Why didn’t the Bible abolish slavery?


If the Bible is a revered guide to morality, why didn’t it abolish slavery? The Guy poses this issue that was raised in many comments posted after our October 17, 2016, “Q and A” about people who abhor Jewish and Christian Scripture.


Toleration of slavery, in which some people own and control others as property, is a favorite Internet attack skeptics level against the Bible. Greg Carey of Lancaster Theological Seminary says slavery is “the single most contested issue in the history of biblical interpretation in the United States.” Indeed, the U.S. Civil War demonstrated how ingrained this economic practice was and how difficult to eliminate — think 600,000-plus war dead.

Evangelical historian Mark Noll says Christians’ pre-war debate on this undercut scriptural authority because the two opposite sides employed the Bible for support. Supporters of the South’s plantation economy argued that the Bible never required abolition of slavery, while abolitionists believed biblical principles mandate freedom and respect for each person created by God. Bible believers in that second group were largely responsible for achieving abolition of this unmitigated evil on a global scale.

Slavery existed as far back as human history can be traced, and the dimensions became staggering. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says slaves were once half the population in sectors of Asia, an estimated 18 million east Africans were subjected to the Muslim slave trade from the time of the Quran through 1900, while the west African trade involved 7 to 10 million enslaved people until British and American abolition.

Defenders of the Bible note that thousands of years ago holy writ did not require slavery but accommodated it as an unavoidable reality, and mitigated it with relatively enlightened and humane provisions.

In the ancient context unimaginable in the modern West, most people scraped by on a subsistence level. Some chose slavery to get food and housing for impoverished families, or to repay debts. (Many early colonists in America and Australia served terms of indentured servitude to escape debtors’ prison.) For prisoners of war, slavery was preferable to death, and in societies with no prison systems slavery was a more humane punishment than execution. Most ancient slaves were household servants, whereas brutality became prevalent with later agricultural and mining laborers.

The Old Testament continually reminded the Hebrews they were themselves enslaved in Egypt. In complex biblical law, slavery was not normally lifelong and freedom was required without fee after six years unless the slave chose to stay with the owner, and freed slaves were guaranteed gifts to help start their new lives (see Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Thus the master owned a person’s labor but not the person.

Kidnapping to acquire slaves (such a vicious aspect of later slave trading) was regarded as a violation of the Ten Commandments (“you shall not steal”) and such a serious crime it was punishable by death (Deuteronony 24:7). Foreign runaway slaves were not to be returned (Deuteronomy 23:15, a favorite passage for later abolitionists). Biblical slavery was not fused with racism as with heinous later practices.

The tiny New Testament church had no power to affect the slave system in Greek and Roman society, but taught equal human worth and respect among believers of whatever status: “There is neither slave nor free . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Paul’s scriptural letter to Philemon urged benign treatment of a runaway slave and may have hinted at emancipation.

Yes, 1 Timothy 6:1 told slaves to honor their masters, which was wise guidance under the circumstances. But the next verse directed Christian masters to respect slaves as “beloved.” The sin list in 1 Timothy 1:8-11 condemned kidnappers alongside murderers, and modern scholars believe the Greek here implies seizing people for sale so “slave traders” is the preferred translation.

Christian abolitionism’s long history includes an effort 57 years before Europeans even reached the New World. Pope Eugene IV’s decree “Sicut Dudum” ordered rulers, ship captains, and soldiers under pain of excommunication to “desist from” and “rigorously” end enslavement, especially of black natives in the newly colonized Canary Islands off western Africa. All slaves were to be “totally and perpetually free” within 15 days and without fee.

The same moral demand was defined in papal encyclicals and other Vatican pronouncements across centuries, under Clement I, Pius II, Paul III, Gregory XIV, Urban VIII, Innocent XI, Benedict XIV, Pius VII, and Gregory XVI. So obviously Catholics’  disobedience was a longstanding problem.

Protestant abolitionism arose in 18th Century Britain and America among Quakers and figures like evangelical politician William Wilberforce and Methodist founder John Wesley. A reminder of that struggle is beloved 1779 hymn words by John Newton, a self-described “wretch” who quit slave trading after a sudden Christian conversion (“I once was lost, but now am found, / was blind, but now I see”). This small Christian minority launched a movement that eventually triumphed. America’s 13th constitutional amendment (1865) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) made abolition an essential moral tenet of civilization.

As with the Bible, legal historian Bernard Freamon says Islam’s Quran accepted slavery “as a fact of life,” but emphasized emancipation (e.g. 90:13) and never suggested the practice must continue. Several Muslim nations outlawed the practice years before the Universal Declaration, but Saudi Arabia, despite claims to exemplify pure Islam, only abolished slavery in 1962.

Muslim critics of the Saudis charge that despite the legal change they still give foreign workers slave-like treatment. Muslim authorities universally denounce the slavery currently practiced by the purported “caliphate” of the radical Islamic State. Religious reformers continue to work against such labor exploitation, as well as sexual trafficking and abuse of smuggled immigrants, seen as 21st Century equivalents of slavery.

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