CHRISTIANITY AND SLAVERY
19th century quotations:
"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God ... it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments,
from Genesis to Revelation ... it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest
civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate
States of America 1,2
"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Rev.
R. Furman, D.D., a Baptist pastor from South Carolina. 3
"I give my daughter, Joyce Falkner, present wife of John Falkner, of the county of Fayette and State of
Virginia, a negro girl by name of Gemima otherwise called Mima. I give her to the above Joyce together
with said Mima's increase forever and for the only use of the said Joyce, to will and dispose of as to her
seemeth fit, hereby revoking all other claims of right or title to the said Gemima alias Mima of her increase
forever." The 1791 will of Toliver Craig, disposing of his assets (and children of his assets) in the event of
his death. 4
21st century quotation:
"...the campaign to end slavery in the United States was for many years largely the work of a small number
of Christians who opposed slavery on explicitly religious grounds and who at the time were regularly
condemned as fanatical zealots, bent (as indeed they were) on imposing their religiously based views
regarding this particular issue on all those who disagreed." Paul Campos 5
The Christian church's main justification of the concept of slavery was based on the "curse of Ham" which
appears in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in Genesis 9:25-27. "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of
slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the
slave of Shem. Christians at the time believed that Canaan had settled in Africa and that his descendents
had become black.
Although slavery was widespread in Palestine during Jesus' ministry, the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament) does not record his opinion of it. Slavery was casually mentioned without criticism in the various
books of the Bible. It was accepted as a natural part of life by almost all Christians until the 19th century
Anabaptists started to criticize slavery in the late 17th century. They were joined by Quakers and
Mennonites. It was only when John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement, became
concerned about slavery that the small protest became a mass movement for the abolition of slavery.
Slavery is still advocated in North America by some Reconstructionist Christians and a few racist fringe
groups within the Christian Identity movement.
I.Dunbar Rowland quoting Jefferson Davis, in "Jefferson Davis," Volume 1, Page 286
2.Jefferson Davis, "Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy," Montgomery, AL, 1861-FEB-18, Confederate States
of America, Congressional Journal, 1:64-66. Available at: httpJ/funnelweb.utcc.utk.edu/-hoemann/jdinaug.htn'd
3.Ref. Dr. Ricahrd Furman, "Exposition of the views of the Baptists relative to the coloured population in the United States in
communication to the Governor of South-Carolina," (1838), at: http://www.furman.edu/-benson/docs/~cd-fmni.htm
4.Jo Thiessen, Ed., "Slave Entries in Wills, Deeds, etc.," at: http://www.niiridspring.com/-jogt/kygen/slavedoc.htm
5.Paul Campos, "Opinions: PAUL CAMPOS: Abortion and the rule of law," Scripps Howard News Service, 2002-JAN, at:
THE BIBLE, CHRISTIANITY, AND SLAVERY:
ACCEPTANCE, OPPOSITION, & RE-ACCEPTANCE OF SLAVERY
Biblical justification for slavery:
The Christian church's main justification of the concept of slavery is based on Genesis 9:25-27. According to
the Bible, the worldwide flood had concluded and there were only 8 humans alive on earth: Noah, his wife,
their six sons and daughters in law. Noah's son Ham had seen "the nakedness of his father." So, Noah laid a
curse -- not on Ham, who was guilty of some type of indiscretion. The sin was transferred to Noah's
grandson Canaan. Such transference of sin from a guilty to an innocent person or persons is unusual in the
world's religious and secular moral codes. It is normally considered highly unethical. However, it appears in
many biblical passages. The curse extended to all of Canaan's descendants:
Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, Tlessed
be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth;
may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave'. "
Christians traditionally believed that Canaan had settled in Africa. The dark skin of Africans became
associated with this "curse of Ham." Thus slavery of Africans became religiously justifiable. "This reading of
the Book of Genesis merged easily into a medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always
depicted as black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African skull shapes, dental
structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find an unassailable argument--rooted in whatever the most
persuasive contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural science -- why one part
of the human race should live in perpetual indebtedness to another." I
By today's secular and religious standards: slavery is immoral; cursing all of an individual's descendents into
perpetual slavery because of an inappropriate act by an ancestor is immoral; laying a curse on the son of the
person who committed the act is immoral.
