Monday, October 03, 2011
"Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!"
-- Lepanto, G. K. Chesterton
A year ago, I wrote a response to Dr. Hector Avalos' critique of a passage in The Truth Behind the New Atheism where I talked about the role Christianity played in liberating slaves. At the end of a fairly long rebuttal (actually two), I appended a timeline of key events in the Christian anti-slave movement, for the past two thousand years. (But ending where most such records begin -- about the year 1800.)
I did not claim that Christians have everywhere and always liberated slaves. We haven't, of course. Christians have also sinned against God and man by enslaving many millions of human beings, over the centuries. Popes have justified slavery, and even owned slaves. The Council of (unholy) Toledo decreed that the children of priests be enslaved. This is a story that one could also tell, and it is shameful.
But I did want to make the point that the modern abolitionist movement, led by zealous believers like William Wilberforce, was no fluke. There is, in the genome of Scripture, something that pushes towards liberty, that eventually emerged in a big way.
This timeline was buried at the end of those articles. I'd like to give it due prominence by featuring it as the key item in this blog.
Not every item on this list is, strictly speaking, about "abolition" in the full sense. But these are important markers in that general direction.
I've also added some "key events" that I have learned about since, including one from the 1830s that was so interesting, I just ignored the time-line's end date. As I learn of more such stories, I'll add them to the list.
Timeline of the Christian Abolitionist Movement
50s AD: Paul writes, “In Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free.” The full implications have been debated ever since; certainly it precludes treating slaves as less than human.
60s: Paul writes a letter to his fellow Christian, Philemon, asking that he take back Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but as a brother.” His meaning has been debated ever since.
300s: Ambrose, bishop of Milan, melts down communion vessels to redeem captives: “The ornament of my sacrament is the redemption of captives; and those alone are precious vessels, that redeem souls from death.”
354-431: Paulinus, bishop of Nola, (whom Avalos criticizes for alleged racism) liberates his own slaves, spends his considerable wealth redeeming citizens of Campania, and then, (allegedly, will need to look into this further), goes into slavery to redeem one captive.
4th Century: Gregory of Nyssa critiques slavery in the light of Christian theology:
"'I obtained servants and maidens.' What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals . . . “
"God has said, 'Let us make man according to our image and likeness' [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God's likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? . . . How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man's value who is over them . . . ? "
400-425: Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary historian, tells how Acacius, Bishop of Amida in modern Turkey, talked his priests into melting down holy vessels in order to redeem 7,000 Persian captives and send them home. He explains:
“Our God, my brethren, needs neither dishes nor cups; for he neither eats nor drinks, nor is in want of anything. Since then, by the liberality of its faithful members the church possesses many vessels both of gold and silver, it behooves us to sell them, that by the money thus raised we may be able to redeem the prisoners and also supply them with food.”
410s: St. Augustine argues that, while slavery occurs as punishment for sins, and might be a just substitute for killing soldiers on the losing side of a just war, it was not part of God's plan for humanity:
"This relationship is prescribed by the order of nature, and it is in this situation that God created man. For he says, 'Let him have lordship over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky . . . and all the reptiles that crawl on the earth.' He did not wish the rational being, made in his own image, to have dominion over any but irrational creatures, not man over man, but man over the beasts . . . The origins of the Latin word for slave, servus, is believed to be derived from the fact that those who by the laws of war could rightly be put to death by the conquerors, became servi, slaves, when they were preserved . . . But even this enslavement could not have happened, if it were not for the deserts of sin . . . "
"The first cause of servitude, therefore, is sin, by which man was placed under man in a condition of bondage: a condition which can come about only by the judgment of God, in Whom there is no injustice."
