Believers in Christ as their savior often have such an intense commitment to seeing God as perfectly just and good that they are unable to see what many parts of the Bible overtly teach.
This article provides a very detailed account of how many, many biblical passages approve of slavery, including the meaning of “slave” versus “servant”. It demonstrates the ways these texts affected the abolition movement and church history in the three main Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant). A summary is provided of what slavery was like in the ancient Middle East and Roman Empire, based on direct quotes from historians that specialize in those fields. Enlightenment humanism is contrasted with traditional Christianity in its approach to abolition and human rights generally. There are more than 80 hyperlinks that provide references for the claims I make.
Not one verse in the Bible advocates for ending the practice of owning another person. A possible exception can be found in the early chapters of Exodus where the Old Testament God intends to free his people from slavery in Egypt. This does not mean much, given that after being led out of Egypt the Jews were taught by God in great detail exactly how to keep Jewish women and men as indentured servants or chattel slaves, depending on the circumstances (Exodus 21). What is equally distressing to modern readers is that God gave the Jews explicit instructions in Leviticus 25:44-46 on the procedure for buying foreign slaves and keeping them and their children as chattel property for life. Also in the Torah, God mandates that the Jews keep the survivors of the Promised Land conquests as chattel slaves, especially the women (Deuteronomy 20:10-18, 21:10-11). A section in Isaiah 14:1-2 announces that the Jews are promised a future in which they will enslave all other people groups of the world. They “will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the Lord’s land”. The New Testament continues this trend of approved human subjugation with multiple stories by Jesus about slavery, including where he declares the relationship between God and humankind to be like the connection between earthly masters and slaves. He makes no criticism of slavery. He speaks as if the institution is normal and acceptable, even saying that God and human masters are justified in torturing disobedient slaves (Matthew 18:21-35). The writings of the apostles Paul and Peter include commanding slaves in five different books to obey their masters with reverence, fear, respect, sincerity, and love as if toward Christ, even when the slave owner is harsh. Slaves are to try and please their owners at all times, not just when being observed (Ephesians 6:5-6, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Peter 2:18). The enslaved are directed to work even harder for Christian masters, since they are fellow believers. Paul’s letter to the slaveholder Philemon, requesting forgiving treatment of a runaway slave, embraces the idea of spiritual brotherhood among Christian slaves and their Christian owners but does not find fault with any part of slavery as an institution or promote a universal principle of abolition. At the end of an instructive section regarding the expected obedience of slaves and reverence toward masters, Paul says: “Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding….Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth.” (1 Timothy 6:1-5a) Christians are “slaves of God”. (Romans 6:16-23)
All of the biblical passages mentioned in the last paragraph offer sturdy guardrails to follow when interpreting proclamations of general spiritual freedom such as in Galatians:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NIV)
The message: Be spiritually free, but remain in the physical situation you were in previously.
That message is laid out explicitly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Here, like everywhere else in Scripture, the morality of slavery is not being questioned. Physical bondage under the rule of another person is a recognized as an undesirable situation for anyone to be in, but not as an ethical problem. Being in spiritual bondage is to be strongly avoided, but regarding earthly matters “each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them”:
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:21-24 NIV)
The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “remarkably few people found the institution of slavery to be unnatural or immoral until the second half of the 18th century. Until that time Christians commonly thought of sin as a kind of slavery rather than slavery itself as a sin. When concern was expressed for slaves, it was for their good care, not for their unfree status.”
Owning another person is radically inhumane. It belongs in the same general ethical category as murder, rape, torture, and child molestation. In fact, these horrible actions are far more likely to happen in a chattel or indentured slave system. There is no friendly or morally acceptable form of slavery.
When it comes to the issue of slavery, the entire mode of argument that believers are forced to use because of their faith commitment to the trustworthiness of God is fundamentally dishonest. In any other area of their lives that did not potentially implicate their own infidelity to truth or good behavior, they would be able to easily follow through on deciding this most basic of ethical challenges: slavery is a terrible evil that must be effectively destroyed as soon as possible wherever found. Just the same as murder, rape, torture, and child molestation. Yet, because they firmly believe that God is perfectly good and wise, they have to make up justifications for the fact that both testaments in the Bible are unapologetically pro-slavery.
How could a wise and loving God not include a strong prohibition against slavery in Scripture? He gave the Jews 613 laws in the Old Testament, many of which were counter-cultural and difficult for them to adjust to or obey. But, he did not speak against slavery. Instead, he instructed the Jews on how to purchase human beings as chattel or indentured slaves.
Similarly, God’s message in the New Testament could have included clear directives for Christians to free or gradually release the slaves that they currently owned, regardless of what the greater Roman society chose to do. But, he did not even suggest that any slaves ought to be released from bondage due to moral reasons.
Chattel slavery based on race for all non-Hebrew people (non-Jews, gentiles) was authorized directly by God:
However, 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 NLT)
The Torah does not provide a way for a female or male slave from a foreign land to enter into a temporary forced labor contract. The section devoted to the acquisition and treatment of indentured servants, Exodus 21, is only applicable to Hebrews.
Many passages in the Bible give instruction on how to treat non-Jews very differently and much more harshly. Let us consider several definitions of “race” to make sure that my charge of racism against various biblical laws and commands is justified:
each of the major groupings into which humankind is considered (in various theories or contexts) to be divided on the basis of physical characteristics or shared ancestry
a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group
a group of people descended from a common ancestor
Race, as a concept that we utilize now, is an invention from the 17th-19th centuries. Scientists and philosophers began to organize the world’s knowledge in a systematic way without particular reference to religion or traditional philosophy, and this included the physical traits of human beings. They defined race in relation to those physical features.
Scientific American notes that in the 21st century “the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning.”
The ancient Jews understood race as being a people group having common ancestry, language, and culture. An example of this can be seen in Ezra:
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” (Ezra 9:1-2 NIV)
God’s commands regarding slavery and other issues that treated non-Jews in a radically worse manner than Jews were racist. These laws were motivated by a desire to prevent other people groups from having protective rights and privileges on the same level with the Jews, the “in-group”. For example, Jews could be permanent chattel slaves in specific circumstances. This type of slavery was legal for non-Jews in all circumstances.
As stated above in Leviticus 25:44-46, enslaved Hebrews were to be handled more kindly than foreign slaves. Yet, the Bible says these members of God’s chosen people group that were in bondage could be dealt with through great brutality:
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 NASB)
Permanent slavery was the only possible situation for Hebrew wives and children of male Hebrew slaves that were given a wife by their masters. After finishing indentured servitude, a condition of slavery for life was also the only choice for a Hebrew slave husband that wanted to stay married to a wife given to him while under bondage. The Hebrew wife and Hebrew children were already in a state of chattel slavery. The standard maximum length of indentured servitude for a Hebrew male was 6 years:
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 NLT)
Permanent slavery for Hebrew female slaves was the required condition if their fathers sold them into slavery:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. (Exodus 21:7 NLT)
The two quotes above from Exodus legitimized the permanent enslavement of a female citizen from the home nation. This was much worse than slavery in the southern United States during the early 1800s, where such a thing was illegal and considered to be morally reprehensible. For a much more in-depth comparison of this type specifically, one can investigate Nathan Andersen’s article, “Slave Systems of the Old Testament and the American South: A Study in Contrasts.”
