The Human Truth Foundation

Religion and Abolition of the Historical Slave Trade

By Vexen Crabtree 2003

#buddhism #china #christianity #history #india #islam #judaism #monotheism #religious_morals #slavery #UK

Christian institutions put large sums of money into the slave trade, and became the biggest slave-owners1, boosting a trade that would have otherwise collapsed. Behind this stood biblical arguments for slavery. Conservative Christians hung on to their slaves for the longest and the American South was only forced to relent when legislators went against Churches and public opinion2. The UK's Archbishop of Canterbury "apologized unreservedly" for the Church of England's role in the slave trade3. The Qur'an was even clearer in its institutionalization of slavery, and the conservative Muslim world debated bitterly for the keeping of slaves. Surprisingly for a nation of people with a shared mythology involving escaping from slave-masters, Jewish merchants also ran slave routes4 and even owned slaves directly for hundreds of years around the beginning of the first millennium5.

Non-monotheistic and non-mainstream religion had a much better track record on slavery. The liberal Buddhist emperor Ashoka abolished the slave trade in India in the 3rd century BCE6, and another Buddhist Emperor, Wang Mang (born 45BCE), done the same in China7. In the West, the earliest institutional anti-slavery thinkers were those found amongst the pagan Zeno's Stoics (342-270BCE).

The most successful religious campaigns against slavery were those under the rule of Voodoo priests and practitioners. 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. Later on, the Quakers (a non-mainstream Christian sect in America) were effective in pushing for abolition there, eventually leading half of Christendom into opposition of slavery. But in the end it was economic interests that turned the world against slavery.

1. The Historical Slave Trade and Modern Slavery

#france #human_rights #indonesia #slavery

The taking of slaves has been an unwholesome feature of Human cultures since prehistory8. Private households and national endeavours have frequently been augmented with the use of slaves. The Egyptian and Roman empires both thrived on them for both purposes. Aside from labourers they are often abused sexually by their owners and their owners' friends9. The era of colonialism and the beginnings of globalisation changed nothing: the imprisonment and forced movements of labour continued to destroy many lives except that new justifications were invented based on Christian doctrine and the effort to convert non-Christians. By 1786 over 12 million slaves had been extracted from Africa and sent to colonial labour camps, with a truly atrocious condition of life10. But they were not the only ones to blame; in Africa internal nations such as the Asantes sold and bought tens of thousands of slaves11.

The abolition of the slave trade was a long and slow process. Until a relatively modern time, even philosophers, religious leaders and those concerned with ethics justified, or ignored, the problem of slavery12. The first abolitionists were always the slaves themselves. Their protests and rebellions caused the industry to become too expensive to continue. After that, it was the economic costs of maintain slave colonies that led the British to reject and then oppose the slave trade globally. Finally, the enlightenment-era thinkers of France encouraged moral and ethical thinking including the declaration of the inherent value of human life and human dignity13. A long-overdue wave of compassionate and conscientious movements swept across the West, eliminating public support for slavery, until the industries and churches that supported it had no choice but to back down.

'Modern slavery' includes forced labour (often of the under-age), debt bondage (especially generational), sexual slavery, chattel slavery and other forms of abuse, some of which can be surprisingly difficult to detect, but often target those fleeing from warzones and the vulnerable.14. Some industries (diamond, clothing, coal) from some countries (Burundi15, Eritrea15, Indonesia16) are a particular concern. The Walk Free Foundation, say that in 2016, 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery17.

For more, see:

2. Judaism

#christianity #judaism

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 fine18, 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.

An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1902) admits without remorse that "ever since the Diaspora wealthy Jews have owned non-Jewish slaves wherever slavery was recognized by law"19.

Jews in the Roman empire became very useful to Christian communities for buying and selling slaves over long-distance trade routes4. Despite this, Christian persecution made it gradually less practical for Jews to hold slaves. The circumcision of Jewish slaves was forbidden in the 2nd century as part of a range of anti-Jewish edicts passed by the new Christian emperor20, and he also forbade any Jew to have a Christian as a slave20. The emperor's son increased the punishment to death for any Jew who broke those laws.

3. Christianity

3.1. Christian Slavers in the Roman Empire

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.

Early Christianity was less opposed to Slavery than its Jewish past or its pagan neighbours, although Christian culture went through some phases of being anti-slavery.

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.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)21

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 accessible trade routes.

3.2. 15th to 18th Centuries: India, Africa and America

#brazil #christianity #cuba #india #judaism #slavery

The Christian Churches condoned slavery of non-Christians, and in particular of black people, as they were deemed inferior to Christians and could never 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.

