“Thinking aloud about religion – a personal polemic by Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

“The history of Christianity is the best school for atheism.” (Franz Overbeck)

  • No, Christians did not invent the atrocity known as slavery; BUT:-

Neither the Hebrew (Old) Testament nor the Greek (New) Testament question the existence or the legality of slavery. (i) Here are a few verses that document the process in the former: (ii)

  1. “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result , he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” (Ex. 21:20-21)
  2. “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve you for 6 years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. if his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. But if the slave declares,’I love my master and my wife and my children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. he shall take him to the door or door post and pierce his ear with an awl. then he will be his slave for life.” (Ex. 21:2-6)
  3. “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.” (Lev. 25:44-46)

Jesus accepted slavery as a a matter of course (see verse-by-verse expansion of this theme in earlier Post ” Jesus’ dark side” https://zingcreed.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/194/). He glorified slavery as a model of the ideal relationship between man and God (God being the Master and man being the slave, in case you hadn’t cottoned on to the simile.) Check Mt 18:23ff; 25:14ff; Mk 13:34ff; Lk 12:42ff; 17:7ff (ff means “and the following verses”)


  • affirmed slavery explicitly. He even sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon!
    “I am sending him back to you…I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me…” ( Philemon verses 12-13, RSV)
  •  In 1Cor 7:20 we see Paul playing a monstrous verbal trick on slaves by using the double meaning (spiritual and literal) of the terms “slave” and “freed man”. By virtue of the religious fiction that they are really “freed men in Christ”, these factual slaves are persuaded that they ought to be indifferent to their lack of freedom. Paul renames the slave-owner the “slave of Christ” and thus draws a veil over the existing injustice of slavery which he justifies as God’s will.
  • In the “Household Codes”  he sets forth lists of moral precepts for slaves:-
  • “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.” (1 Tim. 6:1)
  • “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in all things, to try to please them, not to talk back to them and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted.” (Tit. 2:9-10)
  • “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving the Lord, not men.” (Eph. 6:5-7)
  • “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Col. 3:22-23)
  • We find reflections of the Greek (New) Testament ideal of the innocent suffering and death of Jesus in the attitudes to slavery.  In Peter 2:13-14 & 2:18, slaves are called upon to be obedient even to bad masters and to allow themselves to be punished even if innocent. “The suffering of Christ serves as an alibi and as an illusion of consolation  for the innocent suffering of other men.” (1)
  • No meaning can be extracted from this instrument of torture in Jesus’ case, though it can from the crucifixion of 6000 slaves after Spartacus’s unsuccessful slave uprising in 71 BCE. Their blood flowed for something meaningful – human happiness – even though in vain.

The early church

  • Any religious equality the slaves might have experienced did not transfer into political or social equality:
  • The letter of Barnabas instructs slaves to revere their masters as the “likenesses of God”.
  • Bishop Ignatius of Antioch forbade Christian slaves to buy their freedom if this should cost  the local church anything.
  • Tertullian said that freedom was a meaningless sham compared with true freedom in Christ who liberated men from their servitude of sin.
  • A few Christian landowners who used slaves granted individual slaves their freedom, not in recognition of their rights but as a “good work” that could lead to their own soul’s  salvation. cf the parable of the Good Samaritan was given to show what was necessary to earn a place in heaven.
  • St Augustine’s line was along the lines of “Give thanks that the church makes good slaves out of bad ones and not freemen out of slaves.”

Post Constantine

  • In the 4th century, slaves owned by Christian masters were treated worse than ones owned by Roman aristocrats. The Romans  had some idea of human rights.
  • Slavery was defended by Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Popes, Prelates and Abbotts. After all their great wealth came from their vast farm lands which were entirely cultivated by (non-African) slaves.
  • Fugitivi – runaways who were unlucky enough to get caught -got a free iron necklace as a reward, engraved with Christian symbols!
  • Canon Law (Church Law – a kind of Sharia of that time) classified slaves as “objects” and “property” and they were not admitted to church “offices” (does that mean services ?? When I know I’ll clarify)
  • In 655 CE the Synod of Toledo decreed that all the children fathered by the (supposedly celibate!) priesthood were  henceforth to be treated as slaves.Was this meant as a kind of sexual deterrent? Do you suppose it worked?!
  • In 1140 CE, Gratian’s decree declared that it was quite impossible for the church or its monasteries to ever release any of their slaves since God alone controlled their rights of ownership (and God presumably would never consent to any slaves’ release).
  • In 1179 CE the Lateran Council threatened with slavery all those who opposed the Roman papacy.(That’s me down the tubes then!)
  • In stupid punishments that could never be carried out, megalomaniac Popes at one time or another imposed slavery on Venice, Florence and (in 1508) the whole of England! Perhaps this was when the well-known English riddle originated “What popular English saying do you get when you rearrange the three words ‘Pope’, ‘The’ and ‘F#ck’?” ( I’m not sure what WordPress’s policy is on profanity hence my replacement of one vowel by a symbol!)

