The Human Truth Foundation

Traditional Religions and Abolition of the Slave Trade

By Vexen Crabtree 2003


#buddhism #china #christianity #history #islam #slavery #UK

Voodoo priests, slave protests and economics were the three powerful factors that brought the age of slavery to an end. These forces battled against organized campaigns that aimed to keep the trade going, with religious justifications centering on the Christian Bible. Christianity and Islam were the two worst-offending religions, and conservative Christians hung on to their slaves for the longest. China never ordained slavery, and the Buddhist Emperor Wang Mang was "probably the first recorded ruler to abolish the slave trade"1. There are some early anti-slavery thinkers, such as found in the pagan Zeno's Stoics (342-270BCE), but as there are so few anti-slavery movements until much later, this page simply concentrates on the movements that existed at the time when the major slave trades of the world ceased to operate.

Many national leaders have now apologised personally for their countries' role in the historical slave trade. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a Christian leader in the UK, "apologized unreservedly" for his own Church's role2. But Tony Blair, more sensibly, offered "regret" for it all. Although this was surely a more honest and correct word to use, it caused an uproar2 that he didn't offer the same (fake) personal apology as many others had offered.

1. The Early Slave Trade, War and Rejection of Slave Ownership

#christianity #judaism

In most of ancient history slavery has been widespread and a customary practice during war. Slaves were routinely taken by all communities big enough to control them. The larger the communities the greater the number of slaves kept. They were obtained from capturing enemy land or from surrendered enemy forces. War and slavery danced hand in hand; at its worst war was waged partially to obtain slaves, at its best slaves were kept out of compassion because the unlucky survivors had nowhere else to go.

Slavery was part of the culture of the entire Mesopotamian area (from which Judaism and Christianity arose) but in Babylon in the era of 1800 BCE, injury to slaves was a punishable offence, although the punishment was only a fine3, slaves were better off than in the surrounding areas. Organized Judaism arose from Babylon, and the God that they described in their holy writings happened to reveal to them laws and guidelines regarding slaves that were eerily similar to those found in the wider Babylonian community. Some use this fact to argue that all the verses regarding slaves are merely cultural artefacts, and not God's word.

In the thousands of years before the Current Era, some areas did reject slavery, normally for economic reasons but because of the lack of written records about the ethical thinking of ancient civilisations, we know very little about their inner thoughts and beliefs. It is in the classical world where we have the first records of pro- or anti-slavery.

The Roman Empire had one of the best records for the treatment of slaves. Rather than genocide or abuse, Romans favoured the good treatment of slaves, frequently granting large numbers citizen rights and general freedom. Many roman cults and pagan religions preached against slavery, many merely accepted it. Judaism was one of the earliest anti-slavery groups to come into contact with the Roman Empire, their status as a race of ex-slaves led itself naturally to a religion that was anti-slave. Despite this, Jewish arguments still supported slavery in many areas; the Old Testament laws on slavery were interpreted as a divine condoning of the practice.

Early Christianity was less opposed to Slavery than its Jewish past or its pagan neighbours.

Seneca (5BC-AD65) originally tutor and later victim of Nero, was a Roman Stoic with ideas so close to Christianity that a legend grew up about him corresponding with his contemporary St Paul, also a victim of Nero. Seneca preached submission, patience and kindness to others, as did his fellow pagan, Philo (20BC-AD60), who condemned slavery more unequivocally than did the Christian Paul.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)4

The more power the Christian Church obtained, the greater the masses of slaves it acquired, directly through Christian army enslavery or otherwise. By the hey-day of the Slave Trade, Christian organisations were frequently the most extensive slave owners, granting the entire trade sizable financial incentives and trade routes.

2. 15th to 18th Centuries: Enslaving the natives of India, Africa and America

#christianity #india #judaism #peru

Columbus landed in America in 1492 and called the natives Indians. It was his stated aim specifically to convert the native Indians to Christianity. Until they converted, they were considered sub-human. If they didn't, then, it didn't matter what you done to them. Columbus himself describes raping a Native after whipping her thoroughly.

