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Religious Tolerance logo

Human slavery: An overview

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Slavery was generally practiced in the Middle East before the ancient Israelites emerged on the scene. Slavery was subsequently regulated, supported and sanctioned by the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). It was also a common practice during the time of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). It continued into the modern era in many countries around the world. In North America, most slaves were African-American. However, a few were Caucasian or Native American. An abolition movement began during the late 17th century. It was created and initially supported by:


Those denominations which traced their roots back to the Anabaptist movements (Mennonites, Quakers, etc.). These groups have traditionally emphasized human rights.


A very few other Christians, and groups of Christians.


Rationalists and other non-Christians. 1

The Abolitionist movement emphasized Jesus' and St. Paul's general statements concerning love, the equality of all persons, and the "Golden Rule" (treating one's fellow humans as one expects to be treated by others). At first, the vast bulk of Christian groups and individuals supported slavery, citing the many Biblical passages as justification. There was a general feeling at the time that the two sides had equally effective arguments.

The Abolitionist movement grew slowly, as an increasing percentage of Christians realized that even though slavery was condoned, accepted, and regulated by passages throughout the Bible, it was profoundly immoral. The movement caused immense consternation at the time, as people realized that the Bible -- particularly the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) contained many immoral passages when judged by today's systems of morality.

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Why study slavery today?

Slavery is still an active topic today, because:


Racism and other residual effects of slavery are still alive and doing well in North America.


There is considerable evidence that slavery is still practiced in some countries, notably in Sudan and Niger.


Extreme right-wing Christian movements, such as Christian Reconstructionism  advocate a return to Old Testament religious law. This would restore the institution of slavery in North America.


There are currently three major religious, political and social debates that have points of similarity with the past conflict over slavery:

equal rights for women (e.g. allowing women to access positions of authority in religious institutions).


equal rights for gays and lesbians. That most fundamental human right, the right to marry, was granted to them in the U.S. by the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-2015. But they are still fighting for employment, accommodation and other rights.


equal rights for transgender persons and transsexuals. Current political battles seem to be over whether a transgender individual can use the public washroom that matches their gender identity.

Throughout history, during debates over abolition, women's rights and gay/lesbian rights, those promoting "liberty and justice for all" often cite Jesus' and St. Paul's general statements about the equality of all persons, and the Golden Rule. They view slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia as fundamental human rights issues. Those wishing to give special privileges to slave owners, Caucasians, men, heterosexuals, and cisgender persons often cite individual Biblical passages which support discrimination against women and minorities.

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Religious violenceSlavery > here

or Home page > ChristianitySlavery > here

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  1. John Wijngaards, "The Theology of Slavery," at:
  2. "Slavery flourishing despite strong laws," The Toronto Star, "Rights Watch" section, 2003-JUN-22, Page F4.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2017, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-JUN-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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