Archive for February, 2008

Religious Charity: Winning Converts with Bribes?

February 22, 2008

One of the criticisms I’ve come across from atheists and some non-Christians generally is that religious, and particularly Christian charities, are somehow morally suspect because they combine their charitable work with a distinct religious message. The implication in this accusation is that religious charities really aren’t interested in those who help, only in exploiting their need to promote their particular faith. The accusation isn’t new by any means. It’s been around since the 1890s, when the slang term ‘rice Christian’ was coined to describe an Aboriginal who had falsely converted to Christianity for food. 1 This particularly version of the accusation has been raised most recently by militantly antichristian Hindu nationalist governments in some of the Indian states, who have used it as a pretext to outlaw conversion to Christianity, despite rebuttals and protests from Indian Christians that they don’t use such tactics. Now there are religious organisations who do cynically use charity as a means for gaining converts. However, my own personal experience, and those of people I personally know who have worked with various churches and church organisations in the UK, is very much that the mainstream Christian churches in the UK do not use charity in this way, and are very sincere in working for those in need as an end in itself, rather than as a means of gaining potential converts. I am not saying that the Christian churches are unique in this, or better than other faiths. I understand that one Spiritualist church, for example, supports a secular charity working in its area, for example. I am merely stating that in my experience as an Anglican (Episcopalian) in Britain, with friends and relatives in the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches, and the Salvation Army, this is most definitely not the case. I’ve no doubt that the Baptists and the Reformed churches have the same attitude to charity, though I can’t speak from personal experience with them.

Regarding the Anglican Church, an atheist friend of mine surprised me once by telling me how much he admired the Church because of its charity work. When I asked what he meant, he said that the Church supported a number of charities and good causes of which the majority of people would be unaware. He further surprised me by telling me that he thought the Anglican church should be less reticent about telling people about its strong and enduring tradition of charity work.

One example of the charity work the Anglican church does is in housing for the homeless or those otherwise in need. The Church has an equal opportunities policy in this particular charity, so that its employees and the recipients of its charity do not have to be members of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church. Moreover those studying for ordination within the Church are specifically trained as a formal part of their study for the priesthood to give charity without any hope of thanks. This includes seminary students being given food vouchers to give to the homeless on the streets of particular British cities. The students have to give a voucher or vouchers to a person needing it, and then move quickly on before that person can thank them. It follows Christ’s command in Luke 6:35 to ‘do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again’. 2 The great medieval rabbi, Moses Maimonides, highly esteemed anonymous charitable donations, considering them second in value only to giving a gift or a loan to someone, or taking them on as a partner or finding them a job. ‘Giving charity to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, the recipient not knowing the donor’s identity, for this is a good deed of intrinsic value, done for its own sake. An example of this is the Hall of Secret Donations which was maintained in the Temple. The righteous would donate in secret and the poor would be supported from it in secret. Approximating this is giving to a charity fund.’ 3 Behind this, in the view of the great rabbi, was ‘giving to one whose identity one knows, although the recipient does not know the donor’s identity’ and ‘giving without knowing to whom one gives, although the recipient knows the donor’s identity’. 4 Maimonides gave as an example of a gift to people the donor knew, though they did not know the donor, was ‘the action of those great sages who would walk about in secret and cast coins at the doors of the poor.’ 5 He also gave as an example of giving to people one did not know, although they knew the donor ‘the action of those great sages who would wrap up coins in a bundle and throw it over their shoulder. The poor would then come to take it without any embarrassment.’ 6 Clearly, despite the difference in time and religion, something like Maimonide’s recommendations for charitable giving are followed by the Anglican Church, though this stems from Christ’s instructions to give freely without ostentation instead of Talmudic tradition.

 A similar attitude towards charity for the homeless informs the Methodists and the Salvation army. A friend of mine stayed in accomodation run by the Church in my home city, and noted that it insisted on tolerance towards non-Western cultures and its work supplying food to the homeless. This was either in soup runs, or given spontaneously as people turned up on their doorstep to ask for it. I’ve also seen the Roman Catholic church similarly give food to the homeless on request for the homeless without any ideological strings attached. I was visiting a particularly historic site in London, which is now part of a convent. Secular visitors, however, are able to go round during certain hours. We were being taken through the building by one of the sisters when a couple of crusties – young, homeless people – knocked on the door. The man explained they were on the street, and asked if they had any food for the woman. The nun listened, left and returned a few minutes later with a package of sandwiches that she gave to them. The couple then left, and the nun continued our tour. In all of this there was no fuss, no preaching, just a simple gift. One of my cousins, another Anglican (Episcopalian) also worked for the Salvation Army in my home city. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, in 1999 the Salvation Army was the foremost charity fundraiser in America for the eighth year running, raising $1.4 billion in cash for charity. 7 I’m not surprised. They work extremely hard over this side of the Atlantic. My cousin worked in the kitchen for a homeless hostel they ran, and again there was no pressure on those using the hostel to convert. This attitude – that places the person in need in the centre of the organisation’s concerns – has apparently been present in the Salvation Army since the 19th century. This was quietly demonstrated in the family history of one of the leading British broadcasters on BBC 1’s show, Who Do You Think You Are? This particular show features a different celebrity each week and follows them as they trace their family tree. One of the celebrities featured was the veteran newsanchor and scourge of dissimulating politicians, Jeremy Paxman. Despite his affluent lifestyle now, Paxman was surprised to learn that his ancestors had endured horrific, grinding poverty in Victorian Britain, with one of his female ancestors raising her children only through the support of the local Salvation Army. Another friend of mine, who was not only a member but worked in one of their charity shops, remarked afterwards how glad she was that even then the Church had been more keen to look after her and her children, than engage in any kind of preaching about whatever personal defects or circumstances had brought her into such a state.

Along with a concern to support the poor, the traditional attitude to charity was that the poor should also be enabled to support themselves. Maimonides himself strongly advocated sturdy self-reliance. It is also why, when the Moravians built a model village in Northern Ireland, they included communal workshops for the young men and women in which they were to learn the trades that would support them in maturity. In the 18th and 19th centuries at least, religion was considered to be an important source of the self-respect and self-reliance that created good, hard-working citizens. In the 19th century the British Anti-Slavery Society supported a number of Christian missions to Africa, long before the military invasions of the continent in the latter quarter of the century. It was felt that conversion to Christianity would provide indigenous Africans with the moral values that would encourage them to abandon the slave trade. Instead, provided with Christian morality, and access to Western, American and European markets, African would instead turn to producing legitimate goods and products, like cotton, free of slave labour. In this respect, the Gospel was not something extraneous or even ‘parasitic’ as I have seen such attitudes described, to the philanthropic intentions of those leading the missions, but seen as an important and intrinsic part of leading Africans away from the evil and barbarism that the Western demand for slaves had created.

Thus, while some religious organisations have done and continue to use charity cynically as a means of gaining converts, the mainstream Christian churches in Britain today certainly do not use it as such. Even in the 19th century, the promoters of such Christian charity saw this as complementing, rather than contradicting, their concern for the recipients’ of such charity’s material needs. As well as nourishing their souls with the Gospel, they saw the Christian message as giving them the hope, self-respect and industriousness to support themselves as good citizens and respectable members of society. 


1. ‘Rice Christian’ in Eric Partridge, abridged Jacqueline Simpson, The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1972), p. 763.

2. Luke 6: 35 in the KJV.

3. ‘Maimonides on Charity’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, the Open University/ Routledge 1978), p. 389.

4. ‘Maimonides on Charity in Foy, Religious Quest, pp. 389-90.

5. ‘Maimonides on Charity in Foy, Religious Quest, pp. 389.

6.’Maimonides on Charity in Foy, Religious Quest, pp. 389-90.

7. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial – Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 158.

Off for the Weekend

February 15, 2008

Okay, this is just to everyone know that I’m off for the weekend, and won’t be around till Tuesday. So, if you want to debate something or raise a question, wait til then. I hope everyone has a great weekend, and look forward to coming back to this on Tuesday.

Christianity and Ancient Slavery 2

February 14, 2008

In doing the research for the essays I’ve posted up here on Christianity, the Bible, and ancient, medieval and Atlantic slavery, I’ve been reading through Peter Garnsey’s Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1999). Garnsey goes through the various ancient authors commenting on slavery, including St. Paul, analysing their comments and their views. He notes the way Christian theologians, like St. Augustine, provided justifications for slavery, but states in his conclusion:

‘What Jewish and Christian thinkers had in mind by ‘slavery’ is more accurately rendered ‘obedience’ or ‘service’. It had almost nothing in common with ancient domestic servitude, let alone the notorious slave gangs who worked the mines or the estates of the rich in late Republican Italy’. p. 142.

He notes that ‘slavery, by no means ubiquitous was deeply entrenched in ancient societies. The slave-owning class extended well down the social scale, and included even slaves. Slaveowners large and small were uniformly committed to the system, which they saw as a fundamental feature of their society. No one launched, nor even contemplated, a movement for abolition, not even slaves, who were more interested (especially in the Roman context) in joining their oppressors than in oppositing them as a class.’ p. 237.

He notes and quotes a number of ancient authors who criticised slavery, such as the scholiast Alkidamas, who in 370 BC stated’The deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave’. p. 75.

Among these critics of slavery were Lactantius in his Institutiones divinae of the early fourth century, and Gregory of Nyssa in his Homilies IV on Ecclesiastes 2:7.

Lactantius in his Institutiones divinae states

 ‘The other part of justice is equity (aequitas). I do not speak of the equity of judging well, which is itself laudable in a just man. I mean rather that of equalizing self with fellow-men, which Cicero calls equability (aequabilitas). God who creates and inspires men wished them all to be fair, that is, equal. He set the same condition of living for all. He begot all unto wisdom. He promised immortality to all. No one is segregated from His heavenly benefits. Just as He divides His one light equally for all, lets His showers fall upon all, supplies food, grants the sweetest rest of sleep, so He bestow the virtue of equity upon all. With Him, no one is master, no one slave. For if He is the same Father to all, we are all free by equal right. No one is apauper with God except him who is in need of justice; no one rich, but him who is filled with the virtues; no one, finally, is distinguished except the one who has been good and innocent; no one very illustrious, unless he has done the works fo mercy with largesse; no one quite perfect, unless he has completed all the steps of virtue. Wherefore, neither the Romans nor the Greeks could possess justice, because they had men distinguished by many grades, from the poor to the rich, from the lowly to the powerful, from private citizens even to the most sublime heights of kings. For when all are not equal, there is no equity, and inequality itself excludes justice, whose whole power is in this, that it makes equal those who came to the condition of this life by an equal lot.

