Recently, Beneath the Tangles featured a very long and well-written post on the topic of slavery in The Rising of the Shield Hero. It is worth your time to read when you have a good chunk of free time:
Slavery is a very interesting topic in regards to Christianity, because the Bible never condemns it in explicit terms. This has led to epochs where rulers and nobility saw slavery as permissible, especially in the Age of Exploration and when the wars between Christendom and Islam became more advanced. Thus, the papacy had to condemn the practice several times in encyclicals and statements in the years 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839. (See Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life by Stanley M. Elkins.) I might also add the 1435 encyclical commanding that Canary Islanders be freed from the condition of slavery. That slavery could be countenanced is rather odd when one considers that Medieval society had made great strides in eliminating slavery with its borders so that it was virtually non-existent by the 11th century, which coincides with the end of the Viking Age.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. Slavery saw its first decline with the Fall of the Roman Empire. You see, there often needs to be a combination of practical and moral reasons for an evil institution’s demise, and people perpetuate slavery by the threat of punishment and hope of liberty. In the case of Roman slavery, the idea of revolt was kept down by the threat of the Roman legions and by the impunity with which a master could punish a slave. On the reward side, privately owned slaves could hope for earning enough to purchase their freedom (slaves were allowed to work on the side and their “freedom fund” was protected by law), have their former master as their patron, and become a Roman citizen. Pretty good rewards, and the Roman Empire boasted a large class of freedmen–including the father of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to students of Latin literature as the poet Horace. However, I must add that slaves owned by the Roman government were worked to death with little hope of freedom.
The demise of the Roman Empire took away the threat of the Roman legions, which placed slave owners in the necessity of working out a new relationship with their slaves. This new relationship was serfdom. (See Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State.) Like the slave, the serf was bond to the land, but he owned more of his produce and could not be sold–nor could his wife or children be sold. In much of Europe, serfs would become peasants who had freedom of movement and more freedom of labor, as long as they could pay their lord rent and the Church a tithe. At the same time, the peasant retained a right to live on the lord’s fiefdom and could not be dispossessed. Some peasants actually managed to become rich.
Sadly, this anti-slavery momentum was often not applied to enemies of the Faith. Pope Nicholas V permitted captured Saracens to be reduced to perpetual servitude in the bulls Dum Diversas in 1452 and Romanus Pontifex in 1454. The only things which could remove this sentence would be ransom, a prisoner exchange, or the will of the master to manumit the slave. However, the Catholic Church came out strongly against the enslavement of peaceable persons. The Holy Inquisition in 1686 gave the penalty of automatic excommunication to anyone who enslaved “Blacks and other natives who have harmed no one” [italics mine]. (See Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness.) Sadly, Spain, France, and Portugal often ignored or suppressed many such condemnations of slavery and commands not to enslave Native Americans and Blacks. Legal slavery was totally effaced from the Americas only in 1888 with its abolition in Brazil.
Despite all the best moral arguments against slavery, the labor shortage in the Americas along with fertile ground for various cash crops induced colonists to resort to it. Slavery was made profitable as a labor system again! Where something evil is profitable, often arguments justifying its existence come to fore. And, I will say that early modern Protestants have more of an excuse than early modern Catholics for believing that slavery is legitimate. The reason for this is because Protestants have cut themselves off from the development of doctrine, essentially placing themselves in the same position as Christians circa 100 A.D. On the other hand, a Catholic must ignore the entire development of doctrine, the teaching authority of the Magisterium, and the authoritative pronouncements of the Pope in order to own slaves. Not only were lay Catholics guilty, but even some bishops tolerated the institution while admonishing masters to be humane.
God sometimes does not rule definitively against certain immoral practices until people are ready to accept them. Hence, polygamy and divorce are not condemned until the New Testament, where Christ commands people to follow the original pattern set by Adam and Eve (Mt. 19) and where St. Paul and the Apostles only describe a marriage union between one husband and one wife. The New Testament, while not explicitly outlawing slavery, does describe all people as equal before God (Galatians 3:28), admonishes us to be one another’s slaves (see Mark 10:44), and describes the great desire of Christ that all men be free (Galatian 4:31).
Still, it is excusable that a 2nd century Christian might be ignorant of the fact that slavery itself is an evil. And, if we take into account the fact that Protestant doctrines have their beginning in the Age of Exploration (1517 marks Martin Luther’s break with the Church) and don’t accept the Catholic development of doctrine as reliable, the pro-slavery arguments put forward by Rev. Leander Kerr and Rev. Josiah Priest in the post on Shield Hero linked to above make sense. And, with no central authority like the Magisterium or the Pope to rule on doctrine, how is one to determine whether Anti-Slavery or Pro-Slavery Protestants are correct? From the standpoint of a 21th century American, it’s obvious that slavery is wicked and abhorrent–not necessarily so for someone living in the 19th century.
That which determined right, i.e. that which swayed public opinion for the majority, essentially was slavery’s profitability. The North’s ties to slavery had to do with shipping and manufacturing, while the South’s had to do with agriculture. The South produced the raw materials. The North refined these materials, shipped them, and brought new slaves from Africa–to be sure, along with the Dutch and the Portuguese. While both profited from slavery, only in the agricultural field was slave labor more profitable than free labor. The high risk of injury while working in a factory made it cheaper to hire free day laborers whom one could fire without a major loss. Ships require skilled and obedient seamen, not unskilled persons with many opportunities for desertion and mutiny. Thus, slavery was never popular in the North. However, Pennsylvania still had slaves into the 1850’s and New Jersey’s last slave was not released until 1865–both states possessed large farming economies and opted for gradual manumission. Money easily blinds people from the evil they do or permit.
I doubt that slavery could have existed in the South longer than Brazil’s date of abolition in 1888. After the Civil War, many former plantation owners kept former slaves as sharecroppers and paid servants. I have not heard of one who said that free labor was more expensive than slave labor. In the Antebellum South, one had to pay the slaves’ housing, medical care, food, and the initial investment was equal to the cost of a modern person buying a car. Many poor whites harvested crops alongside of slaves for only a daily wage. It is no wonder that only five percent of Southerners owned slaves by 1860! (Some people inflate this number to 25% by including everyone in a household which owned slaves, including the wives, children, and relatives of the actual owners. This is like saying 91% of Americans own cars when one means to say 91% of households have the use of a car. I suppose the figure gives one a sense of the ubiquity of privately owned vehicles.)
People dispute this, but a good argument is to be made that slavery would have collapsed of its own weight without the War Between the States. Maybe it was better for the descendants of slaves that it did not: Virginia almost banned slavery in 1832, but this proposal was voted down because they did not have the money to transport freedmen back to Africa. Sending blacks back to Africa was part of the abolitionist program in the 19th century. Only the massive property destruction and huge increase in the national debt caused by the war deterred the government from enacting that part of the abolitionist scheme.
I knew that my thoughts on the above post and the relationships between slavery, Christianity, and America would be too long to fit in a comment. If you want to learn more about slavery in America, I heartily recommend Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: the World the Slaves Made–the greatest work on the subject–or a shorter work of his, A Consuming Fire: the Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History has a great chapter on the history between Christianity and slavery.
Thanks for reading to the end of this long post!