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CHRISTIANITY AND SLAVERY
The largest slave trade in the history of the world was created by Christian European nations. This is a fact.
It is also a fact that the Bible has many verses defending slavery.
In America before the Civil War, the majority of evangelical Christians were totally convinced that "their personal relationship with Jesus Christ" authorized them to own slaves.
Some evangelical factions in recent times did oppose the slave trade. In England they helped abolish it in the early 19th century. The radical abolitionist John Brown defended his raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859 as an act against slavery born out of his Christian conviction.
However, throughout most of Christian history slavery has been a reality that has received the official sanction of the church. Leading figures in the Catholic Church, from St. Augustine, to numerous popes, to consider the enslavement of human beings to be a perfectly acceptable practice sanctioned by God. After the Reformation, this was a tradition that carried over into many Protestant sects as well.
The set of quotes below makes clear the depth of pro-slavery sentiment within the history of Christianity. They are not intended to be an exhaustive list. Rather, they are but a fraction of justifications based on Scripture that were used to uphold the existence of slavery.
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"Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave'. " -- Genesis 9:25-27
"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.' If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever." -- Exodus 21:2-6
"When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner's property." -- Exodus 21:20-21.
"Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property." -- Leviticus 25:44-45
"Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives." -- Matthew 24:45-46.
"Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain." -- 1 Timothy 6:1-5.
"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." -- Ephesians 6:5-6.
"Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men." -- 1 Peter 2:13
"Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." -- 1 Peter 2:18-29.
ST THOMAS AQUINAS
"Slavery among men is natural, for some are naturally slaves according to the Philosopher (Polit. i, 2). Now 'slavery belongs to the right of nations,' as Isidore states (Etym. v, 4). Therefore the right of nations is a natural right."
"It belongs to justice to render to each one his right, the distinction between individuals being presupposed: for if a man gives himself his due, this is not strictly called 'just.' And since what belongs to the son is his father's, and what belongs to the slave is his master's, it follows that properly speaking there is not justice of father to son, or of master to slave."
ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
"The prime cause ... of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow -- that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offence."
"Beyond question it is a happier thing to be the slave of a man than of a lust; for even this very lust of ruling, to mention no others, lays waste men's hearts with the most ruthless dominion."
"But by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin. This servitude is, however, penal, and is appointed by that law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance; for if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been nothing to restrain by penal servitude. And therefore the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, and to serve them heartily and with good-will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness pass away, and all principality and every human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all."
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
"Masters contribute greater benefits to their servants than servants to their masters. For the former furnish the money to purchase for them sufficient food and clothing, and bestow much care upon them in other respects, so that the masters pay them the larger service ... they suffer much toil and trouble for your repose, ought they not in return to receive much honor from you, their servants?"
Source: St. John Chrysostom, "Homily 16 on 1 Timothy," quoted in Philip Schaff, Saint Chrysostom and Saint Augustin (New York: Whittaker Press,1889), p. 465.
"Astonishing! Where has he put slavery? As circumcision profits not, and uncircumcision does no harm, so neither doeth slavery, nor yet liberty. And that he might point out this with surpassing clarity, he says 'But even if thou canst become free, use it rather,' that is, rather continue as a slave. Now upon what possible ground does he tell the person who might be set free to remain a slave? He means to point out that slavery is no harm but rather an advantage."
Source: St. John Chrysostom, "Homily 19 on I Corinthians," quoted in Philip Schaff, Saint Chrysostom and Saint Augustin (New York: Whittaker Press,1889), p. 108.
"Since not at all for need’s sake was the class of slaves introduced, else even along with Adam had a slave been formed;but it is the penalty of sin and punishment of disobedience. But when Christ came, He put an end to this. ... So that it is not necessary to have a slave: or if it be at all necessary, let it be about one only, or at the most two."
Source: St. John Chrysostom, "Homily 40 on I Corinthians".
"If any one shall teach a slave, under pretext of piety, to despise his master and to run away from his service, and not to serve his own master with good-will and all honour, let him be anathema."
Source: Synod of Gangra, ca. 340 C.E.