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)22

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"23. The Inquisition spread alongside Christian explorers. After Columbus landed in 1492, Inquisition began proceedings against the natives of America 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)22

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. [...]. 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)10

Christians with vested interests justified slavery on account of their religion. 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. 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

The death-rate of sugar slaves in Cuba rose to ten percent as they worked a twenty-hour day and had three hours' sleep. On the coffee plantations of Brazil the owners wanted a very quick return, and the death-rate was as high as twenty-five percent. Mass suicide was not uncommon as the only sure means of escape. When the Jesuit order was suppressed in the Portuguese colonies in 1759, it was the largest single owner of slaves in both Brazil and Angola.

"A History of Sin" by Oliver Thomson (1993)1

The prominent and active Christian, Foster Cuncliffe, owned and ran five slaving ships, places where the conditions for slaves was particularly inhumane, resulting in a high proportion of slaves dying during transit. On his grave in England in 1834CE they ran this: "A Christian devout and exemplary in the exercise of every private and public duty"1. Christianity remained institutionally unrepentant about the slave trade for a very long time. Conservative Christians in the American South clung on to their slaves longer than anyone else12 and they were only forced to relent when legislators went against both Churches and public opinion2.

3.3. The Old Testament

#biblical_morals #israel #slavery

3.4. The New Testament

#biblical_morals #christianity #judaism #slavery

Slavery is mentioned on many other occasions (i.e. Mark 14:66); there is one thing that all these verses have in common: In no place does the Bible take the chance to say "removing people's freedom is bad" or "abusing human rights is a route to hell" or not even "do not take slaves".

The endorsement of slavery in the Bible is much criticised by outsiders, for example devotes a page to it:

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)

3.5. Later Christianity, and the Quakers

#brazil #christianity

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

"History of Slavery, the" by Susanne Everette (1997)26

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)27

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.

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.

"History of Slavery, the" by Susanne Everette (1997)28

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.

3.6. Zero Hours Contracts and the Church of England29

#slavery #UK #USA

Zero-hours contracts and "lower-class" debt are two elements that some associate with "modern slavery", because it can often mean that victims have no choice but to go along with the demands and machinations of corporate policy, no matter how abusive it is, or how damaging it is to their lives.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, managed to embarrass himself in 2018 Sep when he denounced zero-hour contracts as "the reincarnation of an ancient evil" (he means: slavery), and also angrily criticized Amazon of avoiding paying tax, saying they are "leeching" off of the public30. This isn't a new area for him - he genuinely campaigns on the behalf of many needy people in his attempts to highlight the damage that unregulated capitalism can do. If Amazon paid more tax, social welfare would help prevent more people from falling into debt bondage. So, denouncing Amazon for leeching off of the public is consistent with his defence of the poor. But despite his moral stances, he appears to be forgetting that "some of the Church of England's biggest investments are in Amazon, and that the Church itself routinely employs people on zero-hours contracts"30.

Clearly, he should be campaigning for better basic moral considerations with the Church of England's own behaviour, in order to avoid his own position being ridiculed for its hypocrisy. But the biggest point of contradiction by far is that the Church of England is tax-exempt, even whilst owning a £2 billion land estate31. Its Commissioners control a £8.3bn investment portfolio32 which they could freely use to invest into moral tax-paying, workers-right-supporting institutions. If the source of the energy behind the Archbishop's attacks wasn't a guilty-conscience, then, it certainly should have been!

A week afterwards, by coincidence, after a long consultation, Amazon in the USA announced that it is raising the minimum wage of all employees to $15/hour.

4. Islam


Muslim communities and the Islamic institution was involved in slavery since its very inception, with laws and rules on slavery being written into the Qur'an. By the 16th century Muslim merchants dominated the slave trade via the trans-Saharan trade routes to and from Africa11.

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'33.

5. The Role of Voodoo in Abolition

#christianity #ghana #haiti #judaism #monotheism #nigeria #religion #slavery

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 monotheistic34 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"35. When West Africans were forcibly taken to Haiti and other islands in the West Indies as slaves, their beliefs spread with them34,35, and also to South America and the Caribbean region in general36. Voodoo was suppressed and its followers persecuted34 by Christian powermongers, and it was forced underground, with many believers merely pretending to be Christian, and practicing Voodoo in secret34,37,38. 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 symbols36,34, 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 Nigeria34.

"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).

"History of Slavery, the" by Susanne Everette (1997)39