Christians and slavery

Christians carried on no organized campaign against slavery. That was to wait until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet here, also, although by no means so markedly as in the case of amusements, the trend of the Christian conscience and of Christian practice was against a basic, generally accepted institution of the Graco-Roman world and mitigated its harshness.

Even the casual student of Graco-Roman culture cannot but be aware of the prominence in it of slavery. The Greek democracies had slavery, and the leisure of their free citizens for the affairs of the state was made possible by the labour of slaves. In the Roman Empire the great landed estates were worked by slaves, and slaves also did much of the urban labour and performed most of the domestic service in households which could afford them. The lot of the slaves was often unhappy and public opinion condoned the use of the lash on them, the killing of them when their usefulness was past, and the selling of them at a low price when they became old.

Few Christians condemned slavery outright, many Christians owned slaves, and some Christian masters treated their slaves harshly. Yet Christian teaching ameliorated the lot of slaves. While Paul commanded slaves to obey their masters as slaves of Christ, doing their work as unto him and not unto men, he also exhorted masters to forbear "threatening" their slaves, remembering that there is no "respect of persons" with Him who is in heaven, the Master of both earthly masters and slaves. In a very touching letter Paul returned a fugitive slave to his master, pleading with the latter to receive the runaway as a brother in the Lord. Paul also declared that in the Christian fellowship there is neither bond nor free, but that "all are one in Christ Jesus." More than once in later centuries Christian writers reminded those of their faith that in God's sight the master has no higher status than the slave, but that both are to be judged. Ambrose said that the slave might be superior in character to his master and be really more free than he. Augustine declared that God did not create rational man to lord it over his rational fellows. In this attitude both Ambrose and Augustine may have been influenced by Stoicism, but they believed it to be in accord with Christian principles. In many places slaves might hold office in the Church, It was not unusual for pagans to free their slaves, but many Christians did likewise. That they believed that a connexion existed between their faith and this act is seen from the fact that manumission was often solemnized in a church and on one of the great festival days, especially Easter. Near the end of the first century we hear of Christians who voluntarily became slaves to ransom others from bondage.

Christianity undercut slavery by giving dignity to work, no matter how seemingly menial that might be. Traditionally, labour which might be performed by slaves was despised as degrading to the freeman. Christian teachers said that all should work and that labour should be done as to Christ as master and as to God and in the sight of God. Work became a Christian duty.

Before the end of the fifth century slavery was declining. This was not due entirely and perhaps not even chiefly to the influence of Christianity, but the latter contributed to it.

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