« Prev The Church and Slavery Next »

§ 97. The Church and Slavery.

See Lit. vol. I. § 48, especially Wallon’s Histoire de l’esclavage (Paris, new ed. 1879, 3 vols). Comp. also V. Lechler: Sklaverei und Christenthum. Leipzig, 1877, 1878; Theod. Zahn: Sklaverei und Christenthum In Der Alten Welt. Heidelberg, 1879. Overbeck: Verh. d. alten Kirche zur Sclaverei im röm. Reiche. 1875.

Heathenism had no conception of the general and natural rights of men. The ancient republics consisted in the exclusive dominion of a minority over an oppressed majority. The Greeks and Romans regarded only the free, i.e. the free-born rich and independent citizens as men in the full sense of the term, and denied this privilege to the foreigners, the laborers, the poor, and the slaves. They claimed the natural right to make war upon all foreign nations, without distinction of race, in order to subject them to their iron rule. Even with Cicero the foreigner and the enemy are synonymous terms. The barbarians were taken in thousands by the chance of war (above 100,000 in the Jewish war alone) and sold as cheap as horses. Besides, an active slave-trade was carried on in the Euxine, the eastern provinces, the coast of Africa, and Britain. The greater part of mankind in the old Roman empire was reduced to a hopeless state of slavery, and to a half brutish level. And this evil of slavery was so thoroughly interwoven with the entire domestic and public life of the heathen world, and so deliberately regarded, even by the greatest philosophers, Aristotle for instance, as natural and indispensable, that the abolition of it, even if desirable, seemed to belong among the impossible things.

Yet from the outset Christianity has labored for this end; not by impairing the right of property, not by outward violence, nor sudden revolution; this, under the circumstances, would only have made the evil worse; but by its moral power, by preaching the divine descent and original unity of all men, their common redemption through Christ, the duty of brotherly love, and the true freedom of the spirit. It placed slaves and masters on the same footing of dependence on God and of freedom in God, the Father, Redeemer, and Judge of both. It conferred inward freedom even under outward bondage, and taught obedience to God and for the sake of God, even in the enjoyment of outward freedom. This moral and religious freedom must lead at last to the personal and civil liberty of the individual. Christianity redeems not only the soul but the body also, and the process of regeneration will end in the resurrection and glorification of the entire natural world.

In the period before us, however, the abolition of slavery, save isolated cases of manumission, was utterly out of question, considering only the enormous number of the slaves. The world was far from ripe for such a step. The church, in her persecuted condition, had as yet no influence at all over the machinery of the state and the civil legislation. And she was at that time so absorbed in the transcendent importance of the higher world and in her longing for the speedy return of the Lord, that she cared little for earthly freedom or temporal happiness. Hence Ignatius, in his epistle to Polycarp, counsels servants to serve only the more zealously to the glory of the Lord, that they may receive from God the higher freedom; and not to attempt to be redeemed at the expense of their Christian brethren, lest they be found slaves to their own caprice. From this we see that slaves, in whom faith awoke the sense of manly dignity and the desire of freedom, were accustomed to demand their redemption at the expense of the church, as a right, and were thus liable to value the earthly freedom more than the spiritual. Tertullian declares the outward freedom worthless without the ransom of the soul from the bondage of sin. "How can the world," says he, "make a servant free? All is mere show in the world, nothing truth. For the slave is already free, as a purchase of Christ; and the freedman is a servant of Christ. If thou takest the freedom which the world can give for true, thou hast thereby become again the servant of man, and hast lost the freedom of Christ, in that thou thinkest it bondage." Chrysostom, in the fourth century, was the first of the fathers to discuss the question of slavery at large in the spirit of the apostle Paul, and to recommend, though cautiously, a gradual emancipation.