If those two sources of justice, then, are altered, all virtue and all truth is removed, and justice itself goes back into heaven … Someone will say: ‘Are theyre not among you some poor, some rich, some slaves, some masters? Is there not something of concern to individuals?’ Nothing … For since we measure all human things, not by the body, but by the spirit, and although the condition of the bodies may be diversified, there are not slaves among us, but we regard them and we speak of them as brothers in spirit and as fellow-slaves in religion.’ -pp. 80-1.

Gregory of Nyssa was rather more radical, and presented an argument for abolition, even if this does not seem to have been taken up or acted upon. He is on record of manumitting some of his slaves, though not all of them, while his sister, Macrina, was admired for treating hers ‘democratically’. p. 240.

Thus, although Christianity accepted slavery and some theologians justified it, it also modified it to make it more humane and two came close to arguing for abolition.

Christianity, Atlantic Slavery and Abolition

February 13, 2008

‘We will be slaves no more

Since Christ has made us free

Has nailed our tyrants to the cross

And bought our liberty’,

– Popular slave song.

 Last year, 2007, was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire in 1807. A number of British cities involved in the trade staged special exhibitions and events marking abolition. At the beginning of the year, there was a special service of remembrance attended by the Queen and leading British politicians held at Westminster abbey. Frank Walton over at Atheism Sucks mentioned that last month, January, was Black History month. In Britain Black History month has been October for the past couple of years. Given the immense importance of the abolition of slavery has had in shaping American and European attitudes towards slavery, freedom, race and human dignity, I thought I’d also review the immense contribution Christianity made to regulating the trade in an attempt to make it more humane, and finally to abolishing it all together. This was done by Christians of a variety of denominations – Roman Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and Moravians.  There had, it is true, been revolts by slaves long before Christians campaigned for the abolition of slavery, but these were revolts by slaves against their own enslavement, not against slavery as an institution. The 18th and 19th century abolitionist campaigns went beyond this, demanding not just the liberation of slaves, but the complete end to slavery as a social institution.

Regulation of Slavery by Roman Catholicism

As plantation slavery emerged with the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans, so the Papacy attempted to regulate it and ameliorate its excesses for Roman Catholics. The Church condemned either the trade itself, or slavery, in 1462, 1741, 1815 and 1839. 1 In the Spanish empire, the legal position of slaves was essentially a continuation of the medieval legal provisions established in the common law code of 1250, Las Siete Partidas. This included rights for the slaves, and their masters’ obligations towards them. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church recognised slaves’ humanity and demanded their humane treatment. 2 A Roman Catholic Caribbean synod of 1622 further codified the legal position of slaves, establishing sanctions for masters who prevented their slaves from attending mass or receiving religious instruction on Feast Days. 3 The Spanish law code of 1789 stipulated that masters had to encourage their slaves to marriage and provided for the slave’s purchase of their freedom in instalments in a process termed coartacion, although even after liberation the slave remained a second-class citizen, unable to carry arms, and forced to wear a certain type of dress and with some legal obligations towards their former masters. 4 Slaves were also able to gain their freedom through co-operation with their masters or the authorities in certain criminal cases. Slaves accused of crimes, even murder, enjoyed the same rights of prosecution and trial as free people. There was also a limitation on the punishment inflicted on slaves who failed to perform their duties. By law a slave could only be given a maximum of 25 lashes, in such away that they did not bruise nor draw blood. Slaves who escaped to Cuba to embrace Roman Catholicism were protected by a royal order of 1733. 5 Slaves also often enjoyed the same rights to holidays and free days as the rest of society. In Brazil slaves were free on Sundays and all holidays, and were allowed to work for themselves to build up money in order to purchase their freedom. 6 Furthermore, in Brazil slaves were married in church. Slave families could not be separated by sale. Their murder at the hands of a sadistic master was prohibited. 7 Blacks and people of mixed race enjoyed a freedom in Spain that they did not have further north. They weren’t just labourers, but were also skilled craftsmen, soldiers, musicians and even became priests and judges. ‘All these things were possible to the slave before the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and it was for this reason (amongst others) that emancipation in Iberian domonions occurred without violence, bloodshed or civil war.’ 8

Protestant Insistence on Equality of Christians Regardless of Race

The Protestant churches too initially insisted on the full humanity of the slave. The Dutch Reformed Church at the 17th century synod of Dort declared that slaves who converted to Christianity ‘ought to enjoy equal rights of liberty with other Christians.’ 9 This racial equality even existed in Cape Colony, long before the rise of apartheid. In the 17th century the mixed race children of European fathers were freed when they reached adulthood, provided that they spoke Dutch and were confirmed members of the church.  ‘During the early the period freed slaves of mixed ancestry were not viewed as a separate ethnic group; they had all the civil rights of whites, with whom they intermarried, although this situation changed in the 18th century.’ 10

Denial of Slaves’ Equality 

This situation changed in the 17th and 18th centuries as the planters became reluctant to see their slaves enjoy the possibility of liberty that could be offered by conversion to Christianity. In Jamaica slaves were given very little free time to cultivate their own plots of land, and were discouraged from Christian, or indeed any other religious practices. 11 Marriage was discouraged and promiscuity encouraged, in order to increase their numbers and their profitability by selling members of a slave family separately. It was also feared that family life would give them a place in society and give them ideas above their station. 12 Initially, the churches collaborated with this attitude. ‘In the meantime, the Anglican clergy generally took the path of discretion and exhorted the slaves to please their masters by working hard, and to accept with resignation their earthly lot which, whether predestined by God ornot, had somehow devolved upon them.’ 13 The Anglican Thomas Secker declared in 1740 that ‘Scripture, far from making any alteration in civil rights, expressly directs taht every man abide in the condition wherein he is called, with great indifference of mind concerning outward circumstances.’ 14

Christian Opposition to Slavery and the Slave Trade 

This was not the attitude of other Christian denominations, however. Although George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, in his visit to Barbados in 1671 had told the slaves he tried to convert to ‘to be subject to their masters and governors’, by the late 17th century Quakers were opposed to slavery. 15 This was not such a great step for them. Although Fox accepted slavery, he strongly believed that masters had a duty to treat their slaves humanely, and that they should be freed after a certain period of time. 16 They came to this view from their conviction that Christ had died for all humanity, regardless of colour. ”Christ died for all,’ declaimed the great Quaker Geroge Fox, ‘for the Taiwanese and for the blacks as for you that are called whites.” 17 In 1680 the Quaker Morgan Godwyn stated that ‘Negro’s are men, and therefore are invested with the same right … that being thus qualified and invested to deprive them of this right is the highest injustice.’ 18 In 1727 the Quakers resolved that involvement in slavery or the slave trade ‘is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.’ 19 Nevertheless, some Quakers continued to own slaves, although many firmly rejected their personal involvement with the trade. Dr. John Lettsom, for example, who had been born into a slave-owning family in Tortola, freed his slaves in 1767 after his return from England, where he had gone to receive his education and medical training. 20 In 1776 the Quakers requested everyone who participated in the slave-trade to resign their membership of the Society. 21 Other Christian leaders also stressed the common humanity of slaves. The Boston judge Samuel Sewall, a Presbyterian, wrote an early anti-slavery tract explicitly based on the Bible, The Selling of Joseph in 1700. 22 The Methodist preacher George Whitefield exhorted Whites to consider slave children as the equals of their own. ‘Think your children are in any way better by nature than the poor negroes? No! In no wise! Blacks are just as much, and no more, conceived and born in sin, as white men are; and both, if born and bred up here, I am persuaded, are naturally capable of the same improvement.’ 23

The greatest opposition to the slave trade, however, came from the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1756. This group won a major victory in the 1772 legal decision regarding the slave, James Somerset. Somerset had been brought to England by his master, from whom he escaped. He was then recaptured, and faced export for sale in Jamaica. After a lengthy trial, the court ruled that there was no provision supporting slavery in English law, and Somerset was freed. Although it was not a victory for abolition, it did reinforce opposition to slavery in Britain. 24

The leaders of the British anti-slavery campaign were William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship and Anglican priest. Wilberforce had been elected an MP for Hull in 1780. 25 A favourite figure in British high society and a gambler, Wilberforce experienced a profound religious conversion in 1785 and contacted John Newton, then the rector of Olney, about becoming an Anglican priest in 1785. 26 Newton persuaded him to continue in his political career, but combine it with his Christian principles. In a letter to Samuel Cowper of January 1786, Newton stated ‘I hope the Lord will make him a blessing, both as a Christian and as a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible.’ 27 Newton was not to be disappointed. Convinced of the fundamental evil of slavery, Wilberforce began a long parliamentary campaign against the slave trade, submitting bills against it in 1788, 1791, 1795, 1796, 1797, 1798, 1798, 1799 and 1802. 28 The Quakers had, already, called for the formation of a committee at their London Yearly Meeting in 1783 to draft a petition to parliament to outlaw the slave trade. 29 Another pillar of the British anti-slavery campaign was Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson was the son of an Anglican curate, was going to enter the church himself before he turned his energies to attacking the slave trade. 30 Indefatiguable in gathering information on the ‘abominable trade’, Clarkson travelled to slaving ports around Britain and even several times to Africa interview the captains and crew of slave ships. In his career he searched 317 to find a willing witness to the slave trade. 31 Wilberforce and Clarkson were supported in their efforts by John Newton and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Newton, the reformed captain of a slave ship, supported the Abolitionist campaign with the 1788 pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. 32 In it, Newton vividly described the appalling death rate among slaves and crew aboard the slave ships, and the rape and sexual abuse of slave women. Attacking notions that the abuse of African women was acceptable, as they lacked the sensibility of White women, Newton stated firmly ”I dare contradict them in the strongest terms … I have lived long and conversed much among these supposed savages. I have often slept in their towns … with regard to teh women in Sherbro where I was the most acquainted, Ihave seen many instances of modesty and even delicacy which would not disgrace an English woman.’ 33 Newton’s pamphlet was strongly supported by the Anti-Slavery Society, then called The Society for Effcting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which sent unsold copies of it to every MP, both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 34 In February, he gave his personal testimony on the slave trade to a Privy Council established by parliament to investigate it. 33 Newton further corresponded with Phillips, the president of the Society, and gave further evidence before a parliamentary select committee in 1790. 35 For Newton, the people of the Sherbro district ‘are in a degree civilised, often friendly, and may be trusted where they have been previously deceived by the Europeans. I have lived in peace and safety amongst them when I have been the only White man amongst them for a great distance.’ 36

