Christianity and Slavery: The Bible, The Church, and Abolition

“In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” These were the words of President Obama at the National Prayer breakfast in 2015. I would argue he is correct as some slave owners and traders in the New World tried to justify their actions using the Bible. Critics today may point to Christians in America and Europe owning and trading slaves as a reason to dismiss Christianity. The Council for Secular Humanism argues slavery was an official position of the church and was a “close companion of Christianity.”[2] But does the fact that Christians participated in the slave trade equate to an endorsement of it by the Bible? In this post we will examine slavery in the Bible and look at it through the lens of Church history and the abolition movement.

The Bible – Setting the Record Straight

The Old and New Testament mention slavery throughout, but the overall theme of slavery is much different than New World slavery (hereinafter referred to as “NWS”). In the Bible, the Hebrew word ‘ebed and Greek word doulos are most often translated as “slave,” but depending on the context, they may be better understood as “servant” or “bondservant” indicating more of a servitude relationship as opposed to oppressive bondage.[3] Therefore, when examining the issue of slavery through the Bible and church history, we should not assume what we know of NWS applies to all slavery through all of history.

Rodney Stark, Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, argues “Moses did not come down the mountain with a commandment forbidding slavery. But, according to the Torah, God did reveal to him a very elaborate moral code vis-à-vis slavery – one that made Jewish slavery far more humane than that of other societies in classical times.”[4] The slavery that is described in the Old Testament, related to the commands and laws of God, is of indentured servanthood, often entered into contractually, even voluntarily at times for those too poor to live in Israel; it was not the exploitive and abusive relationship we later see in the New World.[5]

Consider that God freed the people of Israel from conditions that could have been more like NWS. The Israelites had been co-existing in Egypt until the arrival of a new Pharaoh who said “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them…”, enslaving the Israelites out of fear and afflicting them with heavy burdens as they built cities for the Pharaoh, and making “…their lives bitter with hard service.”[6] God heard their cries and eventually rescued them out of slavery, as told in Exodus, in such dramatic fashion that God would frequently remind Israel of that rescue as evidence of His steadfast love and trustworthiness.

It is from this context, experiencing oppressive bondage and then being freed from it, that God gives laws regarding the treatment of servants in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. A slave in the Holy Land was treated much better than elsewhere throughout the Ancient Near East. We see this as the Mosaic Law begins to unfold in Exodus 12:44, which instructs that a slave can eat of holy food upon being circumcised but foreigners and hired workers could not. In possibly the strongest condemnation of the nature of NWS, Exodus 21:16 (English Standard Version) says “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” As far as the physical treatment of slaves, Exodus 21:26 and 27 commands if a master of a slave does even accidental harm to his slave, they are to be set free.

Servanthood between Israelites was often entered into contractually, as an option out of poverty or debt, and every seven years the slaves were to be unconditionally set free and forgiven of any debt.[7] Deuteronomy offers yet another command in stark contrast to NWS as it says “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.”[8] Not only were the Israelites commanded to provide refuge for runaway slaves, but runaway slaves were free to live within the Holy Land no harm were to come to them.

Regarding foreign slaves, Leviticus instructs “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.”[9] The context for the time was that the slaves were not treated as property, only Israelites were allowed to own land, so foreigners were allowed as servants in households, and foreigners could choose to be released and become self-sufficient.[10] Commands from God exist in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that the Israelites shall love the stranger in their land, to do them no wrong, and love the stranger as themselves because the Israelites were once strangers in Egypt.[11]

Therefore, slavery in the Old Testament is not a template for NWS. The Mosaic Law is not a prescription for anyone other than the Israelites living under God’s theocracy at that time. Even if someone were to claim Old Testament inspiration for slavery, Christian apologist Amy Hall recognizes that “Slavery in Western countries would never even have gotten off the ground had these rules been followed; the first rule [against kidnapping] would have prevented it.”[12]

Then what of the New Testament? Christianity was “born into a world teeming with slaves”[13] more akin to NWS, in that the Romans viewed slaves as property.[14] The New Testament builds upon the morality of the Mosaic laws which would make the idea of NWS difficult to reconcile with Scripture. Two ideas against NWS emerge in the New Testament stemming from Genesis 1:27, that we are all created in the image of God. First, a presumption that all are equal and are invited into the brotherhood of believers and spiritual freedom is of greater importance than social or economic freedom (Galatians 3:28).[15]  Second, 1 Timothy identifies “enslavers” amongst a list of conduct that is displeasing to and “…contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God….[16] In the English Standard Version Study Bible, the note to the word “enslavers” describes those who would take someone captive and sell them into slavery. This is consistent with the Old Testament ban on kidnapping slaves in Exodus 21:16.