The New World

  • In his papal bull of 1454, Pope Nicholas V  permitted Spain and Portugal to enslave all conquered peoples. That meant most of the southern hemisphere!
  • In 1487 the Pope accepted a gift of slaves from Queen Isabella of Spain (pretty cheap price for the whole of South America!)
  • In 1493 the Pope divided the globe with a line from pole to pole and gave one side to Spain and the other to Portugal (was it his to give?) and declared all forced labour legal.
  • In 1548 the Pope granted to all men and to all priests the right to keep slaves.
  • Papal galleys patrolled the world’s coasts  seeking “tools with souls” (slaves) wherever they could find them.
  • Theologians discussed whether a pocket mirror was a fair price for a negro.
  • By 1666 the Jesuit College in the Congo owned 12000 slaves.
  • As late as 1864 the church still owned slaves (the Benedictines in Brazil).

The Protestants

Luther worked out a theological justification for slavery and serfdom; many missionaries gave their approval to the slave trade (anglicans in the Colonial Church Union in Jamaica in 1832 destroyed the chapels of Methodist and Baptist missionaries they considered to be hostile to slavery.) (iii) (See my blog “Red Christians #14 Samuel Sharp, Jamaican slave leader”  July 2013)  Slavery was practised with a clear conscience by many protestant countries well into the nineteenth century. Or the twentieth century in the case of Ethiopian Christians who went out hunting for human slaves until quite recently.(iv)

Apropos the British West Indian slave trade, Murray comments( v) “Christians, because they stood to benefit materially from slavery, made themselves believe it was not sin. It comforted to reflect that Negroes had enslaved one another in Africa and that white men had themselves been enslaved at various times too, or that Negroes were happier perhaps in the New world  than in some parts of Africa. And so bishops and churches  and missionaries joined in and owned slaves . They baptized them, preached to them, sometimes taught them reading and writing but very rarely freed them.”

Large fat books can be written and indeed have been written about the slave trade. Even looking at the info on the church and the trade is pretty daunting. I should address the issue of Wilberforce, but it can only be in brief . When I worked in the West Indies I had a black colleague called William Wilberforce Shepherd, so I guess he made a favourable impression on at least one man’s parents!

British evangelicals like to claim WW as one of their own. His biog on Wikipedia is certainly worth reading. It took the anti-slavery movement decades to get anywhere, the activists are inspiring in their sheer doggedness. WW belonged not to any recognized church but to the Clapham Sect, a group of extremely wealthy Tory evangelical families. He was a junkie – or at least took opium to relieve the pain of his ulcerative colitis. While the Bishops in the House of Lords  opposed them tooth and nail they slowly won over the public. Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago wrote his doctorate on the hypothesis that the world capitalist system no longer needed slavery, that it was an inefficient way of doing things and that it would have ended any way . Most evangelicals of course have never heard of this idea.

Basically, the price of sugar fell: in India sugar could be grown very cheaply without slaves. Foreign production increased enormously especially in Cuba and Brazil; and in Europe there was sugar beet. Result:  a glut. Why should Britons try against their consciences to keep the West Indian planters in business? in 1784 six Quakers had produced an enormously influential  publication “The case of our fellow creatures, the oppressed Africans” that was sent to every MP. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism also attacked slavery. (vi)


Should Spain Portugal Holland France and Britain pay compensation to the descendants of former slaves? to the devastated countries of origin of slaves? to the lands where descendants of slaves currently reside? (Check out the Native American/Australian aborigine/Maori implications of this) Most West Indian islands have now set up Commissions of Inquiry to consider demands for reparations. It’s been done in the past – Germany paid compensation to Israel for the Jews killed by the Nazis in the holocaust.  Russia extracted reparations from east Germany after the Second world war . (vi)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #7: Modern slavery
I accuse #10: “Huge slavery payouts benefit UK’s elite!”
Red Christians #14: Samuel Sharpe, Jamaican slave leader


(i) most of this article is taken from Kahl, J. “The misery of Christianity” Pelican (1968)

(ii) Bufe, C. “The heretic’s handboook of quotations” See Sharp press (1988)

(iii) Murray, R.N. “Nelson’s West Indian History” Nelson (1971) p.90

(iv) Kahl op. cit. p.34

(v) Murray op. cit. p.63

(vi Murray op. cit. p.83

(vii) Comissiong, David “The healing of the nation; the case for reparations in an era of recession and recolonisation”


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