J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

The pretty phrase that Christianity "broke the fetters of the slave" is so persistently repeated by apologists and echoed in general literature that even H. G. Wells incautiously admitted it in the first edition of his Outline of History, withdrawing it at once when the present writer drew his attention to it. The statement is one of the many claims that are in complete contradiction to the historical facts as they are given in any classical dictionary or special study of the subject. The only ground for making it is that the new religion taught the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God; but neither Jesus nor Paul nor any Father of the Church, though slavery was the greatest evil of the Roman world, ever pointed out that this principle made slavery a crime, and the Church never condemned slavery until the rising tide of abolitionist sentiment in modern times compelled it to recognize this elementary principle of social ethics. St. Augustine, the most influential of the Fathers, and the oracle of Europe for more than a thousand years, expressly defended slavery as a divinely ordered social arrangement, and there is nothing in the writings of the other Fathers to suggest that he differed from them. In his greatest work, The City of God (Book XIX, Ch. XV), we have the only reference to the justice or injustice of slavery in the whole of patristic literature, and Augustine says that it is "no crime in the eyes of God," who has ordained it as part of the punishment of sin. This is entirely ignored in the special apologetic work, Christianity and Slavery (1919), written by A. H. Tabrum for the Christian Evidence Society, and all other apologetic works. They quote, instead, a work by Gregory of Nyssa, whereas the Benedictine (Migne) editors of the works of the Fathers, who publish it, expressly warn the reader that it is spurious, and it is probably an attack on the rich for the possession of slaves by an obscure ex-slave monk. The only other authority they quote is a "St. Theodore" - apparently an abbot in a suburb of Constantinople - but they give no reference, and the Migne edition of his writings seems to contain no such condemnation. We have to agree with the Protestant historian, Dr. E. Reich (The History of Civilization, 1908), that "slavery in the Roman Empire was mitigated by the noble philosophy of the Stoics and not by the teaching of the Church Fathers, who never thought of recommending the abolition of slavery" (p. 421). Lecky, who as usual does the best he can for Christianity in his History of European Morals, can quote no word of condemnation, and in regard to mitigation he quotes more pagans than Christians. The Positivist Ingram (History of Slavery and Serfdom, 1895) entirely agrees, and it is the same in the article by the Rev. Dr. Agate in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, probably the most candid treatment of the subject by an apologist. With the later or mediaeval stage we shall deal presently.
      On the strength of their claim that the Church made an end of slavery the apologists exaggerate the evil. We are not here concerned with slavery under the Republic or in any part of the Greek-Roman world or elsewhere before the fourth century. In Greece it was never very onerous or excessive. It was different in Rome because the aggressive wars against the Teutons and Slavs brought immense armies of captives - one frontier-war made 100,000 captives - and it was in early Rome considered an advance in civilization to enslave instead of killing them, as had been done in earlier times - to say nothing of the consecration in the Old Testament of the barbaric custom of killing all and the practices of mediaeval armies, which habitually raped women and killed non-combatant males. In the last centuries of the Republic the slaves were probably twice as numerous as free workers. Older estimates, one of which said thirty to one, are rejected by modern authorities, the best of whom is R. H. Barrow (Slavery in the Roman Empire, 1928), who gives the conclusion of the others. These agree that by the end of the third century of the Christian era there were in Rome and Italy about three free workers to one slave. The slave-making wars were long over, the slaves were now, in large numbers, able to save money and purchase freedom (or get it in wills), and very many owners found free labour more profitable than the sullen slave. A second grave exaggeration of these writers, who paint the evil with broad strokes of the brush because they are going to say that the Church made an end of it, is in regard to cruelty. There was still a very large amount of cruelty in the first half of the first century of the new era, and the amount of slavery was lamentable; yet the Christian writers who, from Paul onward, lashed the "vices" of the pagans had not a word to say about slavery. The apologist finds two excuses. The first is that the condemnation of it was implicit in their teaching - which would have surprised Augustine and the mediaeval schoolmen, headed by Aquinas, who followed him and defended it. The second is almost too ludicrous to mention - that they hesitated to wreck the economic frame of the Roman Empire by condemning it! When the apologists further plead that Paul sent greetings to slaves, and urged kindly treatment of them, they seem to be unaware that this was the common attitude of the pagan moralists. Aristotle had urged humane treatment. Zeno included slaves in his principle that all men were born equal: and Epicurus was "conspicuous amongst Greek philosophers for his kindness to slaves" (Lecky, I, 129). Diogenes Laertius (On the Lives of the Philosophers) tells us how Epicurus welcomed slaves to his table, and it seems to have been the Epicurean Hegesias who first condemned slavery in principle. Seneca repeatedly urges kindness to slaves, repeating, from Epicurus, that they are "friends in a lowly condition"; and it is hardly necessary to speak of the ex-slave Epictetus. It was a common principle of the Stoic-Epicurean philosophy, which was generally accepted by the Romans, and by the year 100 it found a magnificent expression in two of the orations of Dio Chrysostom , who condemned slavery root and branch. While apologists talk of St. Paul or Tertullian fearing to wreck the frame of the Roman Empire, to which they were as indifferent as Simeon Stylites, this pagan friend of the great Emperor and idol of the educated and wealthy class of Rome sternly denounced slavery in two successive orations (XIV and XV) which were delivered to a fashionable audience in the heart of Rome. His language is noble in comparison with Augustine's miserable sophistry, and it may now be read in an English translation (by D. C. and J. W. Cohan, 1932); though Tabrum says we have only one sentence of Dio's discourses!
