Christianity and Slavery

[Note: This is an excerpt from a previous article.] 

History is often told like this. Europeans came to the Americas and displaced and killed most of the Indians. They then went to Africa, kidnapped black people, brought them back to America and enslaved, raped, and beat them. It was a holocaust of sorts with millions of black people being worked to death in the fields. And when the constitution was written, the founding fathers (a bunch of racist slave owners) declared that black people were 3/5 of a person. Throughout the whole thing, the church was complicit. Providing biblical verses to support the practice.

This is the history we often hear. But it is so completely wrong it is hard to know quite where to start. So let's start with some context. In the history of the world, every major empire had slavery as a major part of their economy. The Chinese did. The Egyptians did. The Romans did. The great Muslim nations did. The great African nations did. Every single one.

And I have often heard people write that the slavery of the Old South was in some way worse than these other forms of slavery. This is simply a myth. Almost all forms of slavery in every region were at least as bad if not worse. Because slaves tended to be achieved as the spoils of war, there was usually a racial/ethnic bias to slavery. There also tended to be harsh treatment, beatings and killings. And there almost always was widespread sexual abuse. For just one example, let's look at the slavery of the Roman Empire. The Romans enslaved prisoners of war en masse. It was one of the primary reasons for going to war. Bringing back slaves from their campaigns in Northern Europe would make generals such as Julius Caesar wealthy beyond compare. Julius Caesar's campaign against the Gauls and Germanic tribesmen gave him an army of slaves and made him one of the richest men in Rome. And these slaves had zero rights. One of the primary uses for slaves was sexual. Roman citizens were somewhat limited in what they could do sexually with fellow citizens (no adultery, pedophilia, etc) but these strict rules only applied to Roman citizens. A Roman citizen could certainly do anything he wanted with his slaves. This was taken as a matter of course. It was considered quite normal to use female slaves for sex but it was also considered normal to use male slaves for sex as well (so long as you were dominant in the relationship). But what was particularly horrifying was that pedophilia was also considered socially acceptable and anything was permissible with slaves of any age. Slaves were raped, abused, and had zero rights whatsoever. If a slave attempted to kill their master, all the slaves in the house would be put to death. Slaves literally had no rights whatsoever. And this model was not unique to them. Similar practices in slavery were common in China, in Africa and in every other major empire.

Until Christianity came along. Nancy Pearcy, quoting a historian's analysis of the spread of Christianity notes that, "The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery." In other words, we can track the spread of Christianity based on whether sexual slavery was legal or not. Further, Christians also spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves. Soon, as slaves converted, Christians spoke against the enslavement of fellow Christians. Within a few centuries of Christianity coming to power in the West, slavery, once ubiquitous, had faded from the European scene.

The USA was hardly responsible for higher death rates either. In "Prisons & Slavery," John Dewar Gleissner writes, "Arabs killed more Africans in transit, especially when crossing the Sahara Desert, than Europeans and Americans, and over more centuries, both before and after the years of the Atlantic slave trade."

I started off by saying that every major empire in history had slavery as a major component of its life and economy. But Christendom, the Holy Roman Empire, did not. This is the first known instance of an Empire without any substantial use of slaves. Slavery did not rear its ugly head in any substantial way again until the discovery of the New World.

When Columbus and other Europeans discovered the New World, there was suddenly a renewed interest in slavery. The reasons for this are unclear but one reason might be that farmers unlike in Europe had huge arable properties but very limited labor. These land owners were willing to examine options that were previously not needed. Further, it is worth noting that those in North America were further away from the eyes of the church or authorities that might restrict or oppose the trade. While we often think of the early settlers of Americas as devout Puritans, in reality a large majority of those that came to the US did so for financial not religious reasons. Church membership in the early days of the US was very low. Historians Roger Fink and Rodney Stark argue that in the early days of the settlement of North America, the percentage of people adhering to a religion was below 20%. They argue that it was not until the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries that Christianity started to be widely adhered to and practiced.

