The African and The Indigenous FreeThinkers

Religion and Slavery – some commentary….

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    From “The Necessity of Atheism by D.M. Brooks, first published circa 1930.

    The Christian Church has had the audacity, in modern times, to proclaim that it had abolished slavery and the slave trade. It is difficult to understand how any “righteous” man could make that contention remembering that it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that slavery became illegal in Christian countries, with one exception, Abyssinia, the oldest of the Christian countries, which still maintains slavery. In our own country, a nation had to be embroiled in a civil war before slavery could be abolished. Abolished by Christianity in the nineteenth century, when Christianity has been dominant in most civilized countries since the third century, and when the traffic in human flesh flourished right through those centuries in which Christianity was most powerful!

    A reference to the facts show that this claim is as spurious as many others which the ecclesiastics have boldly affirmed throughout the ages. For not only is this contrary to the truth, but it is an undeniable fact that it was only by the aid and sanction of the theological forces that slavery was able to degrade our civilization as long as it did.

    On referring to that legend which has been the source of most of our suffering and inhumanity, the Bible, a direct sanction for slavery is given in the Old Testament. Leviticus XXV gives explicit instructions as to where and from whom slaves should be bought, and sanctions the repulsive feature of separation of the slave from his family. Leviticus XXVII gives the “price” of human beings.

    The Koran, which the Christians look upon as a ridiculous smattering of utterances of a spurious prophet, sets a superior example to the Christian “Divine Revelations.”

    “God hath ordained that your brothers should be your slaves, therefore, let him whom God hath ordained to be the slave of his brother, his brother must give him of the clothes wherewith he clotheth himself, and not order him to do anything beyond his power…. A man who illtreats his slave will not enter paradise…. Whoever is the cause of separation between mother and child by selling and giving, God will separate him from his friends on the day of resurrection.”

    The New Testament follows the Old Testament, and there is nowhere to be found in its contents anything to suggest the elimination of this practice. Jesus did not condemn this practice, but accepted slavery as he accepted most institutions about him, and all superstitions. The teachings of Paul on the question of slavery are clear and explicit. Pope Leo, in his letter of 1888 to the Bishop of Brazil, remarks:

    “When amid the slave multitude whom she has numbered among her children, some led astray by some hope of liberty, have had recourse to violence and sedition, the Church has always condemned these unlawful efforts, and through her ministers has applied the remedy of patience….”

    St. Peter was addressing himself especially to the slaves when he wrote, “For this is thankworthy, if for conscience towards God a man endures sorrows, suffering wrongfully.”

    The Church certainly saw nothing wrong with slavery when she preached patience to her slaves. It did not condemn slavery, but condemned the slaves for revolting. This in 1888!

    In the “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” is found: “There is no explicit condemnation in the teaching of our Lord…. It remains true that the abolitionist could point to no one text in the Gospels in defense of his position, while those who defended slavery could appeal at any rate to the letter of Scripture.”

    It is true that slavery existed under Pagan civilization, but there it represented a phase of social development, while Christian slavery stood for a deliberate retrogression in social life. It was Seneca who said, “Live gently and kindly with your slave, and admit him to conversation with you, to council with you, and to share in your meals.”

    Think of what would have occurred if one of our philosophers had admonished a slave-holding Christian in the above manner.

    “We are apt to think of the ancient slave as being identical with the miserable and degraded being that disgraced Christian countries less than a century ago. This, however, is far from the truth. The Roman slave did not, of necessity, lack education. Slaves were to be found who were doctors, writers, poets, philosophers, and moralists. Plautus, Phædrus, Terence, Epictetus, were slaves. Slaves were the intimates of men of all stations of life, even the emperor. Certainly, it never dawned on the Roman mind to prohibit education to the slave. That was left for the Christian world, and almost within our own time.” (For a good account of the close association of Christianity with slavery see, “Christianity, Slavery, and Labor,” Chapman Cohen.)

    In Rome, the slave kept his individuality, and outwardly there was no distinction in color and clothing; there was very little sound barrier between the slave and the freeman. The slave attended the same games as the freeman, participated in the affairs of the municipality, and attended the same college. The ancients kept the bodies of their slaves in bondage, but they placed no restraint upon the mind and no check upon his education. It has even been said that the slave class of antiquity really corresponded to our free laboring class. It is also well known that a well-conducted slave, by his own earnings, was able to purchase his freedom in the course of a few years.

