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.

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About Adam Lee

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