 18th Century Materialist Scientific Racism

Although this may strike contemporary readers as rather patronising, it is very far from the racist views of Black Africans generally held in the 18th century. The 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica declared that ‘vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race: idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness adn intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.’ 37 Freethinkers shared this prejudiced. M. Le Romain’s entry ‘Negre‘ in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie declared that ‘they appear to constitute a new species of mankind’, describing them as the ‘wicked people that inhabits the African meridian’ before going on to describe scientific attempts to discover the cause of their darker complexion. 38 The great sceptical philosopher David Hume also assumed that Blacks were inferior, once describing a Black Jamaican who was admired for his great intellect as ‘admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.’ 39 The racist language of European secular intellectuals like Hume was in sharp contrast to the Christian abolitionists, such as John Wesley, James Ramsay and Granville Sharp, who identified this racial inferiority with materialistic philosophy and Hume and Voltaire, and viewed their campaign for abolition as a vindication of Christianity, moral accountability and the unity of humanity. 40 Sharp was a lawyer who specialised in representing slaves, and was a vigorous opponent of those who denied the divinity of Christ. 41

The Anti-Slavery Society and John Wesley 

The abolitionists also included the notable evangelical Anglican poet and educationalist, Hannah More. Their badge, showing a chained African slave wearing only a loin cloth, kneeling with the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’, was designed by the great porcelain manufacturer William Wedgewood. They also had the full support of John Wesley. On the journey to and from Leatherhead in London to deliver his sermon of Wednesday, 23April 1791, Wesley read the autobiography of the former slave, Olaudah Equiano, known in his day as Gustavus Vassa, the Interesting Narrative, which he helped finance. 42 As Wilberforce was preparing for the 1791 antislavery debate, Wesley wrote him a letter of encouragement. The letter gave a frank statement of Wesley’s view of slavery, and of the righteousness of Christian opposition to it:

 ‘But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God: O be not weary of well doing. Go on, in the name of God, and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Reading this morning a tract wrote me by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance, that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redess; it being a law in all our Colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this!’ 43 Wesley had become convinced of the iniquity of slavery in 1772 after reading a work by the great Quaker anti-slavery writer, Anthony Benezet. He expounded his opposition to it in the book, Thoughts on Slavery, asking ‘did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this? … I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.’ 44 In 1784 the Wesleyan Connexion in America threatened to expell slave-owners, though it later backed down. 45

Success of Wilberforce’s Campaign against British Slave Trade 

As well as acting against the prevailing sceptical, scientific view of Black’s racial inferiority, Wilberforce and his Christian allies against the slave trade also faced opposition from the secular political establishment. Lord Melbourne declared that ‘things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’ 46 Secular opinion viewed the abolitionists very much as do-gooding religious fanatics. In the 1820s and 1830s opponents of the anti-slavery campaign described it as ‘philanthropic’ and ‘visionary’ in a pejorative sense. In 1805 Wilberforce succeeded in persuading the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to outlaw the selling of slaves to Dutch Guinea and a group of French islands. Then, due to the efforts of the evangelical James Stephen, the slave trade was finally outlawed in the British empire on the 1st May 1807. The Duke of Norfolk declared it to be a ‘humane and merciful act’ and considered it no accident that the slave trade had been outlawed during Holy Week, which celebrated ‘that stupendous instance of mercy towards mankind, the redeption of the world by His death upon the Cross.’ 47

Christian Missions to the Caribbean

After the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce and the Anti-Slavery Society turned their attention to attacking slavery itself, aided by Black Christians themselves who drew on Christianity to resist slavery. Although the planters in the Caribbean had been unwilling to allow Christian evangelism amongst their slaves, this changed during the 18th century. Christian missionary work amongst the slaves in the British Caribbean effectively began in 1753 when two Jamaican planters invited the Moravians to teach their slaves Christianity. 48 The Moravians were then followed by missionaries of other denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The Wesley Missionary Society was founded in Jamaica in 1789. They were especially active in attempts to bring the Gospel to Jamaican slaves, and improve their physical condition and material environment. 49 In Antigua Wesleyan Methodism was run between the death of its founder, Nathaniel Gilbert and the arrival of his official replacement, by a series of gifted female slave preachers, very much in the spirit of the early Christian church. 50 They were joined by two Black American Baptist preachers, George Lisle and Moses Baker, who founded the Native Baptist Movement. Concerned at the mixture of orthodox Christianity and what was perceived as African paganism in their doctrines, the Jamaican government invited the Baptist Missionary Society in England to send more orthodox preachers and missionaries to the country. This resulted in the formation of the Jamaican Baptist Mission in 1814. A decade later, in 1824 the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica was founded, soon followed by the Congregationalists. 51

Missionaries’ Concern to Protect Slaves and Improve their Conditions

In general, the Nonconformist denominations in Jamaica worked together to protect slaves from excessive cruelty and to improve their condition by instructing them on the sanctity of human life and personality, the importance of self-respect and individual responsibility. The result was antagonism between the planters, who saw the missionaries as a threat to their interests, and the missionaries themselves. 52 There was initially opposition over the provision of education by the missionaries because it was feared that this would enable the slaves to read revolutionary tracts preaching insurrection. 53 The missionaries in their turn began to formulate plans for the eventual abolition of slavery. When a slave revolt broke out in Demerara in 1824, it was blamed on the preaching of the missionary, John Smith. Smith was arrested and died in custody. Although he himself and his widow claimed they had not encouraged the slaves to revolt, this nevertheless demonstrates the potent force Christian mission posed as a challenge to contemporary dehumanising conditions in slavery, and its encouragement of slaves to challenge their enslavement. 54

The Baptists were particularly active in the campaign to improve conditions for slaves. In Jamaica, the Baptists established a form of church membership distinguished by the ‘Baptist ticket’. This was a printed card issued every month to each member of the congregation, recording their weekly attendance and offerings. They also acted as passes to church meetings, which were regarded as private, and which sometimes included plans for emancipation. The freedom preached by these missionaries were blamed for the slave revolt which erupted in December 1831 and raged through Jamaica the following year. The leaders of Moravian and Baptist Missionary Societies, H.G. Pfeiffer, William Knibb and Thomas Burchell were arrested on the charge of inciting the revolt. However, the government found that there was nothing to incriminate them, and eventually they were acquitted and released. 55 Jamaican Baptist slaves could face intense persecution for their faith. In 1831 Samuel Swiney, a deacon of the Baptist missionary, William Knibb, was prosecuted for illegal preaching , after he led a prayer meeting while Knibb was ill. 56 In that instance, Swiney was acquitted and the two magistrates who attempted to prosecute him, Harden and Finlayson, were struck off the Commission of the Peace. 57 One of the leaders of the slave rebellion of 1832 was reputed to be the preacher, Box, who had incited it with his preaching. 58 The missionary work of the Methodist and Baptist churches were especially important in creating the popular campaign for emancipation that began in 1823. 59 Historians of the 19th century anti-slavery movement, such as David Brion Davis and Hugh Thomas have stressed that the central motivating force behind the campaigners were their religious convictions, and that the backbone of the campaign was the Quakers, with their capacity for organisation, and the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. 60 The great historian of the campaign of Black Jamaicans for freedom, Dr. Richard Hart, the author of Blacks in Bondage and Blacks in Freedom, notes the immense role the missionaries played in educating and preparing Black Jamaicans for their freedom, and in challenging and denouncing slavery.

Christian Black Slave Resistance and Abolition

William Wilberforce retired as MP in 1825. 61 On his retirement, leadership of the Anti-Slavery Society passed to Thomas Fowell Buxton, another Christian reformer, whose efforts resulted in the passing of the Abolition Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. 62 This act resulted in the emancipation of 780,000 slaves throughout the British empire. The British authorities were also active patrolling the oceans to prevent the importation of further slave and their export from Africa. Between 1820 and 1870 the royal navy intercepted 1,600 slaves ships and freed over 150,000 slaves. 63 Like Black Jamaicans, Afro-American slaves also found in Christianity a way to resist slavery. In particularly, they expressed their longing for freedom by strongly identifying with the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt. 64 This was expressed in Spirituals, such as ‘When Moses Smote the Water’, ‘Did Not Old Pharaoh Get Lost’, ‘Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep (Pharoah’s Army Got Drownded)’ and ‘Go Down, Moses’. 65 Black American Christianity also focussed on Christ’s suffering under injustice, in the words of the historian Julius Lester, ‘someone who had suffered as they suffered, someone who understoood, someone who offered them rest from their suffering.” 66 Jesus was also for American slaves, ‘King Jesus’, who would return, as promised in the Book of Revelation, to lead His people to freedom and destroy slavery forever. 67

Black Americans also actively formed their own churches. These grew out of the work of Black Methodists under the direction of Richard Allen (1760-1831) in Philadelphia, resulting in the formation of the first Afro-American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816, followed in 1824 with foundation of teh African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1824. These sent missionaries to the south, where they competed with the mainstream Baptist and Methodist churches, which already had a very high slave membership. 68 These churches, ran for free and slave alike, ran Sunday schools and Bible classes, prayed for the sick and buried the dead. As in the Caribbean, they acted to nurture Black autonomy and self-organisation. From them emerged the great preachers, editors, educators, orators and organizers for the Black community, talented people who turned their attention to the campaign against slavery. 69 The Bible inspired many slaves to take up arms against their oppression. In 1800 Gabriel Prosser led a revolt after taking on the role of a ‘Black Samson’, inspired by the Bible to lead armed resistance against slavery and set up a Black kingdom in Virginia. Denmark Vessey, a Black Methodist, in 1822 was inspired by the Book of Joshua and the battle of Jericho to attack Charleston, believing he was guided by God in the form of an angel with a blazing sword. Nat Turner, the Black Baptist preacher who led a holy war against slavery in 1831 that resulted in hundreds of deaths, when he was being led to the gallows said ‘Was not Christ crucified?’ 70 ‘These three revolts, therefore, suggested that AFrican-American leaders – a Black Samson, a Black Joshua, a Black Messiah – could translate Christian resources into political action against the conditions of slavery. Rather than a system of social control, therefore, Christianity appeared in these slave revolts as an impetus for liberation.’ 71 Revolts were rare, but nevertheless ‘under the bondage of slavery, Christianity provided a religious vocabulary for liberation in the formation of supportive communities and social networks. In response to the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, Christian church represented a recovery of humanity.’ 72 