"Cruel avarice has so seized the hearts of some that though they glory in the name of Christians they provide the Saracens with arms and wood for helmets, and become their equals or even their superiors in wickedness and supply them with arms and necessaries to attack Christians. There are even some who for gain act as captains or pilots in galleys or Saracen pirate vessels. Therefore we declare that such persons should be cut off from the communion of the church and be excommunicated for their wickedness, that catholic princes and civil magistrates should confiscate their possessions, and that if they are captured they should become the slaves of their captors. We order that throughout the churches of maritime cities frequent and solemn excommunication should be pronounced against them."
"With regard to the Brabanters, Aragonese, Navarrese, Basques, Coterelli and Triaverdini, who practise such cruelty upon Christians that they respect neither churches nor monasteries, and spare neither widows, orphans, old or young nor any age or sex, but like pagans destroy and lay everything waste, we likewise decree that those who hire, keep or support them, in the districts where they rage around, should be denounced publicly on Sundays and other solemn days in the churches, that they should be subject in every way to the same sentence and penalty as the above-mentioned heretics and that they should not be received into the communion of the church, unless they abjure their pernicious society and heresy. As long as such people persist in their wickedness, let all who are bound to them by any pact know that they are free from all obligations of loyalty, homage or any obedience. On these and on all the faithful we enjoin, for the remission of sins, that they oppose this scourge with all their might and by arms protect the Christian people against them. Their goods are to be confiscated and princes free to subject them to slavery. Those who in true sorrow for their sins die in such a conflict should not doubt that they will receive forgiveness for their sins and the fruit of an eternal reward."
"Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. ... It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given. The purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave."
"Indeed, the deeds of superiors are not to be smitten with the sword of the mouth, even when they are rightly thought to be deserving of reproof. And if sometimes the tongue in criticism of them slips in the least degree, the heart must be overwhelmed with penitential grief. It should reflect upon itself, and when it has offended the power set over it, it should dread the judgment passed against it by Him who appointed superiors. For when we offend those set over us, we oppose the ordinance of Him who set them above us."
Source: Pope Gregory I, ca. 540-604 C.E., quoted in Henry Davis, Pastoral Care; Ancient Christian Writers Series, no.11, (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1950), p. 100.
"Differently to be admonished are servants and masters. Servants, to wit, that they ever keep in view the humility of their condition; but masters, that they lose not recollection of their nature, in which they are constituted on an equality with servants. Servants are to be admonished that they despise not their masters, lest they offend God, if by behaving themselves proudly they gainsay His ordinance: masters, too, are to be admonished, that they are proud against God with respect to His gift, if they acknowledge not those whom they hold in subjection by reason of their condition to be their equals by reason of their community of nature. The former are to be admonished to know themselves to be servants of masters; the latter are to be admonished to acknowledge themselves to be fellow-servants of servants. For to those it is said, Servants, obey your masters according to the flesh (Coloss. iii. 22); and again, Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their masters worthy of all honour (1 Tim. vi. 1); but to these it is said, And ye, masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening, knowing that both their and your Master is in heaven (Ephes. vi. 9)."
"Slavery itself ... is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law ... The purchaser [of the slave] should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave."
"We (therefore) weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso -- to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ where so ever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery."
"It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture. It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors. All theologians are unanimous on this."
Source: Leander, Quaestiones Morales Theologicae, Lyons 1668 - 1692, Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3.
"All servants not being Christians, imported into this colony by shipping, shall be slaves for their lives."
Source: Official Act of the Colony of Virginia, 1670. Quoted in David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), p. 180.
"It is to be hoped, that on a question of such vital importance as this to the peace and safety of our common country, as well as to the welfare of the church, we shall be seen cleaving to the Bible, and taking all our decisions about this matter, from its inspired pages. With men from the North, I have observed for many years a palpable ignorance of the divine will, in reference to the institution of slavery. I have seen but a few, who made the Bible their study, that had obtained a knowledge of what it did reveal on this subject. Of late, their denunciation of slavery as a sin, is loud and long.
I propose, therefore, to examine the sacred volume briefly, and if I am not greatly mistaken, I shall be able to make it appear that the institution of slavery has received, in the first place,
1st. The sanction of the Almighty in the Patriarchal age.
2d. That it was incorporated into the only National Constitution which ever emanated from God.
3d. That its legality was recognized, and its relative duties regulated, by Jesus Christ in his kingdom; and
4th. That it is full of mercy.