      It was, as Reich says, this widespread pagan sentiment that mitigated the condition of the slave. As early as 82 B.C. the Cornelian Law abrogated the right of the master to kill an offending slave. In 32 B.C. the Petronian Law forbade masters to compel slaves to fight in the arena. Claudius enacted that a master was guilty of murder if he neglected, with fatal effect, the treatment of a sick slave, and that if such a slave recovered at the temple of Aesculapius he should be free (Suetonius, "Claudius," XXV). Seneca induced Nero, in his earlier years, to grant the slave an appeal to the courts against cruelty. Hadrian - the wicked Epicurean of Christian writers - renewed the law against killing slaves or selling them for the Amphitheatre, restricted the torture of slaves suspected of the murder of masters, suppressed the underground dens for housing slaves, appointed officers everywhere to investigate cases of cruelty, and exiled for five years a rich lady who was cruel to her slaves. Long before that date, Seneca tells us (De Clementia, I, 18), masters who were cruel to slaves were insulted in the streets, and the slaves generally "corresponded to our free labouring class," as Sir S. Dill says in his Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (1904, p. 18). The Stoic lawyer, Ulpian, was allowed, even under the vicious Caracalla, to make it illegal for parents to sell their children into slavery; and the last great pagan Emperor, Diocletian, forbade a man to sell himself into slavery or a creditor to enslave his debtor. These laws and the references to them may be found in Smith's or Pauly's classical dictionaries, or the works of Ingram (who also writes the article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica), Dill, Lecky, Letourneau, etc., or the article in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. In the same sources will be found the account of the complete failure to help the slaves of the dozen Christian Emperors to the fall of Rome. Constantine's legislation was reactionary; and while Gratian is credited with ordering the freedom of slaves who gave information about "certain capital offences" of their masters, the truth is that he so rewarded informers about plots against himself, but ordered that they be burned alive - a new reactionary measure - for bringing other charges. Theodosius made no new law in regard to slavery, and Justinian did not, as apologists say, order the Christian marriage of slaves, for, as Dean Milman shows, their coupling (contubernium) was not recognized by the Church; and this, be it noted, was 150 years after the conversion of Constantine.
      By this time the old system of slavery had broken down in Europe with the fall and impoverishment of the Empire; but the new type of slavery, serfdom , which was worse than the lot of the slaves had been in the fourth century, now extended to the overwhelming majority of the workers, and large numbers were still torn from their countries and bought and sold like cattle. The Church not only still failed to condemn, but continued to use, the word "slaves" (servi) and treat the whole body with disdain. Leo I forbade their admission into the clergy "because of the vileness of their condition." This is astutely rendered by some apologists "the lowliness of their condition," but Leo expressly says that their vilitas would "pollute" the sacred order; and Gregory I renewed this, and repeated also the Church's stern prohibition of a slave to marry a free woman (App. VII, I). Ingram here finds at last a Christian declaration that slavery is "unnatural" - not, be it noted, immoral or unchristian - but the letter of Gregory (VI, 12), which he has hastily read, is merely a pleasant greeting to two ex-slaves from whom the Church expects money. Gregory, for the Papacy, had as many slaves as one of the great slave-holding patricians of the worst Roman days, for he had more than 1,500 square miles of estates which were cultivated by slaves. Muratori, a learned Catholic archaeologist, shows (Dissertations, XV) that local churches and abbeys had a very high proportion of the remaining slaves (four-fifths of the population) of Europe, so that what had really happened was that the Church, which is supposed to have broken the fetters of the slave, had in fact rivetted those fetters on an enormously larger proportion of the people than had borne them in the fourth century. The desperate apologist then pleads that at least the British St. Wulfstan suppressed slavery in England (where it was, says Traill's Social England, I, 296, "the chief trade of all"), but the full account in Freeman's Norman Conquest (IV, 386) shows that Bishop Wulfstan, who was merely concerned because Christian slaves were sold to the pagan Danes, did not suppress the traffic. Apart from villains, there were 25,000 slaves in England at the time of the compiling of Domesday Book (Vinogradoff). About the same period we have the testimony of the Italian Bishop Liutprand (Antapodosis, V.1, 6) that the French - some historians say the monks - sold Christian youths, sometimes first castrating them, into slavery to the Arabs. So the ghastly story continued. The rise of the Normans made matters worse. Freeman says that "the blackest and saddest result of the Norman Conquest" was that the new masters of England, "in their contempt for the people, suppressed the distinction of slave and serf and lowered the condition of all."
