Should a person be able to own another person? Today Christians uniformly say no, and many would like to believe that has always been the case. But history tells a different story, one in which Christians have struggled to give a clear answer when confronted with questions about human trafficking and human rights. Had the Bible been edited differently, Christendom might have achieved moral clarity on this issue sooner. As is, the Bible contains very mixed messages, which means that biblical authority could be invoked on either side of the question, leaving Christian beliefs about slavery vulnerable for centuries to prevailing cultural, political, and economic currents.
Old Testament Endorses, Describes, and Regulates Slavery
The Bible first endorses slavery in the book of Genesis, in the story of Noah the ark builder. After the flood, Noah’s son Ham sees his father drunk and naked, and for reasons that have long been debated, is cursed. One recurring theme in Genesis is that guilt can be transferred from a guilty person to an innocent person (think of Adam and Eve’s fruit consumption, which taints us all), and in this case the curse is put on Ham’s son, Canaan.
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” Genesis 9:24-27 NRSV
Most likely, this story was intended originally to justify the Israelite subjugation of Canaanite peoples, who, in other stories about the conquest of the Promised Land are slaughtered or enslaved. Later though, Christians and Muslims would use the story to explain why some people have dark skin, and “Ham’s curse” became a justification for enslaving Native Americans and Africans.
Throughout the Hebrew Old Testament, slavery is endorsed in a variety of ways. Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob both have sex with female slaves, and the unions are blessed with male offspring. Captives are counted among the booties of war, with explicit instructions given for purifying virgin war captives before “knowing them.” The wisest man of all time, Solomon, keeps hundreds of concubines, meaning sexual slaves, along with his many wives.
The books of the Law provide explicit rules for the treatment of Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves.
- You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
When punishing slaves, owners are given latitude that falls just short of on-the-spot murder:
- When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21)
That said, the book of Deuteronomy explicitly forbids returning an escaped slave to his master, in a passage that was a favorite of abolitionists:
- Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
Most Christians believe that Mosaic Law is no longer binding, and that the life of Jesus ushered in a new period of grace and forgiveness, but that hasn’t stopped Old Testament endorsements of slavery from shaping the course of Christian history. They are, after all, still in the Bible. Fourth century Catholic councils endorsed the Hebrew Scriptures as a package, permanently binding them together with the Christian writings that became the New Testament.
New Testament Encourages Kindness from Master, Obedience from Slave
Equally regrettable, from the standpoint of moral clarity, is the fact that New Testament writers fail to condemn Old Testament slavery. In fact, the Jesus of Matthew says that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).
Slavery comes up regularly in New Testament texts; but rather than repudiating the practice, the writers simply encourage good behavior on the part of both slaves and masters. Slaves are clearly property of the owners, as are their families. In one parable Jesus compares God to a king who has slaves. When one slave refuses to forgive the debt of a peer, the righteous king treats him in kind, “and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made” (Matthew 18:25).
While in prison, the Apostle Paul encounters an escaped slave, Onesimus, and sends a letter to his Christian owner, Philemon, tacitly endorsing Philemon’s authority in the matter. The messages are mixed. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon “not as a slave but as a brother”—but he does send him back.
Several letters attributed to Paul express the sentiment that in Christ all people are one:
- For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
- There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Then again, he tells slaves to submit to their masters, even as he exhorts masters to treat slaves well.
- 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. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. (Ephesians 6:5-9)
- 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. (1 Timothy 6:1-3)
The mixed messages of the New Testament provided the basis for later Christian arguments on both sides of the slavery question.
Church Fathers Disagree but Pro-Slavery Faction Dominates for 1300 Years
For some early Christians, the message of equality trumped endorsements of slavery. John Fletcher (Lessons on Slavery, 1852) wrote that early sects 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.” We are told that the Emperor Constantine gave bishops permission to manumit slaves, which would have offered a powerful incentive for conversion to Christianity. St. Gregory, the 4th-century bishop of Nyssa in what is now Turkey, made impassioned arguments against slavery.
Do sheep and oxen beget men for you? Irrational beasts have only one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men’ [Psalms 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire to have others serve you. ‘I have obtained servants and maidens.’ What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them?
Regrettably, as the Church and Roman state became more tightly allied, politics trumped idealism. In the mid-4th century, Manichaean Christians, who were considered heretics by the Church of Rome, were encouraging slaves to take their freedom into their own hands. The Church convened the Council of Gangra, and issued a formal proclamation aligning with the Roman authorities against the Manichaean slave rebels. “If anyone, on the pretext of religion, teaches another man’s slave to despise his master and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and all respect, let him be anathema.”
This became the official Church position for the next 1300 years. Although some writers, including Augustine, voiced opposition, the Vatican repeatedly endorsed slavery from the 5th through 17th centuries. To help enforce priestly celibacy, the 9th Council of Toledo even declared that all children of clergy would be slaves.
Colonial Powers Invoke the Bible; Mennonites and Quakers Raise Opposition
As the countries of Europe colonized the world during the 17th century, the moral authority of Bible and Church offered little protection for subject people in the Americas and Africa. The Dominican Fray Bartolome de las Casas, argued against enslavement of Native Americans, but was ignored. The Catholic Church required only that slaves be non-Christians and captured in a “just war.” Near the close of the 17th century, Catholic theologian Leander invoked both common sense and the Bible in support of Church doctrine:
“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.”
Catholic defenders of slavery were not alone. In England, the Anglican Church spent half a century debating whether slaves should taught the core tenets of Christian belief. Opposition came from owners who feared that if slaves became Christians they might be entitled to liberty. In North America Protestants first passed laws requiring that slaves be sold with spouse and/or children to protect the family unit, and then decided that these laws infringed the rights of slaveholders. Many sincere Christians believed that primitive heathens were better off as slaves, which allowed them a chance to replace their demonic tribal lifestyle with civilization and possibly salvation.
