Thursday, April 17, 2014

Christian Slavery

Who was responsible for the abolition of slavery in Britain? It was William Wilberforce wasn’t it. He epitomised Christian thought on the matter. Slavery was anathema to all right thinking Christians. That’s what most of us were all taught at school. That’s what many children are still being taught. Well here’s a question. If Christianity was so opposed to the practice of slavery, why did it take well over a fourteen hundred years for Christians to ban it? The Christian Churches were the sole moral authorities in much of the west from the fourth century to the eighteenth century AD. During that time the established Christian Churches had the unquestioned power to prohibit slavery. Yet they did not prohibit it. They did not even try. On the contrary, they supported it, authorised it and even practised it themselves. This is not easy to square with the version of history we are so familiar with. So let’s unpick the truth.

From the earliest times Christians had no doubt that slavery was divinely sanctioned. They used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.  Looking at the relevant passages it is clear that the Bible does indeed endorse slavery.  In the Old Testament God approved the practice and laid down rules for buyers and sellers (Exodus 21:1-6, Leviticus 25:44).  Men are at liberty to sell their own daughters (Exodus 21:7).  Slaves can be inherited (Leviticus 25:45-6).  It is acceptable to beat slaves, since they are property (Exodus 21:20).  A master who beats his slave to death is not to be punished as long as the slave stays alive for a day or two, as the loss of the master’s property is punishment enough:

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.  Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.        (Exodus 21:20-21)

Do not be mislead by the word servant here. The Authorized Version invariably uses the word servant where the natural translation is slave, in order to minimize the full import  Most modern translations use the word slave, a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew 'ebhedh, Greek doulos. Masters buy and sell slaves, not servants.

If a slave is gored by a bull, it is the master, not the slave, who is to be compensated (Exodus 21:32).  Time and time again the Old Testament confirms that slaves are property and their lives are of little consequence.  To prove the strength of Job’s faith, God sends Satan to test him by visiting disasters upon him.  Among these disasters is the killing of Job’s numerous slaves (Job 1).  Neither God, nor Satan, nor the story’s narrator finds it at all odd that people should be killed just to prove a point – they are only Job’s property and their destruction is naturally bracketed with the loss of his livestock and vineyards.

The New Testament also regards slavery as acceptable.  It instructs slaves to accept their position with humility (Ephesians 6:5-8), and to please their masters in everything (Titus 2:9, c/f Colossians 3:22).  They are commanded to serve Christian slave owners better than other masters (1 Timothy 6:1-2).  Even oppressive masters are to be obeyed according to 1 Peter 2:18.  Jesus mentioned slavery more than once in the New Testament, but never with the slightest hint of criticism of it.  Christians interpreted this as not merely acceptance, but approval. If Jesus had opposed slavery he would, they claimed, surely have said so.  Church Fathers instructed the faithful not to let slaves get above themselves, and the Church endorsed St Augustine’s view that slavery was ordained by God as a punishment for sin. Soon the Christian Church would become the largest slave owner in the Roman Empire. 

In pagan times slaves who escaped and sought sanctuary at a holy temple would not be returned to their masters if they had a justifiable complaint.  When the Roman Empire became Christian, escaped slaves could seek refuge in a church, but they would always be returned to their masters, whether they had a justifiable complaint or not.  When Christian slaves in the early Asian Church suggested that community funds might be used to purchase their freedom, they were soon disabused of their hopes, a line supported by Ignatius of Antioch, one of the greatest Church Fathers.  He declared that their ambition should be to become better slaves, and they should not expect the Church to gain their liberty for them.  Bishops themselves owned slaves and accepted the usual conventions.  So did other churchmen.  Slave collars dating from around AD 400 have been found in Sardinia, stamped with the sign of the cross and the name ‘Felix the Archdeacon’ - the name of the owner, not the slave.  Pagan slaves who wanted to become Christians required permission from their masters.  For many centuries, right up to modern times, servile birth was a bar to ordination, and the Church confirmed the acceptability of slavery in many other ways.  For example, the Church Council of Châlons in AD 813 decreed that slaves belonging to different owners could not marry without their owners’ consent. 

The Church found new reasons to take people into slavery.  The Third Synod of Toledo in AD 589 decreed that women found in the houses of a clergyman in suspicious circumstances should be sold into slavery by the clergyman’s bishop.  In attempting to enforce clerical celibacy later popes revived the idea of taking the wives and concubines of churchmen into slavery.  Urban II tried the idea against subdeacons’ wives in 1089.  In 1095 wives of priests were sold into slavery as well.  Urban’s successor, Leo IX, had priest’s wives taken into slavery for service at the Lateran Palace.  Saints, Popes and Church Officials approved the practice of slavery for centuries.  Slavery was a major trade in Christendom.  Until the early tenth century the main Venetian export was slaves from central Europe.  Later the Genoese developed another major Mediterranean slave trade..  In Spain a single inquisitor, Torquemada, condemned 91,371 people to slavery.