Christian Abolitionism in the US

American anti-slavery campaigners also included Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Unitarians, as well as Methodists and Baptists. After the Revolution a number of states abolished slavery, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780. They were followed by a process of gradual emancipation in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. As with Lord Melbourne in England, secular politicians decried the Christian basis of the abolitionist movement. In 1790 a Maryland congressman complained of ‘the disposition of religious sects to imagine that they understood the rights of human nature better than all the world besides.’ 73 The Second Great Awakening also had an effect on slave consciousness. Not only did it encourage slave-owners to support religious instruction and church attendance amongst their slaves, but the conversion experience itself, the personal feeling of God’s saving grace, allowed slaves to forge their own relationship with God independent of any other third party. In an 1835 church conference in Maine, 80 per cent of the Baptist clergy there identified themselves as ‘decided abolitionists’. 74 Many Roman Catholics also supported the abolitionist cause, such as John Purcell, the Bishop of Cincinnati. 75

Although southern Christians generally considered slavery to be justified by scripture, nevertheless certain oppressive details were challenged and subverted by Christian ministers and their congregations. In antebellum Amite County in Missippi, White ministers appear to have married slaves and in 1822 caused the state legislature to revise a law restricting Blacks’ religious freedom and the rights of Black preachers. In Georgia, some clergymen advocated Black marriage and family rights, while other Whites openlhy taught slaves to read the Bible in direct contravention of the state law. When the Civil War broke out, reforming clergy then turned to demanding the legalisation of Black education. 76

Lyman Beecher founded Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1832 with a deliberately colour-blind admissions policy. Although the board of trustees became so alarmed at the abolitionist opinions of the students that it banned anti-slavery activities, this resulted in 53 students moving to Oberlin College, where they continued their activities. These reforming clergymen were immensely influential in their religious and political activities in the mid-West. Stanley Elkins, a historian of slavery, considered that the abolitionists were motivated by the Puritan notion of collective accountability that made every man his brother’s keeper. They preached necessity of turning away from sin and for its elimination from society. For them, the most heinous social sin was slavery, as Black souls were as valuable as Whites, and for one of God’s children to enslave another was a violation of God’s highest law. 77

Congress passed a law in 1807 outlawing the importation any Black or mixed race slave into America from 1 January 1808. 78 1834 saw the foundation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, funded by Arthur and  Lewis Tappan, wealthy merchants in New York and Boston. They also funded Black education along with a number of other reforming projects. Lewis Trappan declared that they did so because ‘we owe it to the cause of humanity, to our country and our God’. 79 It was not only northerners who embraced Abolitionism, however. They included southern Americans such as James Thome, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The Grimke sisters came from slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina. Angelina had been converted to the anti-slavery cause after reading a tract on it in 1835, and her letter to her sister explaining the reasons for her conversion was included in an abolitionist pamphlet, ‘An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South’. 80 Perhaps the most famous of all female Abolitionists, however, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and her husband was a Congregationalist professor of the Old Testament. A strong believer in sin, guilt and atonement, she incorporated these sentiments into her book, rebuking the American nation for the sin of slavery. 81 Even the leaders of the secular anti-slavery movement, John Quincy Adams, Joshua R. Giddings and Salmon P. Chase, were deeply religious people who recognised the importancy of the evangelical movement as a constituency for anti-slavery activism. 82 Christianity also inspired Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the Underground Railroad, who freed over 300 slaves. Of her mission, she said ‘I must go down, like Moses into Egypt, to lead them out.’ 83 The religious character of Black troopers in the Civil War was noted by one of their commanders, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who remarked on the religious nature of their songs and that ‘behind the gentle worlds in praise of God lurked the spiritual armor of people long at war with oppression.’ 84 Indeed, after the War broke out, Abolitionist Christians were responsible in a large part for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. Victor B. Howard, in his book, Religon and the Radical Republican Movement, notes how the anti-slavery churches marshalled support for Lincoln, with the effect that the Republicans had almost all of the evangelical Christian vote. The Abolitionist paper, the Christian Advocate and Journal, declared that ‘There probably never was an election in all our history into which the religion element entered so largely, and nearly all on one side.’ 85 Thus, ‘antislavery Christians ensured that the election became, in effect, a referendum on whether to abolish slavery for good.’ 86

Christian Campaign Against Global Slavery

The Christian campaign against slavery did not end with the outlawing of the slave trade and slavery. Despite it’s prohibition, slaves continued to be illegally exported from Africa and elsewhere. In its campaign against the global slave trade, the British government drew on the testimony of Christian missionaries in Africa. The 1848 parliamentary select committee on the slave trade, for example, heard testimony from members of the American Episcopalian Church active in Sierra Leone, a Baptist missionary from Fernando Po and Bimbia, as well as missionaries from Jamaica, Demerara, Barbados and Abeokuta. 87 The parliamentary commissions also heard testimony from Africans themselves, including former slaves, such as Thomas Maxwell, now a citizen of Sierra Leone. Maxwell described the appalling murder of his father and uncles by the African slavers who had carried him off. His slave ship had, however, been intercepted by the royal navy, and he and the rest of its human cargo freed. Maxwell had converted to Christianity, and was studying to be a missionary to bring spiritual and physical freedom to his people. 88 As the British empire expanded into the Pacific, Polynesians were kidnapped to serve as slaves on plantations in Queensland and elsewhere. The British government, colonial authorities and planters believed that the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean had resulted in a labour shortage, and attempted to correct this by importing indentured labourers from India and China. Despite their nominally free status, these people were treated as slaves in the infamous ‘Coolie trade’. Outrage at the suffering produced by the system across the globe prompted the British government to introduce legislation regulating the trade and securing something like decent living and working conditions for the indentured labourers and their families. Hugh Tinker’s history of the infamous ‘Coolie trade’, A New System of slavery, describes not only the suffering and protests by Asians against it, but also the Christian clergy who denounced it, and joined Indian nationalists in demanding an end to the trade.

Of critical importance in this campaign was the royal navy, which acted as the ‘global policeman’ patrolling the oceans against slavery. One New Zealand historian has pointed out that the commanders of the anti-slavery vessels in the West African squadron and elsewhere were either evangelical Christians, or had been educated by evangelicals. For this historian, the British navy was the most powerful force protecting indigenous Polynesians in the Pacific. The London Times in 1869 printed a letter by the wife of one Polynesian missionary to the Rev. John Graham protesting against the atrocities against Polynesians committed by British traders in the Pacific. 89 One of the most vigorous campaigners against the enslavement of indigenous Polynesians was the Anglican bishop Patterson. An anti-slavery rally in 1869 in Sydney, Australia, included speeches and condemnation of slavery from the Anglican Bishop of Sydney, bishop Patteson, Rabbi A.B. Davis of the Sydney Synagogue, Rev. John Graham of the Congregational Church, Rev. J.B. Smyth, chaplain to H.M.S. Brisk, Rev. J.P. Sunderland, the Presbyterian minister, Rev. Adam Thomson, the Wesleyan Methodist minister, Rev. G. Hurst, and Rev. G.H. Moreton. These clergymen based their ardent opposition to slavery on the Biblical injunction against man-stealing. 90 The personal efforts of many of the Christian missionaries against the slavers in Africa result in personal assault, injury and possible martyrdom. In 1874 Benjamin Hartley, a missionary student with the Universities’ Mission in East Africa was attacked and seriously injured by Arab slavers when he approached and began talking to their slaves. He was rescued by a group of Zunyamwezi people, and brought back to the mission, critically injured, by his sub-deacon, Francis Mabruki. The Moslem overlord of the district, Seyd Burghash, who had signed treaties with the British against the trade, was investigating the attack in order to procure evidence against the slavers. 91

Persistence of Slavery Today

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Christian clergy and laymen, as well as countless people of other faiths and none, and governments and charities around the world, slavery still persists today around the world, and charities, such as the secular Anti-Slavery International, continue the campaign against it. There are bonded slaves in Brazil, and slave workers in sweatshops in Asia. Slavery also continues in Africa, particularly Mauretania and Sudan. Most of the slaves in Sudan are Christian and pagan Black Africans from the Dinka people. Between 1995 and 2000 Christian Solidarity International, a charity dedicated to the ‘worldwide respect for the God-given right of every human being to choose his or her faith and to practice it’ freed nearly 21,000 Sudanese slaves by purchasing and releasing them. The great defenders of Black Sudanese themselves have been the two bishops, one Roman Catholic and the other Episcopalian. 92


Thus, although Christianity originally permitted slavery, it also demanded its regulation. The enslavement of the great figures of the Bible, like Joseph, and the Hebrews themselves in Egypt and their deliverance from Pharaoh inspired enslaved Christians to resist slavery, while the Biblical insistence on the unity of humanity and their equality before the Lord, along with the sufferings and continued resistance of the slaves themselves against slavery, caused White Christians to demand its abolition. It also created a tradition of Christian opposition to racism of which the Civil Rights campaign was very much a part and a continuation. When Dr. Martin Luther King stood up and declared ‘I have seen the Promised Land’, he expressed the hope and outrage that inspired George Fox, Samuel Sewell, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman and countless others. Odiously, slavery still persists. We’re not there yet, but these people who believed in the God-given liberty of all humanity were instrumental in abolishing it in the West, and creating the campaign against it throughout the world.


1. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 28.

2. Ivor Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman: Jamaica and Its Religion (Cambridge, James Clarke & Co 1982), p. 25.

3. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 25-6.

4. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 26.

5. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 26-7.

6. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 27.

7. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 26.

8. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 27.

9. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2000), p. 436.

10. John Holm, Pidgins and Creoles: Volume II – Reference Survey (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989), p. 342.  

11. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 29.

12. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 30.

13. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 33.

14. Chidester, Christianity, p. 436.

15. James Walvin, The Quakers – Money and Morals (London, John Murray 1997), p. 126.

16. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 34.

17. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 32.  

18. Walvin, Quakers, p. 126.

19. Walvin, Quakers, p. 127.

20. Walvin, Quakers, p. 127.

21. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 41.

22. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 41.

23. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 32.

24. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 33.

25. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36; Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (London, Continuum UK 2007), p. 226.

26. Aitken, John Newton, p. 226.

27. Aitken, John Newton, p. 230.

28. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36.

29. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 34.

30. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 35.

31. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 35-6.