But in ancient times, cursing a whole race into slavery was considered acceptable because it was in the
Bible. The American slave owner felt that he was carrying out God's plan by buying and using slaves.
Slavery was also condoned and regulated in many passages of the in the Bible. There is no record of Jesus
having commented on it. Paul had every opportunity to condemn slavery, particularly in his Epistle to
Philemon. But he remained silent, except to urge slaves to be content with their lot and to obey their owners.
More on slavery in the Bible.
Attitudes towards slavery in the Bible and the early Christian movement:
Slavery was sanctioned and carefully regulated by many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)
largely in the Pentateuch - its first 5 books. Although slavery was widespread in
Palestine during Jesus' ministry, he is not recorded as having expressed any opinion on it. Slavery was
casually mentioned without criticism in the various books of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). The
authors appeared to accept slavery as a natural condition -- as a universal institution that was not
Many of the early Christians were slaves. They were treated as equals within the church. Perhaps because
of their close contacts with slaves, the early Christian movement appears to have opposed slavery as an
30 to 330 CE: Many of the early Church fathers promoted the abolition of slavery: The Christians in Asia
Minor "decried the lawfulness of it, denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and
religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection." 2
According to a 19th century author Edward C. Rodgers: 3 Maximum preached and wrote against it. 4
Those who entered upon a religious life gave freedom to their slaves. 5 Theodorus Studita gave particular
directions, "not to employ those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves." 6 Polycarp [69 - 155 CE]
and Ignatius of Antioch [circa 50 - circa 10 CE] manumitted their slaves on realizing the equality of the
Christian law. Emperor Constantine [306 - 337 CE] gave authority to the bishops to manumit slaves, and, as
Emperor, granted Roman citizenship to many of those set free. 7
Another 19th century author, August Neander wrote that the early oriental Christians "...declared
themselves opposed to the whole relation of slavery as repugnant to the dignity of the image of God in all
Christian attitudes towards slavery: mid 4th to late 17th century CE:
The Christian movement gradually reversed its stance on slavery, starting early in the 4th century CE. This
reversal may have been influenced by the establishment of Christianity as the only allowable religion in the
Roman Empire by the late 4th century. This subsequently created a close integration of church and state.
Since the Empire was dependent on slave labor, it was reasonable for the church to support the institution.
The church became generally supportive of slavery, even as a very few of its theologians wrote in
opposition to it:
Circa 340 CE: Manichean Christians had been inciting slaves of the Roman Empire to take charge of their
destiny and emancipate themselves. (Manichaeism was a widespread Christian heresy based upon the
teachings of a 3rd century Persian philosopher, Mani.) In response, the Christian Council of Gangra issued a
statement supporting slavery: "If anyone, on the pretext of religion, teaches another man's slave to despise
his master and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and all respect, let him
be anathema." 9 This resolution became part of the Catholic church's canon law concerning slavery and
was quoted as an authoritative source until the middle of the l8th century.
Circa 400 CE: St. Augustine [354 - 430 CE] speaks of the granting of freedom to slaves as a great
religious virtue, and declares the Christian law against regarding God's rational creation as property.
595 CE: Pope Gregory dispatched a priest to Britain to purchase Pagan boys to work as slaves on church
Circa 610: Isidore of Seville wrote: "I can hardly credit that a friend of Christ, who has experienced that
grace, which bestowed freedom on all, would still own slaves." In his writing "Regula monachorurn" which
describes the monastic life, he wrote that "God has made no difference between the soul of the slave and
that of the freedman." 10
Circa 600 CE: Pope Gregory I wrote, in Pastoral Rule: "Slaves should be told ... not [to] despise their
masters and recognize that they are only slaves."
655 CE: In an attempt to persuade priests to remain celibate, the 9th Council of Toledo ruled that all children
of clerics were to be automatically enslaved. This ruling was later incorporated into the canon law of the
13th century CE: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) accepted the teachings of the ancient Greek Pagan
philosopher, Aristotle, that slavery is "natural."