It was his avowed aim to "convert the heathen Indians to our Holy Faith." that warranted the enslaving and exporting of thousands of Native Americans. That such treatment resulted in complete genocide did not matter as much as that these natives had been given the opportunity of everlasting life through their exposure to Christianity.

"The Dark Side of Christian History" by Helen Ellerbe (1995)5

This was not just the policy of individual preachers or explorers. "The Church, particularly in South America, supported the enslavement of native inhabitants and the theft of native lands. A 1493 papal Bull justified declaring war on any natives in South America who refused to adhere to Christianity"6. The Inquisition spread alongside Christian explorers. Although Columbus in 1492 had thought he had landed in India, the Inquisition began proceedings against the natives of American and India:

By 1570 the Inquisition had established an independent tribunal in Peru and the city of Mexico for the purpose of "freeing the land, which has become contaminated by Jews and heretics." Natives who did not convert to Christianity were burned like any other heretic. The Inquisition spread as far as Goa, India, where it the late 16th and early 17th centuries it took no less than 3,800 lives.

"The Dark Side of Christian History" by Helen Ellerbe (1995)5

One routine procedure was to remove the infants of Natives and bring them up in Christian households in order to prevent their children from learning native religion; working-age adults were instead enslaved, still with the hope of converting them.

If religious persecution and political amorality were the first two great crimes of the sixteenth century, the third and worst was the escalation of slavery which followed the discovery of the New World. [...] By 1786 this had extracted some eleven or twelve million Africans from their homelands and shipped them westwards [...]. Christian justification for the new outbreak of slavery came first of all from the monks of St Jerome in the West Indies in 1509, but much more far-reaching were the arguments put forward by the great Spanish bishop Las Casas (1474-1566), [...] he took as biblical backing the legend of Ham, the first negro in the Old Testament.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)7

I describe the verses from the Bible used to justify slavery later on this page.

3. Slaves Were the First Abolitionists

#christianity #france #haiti #spain

Although various cultures and societies preached against the owning of slaves, one common strand has predated all of them. The slaves themselves were the biggest anti-slavery activists of them all.

Despite the brutality and inhumanity involved, the morality of the slave trade and slavery did not begin to be questioned by substantial numbers of Europeans and people of European descent until the end of the eighteenth century. With the enslaved people themselves this was a different matter, of course, and there had been many rebellions and revolts, as well as other smaller scale, more frequent acts of resistance, since the sixteenth century. Although white abolitionists were important in the various campaigns that eventually resulted in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery during the nineteenth century, the role of people of African descent cannot be underestimated. Equiano's narrative (1789), for instance, was an anti-slavery bestseller, and its account of the horrors involved furthered the campaign of those who sought to end the slave trade and slavery.

"A Demanding World" by Barnett, Robinson and Rose (2006)8

Eventually, slave action was to make the entire slave trade untenable, as the cost of keeping slaves under control became greater than any potential commercial benefit. As famous revolts inspired further revolts and protests, in an age where international communication allowed slaves to hear rumours of other rebellions, a snowball effect was feared by rulers.

Book CoverThe slaves themselves had begun to play an obvious and undeniable role in the debate about their own future. This proved to be the turning point in the story of British abolition.

"Britain's Slave Empire" by James Walvin (2000)9

The most famous revolt of them all:

A freed slave called Toussaint L'Ouverture (1746-1803) in the French Caribbean colony of St. Domingue. In 1800 he and his followers rebelled, conquering the Spanish half of the island of Hispaniola. He declared himself governor of the whole island. A large force dispatched by Napoleon Bonaparte failed to suppress the revolt, and in 1804 the new republic of Haiti was recognized... the world was astonished by a successful slave revolt, and the example hastened the end of the slave trade.

