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§ 48. Christianity and Slavery.


H. Wallon (Prof. of Modern History in Paris): Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité, Par. 1879, 3 vols., treats very thoroughly of Slavery in the Orient, among the Greeks and the Romans, with an Introduction on modern negro slavery in the Colonies.

Augustin Cochin (ancien maire et conseiller municipal de la Ville de Paris): L’abolition de l’esclavage, Paris, 1862, 2 vols. This work treats not only of the modern abolition of slavery, but includes in vol. II., p. 348–470, an able discussion of the relation of Christianity and slavery.

Möhler (R. C., d. 1848):Bruchstücke aus der Geschichte der Aufhebung der Sklaverei, 1834. ("Vermischte Schriften," vol. II., p. 54.)

H. Wiskemann: Die Sklaverei. Leiden, 1866. A crowned prize-essay.

P. Allard: Les esclaves chrétiens depuis les premiers temps de l’église jusqu’ à la fin de la domination romaine en Occident Paris, 1876 (480 pp.).

G. V. Lechler: Sklaverei und Christenthum. Leipz. 1877–78.

Ph. Schaff: Slavery and the Bible, in his "Christ and Christianity," N. York and London, 1885, pp. 184–212.

Compare the Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, especially Braune, and Lightfoot (in Colossians and Philemon, 1875).

The numerous American works on slavery by Channing, Parker, Hodge, Barnes, Wilson, Cheever, Bledsoe, and others, relate to the question of negro slavery, now providentially abolished by the civil war of 1861–65.

To Christianity we owe the gradual extinction of slavery.

This evil has rested as a curse on all nations, and at the time of Christ the greater part of the existing race was bound in beastly degradation—even in civilized Greece and Rome the slaves being more numerous than the free-born and the freedmen. The greatest philosophers of antiquity vindicated slavery as a natural and necessary institution; and Aristotle declared all barbarians to be slaves by birth, fit for nothing but obedience. According to the Roman law, "slaves had no head in the State, no name, no title, no register;" they had no rights of matrimony, and no protection against adultery; they could be bought and sold, or given away, as personal property; they might be tortured for evidence, or even put to death, at the discretion of their master. In the language of a distinguished writer on civil law, the slaves in the Roman empire "were in a much worse state than any cattle whatsoever." Cato the elder expelled his old and sick slaves out of house and home. Hadrian, one of the most humane of the emperors, wilfully destroyed the eye of one of his slaves with a pencil. Roman ladies punished their maids with sharp iron instruments for the most trifling offences, while attending half-naked, on their toilet. Such legal degradation and cruel treatment had the worst effect upon the character of the slaves. They are described by the ancient writers as mean, cowardly, abject, false, voracious, intemperate, voluptuous, also as hard and cruel when placed over others. A proverb prevailed in the Roman empire: "As many slaves, so many enemies." Hence the constant danger of servile insurrections, which more than once brought the republic to the brink of ruin, and seemed to justify the severest measures in self-defence.

Judaism, indeed, stood on higher ground than this; yet it tolerated slavery, though with wise precautions against maltreatment, and with the significant ordinance, that in the year of jubilee, which prefigured the renovation of the theocracy, all Hebrew slaves should go free.636636    Lev. 25:10: "Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." Comp. Isa. 41: 1; Luke 4:19.

This system of permanent oppression and moral degradation the gospel opposes rather by its whole spirit than by any special law. It nowhere recommends outward violence and revolutionary measures, which in those times would have been worse than useless, but provides an internal radical cure, which first mitigates the evil, takes away its sting, and effects at last its entire abolition. Christianity aims, first of all, to redeem man, without regard to rank or condition, from that worst bondage, the curse of sin, and to give him true spiritual freedom; it confirms the original unity of all men in the image of God, and teaches the common redemption and spiritual equality of all before God in Christ;637637    Gal. 8:28; Col. 3:11. it insists on love as the highest duty and virtue, which itself inwardly levels social distinctions; and it addresses the comfort and consolation of the gospel particularly to all the poor, the persecuted, and the oppressed. Paul sent back to his earthly master the fugitive slave, Onesimus, whom he had converted to Christ and to his duty, that he might restore his character where he had lost it; but he expressly charged Philemon to receive and treat the bondman hereafter as a beloved brother in Christ, yea, as the apostle’s own heart. It is impossible to conceive of a more radical cure of the evil in those times and within the limits of established laws and customs. And it is impossible to find in ancient literature a parallel to the little Epistle to Philemon for gentlemanly courtesy and delicacy, as well as for tender sympathy with a poor slave.

