February 20, 2007

Christianity and SlaveryCelebrating Black History Month and the Worldview that Freed the Slaves

In the United States, February is designated as "Black History Month." The history of the black race is steeped in the matter of slavery and this raises the issue of the role Christianity played in the practice of selling and owning other people.

Christianity and Slavery

It's been popular in recent years to accuse Christianity of being a primary promoter of slavery. For example, William McDonald of the New York Times wonders "how an institution that spread a message of love . . . could also engage in brutality and persecution and turn a blind eye to slavery."[1] And according to an article posted on the website of the Council for Secular Humanism, "slavery was a close companion of Christianity and was not thought to conflict with religious doctrines."[2]

While there is no denying that some Christians have advocated slavery over the years, the more important questions are whether this is consistent with the Bible, and, just as important, what worldview lead to ending the practice.

The History of Slavery

First of all, slavery was not invented by Christians and is not confined to only the history of Christianity. Practically every civilization since the dawn of recorded history has embraced owning other people. The practice thrived for thousands of years in Mesopotamia, China, and the entire Greco-Roman empire. Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.), the Greek philosopher considered a giant of ancient wisdom, wrote that some men are born into a natural condition in need of masters to rule over them. Slavery was found throughout Africa and South America many years before Christ was born. Native North Americans enslaved rival tribes before Columbus made his voyage in 1492.[3]

In addition, slavery has played a role in certain expressions of secular and Islamic worldviews. As Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett acknowledge, " . . . antireligious governments . . . revive[d] the ancient practice of human bondage to an unparalleled degree in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, China, imperial Japan, Cambodia and elsewhere."[4] Notice that each of these regimes is based on secular ideologies. Even more recently, North African Arabs have enslaved thousands in Mauritania, and Muslim militias are currently capturing, transporting, and selling men, women and children throughout the African nation of Sudan.

The History of Emancipation

While slavery has been a conspicuous enterprise throughout human history, there was primarily one worldview that organized a concerted effort to halt the practice — Christianity.

Despite the fact that Christians have displayed a checkered history on the slavery issue, the Christian Scriptures held the key to the eventual eradication of human bondage. That key is found in the twin notions that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that followers of Jesus Christ are considered members of the same family (Galatians 3:28). These basic tenets laid the seedbed from which abolitionist movements grew and flourished.

Many early Christians abhorred slavery. The early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, wrote against buying and selling children for prostitution. In the fifth century, St. Patrick of Ireland rejected all forms of slavery. Augustine, the great theologian who died in 430 AD, labeled slavery "an inconceivable horror," stating that it was "introduced by sin and not by nature."[5] And the Roman Catholic Church condemned slavery and the slave trade in 1462, 1741, 1815 and 1839.

In England, Christians such as John Wesley and William Wilberforce launched a tireless thirty-eight-year campaign of raising public consciousness and introducing bills in Parliament. In 1833, they eventually succeeded in abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire. Robert Fogel observes, "It is remarkable how rapidly, by historical standards, the institution of slavery gave way before the abolitionist onslaught, once the ideological campaign gained momentum."[6]

In America, as early as 1700, Boston judge Samuel Sewall, a Presbyterian, wrote an antislavery pamphlet entitled The Selling of Joseph. At their annual meeting in 1758, Quakers banned from church membership anyone involved in the slave trade. In 1774, Benjamin Rush founded America's first antislavery society. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, commented, "Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity . . . ."[7]

During the following years, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists began to take up the cause of those enslaved. By 1838, the American Anti-Slavery Society had 1,346 auxiliaries with close to 100,000 members. And it was primarily through the rallying of antislavery Protestant voters that Abraham Lincoln was reelected President in 1864.

While it took a bloody civil war to finally end slavery in America, Paul Johnson maintains that this war "can be described as the most characteristic religious episode in the whole of American history, since its roots and causes were not economic or political but religious and moral."[8]

Christianity's moral tradition was drawn upon by the great civil rights leader and pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"

As you contemplate Black History month, keep in mind the worldview that provided the foundation for individual liberty for all people. The biblical ethic of human equality under God has been the single greatest antagonist of human bondage for two thousand years, and it continues to be the strongest hope of freedom for generations to come.

Resources for Further Study

  1. Quoted by Vincent Carroll & David Shiflett in Christianity on Trial: Argument against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2002), 25.
  2. http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/aah/countryman_3_4.html, accessed 01/15/2007.
  3. In the online article, "Indians of Eastern Oregon," by Kathyrn Lee, accessed 01/15/2007. The author mentions several northwest tribes who had slaves.
  4. Christianity on Trial, 51.
  5. Ibid., 26.
  6. Ibid., 26–7.
  7. Quoted in "The Race Card," The Wallbuilder Report, Fall 1995 Issue, by David Barton.
  8. Christianity on Trial, 50-51. NOTE: While the causes of the Civil War certainly include political and economic factors, the underlying reason for much, or not most, of the abolitionist movement was motivated by religious and moral sentiments. Had it not been for the abolitionists, the conflict over slavery would not have been at issue, and there would have been little need for the south to succeed from the Union.

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