Christianity both accepted and condemned slavery

Christianity both accepted and condemned slavery Carvings depict a caravan of people being taken into slavery at Lake Malawi Museum in Mangochi, Malawi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tim Cowley
Slavery remains one of the great stains on human history and the role of Christians is chequered, writes David Quinn

In America there is an attempt to have 1776, the year Independence was declared, supplanted in the national memory by a new date – 1619. That is the year the first group of 20 slaves were brought to what later become the United States.

To be precise, they were taken to the tiny, struggling British colony of Jamestown because it was short of labour.

But this was not the first year that slaves were brought from Africa to the ‘New World’. In fact, in the preceding century, 500,000 had already been captured and made to endure the horrendous passage in notoriously overcrowded slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean.

The vast majority were taken to South America and the Caribbean to work on sugar and tobacco plantations and in the mines.

By the time the Atlantic slave trade was abolished by the British in the 1830s, about 12 million Africans had been captured and about 10 million survived the ocean journey. Almost all were sold to traders by other Africans.

Civil war

Of the 10 million who made it across the Atlantic, half were forced into slavery in Brazil and 5% in what would become United States. America abolished slavery in 1865 after fighting a civil war. Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888 (the year The Irish Catholic was founded). It was abolished in British dominions like Canada and the Caribbean islands in 1834, when slavery was banned in all of the British Empire.

Slavery has been a universal human practice that has been found basically everywhere and through vast spans of history. Dublin was once one of the biggest slave ports in Europe. The Vikings used it to sell countless numbers of slaves to the Moorish kingdoms of southern Spain.

Barbary Coast pirates from North Africa took more than a million people out of Europe, mainly from the area around the Mediterranean Sea, selling them into slavery in North Africa. Even Ireland fell victim. At least 100 were kidnapped from the Baltimore area of Cork in 1631 – only three ever made it to freedom.

To this day, thousands of women are forced into prostitution, many in Europe, some in Ireland. A great many work in the legal brothels of Germany, a terrible thing in the modern age.

By the time Columbus discovered the Americas for Europe in 1492, slavery had died out in much of Europe, but the need for labour in the New World revived it with a vengeance on the other side of the Atlantic. It arose even though the countries most responsible for the trade, the likes of Spain, Portugal and England, were ostensibly Christian.

The record of Christianity with respect to slavery is chequered, to put it mildly. On the one hand, there were plenty of Christians who could find a theological justification for slavery. On the other hand, it was mainly Christians who fought against slavery and had it abolished, and also fought against the trade in other parts of the world as well.

The condoning of slavery by some Christians shows the power of hypocrisy and self-deception in human affairs”

There can be no doubt that Christianity tolerated slavery for many centuries. St Paul may have told slave owners to be good to their slaves, but this implicitly accepted the practice of slavery. He also told slaves to obey their owners.

However, many early converts to Christianity were slaves. It told them that in the eyes of God they were the equal of their masters. This was a very radical message that would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery.

In the 4th Century, the first outright condemnation of slavery is heard. It is issued by St Gregory of Nyssa. But his brother St Basil, also a theologian, thought it was utopian to seeks its abolition.

However, the radical nature of the message that slave and master alike are equal in the eyes of God would eventually have its effect, and this is one reason why slavery had more or less died out in Europe by the Middle Ages.


It massively revived in the Americas because of economics and greed. The Spanish and Portuguese and French and English colonialists wanted labour and captured it from Africa.

Again, they could find Christian theologians who would justify the practice, but there were others who condemned it. One was the Dominican, Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th Century. He started out defending the African slave trade, ironically as a way of helping native Indians but then became a fierce critic and a sort of early modern human rights theorist.

He seems to have thought the Africans were convicts being punished for their crimes.

Las Casas was despised by many of his fellow Spanish for getting in the way of their economic gain. Some Spanish colonialists, incidentally, used not the Bible, but Aristotle, to justify slavery on the grounds that some men are slaves by nature.

Down the centuries, there have been Popes who owned slaves, and Popes who condemned slavery.

As time wore on, the campaign against slavery was led in America by the likes of the Quakers, and in Britain by Quakers and Methodists, most famously William Wilberforce.

The condoning of slavery by some Christians shows the power of hypocrisy and self-deception in human affairs. When it suits us, we can find ways to justify almost anything.

But in the end, it was the basic moral message of Christianity, namely that we are all equal in the eyes of God, that helped to bring about the end of slavery, even though Christians in practice were found on both sides of the argument.

The belief that we are all morally equal has been one of the most radical forces in human history. More than anything else it is this which laid bare the terrible immorality of slavery.