Growing up Evangelical Christian, I always thought we were anti-slavery. I’d read Paul’s message in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Isn’t that what we’d believed? Weren’t we very, very anti-slavery? We sang “Amazing Grace”—the abolitionist anthem! The author, John Newton, was a slave trader who saw the light.
I started thinking about the famous lyrics. There’s nothing about slavery. It’s all about him, and the ‘grace’ he found after some ‘dangers, toils, and snares’, which are left undefined.
Was that what we’d like to hear from a man who’d been complicit in the kidnapping, torture and lifelong enslavement of other humans?
A dark thought entered my mind. Was “Amazing Grace” written to reassure Christians who had been pro-slavery that they were still in good shape?
I focused my question: Was Christianity ever publicly, firmly against the practice of owning people?
Or maybe this: Was Christianity against slavery before everyone else?
And the answer would appear to be: no.
Saint Augustine (354–430 A.D.) was the great Christian thinker, associated with Catholicism. I’d seen him quoted a million times, and I’d read the Confessions and the City of God.
But I had not recalled that he reflects on the original Edenic condition of humans, contrasted to now: “slavery is now penal in character, and planned by that law which commands the preservation of the natural order, and forbids its disturbance.”
This sets up slavery as—theologically—intrinsic to human life, a natural result of human disobedience. The slave even becomes a public sign of human disobedience, and the master in the position of God.
Augustine lived and worked in a time when slavery was practiced, but mostly refers to it in passing. In a 1954 study, Margaret Mary gathers such references. Slaves, for him, she finds, are “considered merely as commodities to gratify the vanity and desires of their owners.”
At first it sort of looked like John Calvin, the Protestant, was anti-slavery. Jake Meador collects some references. Calvin calls it “a very cruel brand of servitude.” He notes in a sermon on Ephesians 6: “But if we examine the rights which masters had, we shall conclude every time that this is something which is contrary to the whole order of nature.”
But then it’s not clear how much this refers only to the cruelty known to be exercised on slaves. Calvin praises “stewardship” in a sermon on Genesis 12? “And although it is necessary for some to have stewardship over the others, we ought rather to maintain equality among brethren.”
Calvin explains his views more fully in commenting on the New Testament book of Philemon: “We know how wicked the dispositions of slaves were, so that scarcely one in a hundred ever came to be of real use. As to Onesimus, we may conjecture from his flight, that he had been hardened in depravity by long habit and practice.”
With no talk of innate human claims to freedom and self-determination, the Calvinist position on slavery would seem to be: cruelty is bad, so it’s better to have ‘stewards’ one treats with minimal decency.
They won’t run away, and you’ll get more work out of them.
John Newton writes of slavery in his autobiography: “I was on the whole satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had worked out for me.” He thought of himself as a devout Christian. It’s not at all clear that reflection on Christian teachings prompted him to change.
Like John Locke before him, Newton seems to have based his objections to slavery on the overt cruelty, on vague ideas of democracy and innate freedom, but still remained troublingly complicit in slave-thinking.
William Wilberforce was a great abolitionist, yes, but look him up. He didn’t really ground this stance in biblical teachings. The basis for his reform was a well-run society characterized as polite. “God Almighty has set before me two great objects,” he writes of himself in 1787, “the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation in manners.”
I sit reading about Christians from times past, realizing that even abolitionists weren’t necessarily rooting it in the Bible.
Bishop Bielby Porteous, for instance, ardently opposed the slave trade and supported amelioration measures, but believed that the institution of slavery was sanctioned by God. And the Rev. James Ramsay, one of the earliest Anglican abolitionists, even found praise for the plantation as a potential model for society.
It was often economic. A freed slave could be a good, productive consumer, contributing to . . . the church.
Missionaries to slave-running countries were not to interfere. Here was guidelines in 1816: “You are not sent to relieve them from their servile condition, but to afford them the consolations of religion.”
I realized, then, that Christianity had been used to quell slave dissension and revolt. The slaves were given a spirituality focusing on ‘consolation’.
Sarah Ruden, the classics scholar who, in Paul Among the People, turned to explaining cultural references in Paul’s writing, describes the mentality of a slave-owner in the ancient world: “If women were supposed to be basically wild and lustful, slaves were supposed to be basically naughty, needing, like women, a lot of control.”
That is the position Christianity long held. And even holds still.
In Philemon, the references require some knowledge of the ancient world. As we should understand about ‘Christianity’ generally, they simply didn’t know enough to read the text. They more often made up their own.
To free Onesimus would not have helped him. As Ruden says: “If slaves got their freedom, they went either into permanent subordination or into exile.”
The strategy of the scriptures, however, struck more deeply into the heart of the slavery mentality:
Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelites, he had now chosen and loved and could guide everyone. The grace of God could make what was subhuman into what was more than human.
But this insight—that humans are siblings, adelphoi, brothers and sisters to each other—remains unabsorbed by Christianity as an institution.
We still need to imagine someone lower than us, someone ‘wild and lustful’ (a category that homosexuals are often made to fill). We need another category for those ‘basically naughty’, which Democrats, immigrants, Muslims, or any number of other human groups might become.
And Christianity needs the category of master—in which we’re encouraged to place ourselves. As the leaders imagine themselves.
Like the long-dead Rev. James Ramsay, I realized the plantation has been a model for churches. If Christian, we are Christianity’s slaves.
What would freedom look like? What would it look like to think of other humans as our siblings?
The Muslims, for example, would be brothers—as in the Old Testament narrative of Isaac and Ishmael.
Both are sons, and God looks after each.
We don’t need to impose categories like ‘wild’ and ‘naughty’. We don’t have to think of ourselves as anyone’s master—or slave.
Is that Christian? It’ll take some work before I’ll believe it.