"Ideas that Shaped Our World" by Robert Stewart (1997)

The testimony, suffering and actions of the slaves themselves were the driving force behind abolitionism; how else could it be? The slaves, first of all people, wanted the slave trade to end. The Christian Churches condoned slavery of non-Christians, and in particular of black people, as they were inferior to Christians and could 'never understand' or be saved. Slaves were not educated; they remained illiterate. As such, they were seen as unholy and weren't allowed to touch or read Bibles, and mostly banned from entering Churches at all. The circle was one of religious and institutionalized persecution combined with religious justification for that persecution.

The original abolitionist movements were comprised of free black people. Apart from these movements, some other forces and groups opposed the slave trade.

4. The Role of Voodoo in Abolition

#benin #christianity #ghana #haiti #judaism #monotheism #nigeria #togo #voodoo

Voodoo priests organized the first successful and influential slave revolts, inspiring others to dream of freedom across the world. Underground Voodoo networks facilitated the escape of many slaves, just like the underground Jewish and humanitarian networks of Europe helped Jews during the Holocaust. Voodoo is associated most strongly with Haiti, a place where American anti-slave campaigners also visited. My introductory page on Voodoo opens with this description:

A traditional religion from Western Africa with an ethical focus on combating greed and promoting honour. It is based on the worship of spirits that are loyal to a monotheistic10 deistic (non-interventionist) creator god. It is more correctly known as Vodun, although other titles include Vodoun, Voudou, and Sevi Lwa. "The name is traceable to an African word for 'spirit'. Vodun's roots go back to the West African Yoruba people who lived in 18th and 19th century Dahomey. That country occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin and Nigeria"11. When West Africans were forcibly taken to Haiti and other islands in the West Indies as slaves, their beliefs spread with them10,11, and also to South America and the Caribbean region in general12. Voodoo was suppressed and its followers persecuted10 by Christian powermongers, and it was forced underground, with many believers merely pretending to be Christian, and practicing Voodoo in secret10,13,14. As a result of this, Voodoo priests were well-placed to orchestrate and inspire slave revolts. It is now acknowledged that Voodoo merged African beliefs with re-interpreted Christian saints and symbols12,10, but also that Christianity abused and mis-represented Voodoo, causing long term damage to its reputation. There are up to 60 million Voodoo practitioners worldwide, with about 16 million in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria10.

"An introduction to Vodun, or Voodoo" by Vexen Crabtree (2016)

Organized revolt needed leaders of high calibre, capable of inspiring and motivating a group of followers, towards a course of action which, if it failed, meant certain death. Such leaders were few and far between - the Toussaint L'Ouverture of the Southern Slave States never emerged. Instead, Virginia got Nat Turner ['a slave preacher and mystic'] and Gabriel Prosser and South Carolina got Denmark Vesey (a free black man who had visited Haiti).

"The History of Slavery" by Susanne Everette (1997)15

5. Economic Interests and Abolition

#denmark #france #sweden

The economic costs of keeping, shipping and securing slaves were astronomical. Slave revolts, facilitated by the human will to survive, and organized by powerful leaders some of whom were also underground Voodoo leaders, were uncontrollable and random expenses. The increasing success and strength of such revolts made keeping large populations of slaves under control economically unviable. "1776, Adam Smith's study in economics The Wealth of Nations concluded that slavery was uneconomic due to the costs involved in keeping slaves under control"16.

Of all the effective and authoritively commanding oppositions to the slave trade, the British campaign was most effective. "The French abolitionist movement, although 'socially more substantial', remained politically less effective than the British one"17. "Britain was not the first to ban the slave trade - Denmark had done so in 1803 - and although the U.S., Sweden and Holland soon followed suit, Britain's campaign [...] was by far the most widespread"18.

