It seems your average Joe takes for granted that Christianity and the Bible are inherently anti-slavery. As I understand it, Christianity was the motivating force behind the abolition of African slaves in the western world, but the pro-slavery side was religiously motivated too.
When did Christianity as a whole become anti-slavery?
Were the abolitionists the first mass movement of Christians against slavery?
Any writings from early church fathers on the subject?
I know Quakers became moral crusaders against slavery as early as the 18th century, at least in America. I’d say it varies considerable for other groups over time, in America at least aside from a few groups like the Quakers it appears Christians in the North adopted Christian rhetoric to support the abolition of slavery. Christians in the South adopted Christian rhetoric to support the continuance of slavery.
That’s one of the “great” things about the bible in that regard, because of the way its written you can find some passage that can be interpreted to support pretty much anything or oppose pretty much anything.
I don’t know so much across the rest of the world. Europeans enslaved a lot of people and participated heavily in the trans-Atlantic slave trade up until the 19th century. I’m not really sure religion is why slavery went away, in America the first people who seemed to really crusade against slavery were Quakers. I think more widespread opinions on “slavery as evil” was a general result of the enlightenment.
Denmark was the first European country to ban the slave trade in 1792 (although it took 12 years to become effective), and that appears to have just been an enlightenment thing.
In general, early Christianity accepted slavery as a normal practice of and condition within society. Individual figures here and there spoke against it, but no major institutional strain opposed slavery outright for many centuries.
When did it Christianity as a whole oppose slavery? Are we sure that has happened? Southern Baptists did not really renounce it until 1995.
I wouldn’t normally defend any type of Baptists (who tend to be especially stupid as far as Christian denominations go), but in 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention issued a “public apology” for various past misdeeds, such as support of slavery from 1845 on until after the Civil War, and support of segregation and such after that. But I don’t believe it is factually true that the SBC officially supported slavery until 1995, they just never apologized for their prior support until 1995, which is different.
As an aside, the 1995 move was most likely about membership. Southern Baptist ideology has a lot in common with African American black churches in the South, and the SBC felt if they came out firmly against their prior actions then they would be able to start to suck in some of those black churches. It seems to have been working, they now have over 1m black congregants in SBC churches and recently elected a black pastor to head the SBC as its President.
In many cases this is because people are able to do some incredible mental gymnastics in order to make biblical passages mean what they want it to mean. (Prohibitionist: See, this translation from Hebrew actually means juice of the grape and not fermented juice of the grape!) As a graduate student I took a history of U.S. religions course and I was required to read several essays with biblical based arguments for and against slavery from the 19th century. By and large, the biblical pro slavery side made a much better case than the abolitionist. The pro side was able to point to multiple instances in the bible where slavery was endorsed and people were encouraged to stick with their masters and do what they say.
Once you have gone on record as endorsing slavery, I think it’s fair to say that you can’t be counted “anti-slavery” (per the OP) until you have openly and very definitively renounced it. That did not happen until 1995.
I don’t actually know that the Southern Baptist Convention ever supported slavery “on record.” Baptist churches of whatever type (be they in the American Baptist or Southern Baptist or etc grouping) are highly independent at the congregational level. At the congregation level many churches associated with the SBC explicitly endorsed slavery.
At the convention level, before 1845 the baptist convention that later schismed over slavery was officially neutral on slavery, refusing to denounce or to condemn. However Southern members complained that slaveholders were regularly denied positions in the national leadership councils and were being denied positions as missionaries, which eventually lead to the split.
In the following split the Southern Baptist convention basically kept the official neutrality on slavery, but whereas before Northern forces blocked slaveholders from most things, in the new SBC slaveholders were regularly made missionaries or given higher offices. So there was a strong de facto support for slavery, but I don’t know that there was ever any sort of SBC ordinance that had to be removed from the books.
Slavery was simply considered a part of society by Christians for 1500 or 1600 years. Individual Christians and small groups occasionally argued or acted against it, but it was not seen as a particularly evil situation, in and of itself. (At the time that Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, a very large number of converts were, themselves, slaves. On the one hand it was considered “norml,” on the other hand, declarations of aboiltion would have probably been considered subversive.
In the fifteenth century, Pope Pius II condemned the practice of enslaving newly baptized people on the Canary islands, apparently not objecting to slavery, per se, but considering it a cruel act to first convert a pagan to Christianity, only to turn around and immediately enslave him or her.
In the sixteenth century, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull declaring that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were to be treated with dignity and not subjected to theft of their persons or property. However, the following year, political pressure from the Spanish crown and the Holy Roman Emperor caused him to withdraw a separate document that was intended to enforce his declarations.
Finally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, different popes began issuing statements declaring slavery, in general, wrong. The earliest Protestant declarations appear to have been published near the end of the seventeenth century, with the earliest calls for abolition by groups who made that a focus of their efforts beginning in the early eighteenth century.