This Christian spirit of love, humanity, justice, and freedom, as it pervades the whole New Testament, has also, in fact, gradually abolished the institution of slavery in almost all civilized nations, and will not rest till all the chains of sin and misery are broken, till the personal and eternal dignity of man redeemed by Christ is universally acknowledged, and the evangelical freedom and brotherhood of men are perfectly attained.

Note on the Number and Condition of Slaves in Greece and Rome.

Attica numbered, according to Ctesicles, under the governorship of Demetrius the Phalerian (309 b.c.), 400,000 slaves, 10,000 foreigners, and only 21,000 free citizens. In Sparta the disproportion was still greater.

As to the Roman empire, Gibbon estimates the number of slaves under the reign of Claudius at no less than one half of the entire population, i.e., about sixty millions (I. 52, ed. Milman, N. Y., 1850). According to Robertson there were twice as many slaves as free citizens, and Blair (in his work on Roman slavery, Edinb. 1833, p. 15) estimates over three slaves to one freeman between the conquest of Greece (146 b.c.) and the reign of Alexander Severna (a.d. 222–235). The proportion was of course very different in the cities and in the rural districts. The majority of the plebs urbana were poor and unable to keep slaves; and the support of slaves in the city was much more expensive than in the country. Marquardt assumes the proportion of slaves to freemen in Rome to have been three to two. Friedländer (Sittengeschichte Roms. l. 55, fourth ed.) thinks it impossible to make a correct general estimate, as we do not know the number of wealthy families. But we know that Rome a.d. 24 was thrown into consternation by the fear of a slave insurrection (Tacit. Ann. IV. 27). Athenaeus, as quoted by Gibbon (I. 51) boldly asserts that he knew very many (πάμπολλοι) Romans who possessed, not for use, but ostentation, ten and even twenty thousand slaves. In a single palace at Rome, that of Pedanius Secundus, then prefect of the city, four hundred slaves were maintained, and were all executed for not preventing their master’s murder (Tacit. Ann. XIV. 42, 43).

The legal condition of the slaves is thus described by Taylor on Civil Law, as quoted in Cooper’s Justinian, p. 411: "Slaves were held pro nullis, pro mortuis, pro quadrupedibus; nay, were in a much worse state than any cattle whatsoever. They had no head in the state, no name, no title, or register; they were not capable of being injured; nor could they take by purchase or descent; they had no heirs, and therefore could make no will; they were not entitled to the rights and considerations of matrimony, and therefore had no relief in case of adultery; nor were they proper objects of cognation or affinity, but of quasi-cognation only; they could be sold, transferred, or pawned, as goods or personal estate, for goods they were, and as such they were esteemed; they might be tortured for evidence, punished at the discretion of their lord, and even put to death by his authority; together with many other civil incapacities which I have no room to enumerate." Gibbon (I. 48) thinks that "against such internal enemies, whose desperate insurrections had more then once reduced the republic to the brink of destruction, the most severe regulations and the most cruel treatment seemed almost justifiable by the great law of self-preservation."

The individual treatment of slaves depended on the character of the master. As a rule it was harsh and cruel. The bloody spectacles of the amphitheatre stupefied the finer sensibilities even in women. Juvenal describes a Roman mistress who ordered her female slaves to be unmercifully lashed in her presence till the whippers were worn out; Ovid warns the ladies not to scratch the face or stick needles into the naked arms of the servants who adorned them; and before Hadrian a mistress could condemn a slave to the death of crucifixion without assigning a reason. See the references in Friedländer, I. 466. It is but just to remark that the philosophers of the first and second century, Seneca, Pliny, and Plutarch, entertained much milder views on this subject than the older writers, and commend a humane treatment of the slaves; also that the Antonines improved their condition to some extent, and took the oft abused jurisdiction of life and death over the slaves out of private hands and vested it in the magistrates. But at that time Christian principles and sentiments already freely circulated throughout the empire, and exerted a silent influence even over the educated heathen. This unconscious atmospheric influence, so to speak, is continually exerted by Christianity over the surrounding world, which without this would be far worse than it actually is.

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