So, perhaps it is not a surprise that when, in this age of exploration, a solution presented by traders visiting the coasts of Africa appeared, it was greeted with receptivity. Farmers realized that there was a thriving slave trade in Africa and countless hands that could, for a price, help tend those large farms. One might be right to wonder if Europe had had a more substantial slave trade if the African slave trade would have happened at all. But it did not and so Africa was the source of most of America's slaves.

Despite the common misconception (wrongly portrayed in the miniseries Roots) Europeans did not go raiding through African villages kidnapping and killing. Instead they simply went to the market and bought slaves from an already well-established slave trade. North Americans would bid along side Africans for the slaves in coastal slave markets. The fact that the slave trade was already in place, of course, does not excuse what those North American farmers did. Reintroducing the slave trade was terrible. They helped the slave trade flourish and kept the terrible slave traders in business. Slave traders were almost without exception monsters. The trade was bloody, abusive and murderous. Slavery was ended by Christians the first time for good reasons and this reemergence of slavery was certainly a horrible thing in the history of the Christian world.

But the reason I bring up the existing slave trade is to note that by engaging in the slave trade, the Euro-Americans were not doing something uniquely evil in the world but simply mimicking the evil already ubiquitously practiced throughout the world including in Africa.

But, thankfully, Christians almost immediately started speaking out against the slave trade. The Catholic Church made several statements against slavery. Pope Paul III in 1537 declared that enslaving American Indians was not allowed. In the 17th century, as the African slave trade was ramping up, Pope Innocent XI declared the African slave trade immoral. But it was the evangelicals in England that had the greatest impact in the world on slavery. Starting in the early 18th century, evangelicals led by William Wilberforce and John Wesley (among others) led one of the most remarkable campaigns in human history. One that would have effects far beyond England and far beyond the Christian world. At the time, the United Kingdom was the largest and most powerful empire on the planet and English colonies employed countless slaves. But Wilberforce and company appealed to the Christian morals of loving your neighbor, caring for the stranger and doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves to convince the government of England to ban the slave trade and then eventually slavery outright from every province and colony in English control. This remarkable campaign would be singular in itself but what is shocking is what happened next. England, at great national cost, spent much of the 19th century actively working to end slavery throughout the world. They pressured trading partners. They used their military to hunt down slave ships. They fought and fought both literally and politically to end slavery in every nation they came in contact with.

And the effects of their efforts on North America were not lost. Slavery was deeply ingrained in the highly agricultural economy of the south but despite this fact, many southern farmers opposed slavery. These opponents included many slave owners. George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson among them. You may wonder how a slave owner could honestly be against the slave trade. If they were, why would they not just immediately free them? The answer was that many, such as Jefferson, inherited their properties and with their inheritance came mortgages that included the slaves as property. To free them would be illegal. Further, many thought that just freeing slaves would be inhumane. Congressman John Randolph explained his reasoning on this point by saying that he had "200 mouths looking to him for food." He stated that it would be, "easy to rid himself of them," but considered this not a moral option. Finally, many slave owners had seen the violence that had happened in Haiti when there was a slave revolt. The streets flowed with blood and many wondered if freeing the slaves en masse might not cause disruption, violence, and death. This fear was proved wrong when slaves were finally freed after the Civil War but there was no way of knowing this before doing it.

Now, you can view these reasons with skepticism but it is always easier to say that people should do bold potentially dangerous and illegal things than to do them yourself. But the evidence that there was at least some genuine distaste for the slave trade came in the actions that were taken. Not the least of which, in 1807, the slave trade was banned. No new slaves could be brought to America ending the horrors of slave ships.

