God and Slavery

by Margaret Knight, lecturer, Aberdeen University.

"There is no justification for the common claim that Christianity was responsible for the abolition of slavery. The Negro slave trade—a far more infamous practice than slavery in the ancientworld—was initiated, carried on and defended by Christian menin Christian countries. To quote H.A.L. Fisher, "It is a terrible commentary on Christian civilisation that the longest period of slave-raiding known to history was initiated by the action of Spain and Portugal, France, Holland and Britain, after the Christian faith had for more than a thousand years been the establised religion of Europe" (History of Europe, Chap. 23).

"The abolitionist movement took its impetus, not from Christianity which had condoned slavery for centuries, but from the secular humanitarianism of the Enlightenment. Many of the leading abolitionists were unbelievers — Condorcet and otherleading figures of the Revolution in France, Abraham Lincoln in America, Fox and Pitt in Great Britain.

Christians like William Wilberforce who actively opposed the slave trade were far from typical: with the honourable exception of the Quakers, the attitude of most of the Churches towards abolition was in America actively hostile, and in Britain (to use Wilberforce's own words)~ "shamefully lukewarm". The Churches, of course, had no difficulty in citing: scriptural authority for their attitude. The Old Testament condones it (Leviticus, 25, 44-46): and St. Paul told slaves to obey their masters." (Colossians, 3, 22). (The Greek word for slave, "doulos", is wrongly translated as "servant".)


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