If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord. With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven. (Leviticus 19:20-22 NIV)
If a bull attacks and kills a free person, the penalty for the bull’s owner is much higher (potentially any amount) than if a slave is killed:
If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. However, if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter. If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death. (Exodus 21:28-32 NIV)
I think it is important to stop and consider just how terrifying, epically cruel, and murderous the acquisition process was for slaves captured by the Jewish military during the take over of the Promised Land by God’s specific orders. This was supposed to involve a large territory, from the Nile River in Egypt to Lebanon (south to north) and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River in Iraq and Syria (west to east). This has been calculated to equal 56,000 square miles, or a bit smaller than the size of New York and Vermont combined. Historians and anthropologists estimate that the population of that region had more than 1 million people at that time. The Jews did not end up controlling all of this land, but it was promised to them by God (Genesis 15:18, Joshua 1:4). Sections of the Bible like the one below demonstrate that the creator of the universe can be just as violent and inhumane as any of the notorious mass killers from ancient, medieval, or modern history. The enemies of God’s people had gained that status by worshipping other deities. These people, deserving of death for their religious crime, were now targets for the Jewish armed forces acting on command from the Lord of heaven. Thus, all of the native human beings inhabiting the Middle East were granted two choices. Either surrender to a lifetime of enslavement or become a victim of a divinely led extermination campaign:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:10-18 NIV)
In Isaiah 14, the Bible promises a future in which God’s people will make permanent slaves of all other groups on Earth. It originates as a prophecy of revenge on a neighboring empire, but expands to oppress the rest of humanity. Many study bibles and commentaries have titled this section of Isaiah as something like “Israel’s Taunt Against Babylon” because the text includes a Jewish song of mockery and retribution against their former masters. In verses 1-2, the lines just before the song, it foretells that the Jews will make slaves of all other nations, not just the Babylonians that held thousands of Jews in exile for about half of the 6th century BCE:
But the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land; and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob. And the nations will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the Lord’s land; they will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them. (Isaiah 14:1-2 NRSV)
As the conservative evangelical Christian website “Theology of Work” says regarding the Bible’s teachings on slavery:
The protection against permanent enslavement also did not apply to foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46). Men taken in war were considered plunder and became the perpetual property of their owners. Women and girls captured in war, who were apparently the vast majority of captives (Num. 31:9-11, 32-35; Deut 20:11-14), faced the same situation as female slaves of Hebrew origin (Deut. 21:10-14), including permanent enslavement. Slaves could also be purchased from surrounding nations (Eccl. 2:7), and nothing protected them against perpetual slavery.
Some Christians point to differences between English translations of the Old Testament that use “servant” instead of “slave” in certain instances. They claim that servants did not suffer as much as slaves. This all depends on what the Hebrew law communicates specifically in each verse, passage, and context. Within the Old Testament, the word “servant” appears over 300 times for the New American Standard Bible and more than 700 times in the New International Version. It is very common for the word “servant,” “slave,” or similar terms to have originated from a translation of the ancient Hebrew term “ebed,” which comes from another Hebrew word “abad.” Both describe a wide range of servitude in various types. Most of the verses quoted in this article that contain the word “slave” include the term “ebed” or “abad” in the original ancient Hebrew. The English word “slave” can also be derived from other Hebrew words like “šip̄·ḥāh” in Leviticus 19:20 (quoted above). The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “The Hebrew word ‘ebed’ really means ‘slave’; but the English Bible renders it ‘servant.'” So, the verse below, that translates “servant” for “abad,” stating that the Jews are God’s “servants,” really means that they are his slaves. They are God’s property, his chattel:
For the sons of Israel are My servants; they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 25:55 NASB)
Believers will often point out that the Old Testament includes prohibitions against 1) kidnapping and 2) returning a runaway slave to their master.
1) How a person enters the slave system is far less important morally than the fact that such an institution exists at all in a society governed by a supposedly just and loving God. The laws against kidnapping are in passages that discuss Hebrew slavery, not foreign slaves. Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 prohibit the stealing of a free Hebrew, to put them into slavery against their will. These verses provide nothing like a condemnation of slavery as an institution:
Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession. (Exodus 21:16 NIV)
If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 24:7 NIV)
As noted above in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, many foreigners were enslaved during warfare by God’s explicit direction. That is kidnapping.
2) It is vital to recognize that the quote below refers to runaway slaves from other nations. This can be easily seen as a way for Israel to strike out against their neighbors. With less resources by way of forced laborers, those other societies would be weakened:
When runaway slaves from other countries come to Israel and ask for protection, you must not hand them back to their owners. Instead, you must let them choose which one of your towns they want to live in. Don’t be cruel to runaway slaves. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16 CEV)
Many believers claim that ancient slavery in the Jewish or Mediterranean context generally was not as harsh as was for slaves in North America during the 16th-19th centuries. It is pointed out that in Roman society, slaves were sometimes freed and, unlike in colonial America, could move up in social rank. That is certainly more positive than permanent ownership. But, this does not lessen the injustice built into the concept of owning people, whether in the form of chattel slavery or indentured servitude. The vast majority of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern slaves could legally be treated quite harshly and were in fact expendable property. They usually had no legal status as persons and very little, if any, protection against harm from their masters.
There is ample historical evidence showing that chattel slavery in the Middle East (also known generally as the Ancient Near East) during the Old Testament era was quite common, and often as brutal and inhumane as the types of bondage that existed in 16th-19th century North America or within the Roman Empire. Long before the Jews encountered the Romans, they were surrounded by large empires that depended on vast labor forces made up of chattel slaves, indentured servants, and paid workers: Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, etc. Great portions of these slave populations were taken through military conquest. They and their children were often traded or sold to various owners throughout the region. The practice of owning human beings was thought to be normal or natural in those cultures. See the section below from Daniel Snell’s chapter in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 1. It is titled, “Slavery in the Ancient Near East”:
The sources of slaves who were not debt slaves were beyond the central Mesopotamian area. In Nuzi in Northern Iraq, slaves were frequently but not always from the ethnic group called Lullubians, perhaps located in the mountains beyond Nuzi….
The Phoenicians in their seafaring heyday were said to be notoriously good at kidnapping people to be transported to distant lands as slaves….
The most interesting of the slaves under the Assyrians may have been the eunuchs….may have been the ‘ultimate slaves’, persons who were alienated from their pasts and who could have no future offspring.…
In the Neo-Babylonian period (605–333 BCE), there is a wealth of documentation about slaves, working in three capacities. First, there was a small number of royal slaves who did menial jobs in the palace and who had no chance of catching the eye or the favour of their master. It is not clear how a slave became a royal slave. Perhaps such slaves were prisoners of war retained by the king. Then there were slaves as janitors owned by the temples, which continued to be economic as well as religious centres. In this case the master was not even a real person, but a god, and so preferential treatment or manumission seemed to be impossible. Finally, the largest and best-known group of slaves were those owned by private persons. Among them we see great variety in the tasks performed, from agriculture to loan-sharking….
One became a slave by getting caught as a prisoner of war, being sold as a debt-slave, or, in the case of the temple slaves, being ‘dedicated’ by a family overwhelmed by crop failure and unable to continue caring for a child….