Paul challenges the institution of slavery in Ephesians 6, Colossians 4, and Philemon, by commanding slave masters to treat their slaves with dignity and as equals, a radical notion for the time. Further, the New and Old Testament clearly speak against all forms of oppression and slavery does not need to be singled out.[17] In Luke, Jesus reads from Isiah 61 claiming He has fulfilled the prophecy of God sending him to “proclaim liberty to the captives” and “those who are oppressed.”[18]

Critics may complain that the New Testament writers fail at attempting to put an end to Roman slavery. Consider that Christianity was just beginning; God himself had walked the earth, and his followers witnessed His brutal execution soon followed by their violent persecution. Hardly an ideal environment to launch a crusade specifically against slavery at the time.

Thomas Weld, an evangelical on the frontline of the abolition movement in America, in 1838 wrote The Bible Against Slavery and Slavery as It Is, the latter being a significant influence with Harriet Beecher Stowe.[19] Regarding the issue of slavery in Scripture, he wrote “The Bible record of action is no comment on their moral character. It vouches for them as facts, not as virtues.”[20]

It was Jesus and the New Testament writers, building off Old Testament ethics, who gave dignity and equality to the oppressed; not an endorsement of the institution which oppressed them.

Slavery and the Historic Church

Slavery declined in the Greco-Roman world with the decline of the Roman empire itself and the rise of the feudal system, which was much different from slavery (serfs had rights, could own property, and were not sold).[21] Additionally, with the influence of the state over the church in Europe from the 4th Century through the rise of NWS in the 16th Century, most Europeans were at least nominally Christian and forbidden from enslaving other Christians.[22] Slavery still existed, though, as seen by those in the church feeling the need to either address it positively or negatively. There were Popes who endorsed slavery to some extent, such as Pope Gregory I (590 – 604) and Pope Gregory XI (1370 – 1378), while others in the church just remained indifferent or saw no conflict with Christianity and slavery.[23] But, as the church became aware of race-based slavery initiated by kidnapping, it was immediately condemned at the highest levels as discussed below.

In the second century, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr argued against the buying and selling of children in the Roman empire for prostitution.[24] St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), one of the most influential theologians, never argued for the end of slavery in the Roman empire but neither did he offer an endorsement of it. His thoughts on the issue were certainly complex. He assessed slavery as a result of original sin, and slaves were such either because of their sinful nature or because of the sin of others; he did not agree that slavery was natural to man.[25] St. Augustine’s views introduced a moral concern regarding slavery which continued and laid a foundation against secular philosophies that slaves were naturally inferior.

Into the Middle Ages, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Colvis III) started a campaign to both end slave trading and free slaves and Saint Anskar championed the ending of the Viking slave trade in 851 A.D.[26] Both kings and bishops forbid the enslavement of other Christians into the 11th Century (including William the Conqueror, Saint Wulfstan, and Saint Anselm).[27]

As the Age of Discovery drove Europeans west, Eugene IV (Bishop of Rome, 1431 – 1447) issued a bull, Sicut Dudum, which condemned the enslavement of the native inhabitants of the Canary Islands.[28] In 1537, Pope Paul III began a series of writings, including a bull, Sublimis Deus, intended for all Christians, issued penalties for those who did engage in slave trading, and noted the Indians of the New World were human beings.[29] Upon learning of NWS, Paul III noted this slavery was “unheard of until now” and that there was no moral justification for such slavery.[30] Tradition then builds late in the 16th Century and onward, as other Popes would quote Paul III’s teachings on slavery. In 1686 the Congregation of the Holy Office, through a series of questions and answers, openly condemned the kidnapping and enslavement of the people of Africa.[31] Condemnations from Popes continued in 1741, 1815 and 1839[32], well into the height of the New World slave trade.

An Apologetic Response through Abolition

Understanding the influences of the abolition movement provides an apologetic response to those who charge Christianity was responsible for NWS. The rise of NWS coincides with the Age of Reason, and I would argue that is not a coincidence. The Age of Reason signified a return to much of Greco-Roman thinking[33] in which philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato were proponents of slavery. The intellects of the Age of Reason, led by men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and David Hume,[34] provided no objection to NWS with their philosophies. Their influence grew as the Roman Catholic churches weakened[35], especially in the New World, which explains why the Pope’s consistent condemnations against slavery went unheeded.

But just over a century earlier, the Reformation had begun. By the time NWS had increased, the foundation for abolition was already built within emerging Evangelical Christianity. Among other issues, a return to the Bible as the sole authority of the faith along with the pursuit of a more genuine Christianity defined the Evangelicals.[36] It was from changed hearts and more of the Bible, not less, that the fight for freedom arose; not from a Pope, or a single church or denomination, but from the body of Christ standing on Scripture understanding it was a sin to hold and trade other humans as property.