1404 CE: After Spain discovered the Canary Islands the Spanish colonized the islands In 1435 Pope Eugene
IV wrote a bull to Bishop Ferdinand of Lanzarote titled "Sicut Dudum." In it, he noted that the black
inhabitants of the Islands had been converted to Christianity and either baptized or promised baptism.
Subsequently, many of the inhabitants were taken from their homes and enslaved. He commanded that all
enslaved Christians who were inhabitants of the Canary Islands be freed from slavery. The Pope's concern
appears to have been over the enslavement of Christians by Christians, not the institution of human slavery
1452/4 CE: Pope Nicholas V wrote Dum Diversas which granted to the kings of Spain and Portugal the
right to reduce any "Saracens [Muslims] and pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery.
1519: Bartholomew De Las Casas, a Dominican, argued against slavery. "No one may be deprived of his
liberty nor may any person be enslaved" He was ridiculed, silenced and ignored.3
1537 CE: Pope Paul III wrote in Sublimis Deus that Native Americans were not to be enslaved. Only
hostile non-Christians, captured in just wars could become slaves. -However, in later years, the enslavement
of Native people became quite common. Jeanne Mance, (16061673) co-founder of H6tel-Dieu of Montreal
and founder of H6tel-Dieu of Qu6bec City in Canada owned one of the largest group of slaves in what is
now Canada. Almost all were Natives. Her cause has been "introduced to the Vatican for elevation to
1548 CE: Pope Paul III confirmed that any individual may freely buy, sell and own slaves. Runaway slaves
were to be returned to their owners for punishment.
1660: Charles 11 of Britain urged the Council for Foreign Plantations to teach Christianity to slaves.
1629 to 1661 CE: Pope Urban VIII in 1629, Pope Innocent X in 1645 and Pope Alexander VII in 1661
were all personally involved in the purchase of Muslim slaves.
Late 17th century: The institution of slavery was a integral part of many societies worldwide. The Roman
Catholic church only placed two restrictions on the purchase and owning of slaves: They had to be nonChristian. They had to be captured during "just" warfare. i.e. in wars involving Christian armies fighting for
an honorable cause.
Late in the 17th century, Leander, a Roman Catholic theologian, wrote:
"It is certainly a matter of faith that
this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture
... It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into
the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors... All
theologians are unanimous on this." 13
We have been unable to find anyone other than St. Augustine and Bartholomew De Las Casas, opposing the
institution of slavery prior to this time. People considered it quite appropriate for one person to own another
human being as a piece of property. Paul's comment in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there
is neither bond nor free ... for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." did not appear to have been followed, except
perhaps spiritually. Neither were the statements by Jesus about treating one's fellow humans accepted and
1667: The Virginia Assembly passes a bill which denied that a Christian baptism grants freedom to slaves.
1680: The Anglican Church in Virginia started a debate, which lasted for 50 years, on whether slaves
should be given Christian instruction. They finally decided in the affirmative. However the landowners and
slave owners opposed this program. They feared that if the slaves became Christians, there would be public
support to grant them freedom.
'Me Roman Catholic church in South America insisted that slaves be allowed to marry. They forbade
"promiscuous relationships between slaves as well as between masters and slaves, and it encouraged
marriage instead of informal mating."
In the predominately Protestant North America, slaves were considered property and were not allowed to
marry. The courts decided that a slave owner should be free to sell his property has he wished. This
overturned laws which prevented slave families from being broken up and the individuals sold separately. 14
"Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was virtually
nonexistent. Settlers in the 17th and early l8th centuries came from sharply stratified societies in which the
wealthy savagely exploited members of the lower classes. Lacking a later generation's belief in natural
human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of Africans." 14
The "most abominable aspect of the slave trade, was fueled by the idea that Africans, even children, were
better off Christianized under a system of European slavery than left in Africa amid tribal wars, famines
and paganism" 15
I.Anthony Pagden, "The Slave Trade, Review of Hugh Thomas' Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade," The New Republic, 1997DEC-22, as
quoted in Ref. 21.
2.John Fletcher, "Lessons on Slavery," J. Warner, (1852).
3.Edward C. Rogers, "Slavery illegality in all ages and nations," (1955). Online at: http://medicolegal.tripod.com/
4.Maximus Exposit Dom. I., L 356. Reprinted in August Neander, "The History of the Christian Religion and Church During the Three
First Centuries," Rivington, (184 1).
