Christian views on slavery

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Christian views on slavery vary regionally, historically and spiritually.


Slavery is an evil of the first magnitude, ... and contrary to all the genuine principles of Christianity, and yet carried on by men denominated thereby. ~ Ottobah Cugoano
As long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. ~ Paul of Tarsus
  • It is almost impossible for us nowadays to understand how profoundly and inextricably Negro slavery was interwoven into the whole life, economy, and culture of the Southern states. The tentacles of slavery spread widely through the Northern “free” states, along every channel of business dealing and many paths of political influence. One assertion alone reveals the powerlessness of the community to shake itself free from the frightful disease which had become part of its being. It was said that over six hundred and sixty thousand slaves were held by ministers of the Gospel and members of the different Protestant Churches. Five thousand Methodist ministers owned two hundred and nineteen thousand slaves; six thousand five hundred Baptists owned a hundred and twenty-five thousand; one thousand four hundred Episcopalians held eighty-eight thousand; and so on.
    • Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Volume IV: The Great Democracies (1958)
  • Thus the institution of slavery was not only defended by every argument of self-interest, but many a Southern pulpit championed it as a system ordained by the Creator and sanctified by the Gospel of Christ. It had not always been so. During the Revolution against King George III many Southerners had expressed the hope that slavery would eventually be abolished. But as time passed “the peculiar institution” became, in the words of Morison and Commager, “so necessary that it ceased to appear evil.”
    • Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Volume IV: The Great Democracies (1958)
  • Slavery is an evil of the first magnitude, ... and contrary to all the genuine principles of Christianity, and yet carried on by men denominated thereby.
    • Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), p. 24
  • In a Christian era, in a land where Christianity is planted, where every one might expect to behold the flourishing growth of every virtue, extending their harmonious branches with universal philanthropy wherever they came; but, on the contrary, almost nothing else is to be seen abroad but the bramble of ruffians, barbarians and slave-holders, grown up to a powerful luxuriance in wickedness. I cannot but wish, for the honor of Christianity, that the bramble grown up amongst them, was known to the heathen nations by a different name, for sure the depredators, robbers and ensnarers of men can never be Christians, but ought to be held as the abhorence of all men, and the abomination of all mankind.
    • Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), p. 24
  • The holders of men in slavery ... cannot otherwise but expect in one day at last, to meet with the full stroke of the long suspended vengeance of heaven, when death will cut them down to a state as mean as that of the most abjected slave, and to a very eminent danger of a far more dreadful fate hereafter, when they have the just reward of their iniquities to meet with.
    • Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), p. 25
  • As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that, it is true, has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage–a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then-colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of liberty, with which Heaven, without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features, has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our constitution of government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal, and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property–and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract.
  • Why, then, in the absence of all control over the subject of African slavery, are you agitated in relation to it? With Pharisaical pretension it is sometimes said it is a moral obligation to agitate, and I suppose they are going through a sort of vicarious repentance for other men's sins. ... Who gave them a right to decide that it is a sin? By what standard do they measure it? Not the Constitution; the Constitution recognizes the property in many forms, and imposes obligations in connection with that recognition. Not the Bible; that justifies it. Not the good of society; for if they go where it exists, they find that society recognizes it as good...
  • Growing up in Texas and Mississippi, author Robert P. Jones was a very active member of his Southern Baptist Convention church. Between youth group, Bible studies and prayer services, he spent about 6-7 hours each week at church or doing church related things.
    But in all that time, he never really heard about the church's history — including the fact that Southern Baptists split from the North around 1844 because the Northern Baptists opposed slavery.
    "I was 20 years old before I got a hint of that history ... and even had the possibility of beginning to think about what the implications of that were," Jones says.
    In his new book, White Too Long, Jones examines the legacy of white supremacy among Southern Baptists and other Christian denominations.
    Jones says the Southern Baptist Convention tends to focus on each individual's interior relationship with God — and "essentially screens out questions of social justice."
    "I cannot remember a single sermon calling attention to racial inequality, racial injustice [or] the struggle for civil rights," he says.
  • The precipitating event was really whether someone who was being called as a missionary to spread the gospel could simultaneously be a slave owner and still be a church member in good standing. And the members of the churches in the South actually put this issue forward very intentionally, to test what their Northern brethren would say about this. And the North responded very clearly, and Northern Baptists said, "No, you know, under no circumstances will we be behind this." And that really was the precipitating split. And just a few short months later, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed very intentionally with the word "Southern" and the front of it to indicate its allegiance really to this slave-owning society.
  • The slave owning argument really had more of the Bible on its side, at least read literally. You know, there's plenty of things to point to in the Bible where there's slavery mentioned [and] it's not condemned. The whole book of Philemon in the New Testament ... talks about slaves obeying their masters and even returning to their masters, a slave who's escaped is commended to return to slavery. And so the more straightforward arguments out of the Bible were simply there. And then read into that, I think, also was this idea of white supremacy, ... that God's design for human society was that whites of European descent would really be the vanguard of society, and at the top of society. And their goal was to "civilize" everyone else from their place at the top of the political and cultural hierarchy.