The literate Near East had at least two thousand years’ experience of slavery by the time the Greeks under Alexander arrived with their own take on the institution. And the varieties of experience slaves had has been rivalled only in the two thousand years since.
About a dozen scholars from the University of Chicago’s faculty contributed to a text on the same general topic, Slaves and Households in the Near East. Regarding slavery in ancient Mesopotamia, they note:
As a rule, a wealthy family in Ur III Babylonia owned at least one or two slaves.
Raymond Westbrook describes the overall condition of slaves in this region in his article, “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law”:
The legal systems of the ancient Near East recognized persons as a category of property that might be owned by private individuals. It was pursuant to the normal rights of ownership that a master could exploit the slave’s labor, restrict his freedom, and alienate him.
Two times in the New Testament book of Matthew, Jesus expresses his perspective that the connection between God and humanity is analogous to a human master and his slaves. In his “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (Matthew 18:21-35) and “Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants” (Matthew 24:36-51), he has clear opportunities to reject the institution of slavery and call it immoral. Instead, the practice of slavery is used as a teaching model to show people how they should interact with him, the Father, and the Spirit. The “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” even describes an owner presenting a whole family of slaves for sale in order to pay off the debt of the father. The master has compassion for the father and forgives the money owed, but later that father is very harsh to someone that owed him money. Jesus finishes this story by stating: “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Not only is slavery justified, but so is torture. Further, Jesus never said the Old Testament God did anything wrong regarding slavery or anything else. Why? One reason is because in New Testament theology (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17) and core Christian belief (Nicene Creed), Jesus is the Old Testament God (along with the other members of the Trinity: the Father and the Spirit). In Matthew 5:17-19, he proclaims: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the context of a massive system of bondage within the Roman Empire that included a lot of chattel slavery, the New Testament repeatedly commands believers on how to treat slaves. These writings accept slavery without exhibiting any anxiety of conscience. Enslavement had been normalized for thousands of years beforehand. The quotes below from the apostles Peter and Paul do not attempt a moral justification for human bondage. There is no hint toward an ethical need for a universal abolition of slavery:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. (Ephesians 6:5-6 NLT)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. (Colossians 3:22 NIV)
Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. (1 Timothy 6:1-5a NLT)
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10 NIV)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18 NIV)
We can see that Christian masters are instructed to treat their slaves well. The problem is: slaves are still not free. The New Testament precepts regarding slavery can be legitimately interpreted as worse than that for many Hebrew male slaves in the Old Testament. This is because New Testament slavery includes no term limits and Christians can permanently enslave fellow believers. The institution of slavery creates an environment, a legal scenario, where all forms of abuse can be taken out upon the slave and no consequences of a substantial level will be directed towards the slave owner.
Believers will sometimes point to the Apostle Paul’s appeal to a Christian slave owner in the New Testament book of Philemon, claiming that this is a forward step toward freeing slaves in later generations. A slave named Onesimus has run away and Paul writes to the master to ask that he deal with the captive graciously upon receiving him back into his household. A fugitive slave could receive extreme physical abuse or capital punishment as a consequence of leaving their master. Paul did not offer a subtle or overt condemnation upon the practice of slavery. He praised the virtuous behavior of Philemon, the slave owner:
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. (Philemon 4-7 NIV)
Paul attempts to satisfy the wishes of Philemon and then requests good treatment for Onesimus:
I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon 14-16 NIV)
A general spiritual freedom, at least, is proclaimed when Paul says the return of Onesimus would be “[perhaps]…no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother”. He uses the phrase, “that you might have him back forever”. In the context of a slave/master relationship, to have someone back forever implies continued bondage, even if that slave is “dear” to both Philemon and Paul. These statements must be held together with Paul’s directions in four other New Testament books that slaves ought to obey their masters as if serving Christ (Ephesians 6:5-6, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1-5a, Titus 2:9-10), his claim in Galatians 3:28 that all are spiritually equal in Christ, and the explicit normalizing effect of Old Testament commands regarding how to acquire and manage slaves. Thus, we again encounter the principle of “be spiritually free, but remain in the physical situation you were in previously”.
If Paul really meant for Onesimus to become permanently freed, why would he send this slave back to their master? The possibility that Onesimus was a disobedient slave is revealed by Paul when he says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (v. 11) Various translations of verse 15 use “perhaps” or “it seems” when Paul is expressing his request that Onesimus be warmly received by Philemon. There is no command to do anything in the whole book of Philemon, though Paul says he could give commands on this issue (v. 8). There is no appeal to, or description of, abolition as a universal moral duty in this text. Paul does not indicate that Onesimus had suffered under Philemon or that slavery is in any way immoral. There is an appeal for kind treatment of a particular slave that is being returned to his master. It is notable that various American pro-slavery advocates in the 1800s argued that the book of Philemon supported the act of returning a fugitive slave to their owner.
Regarding the overall situation in which Paul’s letter to Philemon was composed, New Testament scholar Walter Taylor explains in his book, Paul, Apostle to the Nations: An Introduction: “Two major theories seek to explain how the plot fits together. In the first (or traditional) theory, Onesimus has stolen from Philemon (v.18) and fled from him….The second theory is that Onesimus is a fugitive but a slave who experienced some form of disagreement with this master. Onesimus did something inappropriate or stupid or was perceived as having done something that caused Philemon financial loss.” (page 279) What exactly does Paul want Philemon to do? Taylor responds: “At a minimum, Philemon is told (implicitly) to do two things: (1) refrain from punishing Onesimus; and (2) if you keep him as a slave, live with him in a radically different relationship based on your common faith in Christ.” (page 286) He also notes: “For Paul, slavery, as all institutions, was part of this world that was passing away (1 Cor 7:31).” (page 282) Many Christian slaveholders of future generations combined Paul’s sense of an imminent return of Christ with an acceptance of the “temporary” conditions of slavery. Redemption of the soul was valued far above the awful pain in body, mind, and emotions that were not seen as urgently deserving of relief. Slaves were invited to become Christians in the early Church. A terrible dilemma remained: the Second Coming of Christ did not arrive in order to alleviate the dreadful sufferings of those in bondage.
In ancient Rome, slaves were considered to be subhuman, or at least as considerably less valuable in practice than the people that owned them. Aristotle, the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher, greatly admired by the Romans and a vast number of prominent Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, claimed that slaves were born into their position because it was their appropriate destiny, as part of the normal way that nature operated. He stated:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…
And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.
They were to be used in a similar way that a farmer treats livestock. He asserted that “the slave is a living tool and the tool a lifeless slave.”
The two most influential theologians in church history, Augustine and Aquinas, believed that slavery was a justified aspect of human life. Augustine thought it existed as a result of the sin that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden. Aquinas stated that some people had superior intelligence and naturally ruled over those that were inferior.
Regarding what slavery was like in the Roman Empire, the government and culture which dominated a large part of the social and political context for each New Testament book, see the descriptions below from historians.