On the one hand, opposition to slavery does not seem to have been inspired by religious belief. On the other hand, it clearly was first articulated in religious settings. (Philosophers of the Enlightenment followed a similar pattern, with earlier writers such as Locke rationalizing slavery at the end of the seventeenth century, while later writers such as Voltaire suggested that it was not a good thing, and only the last writers, such as Paine, condemning it outright.)
In the very earliest days of the Church, prior to Constantine, there was very little direct commentary on the issue of slavery. Saint Paul admonished masters to treat slaves and servants well and to remember that God ruled all humans equally without partiality, but did not call outright for the abolition of slavery. When the Christian Emperors took over in the 4th century they abolished some of the most cruel practices, such as having slaves fight to the death in gladiator combats, but did not eliminate the institution of slavery.
For the next few centuries after the fall of Rome, there’s not too much documentation. Some Christian leaders such as Saint Patrick in the 5th century and Saint Bathilde in the 7th condemned slavery, while others such as Pope Gregory I essentially maintained the same position as Saint Paul.
By the 9th and 10th centuries, slavery had been abolished throughout Catholic Europe in the main and was no longer a significant part of economic life. It was illegal for any Christian to hold a Christian or Jew as a slave, but still legal to hold non-Christian prisoners of war for forced labor. In practice, the number of such prisoners was very small. Slavery persisted in the Byzantine Empire. When explorers from Spain and Portugal began founding colonies in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Popes strongly condemned the use of slavery but lacked the power to do anything about it. Some Catholic Clergy, such Bartolome de las Casas, traveled to the Americas and attempted to alleviate the suffering of slaves and establish free communities.
In the English colonies opinions there was a diversity of attitudes. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, turned strongly against slavery after visiting Georgia in the 1730’s. He later wrote the pamphlet Thoughts on Slavery and the Methodist Church had black preachers and churches during the 1700’s. The Presbyterians were also actively anti-slavery in the 1800’s, though groups of southern slaveholders formed splinter groups in both churches during the Civil War. Other churches, typically smaller and less organized ones, defended slavery prior to the Civil War.
In Europe, Christian groups in several countries worked to abolish slavery throughout European Empires during the 19th century.
Even in the Book of Philemon Paul of Tarsus didn’t automatically report Onesimus, a runaway slave, to his master even though that’s what most law-abiding citizens of that time would have done. Onesimus went back its true but was soon afterwards freed. And elsewhere Paul tells slaves to gain their freedom if they can.
This should be to understanding Christian anti-slavery. It was certainly a significant force, but before the 19th century was predominantly a slow-movement, not attempting immediate emancipation.
Many Christian clergy and related thinkers moved to emancipationist doctrine in the 19th century (much earlier in Latin America, but with lesser effect) because of a subtle but critical change. Christians had earlier tended to emancipate converts, as it wasn’t seen as proper or correct for Christrians to hold each other in bondage - or Jews, as you mention above, and frequently this was extended to Pagans ori Muslims in practice. However, during the colonization fo the new World, Christians had begun not only to enslave natives and Africans, but avoided converting them or simply ignoring it as a factor in slavery. Likewise, while Roman slavery was brutal, it was perhaps not nearly so brutal as early Latin American slavery, nor as chronic as later American slavery (i.e., the United States). This was relatively new and different, and created very different social dynamics, and eventually, opposition.
Spain and Portugal were interesting cases. In some ways their societies may have become brutalized by literally centuries of warfare - imagine the tensions between French and British had the Hundred Years’ War been a Six Hundred Years War. There was a significant divide between secular and religious powers, tot he point where the clergy themselves were semi-divided into those who tended to follow broader European (and specifically Papal) currents, and those were nationalistic Crown-loyalists, the latter often being more aristocratic. During the conquest and colonization, this divide similarly had a big impact, with some clergy stressing missionary activities, charity, and education, and others (some basically clergy-for-hire) telling the early Latin settlers what they wanted to hear. Not surprisingly, the former tried hard to soften or eliminate slavery and economic exploitation, while the latter, well, didn’t have much to say on the subject.
There is no indication in Scripture or tradition that Onesimus was ever freed. (There was a 1st century bishop named Onesimus, but there is no reason to believe that he was the servant of Philemon.)
Similarly, the closest Paul comes to telling slaves to be free is in 1 Corinthians, 7, where he simply notes that if a slave has an opportunity to become a freeman, he should take it, (and then continue to follow Jesus, regardless of his status), without ewver suggesting that a slave should make an effort to become free. In fact, he says the opposite, that if one is a slave, one should not let that status be a bother.
I always wondered how a Christian could legitimately claim to be following the “Golden Rule” if he was holding someone else in slavery. (Matthew 7:12
: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.”) No one in his right mind wants to be a slave, so you should not have slaves yourself.
In the era of the early Christian church, slavery was not something one did to another, it was a condition, almost an act of God. Like plague and famine, war happened, and some people became slaves; others were born slaves, other were indentured for various reasons: they were slaves, period, irrespective of whom they served. If you had the wealth to support them, and the need for their labor, why not have slaves? Cruelty, on the other hand, is a personal attribute (though its limits are defined by culture), and one which Christianity has generally condemned.