32. Aitken, John Newton, p. 242.

33. Aitken, John Newton, p. 244.

34. Aitken, John Newton, p. 246.

35. Aitken, John Newton, p. 248.  

36. Aitken, John Newton, p. 239.

37. 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.

38. ‘Negre’ by M. Le Romain, in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire raisonne des science, des arts, et des metiers, in Emmanuel Chadwick, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Oxford, Blackwell 1997), pp. 91-2.

39. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.

40. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.

41. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 31-2.

42. Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley: A Biography (Oxford, Lion Publishing 2003), p. 192.

43. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 193.

44. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 177.

45. Tonkins, John Wesley, p. 177.  

46. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36.

47. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38.

48. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 34.

49. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 35.

50. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 177.

51. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 35.

52. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 35-6.

53. House of Commons Papers 1817: Report of the Commissioners for the Management of the Crown Estates in Berbice, 1816.

54. House of Commons Papers 1824: Demerara – Relating to the Insurrection of Slaves, and the Trials Thereon.

55. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 37.

56. House of Commons Paper 1831: Jamaica Slave Trials and Punishment.

57. House of Commons Pamphlet 1832: Jamaica Slave Trials and Punishment.

58. House of Commons Papers 1832: West India Colonies – Slave Instructions.

59. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 39.

60. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 35.

61. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 39.

62. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38; House of Commons Paper 1834-5: Slavery Abolition Act – Order in Council, dated 31 july 1835, for giving effect to the Act 3 & 4 Will. IV c.73, for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies.

63. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38.

64. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49; Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.

65. Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.

66. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49.

67. Chidester, Christianity, pp. 438-9.

68. Chidester, Christianity, p. 439; Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49.

69. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.

70. Chidester, Christianity, pp. 437-8.

71. Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.

72. Chidester, Christianity, p. 439.

73. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 42.

74. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 42.

75. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 43.

76. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 43.

77. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 45.

78. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 44.

79. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 45.

80. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 46.

81. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 47.

82. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 47.

83. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.

84. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.

85. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 51.

86. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 51.

87. House of Commons Papers 1848: Third Report – Slave Trade.

88. House of Commons Papers 1850: Report-African Slave Trade.

89. House of Commons Papers 1868-9: Queensland (South Sea Islanders).

90. House of Commons Papers 1868-9: Queensland (South Sea Islanders).

91. House of Commons Papers: Slave Trade no. 5 (1874) Reports on the Present State of the East African Slave Trade.

92. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 52.

Christianity and Medieval Slavery

February 10, 2008

Following on from the article on Christianity and the ancient world, I thought I would examine the relationship between Christianity and slavery in the Middle Ages. For many non-Christians, the perception of the Middle Ages was a period of superstition and feudal oppression, when the great lords exploited their serfs, aided by the Church, which justified their subordination. The most blatant example of this image of the Middle Ages recently was in the Hollywood film, King Arthur of about four years ago. In one scene, Arthur is shown freeing the oppressed peasants on a Roman villa from oppression and physical torture by Roman Catholic priests.

Ecclesiastical Ownership of Slaves

Now there is clearly some truth in the charicature. The social structure of the Middle Ages was very hierarchical, with most of the population living in some kind of bondage, either as slaves or serfs – individuals with more rights than slaves, but still tied to their masters. Christian churches and the clergy often possessed slaves, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of them on a single ecclesiastical estate. 1 Pope Gregory I (590-604) barred slaves from marrying free Christians, while Gregory XI in the 14th century would sometimes order the enslavement of an opponent after excommunicating them. Christian theologians also used Biblical authority to support slavery as an institution. 2 Nevertheless, Christian theology also viewed slavery as unnatural and demanded slaves’ humane treatment. 3 It also sought to reform and abolish certain aspects of the slave trade, while some theologians even challenged the legitimacy of slavery altogether.

Church Opposition to Slavery and the Slave Trade

Serfdom and slavery certainly existed in ancient Celtic society. A set of four slave neck rings, dating from the 1st century BC, were recovered from Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey in 1942/3. 4 Ancient Irish law recognised the existence of seven types of serf, including those who were unable to pay their honour price, enech, as free men and so sold themselves to a master. 5 Nevertheless, the founder of Christianity in Ireland, St. Patrick, had rejected all forms of slavery ‘apparently the first public person in history to adopt such a categorical stance’. 6 Indeed slavery was gradually suppressed in Europe from the fourth century AD to the High Middle Ages, when it was virtually unknown in northern Europe. 7 Some of this decline can be traced to the influence of Chistianity and the church’s intention of protecting Christians from enslavement. Canon Law prevented non-Christians in Europe from owning Christian slaves. 8 This prohibition was eventually extended to include Christians, so that although slaves were bought and sold as late as the 10th century, this was increasingly rare and expensive, partly through the Church’s prohibition on the enslavement of Christians. 9

Church Encouragement of Manumission

The Church also had strong moral objections to certain forms of slavery, and encouraged their manumission as a pious act. In Anglo-Saxon England, the Council of Chelsea of 816 stipulated that penal slaves should be freed on the death of a bishop, and secular lords also included provisions in their wills freeing their slaves. 10 The earliest known English manumission was by the Bishop Wilfred on his estate in Selsey c. 681-6. 11 As Wilfred’s overlord, king Ethelwealh, had given him the inhabitants as well as the land, Wilfrid freed the slaves there after he had baptised them. ‘Among them [the inhabitants] were two hundred and fifty male and female slaves, all of whom he released from the slavery of Satan by baptism and by granting them their freedom released them fom the yoke of human slavery as well.’ 12 Most surviving Anglo-Saxon wills contain instructions for the manumission of slaves, and in total there are about 120 manumission documents for the period. 13 Sometimes this was in general terms, such as ‘and all my men are to be free, and each is to have his homestead and his cow and his corn for food’. 14 Other wills specifically name the individuals who were to be freed. Thus the Anglo-Saxon lady, Wynflaed, instructed that a number of her slaves should be specifically freed in her will of c.950.

‘And they are to free Wulfwaru, to follow whom she pleases; [and …]ttryth also; and hey are to free Wulfflaed on condition that she follow Aethelflaed and Eadgifu … And thy are to free Gerburg and Miscin an Hi[…] and the daughter of Burhulf at Chinnock, and Aelfsige and his wife and his older daughter, and Ceolstan’s wife. And a Charlton they are to Pifus and Edwin […] and […]’s wife. An at Paccombe they are to free Eadhelm, and Man, and Johanna, and Sprow and his wife, and enefaet, and Gersand, and snell. And a Coleshill they are to free Aethelgyth, and Bic’s wife, and Aeffa, and Beda, and Gurhan’s wife; and they are to free Wulfwaru’s sister, Brihtsige’s wife, and […] the wright, and Aelfwith’s daughter Wulfgyth. An if there be any pernally enslaved person besies these whom she enslaved, she trusts to herchildren that thy wil release them for her soul[‘s sake].’ 15

The law code promulgated in 695 of King Wihtraed of Kent stipulated that manumissions should be performed in church, though slaves were also manumitted at the crossroads in Devon and Camridgeshire. 16 Even there slaves were commonly manumitted in front of members of the clergy. ‘Eadgifu freed Wulfric at the cross-roads, three weks before midsummer, in the witness of Brihstan the priest and of Cynestan and of the cleric who wrote this.’ 17 Slaves could be freed at the tombs of saints, and most manumissions stated that they were performed for the good of the soul of the person granting the slave their freedom. 18 Manumissions were not only recorded in wills. They were also written in gospel books and service books, such as in the Welsh Lichfield Gospels, written before 840. This ‘gave sacred authority to and permanent, written public recognition of the act whil also acknowledging the manumittor’s charity.’ 19 Thus it’s true to say that the redemption of captives and the manumitting of slaves were Christian acts of mercy much encouraged by the Church.’ 20 In the words of the act of manumission for an eleventh century serf, ‘whoever, in the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, moved by charity, permits anyone of his servile dependents to rise from the yoke of servitude to the honour of liberty, may surely trust that in the Last Day, he himself will be endued with everlasting and celestial liberty.’ 21

Church Protection of Slaves and their Rights 

Slaves in Anglo-Saxon society, like the later serfs, possessed rights, which the Church actively protected. The Church was well aware of the hardship of the slave’s life. The Colloquy on the Professions, written by Aelfric, abbot of Cerne Abbas c. 987-1002 for the children in the monastic school, contains the lines on the work of the ploughman

‘Teacher: Oh! Oh! The labour must be great!

Ploughman: It is indeed great drudgery, because I am not free.’ 22

Stories of the saints included episodes where the saint intervened to prevent the harsh treatment of slaves. 23 In Roman Gaul during the later Roman Empire, aristocratic bishops such as St. Germanus of Auxerre travelled on missions to secure relief from oppressive taxes for peoples as far afield as Armorica (Brittany) and Britain. There were also revolts from the peasants themselves, such as that of the Bagaudae, against heavy imperial taxation and oppression by the authorities between 417 and 454. These revolts were eventually suppressed by the imperial army and, in the 440s, by the Visigoths. While they failed, bishops like St. Germanus succeeded. These bishops in turn Christianised the memory of the earlier peasant rebels, and turned them into something similar to Christian martyrs. 24 Bishop Wulfstan in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English stated that it was because people were being enslaved and the slaves deprived of their rights that had made God send the Vikings to raid and invade them. 25 He lamented that, amongst other crimes,

‘ poor men are wretchedly deceived and cruelly cheated and wholly innocent, sold out of this land far and wide into the possession of foreigners; and through cruel injustice children in the cradle are enslaved for petty theft widely throughout this nation; and the rights of freemen suppressed and the rights of thralls curtailed and the rights of charity neglected; and, to speak most briefly, God’s laws are hated and his commands despised. And therefore through the anger of God we all suffer frequent insults, let him acknowledge it who may; and this harm will become common, though one may not think so, to all this nation unless God will save us.’ 26

People Selling themselves into Slavery for Food 

One of the reasons some people became enslaved was because they had sold themselves in order to be fed during a famine. 27 Such people were freed on the deaths of their masters. Thus the late 10th century will of Geatfleda, a benefactress of Durham cathedral, states that she ‘has given freedom for the love of God and for the need of her soul: namely Ecceard teh smith and Aelfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth [and] Ealdhun’s duaghter, and all those people whose heads shed took for their food in the evil days.’ 28

In England, slavery ended in the 12th century after the Norman Conquest. Norman control of the sea made it impossible for English people to be exported as slaves. 29 This was reinforced by the preaching of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, who travelled regularly to Bristol, the main slave port in his see, to preach against the trade. In his Life of Saint Wulstan, the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury expressed absolute horror of the trade:

‘You might well groan to see the long rows of young men adn maidesn whose beauty and youth might move the pity of a savage, bound together with cords, and brought to market to be sold. It was a damnable sin, a piteous reproach, that men, worse than brute beasts, should sell into slavery their own lemans, nay, their own blood.’ 30 Eventually the saint’s preaching was so successful that not only did the people of Bristol abandon the trade and become ‘an example to all England’, but they blinded and drove one slave trader who entered the city. 31

Decline of Medieval Slavery

Eventually slavery declined in northern Europe, transformed into serfdom. While the serf was still unfree, they nevertheless enjoyed certain rights denied the slave. Nevertheless, the view contained in Christian theology that human inequality was a result of the Fall inspired radical Christian groups, such as the English Lollards, the followers of the theology of John Wyclif, to challenge feudalism itself. One Lollard verse ran

‘By Heaven’s high law all men are free,

but human law knows slavery.’ 32

Although Lollardy was eventually the suppressed, the medieval period had seen the development of Christian theological opposition to slavery based on the arguments of the ancient Greek and Roman theologians, an opposition that would be revived in the West in the campaign against Atlantic slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.


1. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (London, Longman 1995), p. 14; Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 29.

2. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 29.

3. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 14.

4.Francis Pryor, Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans (London, HarperCollins 2003), p. 424.

5. Michael Richter, Medieval Ireland: The Enduring Tradition (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1988), p. 20.

6. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 26. 

7. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 29.

8. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 16.

9. R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe – From Constantine to Saint Louis (London, Longman 1988), p. 188.

10. Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (London, Penguin Books 1974), p. 112.

11. David A.C. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Michael Lapdige, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, Blackwell 2001), p. 301.

12. Leo Shirley-Price and R.E. Latham, Bede: A History of the English Church and People (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1968), p. 229.

13. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112; Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 301.

14. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112.

15. ‘The Will of Wynflaed, c.950’ in Michael Swanton, trans., Anglo-Saxon Prose (London, J.M. Dent 1993), p. 53.

16. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 301.

17. Whitelock, English Society, p. 113.

18. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 302.

19. Pelteret, ‘Manumission’, in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 301.

20. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112.

21. R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, Century Hutchinson 1987), p. 103.

22. ‘Aelfric’s Colloquy’ in Swanton, Anglo-Saxon Prose, p. 169; ‘A Colloquy’, in Kevin Crossley-Holland, ed. and trans., The Anglo-Saxon World (Woodbridge, the Boydell Press 1982), p. 199.

23. Whitelock, English Society, p. 109.

24. Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation & Transformation of the Merovingian World (Oxford, OUP 1988), p. 37.

25. Whitelock, English Society, p. 109.

26. ‘The Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ in Crossley-Holland, Anglo-Saxon World, p. 266.

27. Whitelock, English Society, p. 112.

28. ‘A Manumission’, in Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World, p. 234.

29. David A.E. Pelteret, ‘Slavery’ in Lapidge, Blair and Scragg, eds., Anglo-Saxon England, p. 423.

30. J.H.F. Peile, William of Malmesbury’s Life of Saint Wulstan (Felinfach, Llanerch facsimile reprint of 1934 edition, 1996), p. 65.

31. Peile, Life of Saint Wulstan, p. 65.

32. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages, p. 103.

The Bible, Christianity and Ancient Slavery

February 9, 2008

One of the most common objections to Judaism and Christianity comes from the legal recognition of slavery in the Bible. Slavery was known and recognised in ancient Israel, and the Mosaic Law permitted extremely harsh punishment of slaves, even allowing their eventual death from beatings administered by their masters as long as they did not die immediately. If God is truly loving and just, it is argued, then He would not allow such brutal exploitation of humans by other humans. This is really just argumentum ad verecundiam, an argument from outrage. Now it is true that the Bible does indeed recognise slavery, and that slavery persisted in the West in the Roman Empire even after the establishment of Christianity as the official religion. Contemporary Christian theologians are well aware of the evils of slavery, and are certainly not complacent about the continued persistence of it around the world today, in the form of debt slavery in parts of asia and Brazil, or real slavery in Mauretania and the Sudan. Despite its recognition of slavery, the laws governing it in the Bible provided for its humane regulation and eventual abolition. Understanding the Bible’s attitude to slavery, and how it managed to achieve this, requires understanding the nature of slavery and law within ancient near eastern and Roman society.

Biblical Laws on Slaves 

The Mosaic Law itself limited slavery only to gentiles, and outlawed it completely for Jews. Leviticus 25: 39-55 stipulated that poor Israelites who sold themselves to other Jews should be treated as hired servants, and given their freedom in the year of Jubilee, that is, after seven years’ service. Only the neighbouring peoples and the foreigners who lived in Israel could be owned as slaves. Additionally, the Israelites were commanded to buy out of slavery those Jews who had, through poverty, sold themselves to gentiles. These slaves were to be treated as hired servants, and were either to receive their freedom after seven year’s service, or be allowed to purchase their freedom from their fellow Jew. That part of Law stressed that while the former slave was serving his Jewish master, he should be treated leniently – in the words of Leviticus 25: 53,  ‘the other shall not rule wtih rigour over him in thy sight’. Thus for Jews, slavery in ancient Israel was commuted to indentured servitude. Indeed, the enslavement of Jews was a capital offence. Deuteronomy 24:7 commands that ‘If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that theif shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you.’ Hebrew slaves could only be retained if he had been given a wife by his master, and did not wish to leave to her and his children. As for female Hebrew slaves who had been purchased as wives Exodus 21:7-11 stated that they had to be freed if they did not please their masters. If their owner subsequently married, they had to be supported. If their master failed to do this, they were to be given their freedom. Female slaves given to the master’s son were to be treated as daughters. While the law stated that the owner whose slave died a day or two after being beaten by his master would not be punished, ‘for he is his money’ (Exodus 21:21), in other words, because he had lost his property, nevertheless the master who beat his slave to death was to be punished. Leviticus 21:26-27 further provided that masters who struck out their slaves’ eyes or teeth had to free them. Furthermore, legislation existed to protect slaves from goring by livestock. Exodus 21:32 stated that if an ox pushed a male or female slave, it was to be put to death and the slave’s master given thirty shekels of silver. Moreover, the death penalty for adultery was commuted to scourging for the female partner, if she was a slave and betrothed to another man, while the man had to make a trespass offering. This was ‘because she was not free’, according to Leviticus 19:20. Furthermore, Hebrew slaves freed after six years’ service were to be liberally provided from their master’s flocks, grain and wine stores, according to the provisions of Leviticus 15:13-14. Furthermore, female prisoners of war who had been captured for a wife, was to be freed and not to be sold as a slave if she displeased her new husband, according Deuteronomy 21:14, because he had humiliated her. Runaway slaves were not to be returned to their masters. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 states that ‘though shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto the: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.’ This effectively granted runaway slaves their freedom.

Archaeological Evidence for Manumission by Jews 

There is archaeological evidence for the manumission of slaves by their Jewish masters surviving from the ancient world. An inscription from Panticapaeum in the Crimea records the manumission of the slave Heraclas by his mistress, Chreste, the widow of Nicias, son of Sotas, at the local synagogue in January, 81 AD. 1Thus slavery in ancient Israel was subject to legislation ameliorating it and guaranteeing some protection to slaves and protecting those vulnerable to enslavement.

Slavery and Ancient Society 

Despite this relatively humane regulation and transformation of slavery, there is still the objection that slavery nevertheless existed, and that rather than regulating it, God should have removed it completely. In practice it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to abolish slavery completely in the ancient world. Slavery was such a part of ancient political theory and society that they found it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an alternative system. Contemporary society is built around wage labour, and it’s taken for granted that the workers’ ability to leave their jobs and seek employment elsewhere doesn’t wreck the economy, but instead is a pillar and a major motivating force for economic and social progress. Yet this was not how it was seen in the ancient world. ‘In the context of universal history, free labour, wage labour, not slavery, is the peculiar institution. for most of the millennia of human history in most parts of the world, labour power was not a commodity which could be bought and sold apart from, abstracted from, the person of the labourer.’ 2 Indeed, it has been noted that ‘in early societies, free hired labour (though widely documented) was spasmodic, casual, marginal. significantly, in neither Greek nor Latin was there a word with which to express the general notion of ‘labour’ or the concept of labour ‘as a general social function’. 3 It has been estimated that 2/3 of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, who could not have been freed without severe disruption of the economy and social structure. Ancient society was profoundly conservative, and to the ancients, slavery was a necessary evil as there was no conceivable alternative.

The concept of slavery profoundly affected ancient views of the very nature of power and the structure of authority. Even kings and potentates saw themselves, or presented themselves, as the slaves of superior kings. Thus, Abdi-Heba, the mayor of Jerusalem, began his letter to his overlord, the Egyptian pharoah Amenhotep III or IV, with the phrase ‘[To the king]my lord, [speak: Message of] Abdi-Heba, [your]servant. [At the feet of the king], my lord, sevenfold [seven times I fall].’ 4 

Professional Opportunities and Status of Slaves

In the Roman world, slaves also had the opportunity for social advancement and the ability to perform a range of what would now be considered professional and managerial jobs. In ancient Athens, some slaves were allowed by their masters to live on their own with their families and pursue a trade. ‘These slaves, to all intents and purposes, lived like free men.’ 5 In Rome, the medical profession was dominated by slaves and freedmen, mostly from the Hellenistic east and particularly Egypt. Harpocras, the doctor who treated the younger Pliny, was a freedman –  a former slave who still owed some service to his former masters. In return for his treatment, Pliny requested the emperorer to grant him Roman citizenship. 6 Thus ‘members of the Roman elite, in sum, went to slaves and freedmen for medical treatment, and paid for it. Escape from payment was possible only if the doctor was on’es own freedman or the freedman of a friend.’ 7 They also acted as businessmen and agents on behalf of their masters, through a peculium system that regarded the property the slaves managed as that of their masters while a complex system of legislation developed which recognised the fact that it was the slave managing the business, not the master. 8 There exist numerous business contracts from the Roman world documenting the renting and management of property by slaves and other commercial transactions. One such contract, of July 2, AD 37, by Diogenes, the slave of Gaius Novius Cypaerus, records the rental of a warehouse in Puteoli, full of Alexandrian rice-wheat, by Hesicus, the slave of a freedman, Evenus. The rice-wheat was a security advanced to Hesicus, along with 200 sacks of beans. 9 Furthermore, it was possible for the descendent of a slave to reach positions of respect and high office. The father of the Roman poet, Horace, was a freedman, a business agent and broker, who was able to finance his son’s definitely aristocratic eduction. 10 The great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, a slave belonging to the freedman Epaphroditus, was aware of the upward mobility of certain slaves, whose children joined the ranks of the senatorial aristocracy. He used the possibility of slave social advancement, and possible slave ancestry even for the most aristocratic, in his works to challenge conventional assumptions by the leading citizens that they were metaphysically free.