This remarkable story raises a simple but crucial question: why did the British turn against slavery and the slave trade? Part of the reason is undoubtedly the rise of compassionate humanitarianism, particularly amongst an increasingly leisured middle class. Scholars also point to the influence of Nonconformist religion, on the one hand, and Evangelical Protestantism, on the other. But of greater significance was a shift in economic thought.

Dr John Oldfield19

6. Quakers, Christianity and Islam

6.1. Compassion

The "Slave trade came under only occasional attack before the second half of the 18th century from a few enlightened clerics, philosophers, poets and novelists. [...] Abolition as a planned campaign dates from 1765, with Granville Sharp, a 30 year old civil servant who came to look after a wounded slave, and was moved to defend him and other slaves legally".

Of the many individuals who took up the case of slaves, morals and Human compassion were the prime motivator. People looked to their religions in order to find support, but official organisations supported and fed off the slave trade, with "the society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, Bishops, Members of Parliament, Mayors, Aldermen and Peers all jostling for a corner of the lucrative market". Most people had to step outside of their religious institutions in order to help slaves.

6.2. Quakers & Christians

#brazil #christianity

The first non-black abolitionists were American Quakers. The Germantown Protest, printed in 1688 by a group of Pennsylvanian Quakers of Swiss and Dutch descent, opposed both slavery and the slave trade. [...] Even Quakers, however, were not prepared to take a concerted stand until 1772 when it publicly condemned the trade

"The History of Slavery" by Susanne Everette (1997)20

The majority of men in the first abolitionist group in 1781 were Quakers. And it was Quaker groups, which had been created across the face of Britain from the early eighteenth century, which gave the founding abolitionists an immediate national network.

"Britain's Slave Empire" by James Walvin (2000)21

Many of the individuals involved had Christian links. Granville Sharp was the grandson of the Archbishop of York who had decided not to follow an open career in the Church of England. John Wesley, an early abolitionist, founded the Methodist Church, and many others in the abolitionist movements were religious. This is because, of course, most people were Christian, and it is also true that most those who supported slavery were also Christian.

I believe that many individuals consciences were troubled by the existence of slavery, but that religious institutions except for underground black ones had less of an effect on abolition than economic and political interests. The anti-slavery movements in the home countries of the world's empires were not strong enough to cause governments to change their ways, and the emancipation of slaves in the homelands was only a relatively small part of the total suffering of slaves.

In Brazil, as in other Roman Catholic nations, slaves were on the whole better treated than in Protestant countries [...] The Church took a close interest in the lot of slaves, encouraging Church marriages and opposing the separation of families

"The History of Slavery" by Susanne Everette (1997)22

Although small scale, it is still significant and no doubt meant a very great deal to the individual slaves involved, and the efforts of anyone who acts compassionately for the reliving of other peoples' suffering is to be praised.

6.3. Islamic Pro-slavery


In the 19th century in Islam, 'what was involved was not, initially, the abolition of the institution of slavery but its alleviation, and in particular, the restriction and ultimately the elimination of the slave trade. Islamic law, in contrast to the ancient and colonial systems, accords the slave a certain legal status and assigns obligations as well as rights to the slave owner. [...] The institution of slavery not only is recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law. [...] The position of the domestic slave in Muslim society was in most respects better than in either classical antiquity or the nineteenth-century Americas. [...] From a Muslim point of view, to forbid what God permits is almost as great an offence as to permit what God forbids - and slavery was authorized and regulated by the holy law. [...] It was from conservative religious quarters and notably from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina that the strongest resistance to the proposed reform came. The emergence of the holy men and the holy places as the last ditch defenders of slavery against reform is only an apparent paradox. They were upholding an institution sanctified by scripture, law, and tradition and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life'23.