But the church before Constantine labored with great success to elevate the intellectual and moral condition of the slaves, to adjust inwardly the inequality between slaves and masters, as the first and efficient step towards the final outward abolition of the evil, and to influence the public opinion even of the heathens. Here the church was aided by a concurrent movement in philosophy and legislation. The cruel views of Cato, who advised to work the slaves, like beasts of burden, to death rather than allow them to become old and unprofitable, gave way to the milder and humane views of Seneca, Pliny, and Plutarch, who very nearly approach the apostolic teaching. To the influence of the later Stoic philosophy must be attributed many improvements in the slave-code of imperial Rome. But the most important improvements were made from the triumph of Constantine to the reign of Justinian, under directly Christian influences. Constantine issued a law in 315, forbidding the branding of slaves on the face to prevent the disfiguration of the figure of celestial beauty (i.e. the image of God).623623    "Facies, quae ad similitudinen pulchritudinis est coelestis figurata." Cod. Just. IX 17. 17.23 He also facilitated emancipation, in an edict of 316, by requiring only a written document, signed by the master, instead of the previous ceremony in the presence of the prefect and his lictor.

It is here to be considered, first of all, that Christianity spread freely among the slaves, except where they were so rude and degraded as to be insensible to all higher impressions. They were not rarely (as Origen observes) the instruments of the conversion of their masters, especially of the women, and children, whose training was frequently intrusted to them. Not a few slaves died martyrs, and were enrolled among the saints; as Onesimus, Eutyches, Victorinus, Maro, Nereus, Achilleus, Blandina, Potamiaena, Felicitas. Tradition makes Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, a bishop. The church of St. Vital at Ravenna—the first and noblest specimen of Byzantine architecture in Italy—was dedicated by, Justinian to the memory of a martyred slave. But the most remarkable instance is that of Callistus, who was originally a slave, and rose to the chair of St. Peter in Rome (218–223). Hippolytus, who acquaints us with his history, attacks his doctrinal and disciplinarian views, but does not reproach him for his former condition. Callistus sanctioned the marriages between free Christian women and Christian slaves. Celsus cast it up as a reproach to Christianity, that it let itself down so readily to slaves, fools, women, and children. But Origen justly saw an excellence of the new religion in this very fact, that it could raise this despised and, in the prevailing view, irreclaimable class of men to the level of moral purity and worth. If, then, converted slaves, with the full sense of their intellectual and religious superiority still remained obedient to their heathen masters, and even served them more faithfully than before, resisting decidedly only their immoral demands (like Potamiaena, and other chaste women and virgins in the service of voluptuous masters)—they showed, in this very self-control, the best proof of their ripeness for civil freedom, and at the same time furnished the fairest memorial of that Christian faith, which raised the soul, in the enjoyment of sonship with God and in the hope of the blessedness of heaven, above the sufferings of earth. Euelpistes, a slave of the imperial household, who was carried with Justin Martyr to the tribunal of Rusticus, on being questioned concerning his condition, replied: "I am a slave of the emperor, but I am also a Christian, and have received liberty from Jesus Christ; by his grace I have the same hope as my brethren." Where the owners of the slaves themselves became Christians, the old relation virtually ceased; both came together to the table of the Lord, and felt themselves brethren of one family, in striking contrast with the condition of things among their heathen neighbors as expressed in the current proverb: "As many enemies as slaves."624624    Totidem esse hostes, quot servos." Seneca, Ep. 47. From the time of the Servile Wars the Romans lived in constant fear of slave conspiracies and insurrections. The slaves formed nearly one half of the population, and in some agricultural districts, as in Sicily and Calabria, they were largely in the majority.24 Clement of Alexandria frequently urges that "slaves are men like ourselves," though he nowhere condemns the institution itself. That there actually were such cases of fraternal fellowship, like that which St. Paul recommended to Philemon, we have the testimony of Lactantius, at the end of our period, who writes in his Institutes, no doubt from life: "Should any say: Are there not also among you poor and rich, servants and masters, distinctions among individuals? No; we call ourselves brethren for no other reason than that we hold ourselves all equal. For since we measure everything human not by its outward appearance, but by its intrinsic value we have notwithstanding the difference of outward relations, no slaves, but we call them and consider them brethren in the Spirit and fellow-servants in religion."625625    Lib. v. c. 15 (ed. Fritsche. Lips. 1842, p. 257).25 The same writer says: "God would have all men equal .... With him there is neither servant nor master. If he is the same Father to all, we are all with the same right free. So no one is poor before God, but he who is destitute of righteousness; no one rich, but he who is full of virtues."626626    Inst. v. 14 (p. 257): "Deus enim, qui homines general et inspirat, omnes aequos, id est pares esse voluit; eandem conditionem vivendi onnibus posuit; omnes ad sapientiam genuit; omnibus immortalitatem spopondit, nemo a beneficiis coelestibus segregatur .... Nemo apud cum servus est, nemo dominus; si enim cunctis idem Pater est, aequo jure omnes liberi sumus.26

