Did Christianity Abolish Slavery?

If you’ve got an ugly or uncomfortable historical record that you’d like to have whitewashed, then Christian fundamentalists are the ideologues for you. Here’s their latest bit of doggerel: Christians deserve the credit for abolishing African slavery!

Slavery is one of the best examples — far from being a Western Christian invention, it was ubiquitous, and it was only the Christian west that abolished it.

Jonathan Sarfati, the author of this article, points out that slavery was ubiquitous in ancient cultures (true) and that it was usually not explicitly race-based (also true). However, where he starts diverging from reality is this section, which clearly implies that Christianity deserves all the credit for abolishing slavery and fighting against racism in the Western world:

However, America had a huge number of Christians who wrote and campaigned extensively against slavery… There was also the heavily Christian-based novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), widely recognized as a major cause of people in the North turning so strongly against slavery.

I’ll gladly grant that Christians played a major role in the abolitionist movement (as did freethinkers, a point I’ll come to shortly). However, there’s a gigantic, inconvenient fact that Sarfati strives to ignore: Who were the people who instituted slavery in the Western world in the first place?

On this point, the answer should be obvious: The slave trade was created by Christians. Specifically, it was created by European imperialists – the colonial powers such as France, Spain, Great Britain and Portugal – whose explorers were colonizing the New World and needed a steady stream of labor to work their mines and their plantations. Papal bulls such as Nicholas V’s Dum Diversas granted Catholic rulers the explicit right to enslave non-Christians; it’s safe to assume that the Protestant nations came up with their own theological justifications for the practice. But Catholic or Protestant, all these nations at the time were theocracies, ruled by popes and kings who claimed divine right. It was Christians, not atheists, who began the slave trade!

This inconvenient fact makes Sarfati’s arguments ring hollow. I’m not denying that William Wilberforce and other Christians played a role in the abolitionist movement – but if Christianity gets the credit for abolishing slavery, shouldn’t it also get the blame for instituting it in the first place? It’s no excuse to claim that slavery was “ubiquitous” in the past, as if saying “everybody else was doing it too” could excuse people of responsibility. At best, one could say that these cultures belatedly realized the evil of slavery only after they themselves had instituted it and caused it to flourish for hundreds of years, and finally corrected their own mistake.

Sarfati goes on:

[Rodney] Stark documented that even back in the 7th century, Christians publicly opposed slavery. The bishop and apologist Anselm (c. 1033–1109) forbade enslavement of Christians, and since just about everyone was considered a nominal Christian, this practically ended slavery.

But this begs the question: if slavery was “practically ended” in the 7th century, then how was it the case that, several centuries later, the Christian nations of the West were back at it and enslaving Africans and Native Americans by the millions? Try as he might, he can’t sidestep the fact that the colonial powers were emphatically Christian and used Christianity in their moral justifications for slavery (such as the Hamitic hypothesis – an ugly bit of racist pseudohistory that Sarfati is right to reject, but there’s no denying the fact that this was the accepted view throughout the Christian world for several centuries).

Descending deeper into the absurd, Sarfati claims that the Bible is anti-slavery. This claim I’ve already debunked at length, so I won’t repeat that here – other than to point out that he dishonestly uses a verse which condemns “menstealers” to imply that the Bible was against slavery in general. As an examination of the context makes clear, this was only a condemnation of those who kidnapped and sold people into slavery in ways other than those that the law permitted. Slavery through approved methods is a pervasive and inescapable feature of the Bible in general, in both New and Old Testaments. Sarfati also ignores verses which state that Christian slaves are doing God’s will by obeying their masters, and that for a slave to disobey or rebel is blasphemous to God (1 Timothy 6:1).

Sarfati closes with the utterly ludicrous claim that the “enemies of racial equality also saw its Christian underpinning”. He states that the 1963 KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham shows the “virulently anti-Christian attitudes held by fanatical racists”. Yes, this is a claim that the Ku Klux Klan is anti-Christian – which is a willful and flagrant denial of reality. The KKK was and still is an explicitly Christian organization.

