The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Slavery, the institution that allowed one human being to own another is an affront to all that is humane. We take it for granted today that the immoral nature of slavery is self-evident. But it was not self-evident in the past. In this section we will show that Christianity was actually an active instrument in continuing the practice of slavery.

The Bible on Slavery

Despite what Easton claimed in his Illustrated Bible Dictionary, slavery, as an institution was never criticized in the Bible. We find that the Old Testament, far from condemning slavery, actually laid down precise laws for slave ownership:

Leviticus 25:44-46
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

Exodus 21:2,4
When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh he shall go free for nothing ... If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's and he shall go out alone.

These passages above actually give explicit sanction for slavery. The New Testament is no better. The gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John are silent concerning slavery, but the epistles of Paul gives clear-cut sanctions for its practice. In his epistles to the Colossians, Paul had this to say to Christian slaves:

Colossians 3:22
Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord.

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gave what must surely be the religious justification for maintaining the status quo:

I Corinthians 7:21-22
Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.

With the freedom in God's eyes defined as all-important, there is no longer any need for the Christian to challenge slavery. The Christian teaching of a life hereafter must surely had contributed to the lack of social action on the part of Christians against the institution.

Paul's epistle to Philemon is actually a letter that accompanies Philemon's runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul was sending back to his master. Although he urged Philemon to be kind to Onesimus, the tone of his letter is obviously one that accepts slavery as a valid social institution.

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The Early Christians on Slavery

The acceptance of slavery as part of the fabric of society was so engraved in the social psyche of the era of nascent Christianity that very few voices of protest were raised against it. But whatever protest made against slavery, and whatever attempts to alleviate the position of slaves, were done, not by Christians, but by pagans.

The pagan Roman Republic took many steps to alleviate the lot of slaves. In 82 BCE murder of slaves were forbidden by the Cornelian Law. Around 30 BCE the Petronian Law forbade the sending of slaves to fight in the amphitheater. The Stoic teaches Seneca (c 5 BCE-65 CE), while he still had influence over the insane emperor, Nero (37-68 CE) managed to induce him to pass a law to forbade the cruel treatment of slaves. The Emperor Hadrian (76-138), an Epicurean, revived the laws prohibiting the murder of slaves and of sending them to the amphitheater. He also suppressed the inhuman practice of housing slaves underground. Hadrian was also known to have banished a wealthy Roman lady, named Umbricia, for cruelty to her slaves. By the second century slaves had already acquired the right, under certain circumstances, to bring legal action against their masters. The Emperor Antoninus Pius (86-161) issued an imperial decree which gives freedom to a slave running from a cruel master; on the condition that the runaway slave must embrace a statue of the emperor before he is considered a free man.

The voices of conscience raised against slavery was also pagan. The pagan Dio Chrysostom, who was the greatest orator of his age, delivered a speech around AD100 in a public hall in the Forum of Rome where he explicitly and at great length condemned slavery as unjust. [1]

The same spirit of humanism was not present in the early Christians. As Joseph McCabe stated:

The plain fact is that down to the year 1000 ... no Christian leader, much less a pope or Council, condemned slavery. [2]

When the Christian theologians took the trouble to discuss slavery, they were supportive of it. St. Augustine (354-430), in his most famous work, The City of God (426) presented the theological justification of slavery. He taught that God created man free but through sin, that freedom had been lost. Slavery is therefore the punishment for man's sin. As Augustine himself puts it:

The first cause of slavery, then, is sin - that a man should be put in bonds by another; and this happens only by the judgement of God, in whose eyes it is no crime.[Italics mine-PT] [3]

Thus, in one fell swoop, Augustine not only accepted slavery but gave it divine sanction. As the historian Emil Reich stated in his History of Civilization:

It is an historical fact, supported by the most positive of evidence that slavery in the Roman Empire was mitigated by the noble philosophy of the Stoics and not by the teachings of the church fathers, who never thought of recommending the abolition of slavery. [4]

The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine (c274-337) actually undid most of the humane laws to alleviate the position of slaves laid down by his pagan predecessors. He permitted parents to sell their children into slavery and allowed finders of abandoned children to bring them up as slaves. He also issued a decree which stipulates the death penalty for any Christian woman who had sexual intercourse with a slave; that the slave would also be put to death is a foregone conclusion. [5]