      The general idea that slavery ended, from whatever cause, after the fall of Rome, and was then unknown until Black Slavery was introduced in modern times is entirely false. We have here, on the contrary, says the Rev. Dr. Agate in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, "one of the most remarkable and deplorable instances of historical continuity." The Church, now strengthened by the casuistry of Aquinas, still refrained from any condemnation, but new historical developments caused a diversion of the traffic in human flesh from Europe to Africa and Americas, The Italians had continued a brisk trade in slaves with the East, but the Turks now advanced and ruined it. This is another instance of economic conditions effecting a change for which the moralist would later claim the credit. By this time the Arabs of Spain had explored the west coast of Africa, and, while they themselves had had comparatively few slaves, the Spanish and Portuguese Christians, who took over their civilization just about the time when the route to the East was closed, were less humane; and just at that time, the end of the fifteenth century, they captured America. It is estimated that in the next three centuries they, and the French and English, tore 9,000,000 Africans from their homes and shipped them, in the most repulsive conditions, vast numbers dying on the voyage, to America. It was, says that apologist Brace, "the most dreadful curse that has perhaps afflicted humanity" (Gesta Christi, 4th ed., 1885, p. 365). The evidence for the guilt of introducing it and the merit of abolishing it lies nearer to our own times, and the contortions of apologists are amazing. One of the most respectable, Canon Streeter, finds the abolition of slavery "the one glaring exception" to the general supine indifference of religion to reform, while Brace says that "the guilt of this great crime rests upon the Christian Church as an organized body" (reference above). It is the same with the initiation of the trade. It is usual to blame this upon Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, and Tabrum, for the Christian Evidence Society, protests that Fiske has shown, in his Discovery of America, that this is a "gross historical blunder." What Fiske, like every other impartial historian, tells is that Las Casas, who certainly did not like slavery, found that the Spaniards made the Indians hostile to Christianity by virtually enslaving and concluded that if there had to be choice between the two kinds of slavery, Indian or African, the latter - especially as the blacks could be made Christians - was to be preferred. He submitted this to Church and State in Spain, and the theologians concurred that the Church did not condemn slavery. Whatever measure of influence we ascribe to Las Casas, the plan was adopted, and the Churches of Spain, Portugal, France, England, and the American colonies, blessed the hideous traffic. The English Parliament authorized it in 1708, and the most famous trader, Sir John Hawkins, who was so pious that he gave such names as "Jesus" to his ships, was knighted for his success. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel employed slaves on its estates in the West Indies, and there were 80,000 black slaves in London as late as 1760 (Independent Review, October 1905). The American Churches, Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist, owned 600,000 slaves, and "the authority of nearly all the leading denominations was against the abolitionists," says J. Macy in the chief and impartial recent American work (The Anti-Slavery Crusade, 1920, p. 74). The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian authorities, he shows, expelled any minister who advocated abolition. It was the Deists Franklin and Paine, inspired by the "infidel" literature of France, who initiated the protest - the first shot was Paine's African Slavery in America (1775) - and the effective Abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century was led by Rationalists [see Garrison; Lincoln; etc.] In England, Locke first attacked slavery (in his Treatise on Civil Government, 1689), calling it a "vile and miserable estate of man." The Church still remained silent - Tabrum sophistically quotes clerics, whose protest was against the cruelties practised in the trade - while the Deistic and Atheistic protest in France gathered strength and was echoed in England (Pope, Adam Smith, etc.). The standard authority on the English movement is the History of the Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (2 vols., 1808) of T. Clarkson, who, with Wilberforce, organized the first committee. It does not tell that Wilberforce derived the idea from Rationalist literature in his sceptical youth, or that Clarkson was inspired by the Quakers. It is enough here to say that a few clergymen, out of the many thousands, joined the movement, but it was powerless until it was taken up by the great Rationalists, Fox and Pitt, in the Government, and by Bentham in the country. The Churches, with the story of three centuries of barbarism unfolded before them, were still dumb, and one has the usual difficulty, of understanding the mentality of Christian writers who boast that a dozen ministers, out of the tens of thousands who had seen the horrors of slavery, concluded that it was not in accord with Christian principles.


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