From the “Slavery in the Roman World” article in the World History Encyclopedia:
Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves and upon this foundation of forced labour was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society….Slavery, that is complete mastery (dominium) of one individual over another, was so imbedded in Roman culture that slaves became almost invisible and there was certainly no feeling of injustice in this situation on the part of the rulers….it was believed that the freedom of some was only possible because others were enslaved. Slavery, was, therefore, not considered an evil but a necessity by Roman citizens. The fact that slaves were taken from the losers in battle (and their subsequent offspring) was also a helpful justification and confirmation of Rome’s (perceived) cultural superiority and divine right to rule over others and exploit those persons for absolutely any purpose whatsoever. Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak….The lot of agricultural slaves (vincti) was probably one of the worst as they were usually housed in barrack buildings (ergastula) in poor, prison-like conditions and often kept in chains. Pompeii has revealed such work gangs chained together in death as they were in life. Other skeletal remains from Pompeii have also revealed the chronic arthritis and distortion of limbs that could only have been produced by extreme overwork and malnutrition….There was, at least for a small minority, the possibility of a slave achieving freedom to become a freedman or woman, and this incentive was fully exploited by slave owners.
From the book, The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History (Seventh Edition), by D. Brendan Nagle (page 229):
The Roman family often included not just parents and their unmarried children but also their slaves, their freedmen, and the offspring of both. The Romans were liberal in their manumission policies, so in many households slaves had a good chance of winning their freedom (or at times of purchasing it) and becoming Roman citizens. However, even after manumission, family ties persisted. In the eyes of the law, a slave had no father, and on manumission the freedman took the name of the former owner….Slave marriages existed but were not recognized as legal…Slaves could purchase other slaves. When a male slave purchased a female slave as a wife, she actually had the status of being a personal slave to her husband, though strictly speaking she belonged to his master because everything a slave owned belonged to the slave’s owner [including any children from the slave marriage]….Roman families that possessed slaves – a fairly large segment of the population because not only the rich but even the middle classes owned slaves. Also, to balance this fairly benign picture it should be added that slavery in rural areas, especially on large estates or in the mines, could take a much harsher form. In the countryside, where slaves worked in chain gangs, manumission was quite unlikely. Their slaves were exploited to the maximum and were often treated with great cruelty, from which there was no escape except flight, death or, very rarely, revolt.
Regarding slavery in regions controlled by Rome, historian Karen Carr explains: “Many of these men and women, especially in southern France and Spain, worked in the fields, on big farms owned by rich men and women. On these farms (called latifundia), a slave or freedman overseer forced hundreds or thousands of slaves to work out in the fields all day under the sun…” PBS notes: “All slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could sell or rent them out at any time. Their lives were harsh. Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment.”
The Judeo-Christian God is outrageously barbaric a great many times in Scripture. One can recall his choice to drown the world’s population in the Genesis flood – millions of humans and trillions of animals, the laws that required the death penalty for many things nearly everyone today believes are not remotely close to capital offenses, the fatal diseases and famines and predatory animals he specifically inflicted on thousands of people for disobedience or complaining or insulting a prophet, the genocidal conquests of the Promised Land, the environment of everlasting suffering he made for likely billions of people that do not submit to his form of salvation that is forced upon them or else, and many other horrible examples. Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible by Steve Wells carefully accounts for exactly 2,821,364 deaths caused by God in the Bible and 25 million if particular historical estimates are used. The idea for the book title came from Deuteronomy 32:39-42: “I kill…I wound…I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh.” This character trait of incredibly “callous love” is integrated into the most intimate aspects of his relationship with humanity. For example, Christians are considered as slaves in relation to Christ:
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:16-23 NIV)
The Apostle Paul says above that he is “using an example from everyday life”. People in the ancient world knew well what slavery was like, either by observation or direct experience. Slavery was prevalent in most places on Earth for most of human history. Europe during the Middle Ages has been considered as a temporary exception to this in many older history books, as serfdom was thought to have replaced slavery after the western section of the Roman Empire gradually collapsed. However, this belief turns out to be wrong. Hannah Barker, a historian writing for Oxford Bibliographies in a 2019 article, “Slavery in Medieval Europe”, noted that chattel slavery, along with serfdom, was very common in Europe from the Roman era all the way through to the early modern period. She asserts that previous historians overlooked a lot of evidence on this issue. Barker provides many scholarly references there in support of the claim. She explains that the false belief “derives from the late-18th- and 19th-century abolitionist assumption that as Christianity spread through Europe during the Middle Ages, it must surely have driven out slavery. Among scholars, this common knowledge is sometimes reinforced by Marxist historical narratives, according to which slavery was the mode of production characteristic of the Roman period, while serfdom characterized the medieval period. Yet into the 14th and 15th centuries, medieval Europeans continued to own slaves, trade in slaves, and enslave each other as well as non-European others. They used slaves for agricultural and artisanal labor as well as domestic, sexual, reproductive, and military service.” The history department at the University of Houston explains: “Slavery never disappeared from medieval Europe. While slavery declined in northwestern Europe, it persisted in Sicily, southern Italy, Russia, southern France, Spain, and North Africa. Most of these slaves were ‘white,’ coming from areas in Eastern Europe or near the Black Sea….As early as 1300, Europeans were using black and Russian slaves to raise sugar on Italian plantations. During the 1400s, decades before Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World, Europeans exploited African labor on slave plantations built on sugar producing islands off the coast of West Africa.”
The Encyclopedia of European Social History states that “with the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of steady supplies of slaves, a homegrown version was devised that took some though not all the elements of slavery by evolving new ways of tying labor to the land….Christian theology made its peace with the physical bondage of slavery and serfdom by stressing the freedom of the soul….servitude was treated as the consequence of sin.”
Serfdom was a somewhat lighter form of bondage than traditional slavery, yet still very inhumane and exploitative. It was not chosen for moral reasons by Christians in Europe. This model was used because of the period’s social and economic system: feudalism. In this age of European history dominated by the Church, human bondage existed on a massive scale. Encyclopedia Britannica explains: “As serfs, they could not marry, change occupations, or move without the permission of their lords, to whom they were required to give a major portion of their harvest. The development of centralized political power, the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, and endemic peasant uprisings in the 14th and 15th centuries led to the gradual emancipation of serfs in western Europe.” So, it was not Christ-centered spiritual reform that ended serfdom for the western side of the continent. In the east, the Russian Empire inhabited by Orthodox Christians would not end serfdom until 1861, and this was against massive local resistance from the aristocracy and general public. It only passed into law because Tsar Alexander II put forth strenuous efforts to make the process happen. Encyclopedia.com notes that the “majority felt that the serfs, who were seen as barbaric, would be unable to become citizens of Russia and so could not be freed from the control of the nobles.” Russia’s abolition of serfdom can also be dated to 1906, depending on how it is defined. Historian Richard Hellie’s chapter titled “Russian Slavery and Serfdom, 1450–1804” in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 3, comments: “Slavery…was an ancient institution in Russia and effectively was abolished in the 1720s. Serfdom, which began in 1450, evolved into near-slavery in the eighteenth century and was finally abolished in 1906. Serfdom in its Russian variant could not have existed without the precedent and presence of slavery.” Britannica remarks: “Serfs were often harshly treated and had little legal redress against the actions of their lords. A serf could become a freedman only through manumission, enfranchisement, or escape.”