    There can be no comparison, therefore, between Pagan and Christian slavery, except to the detriment of the latter. The Christian slave trade represents one of the most frightful and systematic brutalities the world has ever known. The contrast between the Pagan and Christian slavery is even more marked when the dependence of the Christian slave upon the good nature of his master is considered. Compare this with the decrees of the Roman emperors:

    “Masters were prohibited sending their slaves into the arena without a judicial sentence. Claudius punished as a murderer any master who killed his slave. Nero appointed judges to hear the complaints of slaves as to ill-treatment or insufficient feeding. Domitian forbade the mutilation of slaves; Hadrian forbade the selling of slaves to gladiators, destroyed private prisons for them, and ordered that they who were proved to have ill-treated their slaves be forced to sell them. Caracalla forbade the selling of children into slavery.”

    “All that need be added to this is that the later Christian slavery represented a distinct retrogression, deliberately revived from motives of sheer cupidity, and accompanied by more revolting features than the slavery of ancient times.” (Chapman Cohen.)

    In the “History of Ethics Within Organized Christianity” is recorded, “The Church, as such, never contemplated doing away with slavery as such, even though Stoicism had denounced it as ‘Contra Mundum.’ Nowhere does the early Church condemn slavery as an institution. Kindness to the slave is frequently recommended, but this was done quite as forcibly, and upon a much broader ground by the pagan writers. It would be indeed nearer the truth to say that the Christians who wrote in favor of the mitigation of the lot of the slave were far more indebted to pagans than to Christian influence.”

    The Church itself owned many slaves, advised its adherents to will their slaves to her, and was the last to liberate the slaves which she owned. Yet, the apologists for the Church would have us believe that she was instrumental in the destruction of slavery, when it is a fact that there is nowhere a clear condemnation of slavery on the part of the Church.

    1. C. Lea in his “Studies of the Church History” says, “The Church held many slaves, and while their treatment was in general sufficiently humane to cause the number to grow by voluntary accretions, yet it had no scruple to assert vigorously their claim to ownership. When the Papal Church granted a slave to a monastery, the dread anathema, involving eternal perdition, was pronounced against anyone daring to interfere with the gift; and those who were appointed to take charge of the lands and farms of the Church, were especially instructed that it was part of their duty to pursue and recapture fugitive bondsmen.”

    It must not be assumed that the Catholic Church was the only ecclesiastical body to condone slavery, or that it was only the traffic in black slaves that flourished a few hundred years ago.

    “In the seventeenth century, thousands of Irish men, women and children, were seized by the order or under the license of the English government, and sold as slaves for use in the West Indies. In the Calendar of State Papers, under various dates, between 1653-1656, the following entries occur: ‘For a license to Sir John Clotworthy to transport to America 500 natural Irishmen.’ A slave dealer, named Schlick, is granted a license to take 400 children from Ireland for New England, and Virginia. Later, 100 Irish girls and a like number of youths are sold to the planters in Jamaica.

    “Had the Church been against slavery it would have branded it as a wrong, and have set the example of liberating its own slaves. It did neither. Nay, the Church not only held slaves itself, not only protected others who held slaves, but it thundered against all who should despoil its property by selling or liberating slaves belonging to the Church. The whole history of the Christian Church shows that it has never felt itself called upon to fight any sound institution, no matter what its character, so long as it favored the Church. Slavery and serfdom, war, piracy, child labor, have all been in turn sanctioned.” (Chapman Cohen: “Christianity, Slavery, and Labor.”)

    In Abyssinia, the influence of Christianity has been dominant for a longer period of time than anywhere else in the world. The population of Abyssinia is at least ten million, and of this population not less than one-fifth, probably more, are slaves. In 1929, Lady Kathleen Simon published her book entitled, “Slavery,” dealing with the slave trade of the world. In this work it is pointed out that slave-owning is an integral part of the religion of the country, and that opposition to the abolition of slavery comes principally from the priesthood which considers itself the guardian of the Mosaic law, and regards slavery as an institution ordered by Jehovah.

    Slave raids are constant in this country, and are accompanied by the greatest brutality and cruelty. Vast areas are depopulated by these raids and even at this date, gangs of slaves may be seen by travelers, with the dead and dying bodies of those that have fallen strewn along the roadside. “The slave trade in Abyssinia is open, its horrors are well known, and it is supported by the Christian Church of the country. Such is slavery in the most Christian country in the world today, the country which has the longest Christian history of any nation in the world. Its existence helps us to realize the value of the statement that the power of Christianity in the world destroyed the slave trade. Slavery flourishes in the oldest of Christian countries in the world, backed up by the Church, the Old Bible, and the New Testament. It has all the horrors, all the brutalities, all the degradations of the slave trade at its worst. Such is Christian Abyssinia, and such, but for the saving grace of secular civilization, would be the rest of the world.” (Chapman Cohen.)

    The slave system that arose in Christian times, created by and continued by Christians in the most Christian of countries, provides the final and unanswerable indictment of the Christian Church.