In the era of slavery, the true enemies of racial equality cited a Christian underpinning for their actions every bit as strongly as some abolitionists did. The best example is the fervently religious Confederate States of America, which repeatedly claimed that slavery was the will of God, which repeatedly cited the Bible, which put a Christian slogan on their official seal, and whose army chaplains boasted of the massive religious revivals that routinely occurred in the ranks:

Hundreds and thousands respond to their call and the woods resound for miles around with the unscientific but earnest music of the rough veterans of Lee’s army… for conversions among the non-religious members of the army of Lee are of daily occurrence, and when they establish themselves upon the ‘Mourners Bench’, it is evident to all how deep and loud is their repentance. There is something very solemn in these immense choruses of earnest voices, and there are, I am sure, hundreds of these honest soldiers truly sincere in believing that they are offering their most acceptable service to God.

Let the record show that none of these revivals produced corresponding surges in abolitionist sentiment.

And it wasn’t only Christians who led the fight against slavery. On the contrary, freethinkers played a role as well. In my post on the freethinker Abner Kneeland, I pointed out how his lecture hall was the only place in Boston that would give the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison a place to speak after the churches turned him away. As Garrison later said:

It was left for a society of avowed infidels to save the city from the shame of sealing all its doors against the slave’s advocate.

Garrison himself was a freethinker who said, “The human mind is greater than any book… All reforms are anti-Bible” (source)

And Robert Ingersoll, the great agnostic orator, fought for the Union in the Civil War and was likewise an unflinching foe of slavery:

“We must be for freedom everywhere. Freedom is progress — slavery is desolation, cruelty and want.

…I am astonished when I think how long it took to abolish the slave, how long it took to abolish slavery in this country. I am also astonished to think that a few years ago magnificent steamers went down the Mississippi freighted with your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, and may be some of you, bound like criminals, separated from wives, from husbands, every human feeling laughed at and outraged, sold like beasts, carried away from homes to work for another, receiving for pay only the marks of the lash upon the naked bark. I am astonished at these things. I hate to think that all this was done under the Constitution of the United States, under the flag of my country, under the wings of the eagle.” (source)

In that same address, Ingersoll said to a crowd of black listeners: “Today I am in favor of giving you every right that I claim for myself.” Would that the Christian world as a whole had come to that realization far earlier than it finally did.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David Ellis

    I suspect that, after gay marriage becomes legalized, Christians of future generations will claim credit for it….despite the fact that the vast majority of skeptics and freethinkers were for it long before anything but a token number of Christians were. And despite the fact that religion was the engine that drove the prejudice in the first place.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    David Ellis, isn’t that always the case? ;) It seems that time and time again, the majority of theistic thought comes down squarely on the oposite (wrong?) side of every soceital and human rights issue. And then they need to spin it to make themselves look good. Slavery, women, gays. I’m sure that if we ever encounter alien life, they will be on the wrong side of alien rights as well (if we haven’t let go of childish superstitions by then).

  • Ritchie

    Good article, and an excellent point David Ellis! Tragically the comparison seems inevitable.

    I read somewhere that it was the cold war that fused together the concepts of Christianity, democracy, patriotism, capitalism and modern, western values into one big conceptual lump in the minds of the American religious right. While far from being compatible, these concepts are often at odds – particularly Christianity with the others. I believe this a little more every time I read people insisting that Christianity brought about the end to slavery, is democratic, or in fact is anything other than thoroughly theocratic (ie, dictatorial) regime.

  • KS

    Judaism and Christianity have been around for millennia and did nothing to end slavery. The simple fact is that getting rid of slavery wasn’t on the Judeo-Christian to-do list for over 120 generations. If it takes your religion 3,000 years to figure out that slavery is wrong, then your religion isn’t on the cutting edge of moral thought. Christians may have been part of the anti-slavery movement, but only in spite of their religion, not because of it.

