Christianity’s complex history with slavery

Christianity’s complex history with slavery

Christians have a long and complex history when it comes to slavery, despite the Bible and church tradition actually condemning the practice.

On Friday, 12 July, Australian Prime Minister Morrison gave a qualified apology over a historical error. Mr Morrison walked back a prior claim he had suggested in an interview that there had been no slavery in Australia, a comment made in the context of a wider history debate over whether or not statues should honour colonial figures such as James Cook.

The debate over Morrison’s claim saw opposition parties, historians, and sociologists all argue that the Prime Minister had defined ‘slavery’ too narrowly, and point to a past practise of transporting people from the Pacific Islands known as blackbirding. This political debate regarding a sometimes-neglected area of Australia’s history garnered attention from national newspapers and on social media pages.

With Australia now paying attention to its own history of slavery (an issue that activists and NGOs in the area remind us is ongoing), it is worth highlighting another, broader truth: Christians have a long and complex history with slavery of its own, despite the Bible and church tradition actually condemning the practice.

As Katy E. Valentine writes for Bible Odyssey, slavery was a fact of life during the time Scripture was written.

For the writers of the New Testament, slavery would have largely been an accepted practice. Despite this, Dr Valentine writes:

The New Testament does contain several passages that demonstrate resistance to slavery. Slave traders are included in a list of those who are lawless, probably because many acquired slaves illegally (1Tim 1:10). Another passage condemns the immoral trade of luxury goods in the Roman Empire, concluding with “bodies,” a common euphemism for slaves (Rev 18:13). These indictments of the slave trade are unusual but welcome voices in the New Testament.

In keeping with this, the early church condemned slavery and refused to participate in it. There is evidence that Christians in the first few centuries freed their own slaves and forbid one another from slaveholding.

This widespread opposition to slavery would not last, however, and Christians in more recent times were among those who supported the industry of slaveholding.

During the period when slavery was widely practiced in the United States, the majority of churchgoers approved, and drew on scripture as a resource to reinforce this institution.

Yolanda Pierce is the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. She argues that slavery was actually part of early American religious life.

“So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology,” Dr Pierce told the Washington Post.

“From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” 

Against this dominant interpretation, a group of Christians with their own understanding of the faith worked to oppose the institution. By the time of the Civil War, a group of abolitionists worked to free slaves using the so-called ‘Underground railway’.

For African-Americans, biblical texts themselves were both used to reinforce slavery and were sources of hope. The Museum of the Bible in Washington has a famous “slave Bible,” which removed parts of Scripture such as Exodus, as these could be considered antislavery.

When William Wilberforce fought to bring about legislation against transporting slaves in the United Kingdom, he did so with the majority of his nation’s Christians opposing him. Over time, public opinion towards the practice shifted.

For Christians, such as Australia’s own Prime Minister, slavery is to be condemned. It is worth going deep into our sacred text to see that this condemnation has been there all along. And yet, this does not mean ignoring our own spotted history as sometimes being slaveholders.

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