    Slavery was unknown to the Africans until it was introduced by the Christian Portuguese. In 1517 the Spaniards began to ship negro slaves to Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Porto Rica. John Hawkins was the first Englishman of note to engage in the traffic, and Queen Elizabeth loaned this virtuous and pious gentleman the ship Jesus. English companies were licensed to engage in this trade and during the reign of William and Mary it was thrown open to all.

    Between 1680 and 1700, it has been said that 140,000 Negroes were imported by the English-African Company, and about 160,000 more by private traders. Between 1700 and 1786, as many as 610,000 were transported to Jamaica alone. In the hundred years ending 1776, the English carried into the Spanish, French, and English Colonies three million slaves.

    The cruelty experienced by these human cargoes on their transportation defies description. The chaining, the branding, the mutilation, the close quarters, the deaths by suffocation and disease, are a sterling example of man’s inhumanity to man when his conscience is relieved by finding support of his inhumane actions sanctioned in that most holy of holies, the Bible. Exclusive of the slaves who died before leaving Africa, not more than fifty out of a hundred lived to work on the plantations. Ingram’s “History of Slavery” calculates that although between 1690 and 1820 no less than 800,000 Negroes had been imported to Jamaica, yet, at the latter date, only 340,000 were on the island.

    Slavery in America received the same sanction by the religionists which it received on the continent. George Whitefield, the great Methodist preacher, was an earnest supporter of slavery. When the importation of slaves finally ceased the states began the new industry of breeding slaves; the leading state for this breeding, and the one which contained the largest number of stud farms, was Virginia. Lord Macaulay, in a speech delivered before the House of Commons on February 26, 1845, said: “The slave states of the Union are of two classes, the breeding states, where the human beast of burden increases, and multiplies, and becomes strong for labor; and the sugar and cotton states to which these beasts of burden are sent to be worked to death. Bad enough it is that civilized man should sail to an uncivilized quarter of the world where slavery existed, should buy wretched barbarians, and should carry them away to labor in a distant land; bad enough! But that a civilized man, a baptized man, a man proud of being a citizen of a free state, a man frequenting a Christian Church, should breed slaves for exportation, and if the whole horrible truth must be told, should even beget slaves for exportation, should see children, sometimes his own children, gambolling from infancy, should watch their growth, should become familiar with their faces, and should sell them for $400 or $500 a head, and send them to lead in a remote country a life which is a lingering death, a life about which the best thing that can be said is that it is sure to be short; this does, I own, excite a horror exceeding even the horror excited by that slave trade which is the curse of the African coast. And mark, I am speaking of a trade as regular as the trade in pigs between Dublin and Liverpool, or as the trade in coals between the Tyne and the Thames.”

    It has been estimated that the members and ministers of the Orthodox churches in the South owned no less than 660,000 slaves.

    Thomas Paine, in 1775, when he wrote his article on “Justice and Humanity,” was the first to demand emancipation in a lucid manner. The campaign for liberation of the slaves was therefore inaugurated by a freethinker, and triumphantly closed by another freethinker, Abraham Lincoln. In this manner did the Church abolish slavery. With characteristic disregard for the truth, the religionists have laid claim to Lincoln, which claim has been amply refuted; but we are still awaiting the Church’s claim to Paine as one of her devotees.

    “And, truly, the case against Christianity is plain and damning. Never, during the whole of its history has it spoken in a clear voice against slavery; always, as we have seen, its chief supporters have been pronounced believers. They have cited religious teaching in its defence, they have used all the power of the Church for its maintenance. Naturally, in a world in which the vast majority are professing Christians, believers are to be found on the side of humanity and justice. But to that the reply is plain. Men are human before they are Christians; both history and experience point to the constant lesson of the many cases in which the claims of a developing humanity override those of an inculcated religious teaching.

    “But the damning fact against Christianity is, not that it found slavery here when it arrived, and accepted it as a settled institution, not even that it is plainly taught in its ‘sacred’ books, but, that it deliberately created a new form of slavery, and for hundreds of years invested it with a brutality greater than that which existed centuries before. A religion which could tolerate this slavery, argue for it, and fight for it, cannot by any stretch of reasoning be credited with an influence in forwarding emancipation. Christianity no more abolished slavery than it abolished witchcraft, the belief in demonism, or punishment for heresy. It was the growing moral and social sense of mankind that compelled Christians and Christianity to give up these and other things.” (C. Cohen: “Christianity, Slavery, and Labor.”)



    Well said Reg




    A very scholarly article from Chapman Cohen, but I would have to disagree with him on one point:

    Though Pagans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims may have differed on the rules on treatment of slaves, there is ultimately no right way to hold human beings as property. The only right thing to do with slaves is to set them free.

    Oh, Come, Robot Overlords, and get rid of the rest of this scourge on humanity that still exists in Africa, the Middle East, China, and even isolated houses of horrors in the West!

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