6.4. Christian Pro-slavery

#christianity #judaism

Christians with vested interests justified slavery on account of their religion. Bishops and monks provided some of the arguments that were used all over to justify the ownership of slaves. "Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, used passages from the Old and New Testament to argue in favor of slavery"24. Christian arguments were used such as slavery facilitated the evangelizing of slaves, that black couldn't be saved anyway, and that certain Biblical stories made blacks out to be inferior and cursed by god. No scholars nowadays interpret these passages in this way, and the Bible is not as bad as the Qur'an in endorsing slavery, the Bible has still served as a clear and consistent source of evil in respect to slavery. The fact that god-worship does not lead to better morals in society is one of the factor that leads skeptical and atheist thinkers such as Victor Stenger to conclude that God doesn't exist:

Book CoverJesus had many opportunities to disavow slavery. He never did. St. Paul reaffirms the practice: "Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect" (Titus 2:9).

Prior to the Civil War, the Bible was widely used to justify slavery in the United States. Baptist leader and slave owner Richard Furman (d. 1825) laid the foundation for the biblical arguments that would be made in support of slavery leading up to the Civil War. While president of the State Baptist Convention, Furman wrote to the governor of South Carolina, "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example". [...]

While Christians in the South held onto their slaves as long as they could, secular humanist Richard Randolph of Virginia began freeing his in 1791. Popes and other fathers of the Catholic Church owned slaves as late as 1800. Jesuits in colonial Maryland and nuns in Europe and Latin America owned slaves. The Church did not condemn slavery until 1888, after every Christian nation had abolished the practice.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)25 devotes a page to the endorsement of slavery in The Bible, and they mention several Bible verses aside from Titus 2:9:

Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do. Yet slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible clearly approves of slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves.

Many Jews and Christians will try to ignore the moral problems of slavery by saying that these slaves were actually servants or indentured servants. Many translations of the Bible use the word "servant", "bondservant", or "manservant" instead of "slave" to make the Bible seem less immoral than it really is. While many slaves may have worked as household servants, that doesn't mean that they were not slaves who were bought, sold, and treated worse than livestock. (n.d., accessed 2010 Feb 25)

6.5. The Old Testament

#biblical_morals #israel #slavery

6.6. The New Testament

#biblical_morals #slavery

6.7. Religious Herds Versus Compassion

Many people merely followed their own religion, and institutionalized religion at the time was happy with slavery. Many people also came to view slavery as wrong, and also found either their justification or motive in their religions. In the case of the "followers", their herd mentality overrode their compassion and morals and this was not prevented by the way religion works. Freethinkers that felt their religion opposed slavery, or those who opposed it for moral reasons, could also use their religion to support abolition.

Rather than religion inherently opposing the slave trade, it was more a case that two forces were at work:

Book CoverWithout religion, humanitarian compassion would have still been present, but so would have herd mentality and commercial interests. With religion, the situation was the same - herd mentality and commercial interests versus moral issues. It was the deist Thomas Paine (1737-1809), one of the "founding fathers" of the United States, who enshrined the first American anti-slavery law. (Some claim it was the first one worldwide, however I don't know this for a fact). He wrote the famous "The Age of Reason".

7. Conclusions

#christianity #history #islam #slavery #voodoo

The slave trade was the first black mark against the history of globalisation, resulting in imprisonment and forced movements of labour and destroying many lives. Arguments for slavery largely came from religious thinkers, like bishops and monks. Christian institutions put large sums of money into the slave trade, and became the biggest slave-owners, boosting a trade that would have otherwise collapsed. Behind this stood biblical arguments for slavery. But the Qur'an was even clearer in its institutionalization of slavery, and the conservative Muslim world debated bitterly for the keeping of slaves. Sometimes the motives were purely financial - in Africa itself black-owned companies made money by selling captives to foreigners.