Beginning in early Christianity, there were leaders every few centuries that voiced concern over slavery or said that it was wrong or harsh, such as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394). Church father Ambrose of Milan (339-397) stated that, as a charitable religious act, Christians should be diligent in ransoming slaves that are fellow believers, but not the infidels (Muslims) or pagan barbarians.
In 1975, Roman Catholic historian John Francis Maxwell wrote Slavery and the Catholic Church: The history of Catholic teaching concerning the moral legitimacy of the institution of slavery. He explained that for over 1400 years, until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Roman Catholic popes, bishops, and moral philosophers authored or approved rigorous justifications for the existence and practice of slavery. He clarified exactly what concerned him enough to take on research for the book: “Since the early beginnings (in the eighteenth century) of the modern anti-slavery movement, a few Catholic historians have done their best to whitewash the past history of this common teaching of the Popes, Councils, Church Fathers, Bishops, canonists and moralists on slavery. They have done so with the well-intentioned motive of defending the good name of the Catholic Church….In the absence of any official commission of inquiry into the disaster of the common Catholic teaching on slavery one can only hope that at some future time the whole question will be sub judice; but meanwhile one may try to make a private investigation.” (pages 10-11)
Another meticulously researched book on the much of the same topic was written in 2017 by priest and church historian Pius Onyemechi Adiele. It was titled, The Popes, the Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans 1418-1839. In a section called, “The Church’s Acceptance of Slavery as a Divine Institution”, Adiele summarized the theological reasons as to why for more than thirteen centuries leaders in his religious tradition condoned the practice of owing human beings as chattel:
The Church’s acceptance of the institution of slavery as a positive good is founded on two main pillars namely: the Pauline teaching on slavery and the servant of God title of Jesus Christ found in (Isaiah 53: 1-2)….The teachings contained therein made the Church to accept slavery and preached to the enslaved to accept their condition of life as a way of emulating Christ, who, though was God but had to empty Himself by taking up the form of a slave and became obedient even unto death (Phil. 2: 6-11). This position made the Church not to find ways of eliminating slavery, but rather led her to make effort to give it a humanitarian face by preaching to both masters and slaves using Pauline language, to remain in the status, in which they were before God called them to the faith in Christ (1 Cor. 7: 17-24) and to fulfil their duties and obligations to one another (Col. 3: 22-24; Eph. 6: 5-8; Col. 4:1; Eph. 6: 9, etc.). The implication of this, is that slavery was accepted as an institution willed by God and as a necessary part of the social order of things in the human society. (page 407)
Both Maxwell and Adiele describe the official decrees (papal bulls) issued by various popes that legitimized the enslavement of people in different global regions. Economic historian William G. Clarence-Smith writes that by the 10th century within Roman Catholicism “it remained licit to enslave heretics, Muslims, Jews, heathens, rebels against papal authority, clerics breaking their vows of celibacy, and those aiding the infidel. Popes themselves owned slaves, as did priests and clerical corporations. Canon law anathemised those who encouraged slaves to leave their owners, and incorporated aspects of the Roman law of servitude….As late as 1873, Pope Pius IX referred to the alleged ‘curse of Ham’ afflicting Africans, thereby underpinning a racist religious argument for servitude.”
A scholarly review of former U.S. Circuit Judge John Noonan’s 2004 book, A Church That Can And Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, states:
As late as the nineteenth century, there was slavery in the Papal States and numerous religious orders still kept slaves. They sometimes trafficked in slaves as well, even after Gregory XVI’s 1839 bull condemning the slave trade. Noonan has no patience with the argument, sometimes advanced by theologians, that slavery in the ancient world was fundamentally different from slavery in recent centuries. Enslaved persons, he maintains, have always been deprived of the legal protections routinely afforded those recognized as citizens. Besides, as he rightly notes, the argument is irrelevant to the modern period, through much of which the Church maintained that slavery was morally acceptable. There is no way around it: the Church in the past forty years has changed its theological judgment of slavery. What was once acceptable has become intrinsically evil.
Roman Catholic theologian and priest James Keenan writes:
Noonan describes a church unable to recognize slavery’s sinfulness and a long-standing theological community at home with the institution, even when it is innovating the moral law. From Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and Antoninus of Florence to John Mair and Francisco de Vitoria, the slave receives no recognition.
Medieval European and Mediterranean studies scholar Johan Hanna MacKechnie summarizes the Christian environment in which European slavery thrived during the Middle Ages: “The Church sanctified the slave trade by arguing that religious differences justified slavery. Christian law accepted the institution of slavery and permitted Christians to keep non-Christian slaves. Written about the Christian Crusades, Gratian’s Decretum, a collection of canon law produced in Bologna in 1140, explicitly defended the enslavement of Muslims; Gratian’s view became instrumental in later medieval justifications of Muslim slavery….Demand for slaves in Aragon was so high in the late 14th century that the supply started to diversify and Orthodox Christian slaves, including Circassians, Russians, Slavs, Bulgarians, Albanians and Greeks, all began to appear in Iberia from areas around the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Similar pro-slavery content can be found in numerous writings by leaders in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Protestant denominations.
Historical and cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson’s text, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, remarks: “The Orthodox church, according to Richard Hellie, ‘condoned, and in fact, encouraged, the enslavement of Orthodox by Orthodox,’ and it did not object to the enslavement of Orthodox Christians by members of other faiths.” Helie was a scholar of medieval and early modern Russian history. He was commenting on the entire history of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the quote above. Specifically regarding the early modern period, an evaluation of his book Slavery in Russia: 1450–1725 in the academic journal Slavic Review stated that “as we have come to expect of him, the author makes particularly detailed and effective use of legal sources. The first large section of the book gives a clear and generally convincing account of the legal norms defining the various types of slavery in Muscovy and the relationships of slaves to their masters and the rest of society.” When discussing the first major law code of Kievan Rus (early Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine), the 13th century’s Pravda Russkaya, the Encyclopedia of Russian History explains: “The prominence of slavery in the law indicates that the economy and society of Kievan Rus depended upon various forms of involuntary labor, much of it probably provided by war captives.” All of this is particularly significant because Christianity became the official religion of Kievan Rus in 988 CE/AD.
Slavery also continued in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, until the capital city of Constantinople was taken over in 1453 CE/AD. At various points, this included much of North Africa, the Middle East, and substantial parts of European regions that today fit in the borders of modern nations like Turkey, Italy, Greece, Romania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Social historian Youval Rotman’s text, Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World, explores this subject. The following quotes are from two chapter sections about the Byzantine Church:
From Paul to the fourth-century Cappadocian fathers, Christian commentators took little interest in the institution of slavery. There is nothing surprising about that since Paul paved the way for the notion that slavery was one social condition among others established by God… (page 131)
…slavery was never problematic outside the church and was rarely so even within it. (page 132)
The anathema of the third canon of the Council of Gangra (343)…was directed against those who urged slaves to leave their masters. (page 133)
When the Novellae [laws] of Justinian dealt with the land owned by the monasteries, what was at issue was the “private” property of each monastery or bishopric. That property consisted not only immovables…but also of movables…and of livestock and rural slaves… (pages 146-147)
It is not surprising that slaves were the private property of bishops, inherited by their families, purchased, or received as gifts. (page 147)
Another book, historian Katharine Gerbner’s Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, claims, “It was through the mouths of ministers that the brutal slave laws…were enunciated, year after year.” Anti-slavery writers belonged to a very tiny minority in church history. Their views were not adopted by groups of Christians until the 17th century Quakers. And, yet, as Gerbner notes, there were thousands of Quaker slave owners in the Americas. For example, on the most economically important English colony during the 17th century, the island of Barbados, there were only four non-slave owning Quakers out of the thousands of members. Many of their leaders consistently argued that encouraging black slaves to convert to Christianity was a wise idea because it would make them more submissive and diligent workers. A summary for an article written by Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian historian, explains:
Barbados was the birthplace of British slave society and the most ruthlessly colonized by Britain’s ruling elites. They made their fortunes from sugar produced by an enslaved, “disposable” workforce, and this great wealth secured Britain’s place as an imperial superpower and caused untold suffering.
