Hard Servitude, and the Cruelties Practised upon Them’, and ‘A Discourse in Way of Dialogue, between an Ethiopean or Negro-Slave and a Christian, That Was His Master in America’, protesting against slavery and the Christian treatment of Negroes

1688: Aphra Behn publishes the novel ‘Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave’, a fictionalized protest against slavery

1688: The German Mennonite Resolution against Slavery is declared in Germantown, Pennsylvania

1691: Cotton Mather publishes ‘The life and death of the renown’d Mr. John Eliot, who was the first preacher of the Gospel to the Indians in America’, which contains anti-slavery sentiments

1693: Publication of the Quaker abolitionist work ‘An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning the Buying or Keeping of Negroes’, the first printed pamphlet directly attacking North American slavery

1696: The Quakers protest publicly against slavery, and excommunicate those of their members who import slaves, ruling that members should ‘be Careful not to Encourage the bringing in [purchasing] of any more Negroes, & that such that have Negroes be Careful of them, bring them to Meetings, or have Meetings with them in their Families, & Restrain them from Loose, & Lewd Living’

1723: The German Baptist Brethren oppose slavery

1754: Publication of the Quaker abolitionist work ‘Some Consideration of the Keeping of Negroes’

1759: Publication of the Quaker abolitionist work ‘Observations on the Inslaving [sic], Importing and Purchasing of Negroes’

The Methodists pass an anti-slavery resolution

1786: Quakers free slaves with lawsuits against their owners

1789: Many Southern Christian churches begin to embrace abolition, and some plantation owners free their slaves

1789: William Wilberforce delivers his first abolition speech to the House of Commons

1791: Jonathan Edward’s publishes the abolitionist work ‘Injustices and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans’


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