The record of the Anglican Church was no better than that of the Roman Church.  It was the universal opinion of churchmen that God had ordained slavery, and clergymen had no qualms about owning slaves themselves.  Anglican slave traders were often extremely devout, and widely respected by their fellow Christians.  It never occurred to them, or to their priests or ministers, that slave trading might be immoral.  The most famous English slave trader, Sir John Hawkins, a particularly pious man, had slave ships named  Angel, Jesus, and Grace of God

Since they were merely property, there could be no objection to branding slaves just like any other animal.  Neither was there any obligation to treat them more humanely than animals in other ways.  Prices depended on supply and demand like any other commodity.  Female breeders would be sold at a premium prices, especially after the importation of African slaves to North America and the Caribbean ceased.  Sometimes slaves were hamstrung to stop them escaping.  If they had escaped before, they could have a leg amputated to stop them doing so again.  Once their working lives were over, they were put-down. Where was the right to life then, one wonders. Black slaves in the Caribbean and Americas received very little education, but what they were allowed was mainly religious.  Preachers tended to concentrate on biblical passages that endorsed slavery and counselled passive acceptance of it. A favourite passage was “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”.(1 Peter 2:18, New International Version). Among missionaries, the problem of preventing slaves from enjoying themselves on the Sabbath appears to have been far more important than the ethical question of slavery itself.

Slave owning Churchmen were not particularly notable as good masters.  Indeed some of the worst masters were clergymen.  In the court of St Ann’s in Jamaica in 1829 the Rev. G. W. Bridges was charged with maltreating a female slave.  For a trivial mistake he had stripped her, tied her by the hands to the ceiling so that her toes hardly touched the ground, then flogged her with a bamboo rod until she was a “mass of lacerated flesh and gore” from her shoulders to her calves.  The facts were established, but as usual in such cases he was acquitted. 

Important questions for the Church were the extent of slave owners’ rights to flog or burn their human property, to split up their families, and to demand sexual gratification from them.  This last must have been a particular problem, since owners could point to several biblical passages which take it for granted that a slave girl is available for her master’s sexual desires.  This was clearly difficult to square with the knowledge that sex was sinful. 

Slavery was not confined to selected races or to members of other religions: Christians routinely condemned their fellow believers to slavery.  John Knox for example spent eighteen months as a galley-slave under French Catholics.  In the late eighteenth century Popes still held slaves, as did Anglican clergymen.  It was still beyond question that slavery was ordained by God, and therefore unimpeachable.  In the second part of The Age of Reason published in the 1790’s Thomas Paine noted that, in the Book of Numbers, Moses had given instructions as to how to treat Midianite captives.  Essentially, everyone was to be executed except virgins, whom the victors were allowed to keep alive for themselves.  God then gave instructions as to how the booty, including 32,000 virgins, should be divided up between the victors.  Paine summarised the relevant passage: “Here is an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters”.  In response to this, Bishop Watson of Llandaff pointed out that the virgins had not been spared for any immoral purpose, as Paine had wickedly suggested.  Rather, he said, they were spared so that they could be taken into slavery.  Obviously, there could be no ethical objection to this, since slavery was divinely sanctioned.  The bishop’s rebuttal was perfectly acceptable to mainstream eighteenth century Christians, who found sex objectionable but slavery not at all objectionable.  According to the Churches, slavery was not merely permitted, it was obligatory.  Slavery was a God-given institution.  To oppose what God had sanctioned was positively sinful. 

In America opposition to slavery was first voiced by freethinkers such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.  Initially a Quaker, later a Deist, Paine was widely condemned as an unbeliever.  He wrote an influential article against slavery in 1775, and when he drafted the American Declaration of Independence the following year, he included a clause against slavery that was later struck out.  Under Quaker influence, slavery was made illegal in the state of Pennsylvania in 1780. Other campaigners included the rationalist James Russell Lowell, the sceptical ex-preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the freethinker Wendell Phillips.  While Thomas Paine opposed slavery in America, his fellow freethinkers opposed it in his native country.  Granville Sharp, a humanitarian lawyer, sought to bring cases before the courts, arguing that throwing slaves overboard to drown was murder.  (The prevailing Christian view was that a ship’s captain was free to jettison them, just like any other property, for example to save the ship in a storm).  Within a few years, by 1787, a campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade was started by a group of Quakers.  It was supported by non-believers.  As it grew it was joined by various nonconformists groups and a few evangelical Christians, but it was consistently opposed by all traditional Churches and mainstream Christian sects. 