5.Actis Sanct. Apr. T. 1, append, f. 47, § 8.
6.lbid. L. I., ep. 10. See Leander.
7.Sozomen, 1. 1, c. 9.--Cod. Theod., 1. 1., c. De nis qui in eccl. manumit
8.Neander, "History of the Christian Religion and Church," V. 3, Page 99.
9.M. Fiedler & L. Rabben, Ed., "Rome has spoken .. A guide to forgotten Papal statements and how they have changed through the
centuries," Crossroad, (1998) Page 81.
IO."St. Isidore of Seville," New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, at: httpJ/www.newadvent.org/cathen/08186a.htm
I I.Mark Brun-dey, "Let My People Go: the Catholic Church and Slavery," at: http://www.petersneLnet/research/
U."The Saints of Canada," at: http://www.catholicdoors.conV
13.1-eander, "Quaestiones Morales Theologicae," Lyons 1668 - 1692, Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praccepto, Tract. IV, Disp. 1, Q.
3. Quoted in Reference 17.
14.Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.htm]
15.W.F. Page. "The Dutch Triangle: The Netherlands and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1621-1664 - Studies in African American History
and Culture," Garland Publishing, (1997) Page 218.
Other Biblical passages of interest regarding support for slavery:
Psalm 123:2 (New International Version
(NIV)): As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her
mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.
Ephesians 6:4-6: Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and
instruction of the Lord. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with
sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when
their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.
Ephesians 6:5:Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of
heart, just as you would obey Christ.
Ephesians 6:9:And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you
know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with
Colossians 3:22:Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their
eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
Colossians 4:1:Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that
you also have a Master in heaven.
Titus 2:9:Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to
talk back to them,
1 Peter 2:18:Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who
are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
CHRISTIANITY AND SLAVERY
MOVEMENT TOWARDS ABOLITION
Anglican, Mennonite and Quaker opposition to slavery; late 17th century
1665: Richard Baxter, an ordained priest of the Church of England, criticized those who:
"catch up poor Negroes ... and ... make them slaves and sell them ... [This is] one of the worst kinds
of thefts in the world ... such persons are to be taken as the common enemies of mankind." He,
and a very few others who spoke out, had essentially no influence and were ignored by
governments and the public alike.
1683: The first religious group in the U.S. to raise objections to slavery were Mennonites,
a Christian group which descended from the Anabaptists. Anabaptists had broken away from
Luther and Calvin's Protestant Reformation in the 16' century. Their name comes from the Latin
word "anabaptista" which means "one who is rebaptized." i.e. a person who was baptized first as
an infant and later as an adult. It is a misnomer, because Anabaptists did not baptize infants and
did not recognize the validity of such a baptism. Baptisms were only performed later in life after
the individual is sufficiently mature and has trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. "Anabaptist" was
originally a term of derision; but the name stuck.
One notable feature of the Anabaptists was their love of freedom from state and religious
oppression. They opposed war. They opposed the taking of oaths in court, believing that a
person's word is sufficient. They observed a life of simplicity, with minimal entanglement with
One of the sects to emerge from the Anabaptist movement were the Mennonites. Their
first permanent settlement in North America was at Germantown PA (near Philadelphia) in 1683.
"'Ibis growing Mennonite element is credited with American history's first public protest against slavery and
was very influential in the later Quaker antislavery position." 1
1688: A "Germantown Protest" pamphlet was printed by Mennonites in Pennsylvania. (Some sources say
Quakers; others say Mennonite Quakers). It said, in part: "Now, tho' they are black, we cannot conceive
there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones ... And those who steal or rob
men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike?" The document was not well received by
the rich slave owners in the region. The Mennonites found themselves rejected and isolated by the rest of
Christian society for their radical views. "They got little help from outsiders. Their deprivation was such that
Germantown was nicknamed 'Armentown'or Poortown." 2
1694: A group of Christian clergy petitioned the Massachusetts government to pass a bill which would
allow slave owners to retain their slaves after the latter were baptized.