  • Brock

    It was also in europe, at the same time that slavery of Christians was supposedly abolished, that the feudal system developed the institution of serfdom. A serf was basically bound to the land, and could not improve his situation in any way. His children were born into the same condition he held. If he ran away, he could be pursued and forcibly brought back. The owners of the land routinely considered the serfs to be their possessions. This institution persisted in Russia until the mid 19th century, and the church supported the system for centuries.

  • Pingback: Did Christianity Abolish Slavery? « Thought Begets Heresy

  • David Ellis

    “I’m sure that if we ever encounter alien life, they will be on the wrong side of alien rights as well (if we haven’t let go of childish superstitions by then).”

    Same goes for the rights of artificial intelligences should we ever manage to make sentient robots. I’ve many times heard Christians claim that AIs and uploads couldn’t be really conscious and sentient (presumably since they don’t think a robot could have a soul).

    There’s a great science fiction novel by Norman Spinrad called DEUS X dealing with the Catholic church struggling with this question in a world where uploading has become a reality.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The Selective Fallacy at work again. I wish I could forget my failures as easily.

  • Richard P

    Thumpalumpacus;

    OH!! but you can, haven’t you heard the good news? Just pray and ask for forgiveness, Then you don’t have to be responsible for anything. You get to do it as many times as you need to. You can only expect you will fail again and again, your designed for it. Then you can forget, and pretend it did not happen at all.

    All you have to do in return is relinquish your reason…

  • http://none Zamblo

    Please contribute to the Wikipedia entry about Dinesh D’souza. He has made plenty of claims about christianity ending slavery. Lets get his page accurate and complete.

  • Leum

    Ebon, I think you’re overlooking the point. Since Christianity is God’s Holy Truth, anything good that happens when a Christian is present is because of Christianity. Likewise, since non-Christians* are in the service, albeit unknowingly, of the Evil One, anything bad that happens when a non-Christian is present is Lucifer’s fault. So, really, it was Christians that ended slavery, and non-Christians that started it.

    *And by “Christian” I do mean a member of the Northwestern Luthero-Baptist Synod, Reformation of 1634

  • Aphanes

    Once again, a simply obviously untrue statement made by a fervent Christian generates the need for a huge amount of proof against it. The pity is that even the above logically correct proof will not be sufficient for some Christians to see the faults in the ludicrous claim by Jonathan Sarfati that it was Christianity that eliminated slavery. It will be repeated ad-nauseum until it attains the air of “fact”.

    The assumption that if one is a Christian and one does good works, it’s proof and justification of Christianity per se is a fallacious and naive argument. If the first person (whichever one it was!) to climb Everest was a Christian, does that therefore mean that Christians make the best climbers or converting to Christianity makes you a better climber?

    Slavery was abolished by free thinkers who found slavery abhorrent and unjustifiable in a modern world. As theists, that their personal religious beliefs would aid them (maybe?) in reaching this conclusion is not in itself justification for the position they reached unless their religion specifically justifies this thinking. Christianity clearly doesn’t in its own fundamental rulebook of the bible, so therefore it cannot realistically claim to have any real function in the abolishment of slavery. That some or even the majority of the abolishenists were Christian is simple a reflection of the society at that time, not a causal link for the condemnation and subsequent elimination of slavery from Western societies.

  • Heidi

    Sarfati claims that the Bible is anti-slavery.

    Clearly this guy skipped Exodus 21. Or else he had it mind-wiped from his head during his Lying for Jesus lessons.

  • Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Daylight Atheism > Did Christianity Abolish Slavery? [daylightatheism.org] on Topsy.com

  • lpetrich

    Xian apologists have also tried to give their religion credit for feminism, by bragging about how pro-woman their religion supposedly is.

    But there is a certain hollowness in their bragging — where are all the Xian female religious leaders? Yes, leaders.

    Will they next try to give their religion credit for the idea of evolution, including human evolution? And try to insinuate that it’s only dumb pagans who have believed that our first ancestors were poofed into existence by this or that Universe-controlling superbeing.

    And also credit for the notion of the extreme age of the Universe.

    And also the idea of physicalist mind, complete with insinuating that it’s dumb pagans who have believed in a mind separate from the body.