... Now, my dear sir, if, from the evidence contained in the Bible to prove slavery a lawful relation among God's people under every dispensation, the assertion is still made, in the very face of this evidence, that slavery has ever been the greatest sin-- everywhere, and under all circumstances-- can you, or can any sane man bring himself to believe, that the mind capable of such a decision, is not capable of trampling the Word of God under foot upon any subject?"
"Jesus Christ recognized this (i.e. slavery) institution as one that was lawful among men, and regulated its relative duties. ... I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; and second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principle which can work its destruction."
Source: Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, A Scriptural View of Slavery, Culpeper County, Virginia, 1856.
"... The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the Heathen nations; except they were of the Canaanites, for these were to be destroyed. And it is declared, that the persons purchased were to be their 'bond-men forever'; and an 'inheritance for them and their children.' They were not to go out free in the year of jubilee, as the Hebrews, who had been purchased, were: the line being clearly drawn between them. ...
In the New-Testament, the Gospel History, or representation of facts, presents us a view correspondent with that which is furnished by other authentic ancient histories of the state of the world at the commencement of Christianity. The powerful Romans had succeeded, in empire, the polished Greeks; and under both empires, the countries they possessed and governed were full of slaves. Many of these with their masters, were converted to the Christian Faith, and received, together with them into the Christian Church, while it was yet under the ministry of the inspired Apostles. In things purely spiritual, they appear to have enjoyed equal privileges; but their relationship, as masters and slaves, was not dissolved. Their respective duties are strictly enjoined. The masters are not required to emancipate their slaves; but to give them the things that are just and equal, forbearing threatening; and to remember, they also have a master in Heaven. The "servants under the yoke" (bond-servants or slaves) mentioned by Paul to Timothy, as having "believing masters," are not authorized by him to demand of them emancipation, or to employ violent means to obtain it; but are directed to "account their masters worthy of all honor," and "not to despise them, because they were brethren" in religion; "but the rather to do them service, because they were faithful and beloved partakers of the Christian benefit." Similar directions are given by him in other places, and by other Apostles. And it gives great weight to the argument, that in this place, Paul follows his directions concerning servants with a charge to Timothy, as an Evangelist, to teach and exhort men to observe this doctrine.
Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church. If they had done so on a principle of accommodation, in cases where the masters remained heathen, to avoid offences and civil commotion; yet, surely, where both master and servant were Christian, as in the case before us, they would have enforced the law of Christ, and required, that the master should liberate his slave in the first instance. But, instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties.
In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.
... If the holding of slaves is lawful, or according to the Scriptures; then this Scriptural rule can be considered as requiring no more of the master, in respect of justice (whatever it may do in point of generosity) than what he, if a slave, could consistently, wish to be done to himself, while the relationship between master and servant should still be continued."
Source: Reverend Dr. Richard Furman, President of the Baptist State Convention, Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States in a Communication to the Governor of South Carolina (1838)
"If we prove that domestic slavery is, in the general, a natural and necessary institution, we remove the greatest stumbling block to belief in the Bible; for whilst texts, detached and torn from their context, may be found for any other purpose, none can be found that even militates against slavery. The distorted and forced construction of certain passages, for this purpose, by abolitionists, if employed as a common rule of construction, would reduce the Bible to a mere allegory, to be interpreted to suit every vicious taste and wicked purpose.
"We have a great lesson to teach the world with respect to the relation of races: that certain races are permanently inferior in their capacities to others, and that the African who is intrusted to our care can only reach the amount of civilization and development of which he is capable--can only contribute to the benefit of humanity in the position in which God has placed him among us (i.e. that of a slave)."
"What right had you under the Constitution to declare war against a 'sovereign' state? To invade one for coercion? To blockade a port? To declare slaves free? To suspend the writ of habeas corpus? To create the state of West Virginia by the consent of two states, one of which was dead, and the other one of which lived in Ohio? By what authority have you appointed military governors in the 'sovereign' states of Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana? Why trim the hedge and lie about it? We, too, are revolutionists, and you are our executive. The Constitution sustained and protected slavery. It was 'a league with death and a covenant with hell,' and our flag 'a polluted rag'!
The South is no more to blame for Negro slavery than the North. Our slaves were stolen from Africa by Yankee skippers. When a slaver arrived at Boston, your pious Puritan clergyman offered public prayer of thanks that 'A gracious and overruling Providence had been pleased to bring to this land of freedom another cargo of benighted heathen to enjoy the blessings of a gospel dispensation."