While visiting Barbados in 1671 and seeing that nearly all of his denomination’s members owned slaves, Quaker founder George Fox gave a famous sermon, “Gospel family-order: being a short discourse concerning the ordering of families, both of whites, blacks and Indians”. Gerbner notes that in this speech he “didn’t advocate for an end to slavery. Instead, Fox really sought to reform slavery and he urged Quakers to convert or, in Quaker language, convince the enslaved members of their households to become Christian. Most historians have tried to call Fox’s sermon and his sort of stance on slavery proto-abolitionist. But, what I argue in my book is that I think it’s better understood as an effort to Christianize slavery…I don’t think that we can call it anti-slavery.”
Believers often point to the denomination of the Quakers as leaders in the abolition movement. The National Park Service explains: “The 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition against slavery was the first protest against African American slavery made by a religious body in the English colonies.” Consider the timing of this: at the beginning of the Enlightenment and at the same historical moment as England’s 1688-89 Glorious Revolution when the philosopher John Locke was writing about natural rights in his Second Treatise of Government. New visions of human rights were ruminating in pockets within Europe and America. PBS notes, “In 1776, Quakers were prohibited from owning slaves, and 14 years later they petitioned the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery.” The majority of them were pro-slavery until the mid-1700s, long after Enlightenment humanism had begun to change the ethical views of various intellectuals. Gerbner has noted that the 1688 document was written by Quakers of Dutch and German descent, but not signed by members of this sect from an English background. She clarified this in an interview by stating, “The protest was fascinating, but I quickly became more interested in the fact that it was rejected by the English Quakers in Philadelphia.” As Encyclopedia.com describes the Quaker movement against slavery: “The early history of antislavery in America consisted primarily of the agitation of certain British and American Quakers, but even in this group antislavery sentiments grew slowly because many wealthy Quakers were slave-holders. Only by the mid-1700s, when the Society of Friends faced a severe internal crisis brought on by the effects of the Great Awakening and the Seven Years War, did opposition to slavery increase measurably among Quakers. It was not until the 1780s that the major Quaker meetings could announce that their membership was free of slaveholders.” A similar conclusion can be drawn from a summary given in the interview with Gerbner mentioned above: “Some of the first ‘antislavery’ Quakers, like Morgan Godwyn, actually based their arguments on racist claims, and encouraged Friends to exclude Africans from their households completely. Conversely, slave-owning Quakers sometimes went farther than others in arguing for spiritual equality – but they did so in order to defend slavery. Recognizing the complexities of early Quaker debates on slavery helps to explain why it took a century for Friends to disown slave-owners in their meetings.” She has also explained that several Quaker anti-slavery tracts from the late 17th century and early 18th century were in large part motivated by racial discomfort in that they promoted abolition as a way to exclude black people from white Quaker communities. These writings de-emphasize the point of equal human rights for all people and instead focus on the “need” to separate the races.
Social historian J. William Frost spent much of his career dedicated to studying the history of the Quakers (Society of Friends). He remarked:
Friends have long been somewhat puzzled, perhaps even embarrassed, that the two most prominent 17th-century Quakers, George Fox and William Penn, made so slight a contribution to the Quaker-led early antislavery movement….the Penns bought and sold slaves and hired the labour of other slaves…Because Fox never addressed the morality of slavery per se, his writings on slavery could be used by conservative slave-owning Friends in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1701 to silence the abolitionists….At a time when a considerable number of Pennsylvania Quakers questioned the morality of slavery, the conservatives in control of the press saw in Fox’s acceptance of slavery a means of neutralising the nascent anti-slavery movement.
Two major leaders of the 18th century’s Great Awakening, a significant milestone in the history of American evangelical Christianity, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were pro-slavery. Edwards owned slaves, as did Whitefield. The latter advocated with great commitment and success on a campaign to legalize chattel slavery in Georgia, the only English colony where it had not been allowed (because the state’s original charter business model focused on the use of indentured servants directly from England). According to Encyclopedia Virginia, Whitefield appealed to owners for good treatment of African slaves and yet did not question the morality of slavery itself: “Rather than encourage slaves to run away, Whitefield argued, Christian views would make them better slaves. In the end, Whitefield himself owned a plantation and slaves in South Carolina, but his message of salvation for slaves became typical of white southern evangelicals.”
Conservative evangelical pastor and theologian, Tony Evans, explains in an article titled, “Are Black People Cursed? The Curse of Ham”:
The Puritans were attempting to turn America into the ‘city set on a hill,’ the manifestation of the prophesied kingdom of God on earth. Slavery provided an economic base for implementing this theology, even among some of the theological and religious heroes of the colonial era. Some of the noted New England leaders who endorsed this perspective of slavery were George Whitefield, John Davenport, Ezra Stiles, and Jonathan Edwards. They attempted to teach the slaves to docilely accept their inferior status, for to do so was the will of God. To fail to do so was to rebel against God and risk eternal punishment.
