I eventually plan to address questions related to slavery in the Old Testament, but the defense I’ve been working on is somewhat unique, so before publishing, I want to make certain that I’ve thought through a few potential ramifications (and since its one of my two major ideas for a dissertation topic, a little bit of discretion is useful). So instead, I will limit this discussion to claims that more modern slavery is a Christian invention, operating with specifically Christian sanction.
- Historical problem #1: It Was Christianity that ended Slavery in the West
However we deal with the question of the historical role of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, it must be noted that it was specifically Christians, and not atheists or naturalists (such as the French Philosophe’s) who brought about the end of slavery. In fact, the Naturalists of the day did not seem to consider the question important until such time as they thought they it might provide them with a political advantage.
Sometimes, those with political agendas or those claiming interest in Social Justice have claimed that English opposition to slavery was basically due to economic policy – the institution was no longer economically viable. And yet, we know this was not true, England divested itself of slavery at a substantial cost to itself, and spent even larger amounts of money patrolling various waterways to liberate those on slave ships. Nor was this a peculiarly Quaker undertaking, it is true that the Quakers were the first to organize, but there was quite a bit of discussion on the issue amidst various protestant and roman Catholic groups before and after the quakers.
- Early proponents of slavery generally opposed Christian Missionaries
There was an active tendency to oppose Christian interference in colonies where slavery was practiced, largely because the Christians missionaries gave slaves dignity that was otherwise denied to them. There were active attempts, for example, to evangelize slave populations. The Roman Catholic Church passed numerous slave regulations in Spanish territories, though once again, political concerns and desire for power minimized their actual implementation in some cases. Similar things are true of a French code. The English state church had little real power in the Caribbean, where the largest number of English slave colonies existed. As is a common story in the American colonies, there were many cases where legitimate commercial interests gave way to oppressive attempts to build fortunes, no matter what the cost in conflict with heartfelt religious sentiment. Slavery was outlawed in the north largely on religious grounds, the Southern story is, sadly very different rooted in the greed of a few, fears of genocide, and a belief among even Southern’s who claimed to be opposed to slavery that simply ending the institution would be impossible, because it had become an essential part of the Southern economy.
- The conflict within Christianity presents a truer picture: Consistent and inconsistent monsters.
I’ve previously discussed the issue of inconsistent monsters, which is a reference to those whose actions, while monstrous are actually in contrast to their professed beliefs. It is true that some claimed to defend slavery, though how they understood Paul’s admonitions to treat believing slaves as brothers (and many believe implies manumission when possible, since manumission in the first century world was not as easily done as many moderns seem to believe) could be meshed with their actual experience is a bit dumbfounding. They were inconsistent monsters, or as many moderns put it, hypocrites. The very fact that Paul’s words were largely ignored (with some notable exceptions) means their defense of the institution is, for the most part suspect. This is actually matched in history by the earlier ending of slavery in the west, though plenty of criticism can be labeled at its feudalism, which replaced the concept.
Slavery has always been a regressive institution, often presented as a way of dealing with prisoners of war. Christians realized at some point that the human rights abuses of slavery were sub-Christian and it was impossible to maintain the institution on the one hand, and protect human rights on the other.
For further reading, please see Rodney Stark’s for the glory of God, chapter 4.
Rodney Stark, 309-312