    Where will it end?

  • Peter N

    lpetrich: Where will it end?

    We are confident that Christianity itself will be nothing but a historical footnote long before that.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    And also credit for the notion of the extreme age of the Universe.

    Some are basically already trying to do this with claims that Genesis says the Earth began, which refers to the big bang, and that since “day” can mean anything they want it to mean at any particular time that it’s very much in accord with what we know through science.

  • David Ellis

    “Sarfati closes with the utterly ludicrous claim that the “enemies of racial equality also saw its Christian underpinning”. He states that the 1963 KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham shows the “virulently anti-Christian attitudes held by fanatical racists”. Yes, this is a claim that the Ku Klux Klan is anti-Christian – which is a willful and flagrant denial of reality. The KKK was and still is an explicitly Christian organization.”

    I grew up in the south and had been given the impression as a child that the KKK burned crosses in the sense of destroying a christian symbol (much like burning someone in effigy) rather than what it really was: a huge flaming cross visible at great distances in the night to proclaim their work as a service to the Christian God.

    Its amazing the amount of historical revisionism that’s gone on in the south in so short a time.

  • lpetrich

    Here’s the Ku Klux Klan’s home page. The KKKers claim that they are “Bringing a Message of Hope and Deliverance to White Christian America!” Yes, they seem to think that white Americans are being persecuted.

    As to the apologetic that OMGF mentioned, it seems to me to be stretching “day” into meaninglessness.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    It’s remarkable just how malleable this “absolute morality” thing is.

  • Mat

    Slavery like all sins is not abolished. Your article sites enough information that even you agree Christians are against slavery. Keep the site as is. It is worth more people stumbling across it.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Friend, Christianity is slavery.

  • Pingback: Daylight Atheism > The Connection Between Religion and Slavery

  • Ryan Jordan

    I really enjoyed reading this article.

    I am a christian from New Zealand.

    We had legislation changed in recent years to remove the defence of “reasonable force” when discipling a child. Guess who marched, signed petitions and cried foul over the proposed changes. This was a legislation change made to protect children.

    Christians do embarrass me.

    We do blow our trumpet too much with regard to our self belief as advocates and great redeemers of social justice. I apologise sincerel

  • Xlr

    You’re connecting issues centuries apart. Christian Europe in the post-Roman state was the first and for centuries only place on the planet were slavery was abolished. This was due to inherent issues between the faith and slavery. The Catholic Church latter banned Europeans enslaving Native Americans, which is one of the major reasons the institution never became popular in South America.

    The expansions of other, non-religious ideologies (like imperialism, nationalism, and racism) led to the rebirth of slavery. And these people were Christians, but that does not mean the religion does not oppose it: it just means that in this aspect of their lives they supported these other ideologies more than they did their faith.

  • David Marshall

    Both of Lee’s points are overblown. He describes William Garrison as a “free-thinker.” This seems apt to mislead readers: Garrison seems to have been pious literally to his dying day, like his mother who deeply influenced him, and (more relevantly) to have converted to abolitionism by Christians making religious arguments. And of course abolitionism was more than a century old by that time, and the ancient movement against slavery in Christendom much older still:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2011/10/abolition-of-slavery-early-years.html

    What Lee appears to mean by saying that “Christians began slavery” is that Europeans who considered themselves Christians began the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of course that’s true, though probably a larger number of people were enslaved by the Muslim empires beginning well before that, including millions of Africans, so it’s a little odd to call that the beginning. In both cases, of course, the motive was profit, as it always has been. That’s the norm. But abolishing slavery against financial interests, that’s what’s unusual. And no, it didn’t begin with Robert Ingersoll, a bit player in the abolition of slavery at best, who caught his abolitionist sentiments from his father, who was a Christian pastor. (And friend of Charles Finney, the great abolitionist and revival preacher, whom Lee has apparently never heard of.)

    All in all, Lee appears to have no real grasp of the historical issues.

  • xlr

    *Where slaver was abolished. And by ‘the institution never became common’ I mean slavery of the Native Americans.