The Roman pontiffs made many remarks about slaves and slavery. none of which helped to abolish the practice. Pope Leo The Great (d.461) ruled that no slaves can become priests because their "vileness" will "pollute" the sacred order. Pope Gregory the Great (c540-604), who was the richest slave owner in sixth century Europe, forbade the marriage of Christian women to slaves. [6] In the eleventh century, Pope Benedict VIII (d1024), in an effort to stop priests from having sex, decreed that all children produced by these unlawful coupling should be made slaves. Pope Paul III (1468-1549) decreed that all Englishmen who supported the errant King, Henry VIII should be reduced to slavery. In the fifteenth century, the papacy gave the king of Portugal permission top conquer "heathen" countries and reduced their population in "everlasting slavery." [7]

The churches and the monasteries, far from being a haven for escaping slaves, actually owned slaves. When ancient slavery ended, the monasteries were among the last to give up their slaves. [8] Ancient slavery ended in the twelfth century, or more correctly evolved into serfdom, not because of any concerted Christian action but for purely economic reasons. It became cheaper for the wealthy to have serfs working their land and feeding themselves than to own dependent slaves. [9]

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Black African Slavery

The next stage in the history of servility is black African slavery. It was without a doubt one of the worst form of slavery known to history. It was started in the fifteenth century by the Christian countries of western Europe. It was used mainly in the colonies to supply much needed manpower in the plantation of cotton, rice and sugar. [10]

Significantly, the beginnings of black slavery can be traced to the request of a Christian bishop, the Catholic Bishop of Chiapa in Mexico, Bartoleme de las Casas. In 1517 Padre Las Casas (he was not yet a bishop then) implored the King of Spain, Charles V, to allow the import of African slaves into the continent. Charles granted the request, made ostensibly on humanitarian grounds.[a] Thus began the infamous Asiento, an "import" license for slave trade to Spanish controlled America. Eventually this trade expanded to North America. By 1860 a census in the US counted almost four and a half million slaves. [11]

The treatment of these slaves, from their capture to the life in the plantation, were barbaric. As the historian, H.A.L. Fisher notes:

It is a terrible commentary on Christian civilization that the longest period of slave raiding known to history was initiated by the actions of Spain and Portugal, France, Holland and Britain after the Christian faith had for more than a thousand years been established in western Europe; and it the graver since the new slavery was worse and more inhuman than the old. [12]

The call for the abolition of black slavery came not from Christians but from freethinkers generally. Slavery was abolish in France in 1791, not by the church, but by the atheistic founders of the revolution. In the U.S. the early critics of slavery, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), were all either freethinkers or Deists. Later the abolitionist cause was taken up by such people as Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), a Deist, Raplh Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a Unitarian minister turned free-thinker, and William Lyold Garrison (1805-1879), an agnostic. In England, the battle for the abolition of slavery was fought mainly by free-thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). [13]

While it cannot be denied that some Christians were involved in abolitionists movements, they were the exception rather than the rule. In some cases these Christians acquired their anti-slavery beliefs not from their religion. Take the example of the name most used by Christian apologists to show that Christians were opposed to slavery: William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Wilberforce was a Christian and the universal claim is that his Christian conscience showed him the evils of slavery. But this claim is easily shown to be false. As a child, Wilberforce never had any affinity for the religion. For a long time he avoided taking a degree at Cambridge University because he could not sign the 39 Articles of the Church of England. It was in this skeptical mould that Wilberforce remained for the first thirty years of his life. Yet it was during these agnostic times that he developed his sense of abhorrence towards slavery. (For, as a boy of fourteen, he had written to a newspaper attacking slavery.) He was, at that time a Deist, as were his closest associates. [14] Furthermore, his chief allies in his battle for abolitionism were Quakers, dissenters and free-thinkers, not the mainstream Christians. The support from the established churches for his actions was described by Wilberforce himself as "disgracefully lukewarm." In fact, many conservative members of the clergy actively tried to suppress and obstruct his anti-slavery cause. [15]