"By nature, then, in the condition in which God first created man, no man is the slave either of another man or of sin. But it is also true that servitude itself is ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature, and forbids its disruption . . . The apostle therefore admonishes servants to be obedient to their masters, and to serve them loyally and with a good will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they can at least make their own slavery to some extent free . . ." (City of God, Book 19, chapter 15)
Doug also brings to my attention a letter from Augustine to his friend Alypius (who he writes about in the Confessions; by this time bishop of the nearby city of Tagaste). In the letter, apparently written in 428 AD, he writes sadly that in Africa "there is now an enormous crowd of what are called mangones" (slave-traders), who were "draining the population" of North Africa. Slave-traders inhabit wild places to waylay travelers, and break into peoples' homes to snatch children. (One of whom, having been liberated, he describes interviewing.) He recounts how, in one incident, the Christians of Hippo liberated more than a hundred slaves:
"Let me give you just one example, and you can estimate from it the total extent of their activity throughout Africa and along its coasts. About four months before I wrote this letter, a crowd of people collected from different regions, but particularly from Numidia, were brought here by Galatian merchants to be transported from the shores of Hippo (It is only, or at least mainly, the Galatians who are so eager to engage in this form of commerce). However, a faithful Christian was at hand, who was aware of our practice of performing acts of mercy in such cases; and he brought the news to the church. Immediately, about 120 people were set free by us (though I was absent at the time), some from the ship which they had to board, others from a place where they had been hidden before being put on board. We discovered that barely five or six of these had been sold by their parents. On hearing about the misfortunes that had led the rest of them to the Galatians, via their abductors and kidnappers, hardly one of us could restrain their tears."
400s: St. Patrick rebukes Coroticus for enslaving Christians and threatens him with damnation:
“I do not know what to lament more: those who have been slain, or those whom they have taken captive, or those whom the devil has mightily ensnared. Together with him they will be slaves in Hell in an eternal punishment; for who commits sin is a slave and will be called a son of the devil.”
The assumption here, which has NT precedent, is that slave-trading is a “sin,” and a particularly nasty one, showing that the sinner is “mightily ensnared” by the devil. Patrick’s rant continues:
“Far from the love of God is a man who hands over Christians to the Picts and Scots . . .They have filled their houses with the spoils of dead Christians, they live on plunder . . . This is the custom of the Roman Christians of Gaul: they send holy and able men to the Franks and other heathen with so many thousand solidi to ransom baptized captives. You prefer to kill and sell them to a foreign nation that has no knowledge of God. You betray the members of Christ as it were into a brothel. What hope have you in God, or anyone who thinks as you do, or converses with you in words of flattery? God will judge.”
500s: An anonymous Christian believer in Egypt makes a legal declaration that a woman dependant on his family named Martha is not a slave, as she says, but free. After she certified that she was in fact of slave status, “fearing the judgment of God, and mindful of the Savior’s love of mankind, I groaned aloud.” He warned that anyone who tried to enslave the woman and her children would be subject to God’s judgment.
610: Isidore of Seville, one of the great intellectual leaders of his age, insists that "God . . . has made no difference between the soul of the slave and that of the freedman." He also writes, "I can hardly credit that a friend of Christ, who has experienced that grace, which bestowed freedom on all, would still own slaves."
781: Jing Jing, in Chang An, the Chinese capital, writing an authoritative summary of the history and characteristics of the Church of the East:
“They do not keep slaves, but make the noble and humble equal. (不畜臧獲。均貴賤於人). They do not amass wealth, but put their stock in common.” (Note: the first Chinese phrase here is an unusual classical expression, used similarly by the Han historian Si Maqian, among other places.)
972: Counsel of Koblenz
1008: Wulfston, Archbishop of York, writes legislation banning the export of slaves from England. Several years later, in the "Sermon of the Wolf to the English," Wulfston lambasted the English for many social evils, including restricting the rights of slaves, and sex slave trade:
"And poor men are grieviously betrayed and cruelly deceived and widely sold out of this land into the possession of strangers even when perfectly innocent. And widely throughout this nation children in the cradle are enslaved for minor theft through savage injustice. And the rights of free men are taken away, the rights of slaves are pared away . . . and to put it briefly, God's laws are hated, and His councils despised."
"Too many Christian people have been sold out of this country. All this is hateful to God, believe it who will."
"These people club together and buy a woman for themselves out of the common fund . . . taking turns like dogs . . . And then for the right price they sell God's creature . . . out of the country into the hands of enemies."
Wulfston makes it clear that God was judging the English people through disease, "rapacious taxes," storms, and most of all, the ravages of the Vikings, for such sins.
