Christianity’s Fight to End Slavery
“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.” Galatians 5:1
One of the crowning achievements of Christianity in the discussion of its legacy and influence throughout history is undoubtedly its systematic opposition of slavery since its beginning roots. The initial question starts with: does the bible oppose slavery directly? The answer is yes. The conquering and sale of peoples for the slave trade is explicitly condemned in 1st Timothy 1:10. True equality between people regardless of social standing or wealth, being united by the bond of Christ, is described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Other bible verses espousing intrinsic equality of value and a spirit incompatible with slavery include Proverbs 22:2, Colossians 3:11, Romans 2:11, 1st Corinthians 12:25, Ephesians 6:5-9, James 2:2-4, 1st Peter 1:17, and Philemon 1:15-16. In the Old Testament, the Law was unique in extending rights to slaves and commanding provisions of freedom for slaves, as described in Exodus 21:2, and Leviticus 25:39-40, which was simply unprecedented in the rest of the ancient world by any measure or standard.
Christians specifically were the first organized people in history to oppose slavery, in contrast to the entire ancient world. Official state-sponsored slave systems were present in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Islamic States and Caliphates, the Islamic Ottoman Empire (even as late as the early 1900s), Egypt, Japan, India, Africa, Assyria, and China. Leaders in Christian abolitionism emerged as early as the 3rd century such as Saint Augustine. In the 4th century, St. Chrysostom stated that Christ’s appearance has done away with slavery, saying “in Christ Jesus there is no slave…therefore it is not necessary to have a slave….buy them, and after you have taught them some skill by which they can maintain themselves, set them free”. This Christian practice of buying slaves in order to set them free proliferated as a subculture in the Roman Empire. Pope Callistus himself was a former slave.
Moving forward to the 7th century, the Franks under the Christian queen Bathilde became the first kingdom in history to begin the process of outlawing slavery. In the 9th century, bishop Agobard of Lyons proclaimed: “All men are brothers, all invoke one same Father, God: the slave and the master, the poor man and the rich man, the ignorant and the learned, the weak and the strong….none has been raised above the other…there is no…slave or free, but in all things and always there is only Christ.” During the 11th century, Saint Wulfstan and Saint Anselm campaigned to remove the last remnants of slavery in Christendom, and thus it was said “that no man, no real Christian at any rate, could thereafter legitimately be held as the property of another.” In the 12th century, Thomas Aquinas declared slavery a sin, against natural law, and completely immoral. When slavery surfaced again overseas, the Catholic Papacy condemned it through papal bulls on no less than six separate occasions- in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839.
Slavery and human sacrifice were both part of Latin American culture before the Europeans arrived. Africa supplied the Arab world with slaves before the arrival of the Europeans and Britain’s subsequent outlaw of slavery there in 1833. Slavery in India was outlawed by Pope Paul III through the 1537 bull Sublimis Deus, which confirmed that "their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans", and that “Indians were to be regarded as fully human, and they should neither be robbed nor turned into slaves.” During Spanish and Portuguese colonization Popes Eugen IV, Pius the II, Sixtus the IV, Paul the III, and Gregory XVI forbad slavery. The travesty was that these orders were not always followed because of the challenge of enforcement thousands of miles away from Europe. Christian missionary, evangelical activist, and abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was the central figure in ending slavery in Europe, giving anti-slavery speeches for twenty years. In 1823 he presented a petition through his associate Thomas Buxton “as a resolution declaring slavery repugnant to Christianity and the Constitution.” This led to the Abolition Act in 1833, that resulted in the freedom of 700,000 slaves in the West Indies Colonies.
Though slavery persisted in the United States, Christian abolitionists led the way in challenging the moral legitimacy of such an institution. The Presbyterian minister Elijah Parish Lovejoy became the first martyr for the abolition movement in 1837. Other famous Christian abolitionists include Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Angelina Grimké, Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, John Brown, Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, Methodist theologian John Wesley, Presbyterian minister Charles Finney, Theodere Weld, John Quincy Adams, and President James Garfield. Secular educational textbooks and mainstream articles often fail to mention altogether how many of these individuals held their faith in Christ as their key motivating factor for their ministry of freedom.
In 1754, the Quaker John Woolman launched a campaign against slave trading in America and by 1771, Massachusetts outlawed the importation of slaves. In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, with 9 of the 12 founder members being Christian Quakers. In 1791 North Carolina declared that the killing of a slave was murder, and Georgia did the same in 1816. In 1801, American Methodists made anti-slavery sentiments a condition of church membership. In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by Presbyterian clergyman Theodore S. Wright and William Garrison. Anti-Slavery International was formed in 1839 by English Quaker and activist Joseph Sturge to fight for the global elimination of slavery. Christian abolitionist writings utilizing the bible include "A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument" (1845) by George Bourne and "God Against Slavery" (1857) by George B. Cheever. Cheever wrote a speech titled, "The Fire and Hammer of God’s Word Against the Sin of Slavery" addressed to the president. Regarding the influence of Abraham Lincoln himself, whom issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it has been made clear by his own statement on the bible: "In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it, we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man's welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it." Christians continue to free slaves to this very day in places like Sudan through organizations such as Christian Solidarity International.