 ‘”How can I be a slave?” he says; ” my father is free, my mother is free, no one has bought me; nay, I am a senator, and a friend of Caesar, I have been consul and have many slaves.”

In the first place, most excellent senator, perhaps your father too was a slave of the same kind as you, yes and your mother and your grandfather and the whole line of your ancestors.’ 11

Masters and their slaves would also end up working together on certain tasks. For example, during the construction of the Erechtheum, the temple in the Athenian Acropolis in the fifth century BC, of the 86 craftsmen working on the site, 24 were Athenian citizens, 42 non-citizens and 20 slaves. All of the workmen who were paid a daily wage received the same rate of pay, regardless of whether they were slave or free. Most of the slaves were working alongside their masters in the same trade on the same particular task, so that, for example, the craftsman Simias had five of his slaves working with him. 12 Now the slaves would have paid their masters a percentage of their wages, but nevertheless the fact that the Athenian state gave them the same rates of pay as free workmen is interesting.

Community of Interest between Slaves and Poor Free

The result of this seems to be that rather than be wholly identified as a self-conscious, separate class, Roman slaves and the free poor strongly identified with each other. Thus, when all the slaves in the household of Pedanius Secundus were ordered to be executed after the murder of their master by a few of the household slaves, there were demonstrations by the plebs, which eventually turned into a riot when the senate confirmed the order. 13 While the existence of slavery was unquestioned, there does seem to have been a real sense of community between the free poor and the slaves. Many of the plebs were freedmen or the descendents of slaves, and associated with slaves in their daily lives. 14 In the third century, a slave businessman, Callistus, even became pope. 15

Canon Law and Slavery

Christian canon law, when it emerged, did not attempt to abolish slavery because of its perceived indispensability to the society and economy. Nevertheless, Christian attitudes to slavery differed from traditional pagan Roman attitudes. While Aristotle considered that there were indeed natural slaves, Christians, like the pagan Stoics, held that slavery was unnatural and in an ideal world all humans should be free. 16 St. Augustine held that slavery was the result of sin, citing as an example the enslavement of defeated enemies in war. 17 Canon law stipulated that masters must treat their slaves humanely and provide for their religious needs. It also differed from conventional Roman law in allowing slaves to marry legitimately. In order to protect slave families, it restricted the rights of the masters to split them up and separate married slaves from their spouses and children. 18

Challenge of Christianity to Psychological Basis of Slavery

Furthermore, Christianity also posed a challenge to one of the psychological justifications for slavery. Slavery as an institutions depends on a perceived fundamental difference between those enslaved and their masters – that slaves are somehow innately inferior, and do not deserve or are unsuited to freedom. Aristotle provided one such justification with his doctrine that there were natural slaves. Roman law linked slaves with animals, while the Greeks termed them andropoda – man-footed beings – after tetrapoda, quadrupeds, the term for that type of animal. 19 St. Paul stated in Galatians 3:28 that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.’ While this referred to spiritual freedom, rather than any secular liberty, nevertheless Christianity offered religious opportunities to slave that were not offered, or only offered to a limited extent, by contemporary Roman pagan religions. ‘Christianity did not offer unusual opportunities for status: what it did offer was moral and religious teaching, and shared ritual, that extended to women, slaves and the poor’. 20 Like their free fellows, slaves were active members of the congregation in their local churches, and participated in the election of bishops. While Varro stated that the slave was an implement, like oxen or ploughs, Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria and Lactantius insisted on their common humanity. Clement firmly stated that ‘slaves are men like us’ to whom the Golden Rule applied, while Lactantius stated ‘Slaves are not slaves to us. We deem them brothers after the spirit, in religion fellow servants.’ 21Although the Church certainly owned slaves, it also consecrated them as deacon, priests and bishops, and although pagan tombs mention the slave status of the deceased, this is not known from the Christian tombs in the catacombs. 22

Christianity and the Amelioration and Abolition of Slavery

Thus the Bible did not urge the abolition of slavery, as this was not considered possible in the ancient world. Indeed, so ingrained was the idea of slavery for the ancients that any legislation against it would have been extremely difficult to enforce. Despite the Biblical prohibition against the enslavement of other Jews, letters surviving from Samaria from the time of the Persian occupation showed that this was widely disregarded. Over half of the documents are deeds of ownership for Jewish slaves. Moreover, ancient slaves did have opportunities for social advancement and may have been considered part of the community with the free poor that was certainly not the case for the African chattel slaves of the 17th to 19th centuries. Revelation has to apply to the people of the time it is received, and in the ancient world, slavery was not quite the issue it became for modern moralists, theologians and politicians. Christianity did, however, demand the regulation of slavery and the humane treatment of slaves. Indeed, Christianity’s insistence of the essential humanity of the slave and the common identity with the rest of the community did lay the grounds for later ecclesiastics such as St. Gregory of Nyssa to attack slavery itself in the seventh century and the eventual abolition of slavery completely in the 19th century.


1. C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (Nw York, Harper & Row 1961), p. 53.

2. Moses I. Finley, ed. Brent. D. Shaw, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (Princeton, Markus Wieners Publishers 1998), p. 299.

3. Finley, ed. Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 136.

4. Eva von Dassow and Kyle Greenwood, ‘Correspondence from El-Amarna in Egypt’ in Mark. W. Chavalas, ed., The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing 2006), p. 209.

5. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, W.H. Smith/ Newnes Books 1985), p. 159.

6. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 174.

7. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 175.

8. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 176.

9. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization: Selected Readings – The Empire (New York, Columbia University Press 1990), p. 109.

10. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 166.

11. Epictetus, Discourses IV, in Barrett, New Testament Background, p. 68.

12 Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 169.

13. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 171.

14. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 171.

15. Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2004), p. 36.

16. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (London, Longman 1995), p. 14.

17. Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy (Oxford, Clarendon 2005), p. 258.

18. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 14.

19. Finley and Shaw, Ancient Slavery, p. 167.

20. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 30.

21. Herbert B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1980), p. 61.

22. Workman, Persecution, p. 61.

Homosexuals and Atheism: An Uneasy Alliance

February 7, 2008

One of the most noticeable features of recent atheist polemic is its deliberate appeal to the gay community. Religion, it is argued, is innately hostile to gays and so the self-respecting gay man or woman should utterly reject it. While it is entirely understandable why many gays object to what they feel is religiously motivated prejudice and persecution, nevertheless it is not necessarily the case that atheism offers better protection.

Now my own opinion is that the debate about homosexuality has already gathered more attention and taken up more time than it deserves. While I believe that it falls short of the ideal set for us by the Lord, I don’t like the culture of hate that exists in certain parts of society, such as the violently homophobic lyrics in some Rap. I also feel that the desire to avoid being seen as homophobic has deterred entirely legitimate criticism of certain aspects of gay culture. For example, the reckless hedonism and promiscuity portrayed in some of  the novels of Edmund White would be seen as irresponsibly dangerous and self-destructive if done by heterosexuals. At that level, the sexuality of the people involved is immaterial: it’s squalid regardless of whether it’s done by gay or straight people. I don’t wish to discuss the morality of homosexuality or the prohibitions against it here, but to challenge the assumption that atheism promises a better attitude towards gay men and women.

Pro-Homosexual Attitudes in Paganism

While many religions have prohibitions against homosexuality, there are others which include the ‘queer’ in their conception of the sacred. Babylonian and Canaanite paganism included male as well as female temple prostitutes. There were particularly associated with the goddess of love, Ishtar. ‘There is no doubt, however, that the temples of Ishtar, the goddess of carnal love, were the sites of a licentious cult with songs, dances and pantomimes performed by women and transvestites, as well as sexual orgies’. The male participants in these rites, called assinu, kulu’u or kurgarru, included passive homosexuals. 1 Amongst the gods of Polynesia is one who presides over gay love affairs. 2 The Roman writer Apuleius, was gay as well as a devout member of the cult of Isis. Homosexuality was entirely acceptable in Graeco-Roman culture, a situation that has strongly influenced contemporary Neo-Paganism’s positive view of homosexuality. In the 1905 novel, The Garden God, by Forrest Reid, recounts the discovery by the gay hero that he and his boyfriend were lovers in previous lives in ancient Greece. Confessing their emotions to each other on a beach, they call upon the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. 3 Many shamans in the world’s indigenous religions may be gay or transvestites, their sexuality a sign of their deep connection to the uncanny and numinous. This was recognised by the ancient Greeks, who noted the presence of such individuals, and the respect in which they were held, by the ancient Scythians. The author of the Hippocratic medical treatise, Airs, Waters, Places specifically mentioned them, stating that ‘the Scythians themselves attribute this to a divine visitation and hold such men in awe and reverence, because they fear for themselves.’ 4 Here a rational, materialist explanation for their sexuality has been a challenge to the high status in which such people were held since ancient Greece. The above Hippocratic author was himself critical of the supposed supernatural origin of their sexuality. In an explicit statement of early rationalistic scepticism, he stated that ‘indeed, I myself hold that this and all other diseases are equally of divine origin and none more divine nor more earthly than another. Each disease has a natural cause nothing happens without a natural cause.’ 5 For this early exponent of sceptical medicine, the transvestism of this part of the Scythian people was due to varicose veins brought on by their constant horse riding and their highly dangerous attempts to cure it by cutting the carotid artery. 6 Thus, while individual religions may condemn homosexuality, theism as such does not, and some gays have found in those Neo-Pagan religions that accept it a more positive attitude towards their sexuality than may be found elsewhere in society.