But perhaps the greatest way in which the founders hurt the slave trade is in the much maligned 3/5 clause of the constitution. Many think that this clause was meant to diminish the humanity of slaves. But the real reason for this clause was to diminish the power of slave states. You see, it was the slave states that wanted slaves to be counted as full citizens and it was the north that wanted them not to be counted at all. The reason for the debate was this, if slaves were counted then the south would get more congressmen and more votes in the electoral college. More people more power.  By preventing the counting of slaves as full persons on the constitution (coupled with the Northwest Ordinance that limited the expansion of slave states), the founders set the groundwork for the limitation of slavery in the future. Without these efforts, the south would have been able to protect slavery much better, the north would have been marginalized, and Abraham Lincoln would have never been elected president. One of the very things that people call "racist" about America's founding was perhaps the single greatest factor in protecting minorities and ending slavery. 

And then there was the Civil War. While England gave up slaves freely, America had our most bloody war to do it. Some deny slavery was the cause behind the Civil War but this is simply not true. It was the largest and most obvious issue at hand. Many argue that slavery would have ended without the Civil War but regardless, it is hardly a racist nation that goes to war to free minorities from slavery.

What about the church's role? As I have already mentioned, it was Christian concerns about slavery that sparked the unprecedented global push to end slavery. Many Christians in the US helped to end slavery. It is true that, sadly, some Christians defended the practice but I don't think that should distract us from the remarkable fact that the debate happened at all. Christians were debating slavery when everyone else was taking it for granted. And while there was debate, the anti-slavery arguments ultimately won the day and Christianity universally rejected slavery. Without Christianity, there never would have been a debate about the slaves.

Recommended Reading
For a broad view of how Christianity led to the fall of slavery twice and had other good effects on the world, check out "The Victory of Reason," by Rodney Stark.

For an excellent defense of some of the founding fathers and their attitudes toward slaves and racial minorities, read Thomas Sowell's "Black Rednecks and White Liberals." (Particularly the second half of the book). This book also details at great length the extent to which evangelicals in England led to the fall of the slave trade globally. Sowell's companion book, "Discrimination and Disparities," makes many similar points and is well worth the read.

Another good read for those who are beginners to studying Christian history is called, "Christianity on Trial," by Carroll and Shiflett . They have a whole chapter dedicated to slavery that is quite helpful.

I also recommend the biography on William Wilberforce (pioneer of the abolition movement), "Amazing Grace," by Eric Metaxas. This book shows the Christian roots of the 18th century push that successfully ended slavery globally.

To learn more about slavery in ancient Rome, this excellent book on the house of Caesar  by Tom Holland provides some excellent (and sickening) overviews. 


  1. very interesting - at your urging I read your article and you also invited discussion -
    so I would with all humility point out that Slavery as such, was not really what got everyones back up in Christendom - but all the stuff surrounding it - such as use of another person who had no legal standing to sidestep the laws when used as sexual gratification object - or to sidestep the law when killing as the person had no rights as a person under the regime -- So what the Christians were really arguing was that People are People under God and each requires to be recognized as such - the easiest route to that recognition was to ban slavery rather than demand slave traders become moral and upright in the eyes of God and Man -

    In Canada there is a self appointed social justice warrior named Andrew Nikiforuk who penned The Energy of Slaves - his earlier book Tar Sands was so awful and laden with hateful words toward anyone who worked in the oil industry or anyone who used an oil product that I could not bear to read the Energy of Slaves and after hearing him interviewed a few times he was perpetuating the narrative you sampled in your first paragraph of this article - a narrative that is almost 100% incorrect and designed only to create division and prop up activists who are really only ideologues -

    I have now read several of your articles - well written and you present as wholly credible - which is a long stretch from many - (I have given up on Medium as a waste of time) (except for Caitlin Johnston)

    You have my email as part of your web management and can PM me if you want me to identify my self - I am of little consequence - a poorly educated - vociferous reader - and the computer made a genius outta me - (especially with spelling ) :)

    Thank you for the interesting insights you offer -

  2. And as follow up to previous comment - I am devouring Tomas Solwell and Larry Elders videos on You tube -
    I have yet to step into their actual writings - I am still making my way through 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson and also Finding Forgiveness by Adrain McNally Smith - the latter being a small tome about a family form down the road where I grew up -

    1. Interesting thanks. I appreciate the discussion. Glad you are enjoying Sowell - he is very helpful on this subject.


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