But as the 17th century came to a close with broad Protestant and Catholic support for slavery, two minority sects, Mennonites and Quakers began formally converging around an anti-slavery stance. Their opposition to injustice, rooted in their own understanding of the Christian faith, would become the kernel of an abolitionist movement that ultimately leveraged the organizing power and moral authority of Christianity to help end both church and state sanction for human trafficking.
Protestant Support for Slavery Fractures and Turns
The 18th century marked a pivot point in Christian thinking about slavery, much as the 4th century had, but in the opposite direction. At the start of the century, British Quakers forbade slaveholding among their members, and American Quakers even relocated communities from the South to Ohio and Indiana to distance from the practice. But then as now, Quakers were a small sect, the leading edge in their ethical thinking perhaps, but only the leading edge.
It took John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, to bring abolitionism into the Christian main current. A son of the Enlightenment as well as the Christian tradition Wesley drew on both secular and religious tools to make his case. His writings lay out in careful detail the history of the Atlantic slave trade as it was known to him. He cites laws that prescribe mutilation and worse for slaves who offend. He makes the argument in clear secular ethical terms for abolition. He also plumbs the language and passions of faith:
If therefore you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor of the revealed law of GOD) render unto all their due. Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice.–Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle towards men. And see that you invariably do unto every one, as you would he should do unto you. p. 56
Wesley is keenly aware that the book of Genesis has long been invoked in defense of slavery, and rather than deny the Bible’s dark legacy he invokes it, calling on God himself to free the oppressed from both slavery and sin:
The servile progeny of Ham
Seize as the purchase of thy blood!
Let all the heathen know thy name:
From idols to the living GOD
The dark Americans convert,
And shine in every pagan heart! p. 57
I cite Wesley not because he gets sole or even majority credit for the sea change in Christian thinking during the 18th century, but because he embodies the many currents that came together to create that change. The European Enlightenment prompted lines of ethical philosophy and political analysis that are fundamentally at odds with slave trafficking and forced labor. America’s deist founding fathers documented their own conflicted feelings on the topic. Christians including Puritans, Quakers, Methodists, Anglicans and Baptists wrestled publically with the issue.
The first and second Great Awakenings spawned revival meetings across the country that drew slaves and former slaves into Christianity. And emancipation began making political inroads, though not without opponents. Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777, and by the end of the century, Upper Canada—now Ontario—had implemented a law that would phase out the practice. By contrast, the Catholic Church placed anti-slavery tracts on a list of forbidden books, and Virginia forbade Blacks from gathering after dark, even for worship services.
Christians in the American South Hold Out
By the start of the 19th century, the fight was far from over, but without Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, legal slavery in Christian-dominant countries might well have ended with a whimper instead of a war. The economic value of slavery was in decline throughout Europe’s empires, and in the American North a transition to grain production had made slavery all but obsolete in some regions. Where slaves cost more to feed than they could produce, owners set them free.
But as cotton production soared in the South, thanks to Whitney’s invention, so did the demand for slave labor. By the start of the Civil War, the South was producing over 4 million bales of cotton annually, up from a few thousand in 1790. Between 1790 and 1808, when an act of Congress banned the Atlantic slave trade, cotton producing states imported 80,000 additional slaves from Africa to meet growing demand.
Northerners could think about slavery in abstract humanitarian terms but for Southerners, slavery was prosperity, and many Southern Christians behaved like owners of oil wells might today: they hunkered down and defended their revenue stream by engaging in the kind of “motivated reasoning” that allows us to find virtue in what benefits us. Under pressure, prominent Christian leaders turn to the Bible to defend the South’s way of life:
- [Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it 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 of the Confederate States of America.
- There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral. — Rev. Alexander Campbell
- The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.– Rev. Richard Furman, prominent Baptist and namesake of Furman University
- The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined.—U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond.
The doom of Ham. Whether Ham’s curse is “branded on the form and features of his African descendants,” as Hammond believed, the story of that curse has been branded on the form and features of Christian history, down to the present.
Modern Christians Struggle to Disentangle Biblical Authority from Bigotry
On Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, the LDS Mormon Church officially renounced the doctrine that brown skin is a punishment from God. The announcement acknowledged that racism was a part of LDS teaching for generations, as indeed it was, officially, until external pressures including the American civil rights movement and the desire to proselytize in Brazil made segregation impossible. LDS leaders have come a long ways from the thinking of Brigham Young, who wrote, “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10).
“This will always be so,” said Young, but modern Mormons believe he was wrong. Similarly, most modern Protestants and Catholics believe their spiritual forefathers were wrong to endorse slavery — or practice it — or preach it from the pulpit. But thanks in part to words penciled by our Iron Age ancestors and decisions made by 4th-century councils, this moral clarity has been painfully difficult to achieve. How much sooner might Christians have come to this understanding if the Church had not treated those ancient words from Genesis and Leviticus and Ephesians as if they were God-breathed?
It is easy to look back on slavery from the vantage of our modern moral consensus—that treating people as property is wrong, regardless of what our ancestors believed. But the very same Bible that provided Furman and Jefferson Davis with a defense of slavery also teaches that nonbelievers are evildoers, women are for breeding, children need beating, and marriage can take almost any form but queer.
This month, aspiring presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was asked to comment on marriage equality and said, “This is not just a political issue. It is a biblical issue. And as a biblical issue, unless I get a new version of the scriptures, it’s really not my place to say, ‘Okay, I’m just going to evolve.’” I’m guessing that the generations of Christians who fought slavery, biblical texts and Church tradition notwithstanding, would beg to differ.