Lack of Basis for Tolerance to Gays in Atheism

There is also the problem in that atheism, as a rejection of theism and its values, does not necessarily lead to a more tolerant or positive attitude towards gays. In the controversy surrounding the establishment of civil partnerships by the British government a year or so ago, the BBC noted on one of its news programmes that three quarters of the British public were opposed to gay marriage. This would seem to include many secular individuals who would not see their opposition to it as religiously based. A documentary by a British Black gay writer and broadcaster on Britain’s Radio 4 into the violent hatred of homosexuals in Caribbean culture, The Roots of Prejudice, while interviewing some Christian ministers whose preaching strongly condemned in very strong tones, nevertheless also considered that it was due to the very strong emphasis on masculinity in Caribbean culture. My guess is that the hatred in such lyrics may also act as a general redirection for the anger and bitter hostility generated by tensions elsewhere in some Caribbean societies. Despite the high hopes for prosperity and social advancement and improvement after independence, Jamaican politics has been tainted with corruption since the 1980s when politicians made alliances with the notorious Yardie gangs to advance their ambitions. In a climate when politics could be mixed with real gang violence, it’s possible that the anger and disillusionment at the contemporary situation, which could not be voiced because of the real danger of personal violence, could find an outlet instead in a common hatred of homosexuals.  

It is also the case that some of the postmodern philosophies that have become fashionable in recent years, despite their ostentatious promise of tolerance, actually offer the opposite. A few years ago some of the self-appointed arbiters of what was fashionable in Britain made statements highly supportive of Nihilism. One gay style guru got into Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’ for his declaration that nihilism was not enough, and that right-thinking gays should go beyond this, apparently not realising that if you go beyond the mere negative, you come back to embracing a positive view. Nihilism here seems to have had an attraction to those who saw themselves as courageous adversaries of oppressive social convention, preaching personal liberation and tolerance. However, there is the situation that in order to argue that gays also have the right to life, liberty and property, it has first to be accepted and recognised that there are indeed transcendent rights to life, liberty and property, rights which Nihilism implicitly denies, along with all other conventions. The persecution of homosexuals can only be condemned as immoral if it is considered that there are transcendent morals which are necessarily true beyond mere human opinion and social convention. Nihilism, by definition, entirely rejects this view. In the Brothers Karamazov, Doestoyevsky observed that without God, anything was permissible. Thus, just as some homosexuals believe that atheism will allow a greater acceptance of their sexuality, so nihilism also leaves open the possibility of renewed and greater persecution as morality becomes nothing more than individual opinion or social convention. This was one of the problems the British journalist and agnostic, Rod Liddle, in his The Trouble with Atheism on Britain’s Channel 4, pointed out with Richard Dawkins’ conception of morality in The God Delusion. Liddle remarked on Dawkins’ revised commandment, ‘You shall enjoy your sexuality, as long as you don’t harm others’ that it was all very wishy-washy. Dawkins replied that that was it’s advantage, as it could be revised and updated with the zeitgeist. The problem with this attitude is that, if morality is only the product of the zeitgeist, then the tolerance Dawkins was advocating may be totally rejected in favour of intolerance and persecution.

Hostility to Homosexuality in Atheist and Anti-Christian Ideologies

It’s also been the case that many atheist ideologies themselves have been hostile to homosexuality. Freudianism traced homosexuality to problems in a person’s upbringing, and attempts by Freudian psychiatrists to correct what they saw as a dangerous inclination towards it amongst their patients and charges could be cruel. A few years ago the BBC screened a documentary series, The Century of the Self, on the profound influence Freudian psychiatry has had on Western political, social and commercial attitudes, and the way Freudian psychiatrists were hired by governments, politicians and businesses to manipulate popular opinion. Amongst the chilling stories recounted in the series was the account of how one particular Freudian psychiatrist had attempted to bring up the perfect, well-adjusted family according to a strict Freudian regime. She was particularly worried about one of the boys, whom she feared would grow up to be gay, and so paid particular attention to preventing this from occurring. The result was a harsh, bizarre system inflicted on the children, with the result that far from being happy and well-adjusted, many of them became emotionally scarred and neurotic. The vehemently antichristian totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany both criminalised homosexuality. Twenty years ago the British theatre produced a play, Bent, about the Nazi persecution of gays and their incarceration in the concentration camps.

Materialistic Conceptions of Humanity No Guarantee of Tolerance

As part of the campaign to remove the perceived prejudice against gays, some scientists and activists have suggested a genetic, sociobiological origin for homosexuality in which it is viewed as an advantageous evolutionary strategy. For example, it has been suggested that homosexuality arose, as it allowed homosexual males to assist the early proto-hominid group in protection and foraging, while allowing the dominant heterosexual male to mate with the females. A variant of this view is that the homosexual gene exists to allow gay children to help their parents with child-rearing. Such sociobiological theories have been criticised by scientists for both their lack of evidence and their reductionist attitude to human psychology, sexuality and society. ‘Any of these ideas could be true, but they are mutually exclusive, and there is absolutely no evidence for any of them. This kind of reductionist analysis of something as complex and manifestly socially conditioned as human sexual preference causes anthropologists, psychologists and others to despair.’ 7

These evolutionary theories of the origin of homosexuality also suffer from the naturalistic fallacy of turning ‘is’ into ‘ought’. The problem is that there are many things that occur in nature that human society rightly condemns and prohibits. Science may explain the origin of homosexuality, but it still requires a philosophical justification through moral theory. Moreover, these sociobiological theories of the origin of morality generally miss the point. People don’t just behave altruistically from an evolutionary strategy to allow the survival of their children in the co-operative group in a way that can be simply calculated scientifically, as J.B.S. Haldan is supposed to have done on the back of an envelope in a pub. According to the story, after performing his calculations Haldane declared that he was willing to die for four uncles or eight cousins, this being the number required to replace a person’s own genes in the gene pool. 8 People act altruistically and with compassion not from a desire to protect their genes, or those genetically similar to them, but from a belief that what they are doing is transcendentally and objectively right.

Materialism a Threat to Human Dignity

Indeed, the materialism on which much atheism is based actually undercuts morality. For some very reductionist philosophers and scientists, such as Daniel C. Dennett and Sue Blackmore, consciousness is an illusion and people really are nothing more than organic automatons. Yet people’s everyday interactions with each other is predicated on the idea that there is indeed a ‘ghost in the machine’, and a transcendent self, an ‘I’, within their heads experiencing pleasure and pain. A good starting point for morality and altrusim is the belief that the suffering experienced by people is not an illusion experienced by an equally illusory, unreal self, but real pain suffered by a real person. This is traditionally the view of the theist religions, and so one of the forces that may actually protect gays, as well as heterosexual people, from dehumanising conceptions of humanity is actually this aspect of theistic religion.

Reproductive Technology and Children’s Right to Life, regardless of Predicted Sexuality

Similarly, Christian objections to the morality of genetic engineering and ‘designer babies’ may also protect homosexuals. For Christians, as well as very many other people of faith and atheists, recent developments in reproductive science threaten to devalue the sanctity of human life as people are offered the ability to choose their children’s heredity, including, possibly, their sexuality. A few years ago there was much hoo-ha about the supposed discovery of a ‘gay gene’. Suddenly the possibility that parents would choose their children’s sexuality seemed all too real. The Christian pastor, Albert Mohler has been strongly criticised on the internet for his suggestion in his blog that if it was found that an unborn child would grow up gay, then gene therapy should be used to prevent this. Long before he made these comments, however, I can remember Quentin Crisp causing similar outrage when he said something similar in the British media. What made this particularly surprising is that Crisp is a gay icon, and the dramatised treatment of his life, The Naked Civil Servant, a landmark in the campaign for greater tolerance towards homosexuals in British society.  Now Christianity considers that people are not simply the products of their genes. They have free will and a genuine moral choice. And for many Christians, the rights of the unborn to life and their inherent biological integrity and dignity means that such genetic tampering should be rejected regardless of which sexuality those doing the tampering intend to fix in the child. Again, Christian moral attitudes here towards the unborn may also protect those who could be suspected of growing up gay.

Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality: A Middle Way

At the moment there is a strong debate in Christianity over the morality of homosexuality, with some urging its acceptance while others are very strongly opposed. It is possible to find a middle way, however. Christian theology makes a distinction between the sin and the sinner. God hates sin, but loves sinful humanity, and gays do not deserve any greater condemnation than other people. This attitude was clearly displayed a few years on British television by a Baptist pastor in a documentary series on Channel 4. This was a mixture of reality TV and history as it followed a group of men and women and their children as they attempted to recreate the life of the very first colonial settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, in the first decades of the 17th century. The people themselves were a mixture of Britons and Americans, with the Baptist Pastor taking the role of the colony’s first governor. Part of his duties was to lead the community in Christian worship in the colony’s church, just as it would have been performed by the colonists nearly four centuries earlier. One of the guys in the party was secretly gay. Tormented, and unable to hide his sexuality any longer, the man stood up in church one Sunday morning and publicly declared his anguish and his sexuality to the rest of the community. The Pastor was unfazed. He simply remarked that while it was a sin, ‘all men have sinned, and fallen short of God’s glory’ and simply carried on with the service. A condemnation of the sin does not necessarily translate into hostility towards the sinner, and while traditional Christian morality rejects homosexuality, amongst the mainstream churches in the West it will lead also to a condemnation of violence against gay people as persons. Some of those who campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain were liberal Christians who felt that the punishment was worse than what was punished. Atheism offers no guarantee of this, and its conception of humanity as a mere automaton whose notions of morality are merely the products of an evolutionary history designed to ensure the propagation of genetic material actually weakens this. Thus, while traditional Christian morality rejects homosexual, its concern for the person as a transcendental subject, made in the image of God, may offer to protect gays as well as heterosexuals from the dehumanisation inherent in a purely atheistic, mechanistic view of humanity.


1. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London, Penguin 1992), p. 213.

2. G.H. Luquet, ‘Oceanic Mythology’ in Felix Guirand, ed., Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, trans., New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1968), p. 451.

3. Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 48.

4. ‘Airs, Waters, Places’ in G.E.R. Lloyd, ed., and J. Chadwick, W.N. Mann, I.M. Lonie and E.T. Withington, trans., Hippocratic Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), p. 165.

5. Lloyd, Chadwick, Mann, Lonie and Withington, Hippocratic Writings, p. 165.

6. Lloyd, Chadwick, Mann, Lonie and Withington, Hippocratic Writings, p. 165.

7. ‘Homosexuality’ in Anna Hodson, Essential Genetics: Genetics Clearly Explained and Defined (London, Bloomsbury Publishing 1992), p. 142.

8. Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 121.