1696: The Society of Friends (the Quakers) is another faith group with Anabaptist roots. They threatened
any of their members who imported slaves with expulsion from the denomination. 3
During the late 17th century and early l8th century, slavery became a growing concern among the Quakers.
In protest against slavery, they relocated from their settlements in the southern U.S. states into Indiana and
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christian denominations (those which were not Anabaptist) were not
troubled by slavery; they continued to view and teach it as a spiritually and morally acceptable institution
fully supported by the Bible.
Abolition gains momentum: l8th century
British Quakers were the first organized religious group to both repudiate slavery and to forbid slave owning
among their membership. They provided much of the leadership of the abolitionist movement, both in Britain
and North America. However, their influence was limited by their small numerical strength. It Was John
Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement, who was able to convert the small Quaker
protest into a mass movement.
By the end of the l8th century, slavery appeared to be a dying institution. In Delaware, Maryland and
Virginia, farmers had largely switched from tobacco to grains. This required less manpower. Many slave
owners freed their slaves to avoid the costs of having to care for them. But the invention of Eli Witney's
cotton gin reversed this trend. Short-staple cotton became very profitable in the south. Production of cotton
in the South increased from 3,135 bales in 1790 to 4.8 million bales at the outbreak of the Civil War. With
the increased production of cotton, the demand for slaves increased.
1706: Cotton Mather, a Puritain leader, writes "The Negro Christianized." It argues that blacks are human
beings and should be given full rights.
1723: The German Baptist Brethren arrived in Pennsylvania. They were known as the Dunkers and later
as the Church of the Brethren. Like their fellow Anabaptists, they actively opposed slavery.
1734: The Great Awakening starts in MA. This is a Christian revival that promoted religious fervor among
whites and blacks. Blacks were encouraged to join the Methodist and Baptist churches.
1752: George Washington acquired his sister-in-law's share in the Mount Vernon estate in 1752. The
purchase included 18 slaves. He added to his collection; at one time he owned over 300 humans. In his will,
he stipulated that at the death of his wife, his slaves would be freed. He
also required that a fund be set up to support aged and infirmed slaves; it appears that the fund was never
established. 5 During the 1780s and 1790s, he expressed the wish in his private writings that state
governments would legislate "a gradual Abolition of Slavery."
The Philadelphia yearly meeting of Quakers decided that slavery was inconsistent with Christianity.
Slave traders were excluded from membership in the Society of Friends (the Quakers). Some
individual Quakers still owned slaves at this time.
Thomas Jefferson owned 187 slaves on his various farms.
The Roman Catholic church's Sacred Congregation of the Index placed many antislavery tracts on
their Index of Forbidden Books to prevent them from being read by the public.
Quakers were mainly responsible for the founding of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of
Slavery. This was the first antislavery society in the U.S.
David Hartley makes a motion to outlaw slavery in Britain and in British colonies. He calls slavery
"contrary to the laws of God and the rights of man." The motion fails. 5
Slavery is abolished in Vermont.
1784: The Christmas Conference of the Methodist Church passes an anti-slavery resolution.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) mounts legal lawsuits to free slaves who are visiting Philadelphia
with their owners. George Washington recommends that visiting slave owners avoid problems by bypassing
the city. 3
About 10% of the 18,791 Methodists were black. 3
Richard Allen, a former slave, organizes the Free African Society in Philadelphia, PA.
There is considerable abolitionist feeling the Southern Christian churches. Some southern plantation
owners felt uneasy about slavery. They institute educational programs and freed many slaves.
In Canada, the legislature of Upper Canada (now called Ontario) passed a law to gradually abolish
slavery. No more slaves could be imported; existing slaves would remain enslaved for life; children of
female slaves would receive their freedom at age 25.
Blacks totaled 18,500 (25%) out of a total of 73,417 Baptists.
The second Great Awakening began in Kentucky. Many slaves become Christians. The religious
revival lasts until 1830.
1800: Virginia passed a law forbidding Afro-Americans from gathering after sunset for religious worship.
I.J.G. Melton, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume 1, Triumph Books, (1991), Page 53.
2."Mennonites of Macon County" at: http://www.macontel.com/special/menn97
3.Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.htn-d
Copyright © 1999 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance Latest update: 2003-OCT-2
Author: B.A. Robinson