Wednesday 3 August 2011

Christianity and slavery


Is Christianity anti-slavery?

It was, of course, Christians that originated the abolition movement. Specifically in England - first Quakers, then evangelical Anglicans. Without Christianity (and the British Empire), slavery would still be accepted and widespread.

Yet, of course, since abolition did not arise until around 1800, so, for a reactionary the question answers itself: Christianity is not intrinsically against slavery.


Slavery was an almost universal feature of settled societies, and until around 1800 in England nobody argued that slavery was intrinsically unjest (although nobody wanted to be a slave themselves, as an ideal; although it might be the best available option in some situations). There were, however, plenty of religious arguments that slaves ought to be well treated, if possible.

Of course, slavery is a conitinuum, which makes it hard to discuss and possible to deny. At one extreme lies the irreversible ownership of humans and the ability of the slave owner to do anything whatsover to the slave with no social sanction of any sort. On the way to that are forms of reversible slavery (buying or winning freedom), time-limited slavery (indenture, military conscription), or partial slavery (serfdom).

Certainly there is a wide range of how well slaves have been treated - in the Northern Americas slaves had families and the slave population grew while in the Southern Americas they were (at least initially) worked to death and needed continual replacement from Africa. There is little evidence left of the vast numbers of white slaves taken to the Middle East.

Secular regimes have slavery. Communism reintroduced slavery on a massive scale, but secretly and under other names and justifications; which meant that the slaves could be (and were) as harshly treated as any in world history. National Socialism also reintroduced slavery.


But Christianity as such has little to say about slavery, or indeed any other political or economic arrangements. Most people in most societies through history have been extremely poor, worked long hours and were semi-starving for 'Malthusian' reasons; under such circumstances when there is not enough, clearly Christianity cannot insist on any minimum standard of living or comfort for slaves - or, indeed, for anyone else.

(Hence, all attempts to link Christianity with specific economics are mistaken.)

Christianity (I think this is fair to say) is intrinsically in favour of 'decent' treatment for slaves: slaves ought to be treated as people having immortal souls and free will (and not as animals), and with decent treatment conceptualized such that slaves are able satisfactorily to practice their religion - to be a good Christian in accordance with how that is conceptualized.

Therefore Christian treatment of slaves is more about Time than Conditions: sufficient time must be be available for slaves (like everyone else) to engage in prayer, to participate in Church services and sacraments, the reading of scripture, festivals, fasts, feasts, pilgrimages - or whatever is deemed necessary to be a Christian.



Thomas said...

Nehemiah Adams' "A South-Side View of Slavery" from 1854 is a fantastic and very balanced read regarding the relationship between Christianity and slavery. Adams was a clergyman from Massachusetts who traveled the South for a couple of months writing about his evolving opinion on the subject.

Chris said...

I think your history is wrong. There was not slavery throughout western civ up until the abolitionist movements. I think the Christians wiped out slavery that existed during antiquity. Then slavery was re-introduced to European civ by Islamic merchants operating out of North Africa.

I think there is a wide gulf between St. Paul not telling slaves to run nor masters to free their slaves and Christian slave-owners. I don't see how a Christian could own slaves in good conscience unless it was, e.g., an elderly inherited slave who had no other means of support.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris: "I think your history is wrong."

No, it isn't.

dearieme said...

"around 1800 in England" is needlessly approximate - it is historically important that the abolitionist movement was well launched before 1776, aided by a much-publicised victory in court in England in 1772. It's that fact that allowed Dr Johnson to sneer at the hypocrisy of the American slave-owners who fought for "liberty" when one of their concerns was to protect slavery from this threat from the mother-country.

As for the notion that Christians had stamped out slavery much earlier - rot. In Britain, for example, slavery flourished under the Welsh, Gaels, Anglo-Saxons and Danes - it died out only under the normans. I don't know when it died out in Ireland - presumably when Brehon Law was replaced by English Law in the 17th century.

JP said...

There was not slavery throughout western civ up until the abolitionist movements. I think the Christians wiped out slavery that existed during antiquity.

The wiki article on slavery in medieval Europe is interesting:

"Slavery in early medieval Europe was relatively common. It was widespread at the end of antiquity. The etymology of the word slave comes from this period, the word sklabos meaning Slav. Slavery declined in the Middle Ages in most parts of Europe as serfdom slowly rose, but it never completely disappeared.
Chaos and invasion made the taking of slaves habitual throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages. St. Patrick, himself captured and sold as a slave, protested an attack that enslaved newly baptized Christians in his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In the Viking era starting c. 793, the Norse raiders often captured and enslaved peoples they encountered. In the Nordic countries the slaves were called Thralls.

Germanic laws provided for the enslavement of criminals, as when the Visigothic Code prescribed enslavement for those who could not pay the financial penalty for their crime, and specifically for those who committed certain crimes. They would become slaves to their victims, often with their property.

In Carolingian Europe 10-20% of the entire population consisted of slaves. Some people sold themselves to powerful landowners in order to receive protection, work and food; one Anglo-Saxon will has a land-owner freeing those slaves who had "given her their heads for food." Anglo-Saxons continued and expanded their slave system, sometimes in league with Norse traders. About 10% of England’s population entered in the Domesday Book in 1086 were slaves. Chattel slavery of English Christians was discontinued after 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England. The slave trade in England was abolished in 1102.

The restoration of order as the early Middle Ages passed was accompanied by the transmutation of this state into serfdom, and after the earlier portions, slaves were seldom of the same country as their owner in Western Europe.
Slavery in medieval Europe was so common that the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it—or at least the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands was prohibited at, for example, the Council of Koblenz in 922, the Council of London in 1102, and the Council of Armagh in 1171. William the Conqueror, too, banned export of English slaves. The medieval slave trade was mainly to the East: Byzantine Empire and the Muslim World were the destinations, pagan Central and Eastern Europe an important source. The Persian traveller Ibn Rustah described how Swedish Vikings, the Varangians or Rus, terrorized and enslaved the Slavs. So many Slavs were enslaved for so many centuries that the very name 'slave' derived from their name, not only in English and other European languages."