Pro-slavery tracts were very often written by American ministers, at first largely in the North and later in the South. The existence of more than two dozen passages from the Old and New Testaments that reveal the acceptability and normalcy of slavery made it easy to promote sound and valid arguments regarding the legal and moral legitimacy of the practice and institution. Consider these quotes from Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 by historian Larry Tise:
The antebellum period was the golden age of the religious press, when the nation was flooded with tracts, books, and newspapers issued from clergymen’s pens. In the lead of those who used and perfected the religious press to dispense new, editorial opinion, and social philosophy stood proslavery clergymen. (page 166)
Those clergymen who defended slavery possessed the prejudices and aspiration of most other Americans. An overwhelming number of the ministers were slaveholders and plantation owners with aspirations to expand their agricultural interests and income. (page 170)
Tise states that there were very few proslavery tracts printed until shortly before the American Revolution. Up until then, almost everyone perceived slavery as normative:
The forces that gave rise to nascent antislavery did not become apparent until the last third of the eighteenth century when events and ideas associated with the American Revolution began to challenge the future of slavery on a massive scale. (page 15)
Thus, the paucity of early American proslavery literature resulted neither from the absence of proslavery notions nor from any indisposition toward upholding slavery. What was missing was the need to defend an institution that nearly everyone took for granted….Lacking any widespread opposition to slavery, its defense was usually sporadic and local. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published defenses almost always appeared in direct response to specific antislavery tracts and for all practical purposes ended the debate. Not until the decade before the American Revolution did anything like an extended intercolonial and international debate on slavery get under way. (page 16)
Historian and Christian Mark Noll has commented regarding the abolition movement in the United States:
Central to the slavery debate was the issue of how to use the Scripture. Three major positions emerged on the Bible and slavery. Theological conservatives usually defended a literal reading of the Scripture, which was held to provide a divine sanction for slavery. Radicals who wanted to abolish slavery sometimes agreed that the Bible sanctioned slavery, but that acknowledgment led them to disparage the Bible. In the middle were a distraught contingent of Bible readers who were troubled by their conclusion that the Bible sanctioned slavery, and who failed unsuccessfully in trying to combine faithfulness to Scripture and opposition to slavery.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the famous English abolitionist and Christian, is also often brought up as an example of Christianity producing a movement against slavery. The main problem with this view is that nearly everyone in Europe and America was a Christian in his lifetime, the vast majority of whom were not against the practice. A minuscule amount of believers had opposed slavery in the more than 1700 years of Christianity. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, European abolitionists often learned that appeals based in Scripture did not help their mission because the applicable verses so rigidly supported the institution of slavery. Wilberforce used parts of the Bible in his famous work, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807). In Wilberforce’s arguments there, he brought up details regarding Hebrew indentured servitude but did not address chattel slavery for Hebrew females and foreigners or the sections from five New Testament books that command slaves to obey their masters with respect as if loving Christ, even those who are harsh. He also remarked that it was acceptable for the Jews to enslave their neighbors because they “were exalted by the express designation of heaven to a state of eminence above the strangers who sojourned among them, and the heathen who dwelt around them”. He falsely assumed that foreign slaves “were to be set free at the year of Jubilee, or every fiftieth year”. This freedom granted at the year of Jubilee, as explained in Leviticus 25:8-55, only applied to Hebrew males because they are indentured slaves, not to Hebrew females or foreigners of either gender that are chattel slaves, as discussed there and in Exodus 21. Sixteen years later, he later produced another document that advocated for the end of the slave trade: An appeal to the religion, justice and humanity of the inhabitants of the British Empire, in behalf of the Negro slaves in the West Indies (1823). Even though the term “religion” appears in the title, it is barely examined. There is a general appeal to Christian behavior, but no mention of the Bible can be found in this text. In Wilberforce’s lifetime, by necessity many activists for abolition began primarily using argument styles grounded in 17th-18th century Enlightenment humanist ideas, such as that human dignity was based in natural rights common to all people. They could also state that the Bible teaches all people are made in the image of God, yet to be in harmony with the Scriptures they would have needed to accept slavery as a normal part of life. The Open University’s course on Wilberforce notes that some reasons why his efforts succeeded “included the advance of liberal ideas of justice and toleration, themselves reflecting the influence of the Enlightenment, which increasingly made the oppression of Africans seem less acceptable.” One major reason that it took Wilberforce 46 years to convince his countrymen to complete the abolition process in the British Empire was because nearly all of the clergy, government leadership, and the general public stood firmly on the view that slavery and racial inequality were natural, culturally normative, and biblical. Along with their Christian ancestors for hundreds of years that created and sustained New World colonial slavery with biblical justifications, social and religious conservatives in England and America were among the main forces that resisted 18th and 19th century abolition laws. During Wilberforce’s sustained and vigorous campaigns of activism, it took 20 years (1787-1807) to get the slave trade legally ended and another 26 years (1807-1833) to make slavery itself illegal. While remembering the surplus of Bible verses that directly undergird the practice of slavery, we can ask: Why would an entirely good and loving God provide such a “misleading” revelation such that almost the totality of the biblically literate Christian population since the New Testament was written has believed that chattel slavery was acceptable? Or is it more likely that modern Christians developed a more acutely humanitarian sensibility because of the widespread rise of Enlightenment-inspired humanist ideas and social movements?
Much of the domesticated and significantly more humane forms of Christianity that have become increasingly popular in the last two centuries began in the 18th century Enlightenment. To see this, one can simply compare the social and often moral views of pre-modern theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, to leading theologians in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, one can find justifications for slavery in Augustine and Aquinas, anti-Semitism in Luther, and religious intolerance in Calvin. The distinct transformations of Western culture that occurred during the 1700s through to our era radically changed what had seemed before like obviously correct interpretations and applications of biblical teachings. In many ways, Christian ethics became less like the Bible and more compatible with Enlightenment humanism.
In historian Peter Kolchin’s book, American Slavery 1619-1877, he offers a clear summary of what the oppressive and brutal European way of life (which I will note found much undergirding in biblical laws) was like in the 1600s when British colonists began to populate North America and the Caribbean: “In many ways, the world from which early colonists came was a world of pre-modern values, one that lacked the concepts of ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ equal rights, and exploitation; it was a world that instead took for granted natural human inequality and the routine use of force to maintain it.” (page 7) African slaves and their colonial owners were part of a rigidly hierarchical and imperialistic system that often harshly subjugated everyone below the monarch in someway or another. Kolchin quotes another historian on this point, Lawrence Stone: “Whips and stocks were used by the Crown upon its lesser subjects, by the nobleman upon his servants, by the village worthies upon the poor, by the dons upon the undergraduates, by the City Companies upon the apprentices.” (page 7) The National Archives in Britain notes that in the years 1660-1815, there were between 50 and 288 offences within the Bloody Code, a system of crimes that warranted the death penalty. This included serious criminal acts but also petty misdeeds such as “stealing goods worth 5 shillings (25p) [less than 50 cents in US dollars], stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a Naval Dockyard, damaging Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or cutting down a young tree”. This was similar to laws found in the Bible, where the death penalty was the consequence for actions such as robbery, adultery, false prophecy, cursing one’s parents, and witchcraft. Both early modern Britain and ancient Israel were barbaric social environments with radically disproportionate punishments embedded into their legal systems.
Kolchin describes some real differences that the Enlightenment brought into being through a new and broad debate regarding the morality of slavery:
“A variety of factors converged, beginning in the third quarter of the eighteenth century and accelerating during the Revolutionary War, to produce this development. Perhaps most basic was a fundamental shift that occurred in the middle decades of the eighteenth century under the influence of the Enlightenment thought that flourished among Western European and American intellectuals, in attitudes toward cruelty, rights, fair play, and toleration of differences: in short, how human beings should treat one another. Because of this pervasive shift, these years must be regarded as a kind of watershed, separating the modern from the pre-modern eras. Seventeenth-century settlers in the colonies—and usually their children as well—lived in a world that took for granted stocks and tongue-borings, religious proscriptions, fear of witches, and savage repression of the lower orders. The Founding Fathers who led the American Revolution spoke instead of natural rights, political liberty, freedom of religion, and equality before the law. In this new intellectual climate, the treatment, and even the ownership, of slaves became a pertinent subject….Especially significant were changing notions of what constituted legitimate treatment of those who were poor, weak, or different. A new concern for humane treatment—symbolized by the stricture in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution against ‘cruel and unusual punishments’—led to a sharp decrease in the use of corporal punishment on free adults.” (page 65)
Devout readers of any religious scriptures will likely attempt to thoroughly follow its examples. If the texts do not clearly indicate how a sophisticated or alternative interpretation is needed, then the plain meaning will be received. This is what typically happened regarding the Bible and slavery. Leading Christian theologians and ministers did not see a reason to join an abolitionist movement until the late 1700s or beyond. This occurred after the Enlightenment (1685-1815) had begun to shift the mindset of many intellectuals and politicians in Europe and America toward judging the slave trade and institution as immoral. There was no wide scale debate about the ethics of slavery anywhere in the world until the 1770s, when the subject of natural rights for all human beings started to inspire new and radical political upheavals in North America and later in Europe and the Caribbean. These ideas, along with related philosophical and humanitarian analyses and beliefs, altered from earlier Greco-Roman and Christian traditions and specifically developed into new forms during this era, spread and impacted power structures around the planet during the next two centuries. Abolitionists within Christian communities faced tremendous opposition from the overwhelming majority of believers equipped with an abundance of biblical texts in support of slavery.