Slaves seem to have constituted either about 2 or 10% of inhabitants of England.
1000-1150 Iceland: ¨Christian influences were also one reason why slavery declined and disappeared in the 11th and early 12th centuries.¨ Jon Hjalmarsson (a history teacher in Iceland and regional administrator of education), History of Iceland, 34
1102: Under the leadership of Anselm, philosopher and Archbishop of Canterbury, the Council of Westminster condemned the slave trade: “Let no one here after presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.”
1198: Founding of Trinitarians, who are credited with freeing almost a million (Christian) slaves over following centuries, among other acts of charity.
1200s: Founding of Mercedarian Order, also dedicated to freeing Christian slaves.
1256: The city of Bologna decided to place all bonded servants under eccelesiastical jurisdiction, then to grant them liberty. According to David Hart, "The municipal government reached this decision explicitly on Christian grounds." (Atheist Delusions, 181)
1300s: Louis X allows slaves to buy their freedom, as Avalos notes, to swell his coffers; actually his rationalization extended beyond that. In any case, France remained mostly slave-free, which did not need to happen.
1335: Magnus IV outlaws slavery (for Christians, anyway) in most of Scandinavia.
1416: The Republic of Ragusa (in modern Croatia) abolishes slavery and slave-trading.
1404 /1435: Spain colonized the Canary Islands and enslaved its inhabitants. In 1435 Pope Eugene IV wrote a bull entitled "Sicut Dudum." In it, he commanded that all enslaved Christians who were inhabitants of the Canary Islands be freed. This was no real step forward in doctrine. But it marked the opening shot in a long struggle between colonists and a church that often tried to ammeliorate or reverse the oppressive acts the colonists took against "heathen natives."
1508: Thomas Hunt, one of John Smith's lieutenants (see Pocahontas for the Disney version!), kidnaps an American Indian named Tisquantum (Squanto) and attempts to sell him as a slave in Europe. Friars educate him, he is freed and returns to North America. While he is gone, everyone in his village died in an epidemic. Settlers at Plymouth are surprised to meet an Indian who speaks English. He teaches them how to fish, fertilize vegetables, and talk with other local tribes, enabling the colony to survive.
1537: Pope Paul III wrote (Sublimis Deus) about the enslavement of the natives of the West and South Indies. Satan, the "enemy of the human race," had:
"... thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving Word of God. ... Satan has stirred up some of his allies ... who are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians be reduced to our service like brute animals. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions we would scarcely use with brute animals. ... Rather, we decree that these same Indians should not be deprived of their liberty・and are not to be reduced to slavery."
The Pope did, however, allow that non-Christian soldiers captured in a just war could be enslaved. (One cannot, after all, simply set them free, and have them rejoin their units. James Herriot tells, in one of his books, how German prisoners-of-war often rather cheerfully helped farmers in Yorkshire in World War II: no doubt it beat a POW camp.)
1588: The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth abolishes slavery.
1772: The Somersett’s case essentially ruled against the (already rare) institution of slavery in England.
1777: The Republic of Vermont adopted a Constitution outlawing slavery: "no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent."
1778: Slavery is outlawed in Scotland.
1780: Pennsylvania passes an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery; other northern states follow with similar laws in 1783, 1784, 1799, and 1804.
1783: Slavery is ruled illegal in Massachusetts.
1780-1803: Other new laws are adopted against slavery in various parts of Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
1804: Haiti declares independence and abolishes slavery.
1825: American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson buys a Karen slave and mass-murderer, Thah Byu. He teaches him Christianity and baptizes him. Thah Byu is the first Karen Christian, and spends the rest of his life preaching the Gospel, helping found a Karen church that now exceeds a million believers.
After 1800, and with this precedent, it is I think fair to say evangelicals (and Quakers) led what became the moral crusade against slavery, first in the English world, then extending around the world to this day. (I myself was privileged to play a small role in the continuing struggle.)
But not being a slave myself, I think I'll end here. A more proactive argument for the influence Christianity had and continues to have in ameliorating and ending slavery is probably needed to join all these little dots; maybe I’ll find time to write such a paper, or book, later