The record is worse for the churches in America. The Christians there did not stop to think whether the institution of slavery is, in itself immoral. Their chief concern was whether the Bible condoned or condemned it. The answer, as we have seen, was obvious. Thus the Christians in the U.S. supported slavery. In 1836 the South Carolina Methodist Conference declared that:

The Holy Scriptures, so far from giving any countenance to [the] delusion [of abolitionism] do unequivocally authorize the relation of master and slave. [16]

In the same year, the editor of the journal of the Theological Seminary at Princeton, Charles Hodge wrote:

The assumption that slave holding is in itself a crime ... is an error fraught with evil consequences. It not merely brings its advocates into conflict with the scriptures, but it does much to retard the progress of freedom: it embitters and divides the members of the community and it distracts the Christian Church. [17]

A couple of years later, Hodge wrote that the abolitionists "consider their own light as more sure than the word set down in scripture." [18]

Of course the Bible was also used to specifically justify black slavery. The passage was Genesis 9:20-27. In this passage the story is told of how Ham, one of Noah's sons saw him naked. Upon discovering this Noah pronounced his curse to Ham: "the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9:25). Since the black Africans are generally believed to be the descendents of Ham (Genesis 10:6-20)[b], this was intepreted to mean that African slaves are a natural result of this curse.[19]

The clergy and Christian laity did nothing to further the cause of anti-slavery. When the abolitionists Lyold Garrison wanted to deliver a public speech on abolition in Boston, the only building he could obtain to speak in was that of Abner Kneeland, the editor of the Boston Investigator, who was once jailed for blasphemy. Most of the other available buildings belonged to the various Christian churches, all of which refused him permission to use them. Some clergymen actually went as far as attempting to get Lyold Garrison hanged! [20]

When abolition was first advocated in the U.S. in 1790, the politicians from the south used religious arguments against it. Some said that, correctly, the southern clergy "did not condemn either slavery or the slave trade." while others asserted that the whole tone of the Bible "from Genesis to Revelation" was favorable to slavery. [21]

It cannot be denied, therefore, that Christian churches on both sides of the Atlantic generally supported slavery. The Finnish anthropologist, Edward Westermark (1862-1939) in his book The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1908) stated that:

this system of [black] slavery, which at least in the British Colonies and the slave states, surpassed in cruelty the slavery of any pagan country, ancient or modern, was not only recognized by Christian governments, but was supported by the large bulk of the clergy, Catholic and Protestant alike. [22]

Slavery was finally abolished in Christian England in 1833, in Christian America in 1865. The last Christian country to abolish slavery was Abyssinia, in 1942. [23]

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a.Prior to this native Americans were used as slaves but they were less "amenable" to slavery which results in many deaths from massacres and from mere captivity. Black African slaves, some were already used by that time on the island of Haiti, had proven to be more hardy than the natives. While las Casas request did not start slavery, it certainly opened the floodgates.
b.One of Hem's sons,(Genesis 10:6) was named Cush- which is Hebrew for "black". By Hebrew tradition Cush was believed to be the ancestors of the Cushites, a black African tribe that settled in the south of Egypt. [24]


1.Knight, Honest to Man: p137
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p20-21
2.ibid: p23
3.ibid: p23-24
4.ibid: p24
5.ibid: p25
6.ibid: p27
7.Ward, A Dictionary of Common Fallacies I: p235
8.Knight, Honest to Man: p139
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p27
9.Knight, Honest to Man: p139
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p26
10.Knight, Honest to Man: p139
11.Mack, The Christian Myth: p184
Mannix, Black Cargoes: p2-3
12.Fisher, A History of Europe: p1121
13.Knight, Honest to Man: p142
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p111-112
Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p27
14.McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p110-111
15.Knight, Honest to Man: p142
16.Ibid: p143
17.Ibid: p143
18.Knight, Honest to Man: p143
19.Mack, The Christian Myth: p185
20.Bradlaugh, Humanity's Gain From Unbelief: p10
21.Ibid: p10
22.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p296
23.Knight, Honest to Man: p141,143,144
24.Comay & Brownrigg: Who's Who in the Bible: p77

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