The Quakers in America were the first in turning abolition into a movement as opposed to just individual voices. [37]  A significant development was the publication of anti-slavery tracts highlighting such verses as Matthew 25:40 (English Standard Versions) which Jesus said “…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” They were also the first to forbid the owning and trading of slaves within their communities.[38] Eventually, more denominations came on board with the abolition movement, such as Methodist, Presbyterians, and Congregationalist, leading to the formations in 1833of the American Anti-Slavery Society. By 1838 there were over 1000 chapters and of the traveling representatives, over half were ordained ministers, and three-quarters of the local members were clergy.[39]

It would be the abolitionist in England who would see victory first. Anti-slavery societies of Evangelical Christians formed similarly to the movement in North America. The founding father of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, published his Thoughts Upon Slavery in 1774 which brought the growing number of Methodist onboard against Slavery. John Newton, who once captained a slave ship, and upon his conversion to Christianity penned “Amazing Grace,” was also influential. And then, of course, William Wilberforce, who tirelessly fought for abolition within the British Parliament. His speeches centered on the slaves as “children of God and thus worthy of the birthright of freedom.”[40] Summarizing the movement, Stark states that abolitionist “spoke almost exclusively in the language of Christian faith.”, while the pro-slavery clergy was “overwhelmingly secular” in their defense of slavery often invoking concepts of liberty and states’ rights as opposed to any religious language.[41]

One of the most striking examples of the importance of Christianity to the Abolition movement was the adoption of Christianity within the slave population in North America. Vincent Carol and David Shiflett argue “…Christianity’s importance to abolitionists may have been equaled only by its importance to slaves themselves, who were sustained by its message of hope and its assurance of a liberty that transcended their current bondage.”[42] How could Christianity, on the one hand, justify slavery while on the other be the hope of its victims? I would argue it couldn’t; the fact abolition prevailed led by Evangelicals while Christianity arose from the slave population demonstrates the correct Christian view against slavery.

There were those in the church who, at times, were proponents of slavery and this can’t be swept under the rug. But their endorsement does not overrule what the Bible itself endorses; particular descriptions of slavery do not equal a prescription of oppressive slavery. Those who refuse to explore Christianity because of their moral objections to slavery are denying to explore the only worldview that contains both their moral opposition as well as the grounding to fight slavery. An examination of church history and the abolition movement reveals an undercurrent of anti-slavery language and ethics firmly rooted in God’s consistent Word. Christianity, and more specifically Reformed Christianity, was the greatest force against NWS. It not only commanded its followers to fight for the oppressed, but it also provided the only worldview that could objectively argue all men have intrinsic value, making slavery an unjustifiable evil.


Resources and further reading:

[2] Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2002), 25.

[3] The English Standard Version Study Bible, “The Translation of Specialized Terms” (Crossway, Wheaton, IL 2008), 21.

[4] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 327 – 328.

[5] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 125-127.

[6] Exodus 1:10,11 (English Standard Version)

[7] Deuteronomy 15 (English Standard Version)

[8] Deuteronomy 23:15,16 (English Standard Version)

[9] Leviticus 25:44 (English Standard Version)

[10] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 141.

[11] Leviticus 19:33,34, Deuteronomy 10:19 (English Standard Version)

[12] Amy K. Hall, “Did God Condone Slavery?,” Stand to Reason, August 13, 2009, accessed October 22, 2016,

[13] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 26.

[14] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?,151.

[15] Paul Copan, “The Silence of the New Testament Writers on Slavery.” Accessed October 22, 2016.

[16] 1 Timothy 1:8 -11 (English standard Version)

[17] For example, see Zechariah 7:9-10, Proverbs 14:31, Psalm 9:7-10, Matthew 5:1-48, James 2:6

[18] Luke 4:18 (English Standard Version)

[19] Bruce L. Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 406.

[20]Thomas Weld, The Bible Against Slavery: An Inquiry into the Patriarchal and Mosaic Systems on the Subject of Human Rights, 4th ed.  (New York, NY: The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), 9.

[21] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003, 299-300.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2002), 29.

[24] Ibid., 26.

[25] Peter Garney, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 218.

[26] Stark, For the Glory of God, 329.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Joel S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1996), 7.

[29] Ibid., 16-17.

[30] Ibid., 20-22.

[31] Ibid., 37.

[32] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 29.

[33] Bruce L. Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 325.

[34] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 31.

[35] Stark, For the Glory of God, 330.

[36] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2012), 230.

[37] Stark, Glory of God, 340

[38] Ibid., 341.

[39] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 41.

[40] Ibid., 37.

[41] Stark, Glory of God, 344.

[42] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 47.

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