  • The split in the Methodist Episcopal Church came in 1844. The immediate cause was a resolution of the General Conference censuring Bishop J. O. Andrew of Georgia, who by marriage came into the possession of slaves. As soon as word of the dissension reached North Carolina, the members of the church in the Raleigh Station met and advised the North Carolina delegates to withdraw from the Conference.
    "We believe," states the resolution, "an immediate division of the Methodist Episcopal Church is indispensable to the peace, prosperity, and honor of the Southern portion thereof, if not essential to her continued existence…we regard the officious, and unwarranted interference of the Northern portion of the Church with the subject of slavery alone, a sufficient cause for a division of our Church."
    The General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two conferences because of these tensions over slavery and the power of the denomination's bishops. Some anti-slavery clergy and laity of the Methodist Episcopal Church left to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church in America. It continues today as the Wesleyan Church. The southern churches organized the Methodist Episcopal Church (South), at a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. A group of anti-slavery members in Piedmont, North Carolina withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church.
    Slavery and race proved to be a divisive factor, leading to the formation of numerous Protestant denominations in the United States. The aftershocks of this splintering of American churches would be felt well into the twentieth century.
  • Meanwhile, the religious zeal of Christians and Moslems had helped to revive and spread a form of servitude once justified primarily by the ancient laws of war. Members of each faith looked upon the other as infidels, and hence each felt doubly entitled to make slaves of the other when taken as captives. Moors captured in North Africa and in the Spanish peninsula were held in bondage in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. Christian prisoners suffered the same fate in the lands of Islam. Christians and Moslems alike believed it just to hold heathens in servitude, and both found victims among the Negroes of Africa. Their operations were facilitated by the fact that slavery already existed among the Negro tribes and that native dealers were often willing participants in the trade in human flesh. The Christian purchasers liked to think of themselves as the agents of civilization and the true religion. The native traders were less philosophical about their business.
  • The sense that God was decisively at work in the crisis of the Union also profoundly altered the way in which church leaders dealt with the problem of slavery. At the war's outset, Northern churches were far from unanimous in their attitude toward human bondage. A few denounced the practice as a sin and called for immediate emancipation or abolition. At the other extreme, some argued that the Bible treated slavery as a morally legitimate institution. For example, parts of the Old Testament law recognized and regulated slavery. Jesus lived in a world where slavery existed, and he apparently uttered not a single word of censure against it. The letters of the apostle Paul contained explicit commands that slaves be obedient to their masters. Therefore, ran this argument, contemporary Christians had no business condemning as sinful a social arrangement that the Bible itself sanctioned. Most church leaders appear to have fallen somewhere between these extremes.
  • For their part, the southern women believed that they, no less than their men, would bear a critical responsibility before God for the outcome of the conflict. When they went to work in the mills and factories left unmanned by war, when they took over the roles of protector and provider at home, they understood themselves as vital players in a divine experiment of Christian nationhood. And when they suffered the afflictions of northern armies in their backyards and growing numbers of war dead, they strengthened and consoled themselves with the knowledge that they were doing God’s work on earth.
    Part of that work, as had long been argued, was the “Christianizing” of the African slaves. To address abolitionists’ cries for an end to slavery, southern preachers declared that slavery was a sacred trust imposed on the South by the slave traders of Great Britain and the northern states. Furthermore, some averred, God had ordained slavery as a punishment for African paganism.
    Ironically, this very conviction led Southern educators to talk seriously for the first time about educating the black people among them. Baptist ministers, especially, sought to pass resolutions encouraging their congregations to work politically toward repealing laws banning slave literacy. It was only logical that if the South was commissioned by God to create a Christian nation, its success in the war would depend on God’s favor. For some, this suggested that God’s favor could be lost through ill treatment of the slaves or, conversely, won through greater humanitarianism.
  • The slaves had their preachers too, as well as their own secret religious gatherings. Black preachers were often among the few literate slaves, and they created powerful stories of redemption, freedom, and retribution against their white masters out of the language and ethos of the Old Testament tales of Israel’s captivity and release. In the presence of white observers, black preachers echoed the message heard in white pulpits of obedience and subservience to “God-ordained” masters. In fact, there was strong practical incentive to do so, because often it was only through obedience and subservience that slaves avoided the lash and other penalties. Yet at the end of the day, slave religion emphasized that God would change their earthly situation and punish the cruelty of the slave holders.
    It was the slaves’ conviction that God was ultimately on their side that gave them the courage to run away and throw themselves on the mercy of the northern army. It strengthened their resolve to follow the Underground Railroad in the face of untold risks and dangers toward what they supposed would be a new life in freedom. Their religious beliefs became vocal in their spirituals—songs full of their pain, sorrow and resignation, their hope, joy and rebellion.
  • Our divine Lord and Master said, “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But an American minister, with the Bible in is hand, holds us and our children in the most abject slavery and wretchedness. Now I ask them, would they like for us to hold them and their children in abject slavery and wretchedness?
    • David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1830), p. 43
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