The first abolitionists were the slaves themselves. Their protests and rebellions caused the industry to become too expensive to continue. The most successful religious campaigns against slavery were those under the rule of Voodoo practitioners and priests. Such leaders showed the world that anti-slavery was valid, inspiring hope and valiant anti-slavery efforts, all relying upon the slaves' own will to free themselves. Adding to this physical effort were the arguments of an increasing number of moralists and freethinkers in Europe, who had to battle their own religious authorities in order to help slaves. The Quakers were an influential non-mainstream Christian sect in America who were effective in pushing for abolition in America. In the end it was economic interests that turned the world against slavery, especially in the case of Britain who then went on to run the most potent large scale campaigns against the Slave Trade in order to further its own worldwide economic strength. To the end, conservative Christian and Muslim institutions opposed any attempts to end the slave trade, even when the materialists and moralists had won their arguments for abolition.

Current edition: 2003 Apr 22
Last Modified: 2016 Feb 07
Originally published 1999
Parent page: Single God Religions (Monotheism)

All #tags used on this page - click for more:

#benin #biblical_morals #brazil #buddhism #china #christianity #denmark #france #ghana #haiti #history #india #islam #israel #judaism #monotheism #nigeria #peru #slavery #spain #sweden #togo #UK #voodoo

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References: (What's this?)

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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See for some commentary on this source..

The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.

Barnett, Robinson & Rose
(2006, Eds.) A Demanding World. Published by The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Chesi, Gert
(1980) Voodoo: Africa's Secret Power. Published by Perlinger.

Drury, Nevill
(1996) Shamanism. Paperback book. Published by Element Books.

Ellerbe, Helen
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Paperback book. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.

Everette, Susanne
(1997) The History of Slavery. Hardback book. 1997 print. Published by Grange Books.

Kressel, Neil
(2007) Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Prometheus Books, New York, USA.

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Paperback book. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. Book Review.

Murray et al.
(2009) Hammond Atlas of World Religions. Hardback book. Published by Hammond World Atlas Corporation, Langenscheidt Publishing Group, New York, USA. Contributing authors: Stuart A.P. Murray; Robert Huber; Elizabeth Mechem; Sarah Novak; Devid West Reynolds, PhD; Tricia Wright; Thomas Cussans.

Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.

Stewart, Robert
(1997, Ed.) Ideas that Shaped Our World. Hardback book. Marshall Editions edition.

Thomson, Oliver
(1993) A History of Sin. Hardback book. Published by Canongate Press.

Walvin, James
(2000) Britain's Slave Empire. Hardback book. Published by Tempus Publishing Ltd. James Walvin is the professor of history at the University of York.


  1. .^
  2. BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis episode "I'm So Sorry" aired on 2007 Apr 29 and presented by Kenan Malik. Accessed 2015 Mar 14.^
  3. Thomson (1993) p70.^
  4. Thomson (1993) p111.^
  5. Ellerbe (1995) p86-87.^
  6. Ellerbe (1995) p90.^
  7. Thomson (1993) p166.^
  8. Barnett, Robinson & Rose (2006) p304.^
  9. Walvin (2000) p71.^
  10. Murray et al. (2009) p359.^
  11. "Vodun (and related religions)" by the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance. website accessed 1999, 2009.^
  12. Chesi (1980) p5-6.^
  13. Drury (1996) p79.^
  14. Momen (1999) chapter 19 "Religion in the Modern World" p507.^
  15. Everette (1997) p123.^
  16. Everette (1997) p135.^
  17. Everette (1997) p141.^
  18. Everette (1997) p145.^
  19. Dr John Oldfield "British Anti-slavery" on the BBC History website, accessed 2003.^
  20. Everette (1997) p134.^
  21. Walvin (2000) p68.^
  22. Everette (1997) p92.^
  23. Bernard Lewis, "Race and Slavery in the Middle East An Historical Enquiry", 1990, Oxford University Press as quoted by Shirley Madany^
  24. Kressel (2007) chapter 4 "Dangerous Books?" digital location 1725-1727.^
  25. Stenger (2007) p202-203.^
  26. The Economist (2006)article "Voodoo still wins" p62. Added to this page in 2006 Apr.

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