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Human slavery

Using the Bible to justify slavery.
Slavery in the Bible and early Christianity.

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How the Bible was used to justify slavery:

The Christian church's main justification of the concept of slavery is based on Genesis 9:25-27. According to the Bible, the worldwide flood had concluded and there were only 8 humans alive on earth: Noah, his wife, their six sons and daughters in law. Noah's son Ham had seen "the nakedness of his father." So, Noah laid a curse -- not on Ham, who was guilty of some undefined type of indiscretion. The sin was transferred to Noah's grandson Canaan. Such transference of sin from a guilty to an innocent person or persons is unusual in the world's religious and secular moral codes. It is normally considered highly unethical. However, it appears in many biblical passages. The curse extended to all of Canaan's descendants:

bullet Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave'. "

Christians traditionally believed that Canaan had settled in Africa. The dark skin of Africans became associated with this "curse of Ham." Thus slavery of Africans became religiously justifiable. Author Anthony Pagden wrote:

"This reading of the Book of Genesis merged easily into a medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always depicted as black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African skull shapes, dental structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find an unassailable argument--rooted in whatever the most persuasive contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural science -- why one part of the human race should live in perpetual indebtedness to another." 1

By today's secular and religious standards:

bullet slavery is immoral.

bullet cursing all of an individual's innocent descendents into perpetual slavery because of an inappropriate act by an ancestor is immoral.

bullet laying a curse on the innocent son of the person who committed the act is immoral.

But in ancient times, cursing a whole race into slavery was considered acceptable because it was in the Bible. American slave owners, almost all of whom were Christians, felt that they were carrying out God's plan by buying and using slaves. 

Slavery was also condoned and regulated in many passages of the in the Bible. There is no record of Jesus having commented on it. Paul had every opportunity to condemn slavery, particularly in his Epistle to Philemon. But he remained silent, except to urge slaves to be content with their lot and to obey their owners. More on slavery in the Bible.

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Attitudes towards slavery in the Bible

Slavery was sanctioned and carefully regulated by many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) largely in the Pentateuch - its first 5 books. Although slavery was widespread in Palestine during Jesus' ministry, he is not recorded as having expressed any opinion on it. Slavery was casually mentioned without criticism in the various books of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). The authors appeared to accept slavery as a natural condition -- as a universal institution that was not particularly immoral.

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Slavery in the early Christian movement:

Many of the early Christians were slaves. They were treated as equals within the church. Perhaps because of their close contacts with slaves, the early Christian movement appears to have opposed slavery as an immoral institution:

bullet 30 to 330 CE:  Many of the early Church fathers promoted the abolition of slavery:
bullet The Christians in Asia Minor "decried the lawfulness of it, denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection." 2
bullet According to a 19th century author Edward C. Rodgers: 3
bullet Maximum preached and wrote against it. 4
bullet Those who entered upon a religious life gave freedom to their slaves. 5
bullet Theodorus Studita gave particular directions, "not to employ those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves." 6
bullet Polycarp [69 - 155 CE] and Ignatius of Antioch [circa 50 - circa 10 CE] manumitted their slaves on realizing the equality of the Christian law.
bullet Emperor Constantine [306 - 337 CE] gave authority to the bishops to manumit slaves, and, as Emperor, granted Roman citizenship to many of those set free. 7
bullet Another 19th century author, August Neander wrote that the early oriental Christians "...declared themselves opposed to the whole relation of slavery as repugnant to the dignity of the image of God in all men." 8
bullet Circa 340 CE: Manichean Christians had been inciting slaves of the Roman Empire to take charge of their destiny and emancipate themselves. (Manichaeism was a widespread Christian heresy based upon the teachings of a 3rd century Persian philosopher, Mani.) In response, the Christian Council of Gangra issued a statement supporting slavery:

"If anyone, on the pretext of religion, teaches another man's slave to despise his master and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and all respect, let him be anathema." 9

This resolution became part of the Catholic church's canon law concerning slavery and was quoted as an authoritative source until the middle of the 18th century.

bullet 4th Century CE: Gregory of Nyssa (circa 335 to after 394) was the Christian bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia -- now part of Turkey. He was also a theologian, and argued in favor of the Trinity and the infinity of God. He is recognized as a saint. In his Commentary on Ecclesiastes he criticized slavery:

"As for the person who appropriates to himself ... what belongs to God and attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules? 'I obtained servants and maidens.' What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals. Scripture says that man shall rule birds, beasts, fish, four-footed animals and reptiles [Genesis 1.26]. How can you transgress the servitude bestowed upon you and raise yourself against man's freedom by stripping yourself of the servitude proper to beasts? 'You have subjected all things to man,' the psalmist prophetically cries out [Pslams 8.7-8], referring to those subject to reason as 'sheep, oxen, and cattle'."

"Do sheep and oxen beget men for you? Irrational beasts have only one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? 'He makes grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men' [Psalms 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire to have others serve you. 'I have obtained servants and maidens.' What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them? What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has fashioned? God has said, 'Let us make man according to our image and likeness' [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God's likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does not pertain to him at all 'for the gifts of God are irrevocable' [Romans 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again. If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his lordship? How does the ruler of the entire earth obtain dominion ... since every possession requires payment? How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man's value who is over them? If you mention the entire world you discover nothing equivalent to man's honor. He who knows human nature says that the world is not an adequate exchange for man's soul." 16

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Continue with an essay on the Christian acceptance of slavery: 5th to 17th century

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Related essays on this site:

bullet Passages condoning and regulating slavery in the Bible

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References:

  1. Anthony Pagden, "The Slave Trade, Review of Hugh Thomas' Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade," The New Republic, 1997-DEC-22, as quoted in Ref. 21.
  2. John Fletcher, "Lessons on Slavery," J. Warner, (1852).
  3. Edward C. Rogers, "Slavery illegality in all ages and nations," (1955). Online at: http://medicolegal.tripod.com/
  4. Maximus Exposit Dom. I., f. 356. Reprinted in August Neander, "The History of the Christian Religion and Church During the Three First Centuries," Rivington, (1841).
  5. Actis Sanct. Apr. T. I, append, f. 47, § 8.
  6. Ibid. L. I., ep. 10. See Leander.
  7. Sozomen, l. 1, c. 9.—Cod. Theod., 1. 1., c. De nis qui in eccl. manumit
  8. Neander, "History of the Christian Religion and Church," V. 3, Page 99.
  9. M. Fiedler & L. Rabben, Ed., "Rome has spoken...A guide to forgotten Papal statements and how they have changed through the centuries," Crossroad, (1998) Page 81.
  10. Gregory of Nyssa, "Commentary on Ecclesiastes," The Gregory of Nyssa Home Page, at: http://www.bhsu.edu/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-SEP-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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