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Human slavery

Christian support of slavery:
5th to 17th century CE

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This is a continuation of an essay dealing with slavery in early Christianity

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Christian attitudes towards slavery: 5th to late 17th century CE:

The Christian movement gradually reversed its stance on slavery, starting early in the 4th century CE. This reversal may have been influenced by the establishment of  Christianity as the only allowable religion in the Roman Empire by the late 4th century. This subsequently created a close integration of church and state. Since the Empire was dependent on slave labor, it was reasonable for the church to support the institution. The church became generally supportive of slavery, even as a very few of its theologians wrote in opposition to it:

bulletCirca 400 CE: St. Augustine [354 - 430 CE] speaks of the granting of freedom to slaves as a great religious virtue, and declares the Christian law against regarding God's rational creation as property.
bullet595 CE: Pope Gregory dispatched a priest to Britain to purchase Pagan boys to work as slaves on church estates.
bulletCirca 610: Isidore of Seville wrote: "I can hardly credit that a friend of Christ, who has experienced that grace, which bestowed freedom on all, would still own slaves." In his writing "Regula monachorum" which describes the monastic life, he wrote that "God has made no difference between the soul of the slave and that of the freedman." 1
bulletCirca 600 CE: Pope Gregory I wrote, in Pastoral Rule: "Slaves should be told...not [to] despise their masters and recognize that they are only slaves."
bullet655 CE: In an attempt to persuade priests to remain celibate, the 9th Council of Toledo ruled that all children of clerics were to be automatically enslaved. This ruling was later incorporated into the canon law of the church.
bullet13th century CE: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) accepted the teachings of the ancient Greek Pagan philosopher, Aristotle, that slavery is "natural."
bullet1404 CE: After Spain discovered the Canary Islands the Spanish colonized the islands In 1435 Pope Eugene IV wrote a bull to Bishop Ferdinand of Lanzarote titled "Sicut Dudum." In it, he noted that the black inhabitants of the Islands had been converted to Christianity and either baptized or promised baptism. Subsequently, many of the inhabitants were taken from their homes and enslaved. He commanded that all enslaved Christians who were inhabitants of the Canary Islands be freed from slavery. The Pope's concern appears to have been over the enslavement of Christians by Christians, not the institution of human slavery itself. 2
bullet1452/4 CE: Pope Nicholas V wrote Dum Diversas which granted to the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens [Muslims] and pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery.
bullet1519: Bartholomew De Las Casas, a Dominican, argued against slavery. "No one may be deprived of his liberty nor may any person be enslaved" He was ridiculed, silenced and ignored. 3
bullet1537 CE: Pope Paul III wrote in Sublimis Deus about the enslavement of persons in the West and South Indies. He wrote that Satan:

"... the enemy of the human race...has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving Word of God. ... Satan has stirred up some of his allies ... who are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians be reduced to our service like brute animals. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions we would scarcely use with brute animals. ... Rather, we decree that these same Indians should not be deprived of their liberty…and are not to be reduced to slavery."  only  hostile non-Christians, captured in just wars, could become slaves.   4

bullet1548 CE: Pope Paul III confirmed that any individual may freely buy, sell and own slaves. Runaway slaves were to be returned to their owners for punishment.
bullet1660: Charles II of Britain urged the Council for Foreign Plantations to teach Christianity to slaves.
bullet1629 to 1661 CE: Pope Urban VIII in 1629, Pope Innocent X in 1645 and Pope Alexander VII in 1661 were all personally involved in the purchase of Muslim slaves.

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bulletLate 17th century: The institution of slavery was a integral part of many societies worldwide. The Roman Catholic church only placed two restrictions on the purchase and owning of slaves:
bulletThey had to be non-Christian.
bulletThey had to be captured during "just" warfare. i.e. in wars involving Christian armies fighting for an honorable cause. 

Late in the 17th century, Leander, a Roman Catholic theologian, wrote:

"It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture...It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors... All theologians are unanimous on this." 5

We have been unable to find anyone other than St. Augustine and Bartholomew De Las Casas, opposing the institution of slavery prior to this time. People considered it quite appropriate for one person to own another human being as a piece of property. Paul's comment in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free...for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." did not appear to have been followed, except perhaps spiritually. Neither were the statements by Jesus about treating one's fellow humans accepted and applied.

bullet1667: The Virginia Assembly passes a bill which denied that a Christian baptism grants freedom to slaves.
bulletThe Anglican Church in Virginia started a debate, which lasted for 50 years, on whether slaves should be given Christian instruction. They finally decided in the affirmative. However the landowners and slave owners opposed this program. They feared that if the slaves became Christians, there would be public support to recognizing them as full human beings and to grant them freedom.
bulletThe Roman Catholic church in South America insisted that slaves be allowed to marry. They forbade "promiscuous relationships between slaves as well as between masters and slaves, and it encouraged marriage instead of informal mating.
bulletIn the predominately Protestant North America, slaves were considered property and were not allowed to marry. The courts decided that a slave owner should be free to sell his property has he wished. This overturned laws which prevented slave families from being broken up and the individuals sold separately. 6

Author Eddie Becker wrote:

"Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was virtually nonexistent. Settlers in the 17th and early 18th centuries came from sharply stratified societies in which the wealthy savagely exploited members of the lower classes. Lacking a later generation’s belief in natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of Africans." 6

In a book review, Dennis Hidalgo stated that the

"... most abominable aspect of the slave trade, was fueled by the idea that Africans, even children, were better off Christianized under a system of European slavery than left in Africa amid tribal wars, famines and paganism" 7 

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Continue with the early abolition movement in the 17th century

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Related essays on this site:

bulletPassages condoning and regulating slavery in the Bible

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  1. "St. Isidore of Seville," New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08186a.htm
  2. Mark Brumley, "Let My People Go: the Catholic Church and Slavery," at: http://www.petersnet.net/research/
  3. Edward C. Rogers, "Slavery illegality in all ages and nations," (1955). Online at: http://medicolegal.tripod.com/
  4. "The Saints of Canada," at: http://www.catholicdoors.com/
  5. Leander, "Quaestiones Morales Theologicae," Lyons 1668 - 1692, Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3. Quoted in Reference 17.
  6. Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.html 
  7. Dennis Hidalgo, Review of Willie F. Page, "The Dutch Triangle: The Netherlands and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1621-1664," Garland Publishing, (1997), Page xxxv, in H-Review, 1998-AUG, at: http://www.h-net.org/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-AUG-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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