William Wilberforce is usually accredited with abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, though he came many years after the first abolitionist campaigners.  He too was an unbeliever when he espoused abolition.  Later as an Evangelical he was able to sit in Parliament (which unbelievers were not).  There he stood out among his fellow Christians as an exception.  He noted that those who opposed slavery were non-conformists and godless reformers, and that Church people were indifferent to the cause of abolition, or else actively obstructed it.  His grass-root support came from Quakers, Unitarians, Utilitarians, and assorted Freethinkers and religious sceptics.  Like the freethinkers who had started the movement, Wilberforce was condemned by the mainstream Churches as presuming to know better than the bible.

The Church had enjoyed 1500 years during which it had had the power to ban slavery, but had failed to do so, or even to have expressed any desire to do so.  Now that change was in the air, the mainstream churches opposed reform with all their power.  They vilified reformers and attacked them for daring to question the plain word of God.  Anglican Clergymen still owned slaves and continued to oppose abolition well into the nineteenth century.  One of their number was the most effective supporter of slavery during the 1820’s abolitionist campaign in Jamaica.  All mainstream Churches agreed with the traditional view that slavery was ordained by God.  To practice slavery was therefore meritorious, and to try to stop the practice was sinful.  With the exception of Quakers, all denominations agreed.  In 1843 some 1,200 Methodist ministers owned slaves in the USA. 

Under popular pressure generated by secular thinkers, all of the mainstream Churches except the Baptists performed a volte face during the nineteenth century.  When enough of their members had moved over to the abolitionist cause, the Churches followed.  Priests, bishops and popes felt obliged to cease owning slaves.  Slavery was criticised for the first time by a pope (Gregory XVI) in 1839, but it was not until the Berlin Conference of 1884 that Catholic countries fell into line with Protestant ones on the question of slavery, agreeing that it should be suppressed.  The official U turn came in 1888 when Pope Leo XIII declared in In plurimis that the Church was now opposed to it. 

In the USA the pattern was similar: slavery was advocated by nineteenth century Churchmen, though secular forces opposed it.  It was a commonplace that “Slavery is of God”.  Christian ministers wrote almost half of all defences of slavery published in America.  Such defences were routinely produced by the Churches.  Along with these defences, Christian Churches circulated biblical texts on the subject of “Negro inferiority”, and the need for total unquestioning obedience.  A civil war was fought before the Christian South was forced to abandon slavery in 1863.  Yet the Southern Presbyterian Church could still resolve in 1864 that it was their peculiar mission to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing to both master and slave.  To hold that slavery was inherently evil was “one of the most pernicious heresies of modern times”. 

Black slaves were not permitted to learn to read or write, since education was seen as a threat to God’s natural order.  An American slave who adopted the name Frederick Douglas was exceptional in that he learned to read and write in secret.  After he was granted his freedom he wrote:

Were I to be again reduced to chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me…[I] hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-stripping, cradle plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

The Christianity he had in mind was not particularly American.  Nor is it yet dead.  There are still Christians prepared to uphold the traditional Christian line.  In 1996 Charles Davidson, a devout Christian Senator from Alabama, said that slavery had been good for blacks, and pointed out that the practice had biblical approval, citing the traditional proof-texts such as Leviticus 25:44 and 1 Timothy 6:1.  As he well knew, he still held the traditional Christian line, while almost all other Christians had abandoned it and even largely forgotten about it.

The story now propagated by some Churches – that they were responsible for abolition – is simply false.  The first country to abolish slavery was France, under an anti-clerical revolutionary government in the 1790’s.  Abolition came in Britain in the early nineteenth century, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Anglican Church, and it was achieved through the efforts of an alliance of unbelievers, freethinkers, Quakers and fringe Christians who galvanised public opinion.  In the USA it came in the second half of the century, again in the face of intense opposition from the Churches.  The abolitionists won largely because slavery was no longer financially viable. Strongly Catholic Brazil was the last Christian country to abolish slavery in 1888.

The only significant Christian sect that has any reason to be proud about its record is the Quakers. All other mainstream Churches have a record which is so much of an embarrassment that an entirely fictitious version has had to be invented. This is the familiar version that the Churches started teaching in the twentieth century, with orthodox Christians playing the part of the good guys. It proved so much more edifying than the truth that schools are still teaching it.


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