Among the many textbooks and websites that offer a definition of the European Enlightenment, there are many consistent elements and themes. Here is a typical example from Lumen Learning: “a philosophical movement that dominated in Europe during the 18th century, was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state”. Much of that is intertwined with rights. In The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, scholar of modern history Vicenzo Ferrone asserts that “such rights had to be 1) naturally inherent in human beings as such; 2) equal for all individuals, with no distinction of birth, census, nationality, religion, gender, or skin color; 3) universal, that is to say valid everywhere, in every corner of the world; 4) inalienable and imprescriptible before the power of any political or religious institution.” (page xi) Those rights points to another theme in this cultural movement: cosmopolitanism. Oxford Reference explains that it means the “philosophical idea that human beings have equal moral and political obligations to each other based solely on their humanity, without reference to state citizenship, national identity, religious affiliation, ethnicity, or place of birth”. Without such philosophical and moral foundations as have been listed in this paragraph and happened in thoroughly innovative ways during the Enlightenment, it is highly unlikely that the major reform movements of the next two centuries would have occurred to the degree in which they did, if at all: the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, shifts toward republican and democratic government in dozens of nations, children’s rights, abolition of judicial torture, ecological protection, and worker’s rights. If the Old World civil and religious traditions had remained the same, these reforms would not have seemed possible or probable.
One instance of early anti-slavery writing came from Scotland. In economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), he argued that slavery was economically inefficient. He said, “The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any.” But, to him the institution of slavery was much worse than a poor business model. Political scientist and economist Barry Weingast explains: “Slavery for Smith involved a wide range of normative evils: a person’s life is subject to the whims of another individual; slavery denies standard liberties; slaves are dominated by their masters and are subject to violence and arbitrary discretion.” Smith had been heavily influenced by two other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Francis Hutcheson.
For very detailed, yet accessible, treatments of the Bible’s view of slavery by two scholars with differing viewpoints, see these resources:
Thom Stark responded to Copan’s text with a free book-length document, Is God A Moral Compromiser?
Colonialism and imperialism were dominant in a vast number of Christian and non-Christian societies throughout almost all of world history. These were oppressive and exploitative by design. Slavery fit naturally in these systems.
Several facts are mentioned below about democracies and republics because their natural opposites – empires – and the practice of slavery are closely associated. The word “empire” is directly related to the term “imperialism” and originates from the ancient Roman Latin “imperare”. It means “to command”. Slavery existed in many democracies and republics, but the moral basis of slavery is incompatible with the ideals those political systems appeal to: equality, political freedom, dignity, human welfare, civil debate, factually based policies, humanitarianism, free expression, cooperation, intellectual autonomy, and unity. Empires and all other forms of autocracy, in contrast, are founded and operated within norms of exploitation, inequality, violence, indoctrination, political domination, intellectual restriction, and propaganda centered on blatant falsehoods.
The new ways of thinking that developed in the Enlightenment were grounded in a reference to human dignity and worth over and above whatever powers that God had granted to monarchs. If the full example of the Bible with its occasional emphasis on all humans being made in the image of God was sufficient enough to appear as a consistent teaching, then more than a thousand years of Christian dominated regions would not have continually produced autocracies in the form of kings and queens claiming the divine right to rule. When Christianity overwhelmingly guided the Western world, so did the oppressive and inhumane politics of imperialism and colonialism, just as had existed for millennia before Christ. There were very few critics of these systems. The common existence of democracies and republics appeared after the Enlightenment. Leaders of European royal dictatorships, along with numerous respected Christian theologians and philosophers, based the principle of the divine right of kings on biblical precedents such as the monarchs of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament and teachings like that found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. The latter text was composed within the social and political context of a very harsh and often unethical government, the Roman Empire:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2 NIV)
We can find the same type of viewpoint in writings by the Apostle Peter:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV)
The Bible does not advocate for democracy or republicanism as superior political frameworks to autocracies or theocracies. Greece and Rome had already utilized early forms of democracy and republicanism hundreds of years before Christ. There were also quasi-democratic governments that existed in many places around the world before contact with the influence of those ancient southern European societies. Regions included in this group were Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Africa, India, Australia, and Iceland. This is explained in detail through a book edited by scholars Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, The Secret History of Democracy.
The Father, Jesus, and the Spirit are imperialistic and authoritarian. Yes, in the book of Judges there began a time of something like democratic rule for the Jews (before they demanded that God give them a king three centuries later). They had a loose confederation of tribes with different leaders. It was dominated by an incredibly rigid and brutally harsh theocracy and thus was not truly free. There was nothing like freedom of speech, given that God severely punished any dissent. Freedom of religion was prevented by the death penalty. With very few exceptions, the continuing existence of other societies in their region of the Earth was not allowed. In accordance with particular commands from God, the Jews established an empire in the Promised Land. This was accomplished through multiple genocides. The Old Testament explains that the geographical area of control would have been much greater in size if the Jews had been more obedient, which necessarily would have involved murdering additional ten of thousands (at least) of non-Jews who were literally in the way. Isaiah 14:1-2 reveals a prophecy: in a later era, the Jews will permanently enslave the women and men of every other country.
Scripture repeatedly and emphatically reminds us that Jews and Christians are God’s slaves and all other people are his possessions as well. Jesus spoke about his kingdom and that all of the nations are under his control. He also warned of a time when both the weak and powerful of this world must be held to account for their moral choices. He will judge, punish, and reward them. It is completely understandable that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE/AD. It is not surprising that a spiritual form of rule combined with political administration. This was the ancient model: religion and state united. Jesus used and innovated within the language of the pre-modern world, the vocabulary of empire. Both testaments say that God’s followers are duty bound to love their neighbors and can keep chattel slaves. The gentle care that is said to emanate from the divine head of the universe is part of a very conditional benevolence. Fear and vengeance are here intertwined with affectionate love to an unbalanced degree, leaning with force toward epic anxiety or terror for all who are not God. It was Jesus that declared he came to set the spiritual captives free (Luke 4:18) and also that disobedient physical slaves ought to be tortured (Matthew 18:21-35).
The Apostle Paul makes it clear that we have no right to evaluate the morality of God:
But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9: 20-21 NIV)
God abrasively puts Job in his place, as a creature that should not be challenging the ethical standards intrinsic to the designer of the universe:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! (Job 38:4-5a NIV)
Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? (Job 40:2a NIV)