The testimony of the catacombs, as contrasted with pagan epitaphs, shows that Christianity almost obliterated the distinction between the two classes of society. Slaves are rarely mentioned. "While it is impossible," says De Rossi, "to examine the pagan sepulchral inscriptions of the same period without finding mention of a slave or a freedman, I have not met with one well-ascertained instance among the inscriptions of the Christian tombs."627627    Bulletino for 1866, p. 24. V. Schultze (Die Katakomben, P. 258) infers from the monuments that in the early Christian congregations slavery was reduced to a minimum.27

The principles of Christianity naturally prompt Christian slave-holders to actual manumission. The number of slaveholders before Constantine was very limited among Christians, who were mostly poor. Yet we read in the Acts of the martyrdom of the Roman bishop Alexander, that a Roman prefect, Hermas, converted by that bishop, in the reign of Trajan, received baptism at an Easter festival with his wife and children and twelve hundred and fifty slaves, and on this occasion gave all his slaves their freedom and munificent gifts besides.628628    Acta Sanct. Boll. Maj. tom. i. p. 37128 So in the martyrology of St. Sebastian, it is related that a wealthy Roman prefect, Chromatius, under Diocletian, on embracing Christianity, emancipated fourteen hundred slaves, after having them baptized with himself, because their sonship with God put an end to their servitude to man.629629    Acta Sanct. Ian. tom. iii. 275.29 Several epitaphs in the catacombs mention the fact of manumission. In the beginning of the fourth century St. Cantius, Cantianus, and Cantianilla, of an old Roman family, set all their slaves, seventy-three in number, at liberty, after they had received baptism.630630    Acta Sanct. Maj. tom. vi. 777.30 St. Melania emancipated eight thousand slaves; St. Ovidius, five thousand; Hermes, a prefect in the reign of Trajan, twelve hundred and fifty.631631    Champagny, Charité chrét. p. 210 (as quoted by Lecky, II. 74).31

These legendary traditions may indeed be doubted as to the exact facts in the case, and probably are greatly exaggerated; but they, are nevertheless conclusive as the exponents of the spirit which animated the church at that time concerning the duty of Christian masters. It was felt that in a thoroughly Christianized society there can be no room for despotism on the one hand and slavery on the other.

After the third century the manumission became a solemn act, which took place in the presence of the clergy and the congregation. It was celebrated on church festivals, especially on Easter. The master led the slave to the altar; there the document of emancipation was read, the minister pronounced the blessing, and the congregation received him as a free brother with equal rights and privileges. Constantine found this custom already established, and African councils of the fourth century requested the emperor to give it general force. He placed it under the superintendence of the clergy.


H. Wallon, in his learned and able Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité (second ed. Paris, 1879, 3 vols.), shows that the gospel in such passages as Matt. 23:8; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13 sounded the death knell of slavery, though it was very long in dying, and thus sums up the teaching of the ante-Nicene church (III. 237): "Minutius Félix, Tertullien et tous ceux communauté de, nature, cette communauté de patrie dans la république du monde, en un language familier à la philosophie, mais qui trouvait parmi les chrétiens avec une sanction plus haute et un sens plus complet, une application plus sérieuse. Devant cc droit commun des hommes, fondé sur le droit divin, le prétendu droit des gens n’était plus qu’ une monstrueuse injustice." For the views of the later fathers and the influence of the church on the imperial legislation, see ch. VIII. to X. in his third volume.

Lecky discusses the relation of Christianity to slavery in the second vol. of his History of European Morals, pp. 66–90, and justly remarks: "The services of Christianity in this sphere were of three kinds. It supplied a new order of relations, in which the distinction of classes was unknown. It imparted a moral dignity to the servile classes, and it gave an unexampled impetus to the movement of enfranchisement."

« Prev The Church and Slavery Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |