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§ 77. Slavery.

See the Lit. in vol. I. § 48 (p. 444), and in vol. II. § 97 (p. 347). Comp. also Balmes (R.C.): Protestantism and Catholicism compared in their effects on the Civilization of Europe. Transl. from the spanish. Baltimore 1851, Chs. xv.-xix. Brace: Gesta Christi, Ch. xxi.

History is a slow but steady progress of emancipation from the chains which sin has forged. The institution of slavery was universal in Europe during the middle ages among barbarians as well as among civilized nations. It was kept up by natural increase, by war, and by the slave-trade which was carried on in Europe more or less till the fifteenth century, and in America till the eighteenth. Not a few freemen sold themselves into slavery for debt, or from poverty. The slaves were completely under the power of their masters, and had no claim beyond the satisfaction of their physical wants. They could not bear witness in courts of justice. They could be bought and sold with their children like other property. The marriage tie was disregarded, and marriages between freemen and slaves were null and void. In the course of time slavery was moderated into serfdom, which was attached to the soil. Small farmers often preferred that condition to freedom, as it secured them the protection of a powerful nobleman against robbers and invaders. The condition of the serfs, however, during the middle ages was little better than that of slaves, and gave rise to occasional outbursts in the Peasant Wars, which occurred mostly in connection with the free preaching of the Gospel (as by Wiclif and the Lollards in England, and by Luther in Germany), but which were suppressed by force, and in their immediate effects increased the burdens of the dependent classes. The same struggle between capital and labor is still going on in different forms.

The mediaeval church inherited the patristic views of slavery. She regarded it as a necessary evil, as a legal right based on moral wrong, as a consequence of sin and a just punishment for it. She put it in the same category with war, violence, pestilence, famine, and other evils. St. Augustin, the greatest theological authority of the Latin church, treats slavery as disturbance of the normal condition and relation. God did not, he says, establish the dominion of man over man, but only over the brute. He derives the word servus, as usual, from servare (to save the life of captives of war doomed to death), but cannot find it in the Bible till the time of the righteous Noah, who gave it as a punishment to his guilty son Ham; whence it follows that the word came “from sin, not from nature.” He also holds that the institution will finally be abolished when all iniquity shall disappear, and God shall be all in all.336336    De Civit. Dei, 1. XIX. c. 15. ”Nomen [servus] culpa meruit, non natura … Prima servitutis causa peccatum est, ut homo homini conditionis vinculo subderetur quod non fuit nisi Deo judicante, apud quem non est iniquitas.” He thinks it will continue with the duties prescribed by the apostles, donec transeat iniquitas, et evacuetur omnis principatus, et potestas humana, et sit Deus omnia in omnibus..” Chrysostom taught substantially the same views, and derived from the sin of Adam a threefold servitude and a threefold tyranny, that of the husband over the wife, the master over the slave, and the state over the subjects. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the schoolmen, ” did not see in slavery either difference of race or imaginary inferiority or means of government, but only a scourge inflicted on humanity by the sins of the first man” (Balmes, p. 112). But none of these great men seems to have had an idea that slavery would ever disappear from the earth except with sin itself. Cessante causa, cessat effectus. See vol. III. 115-121.

The church exerted her great moral power not so much towards the abolition of slavery as the amelioration and removal of the evils connected with it. Many provincial Synods dealt with the subject, at least incidentally. The legal right of holding slaves was never called in question, and slaveholders were in good and regular standing. Even convents held slaves, though in glaring inconsistency with their professed principle of equality and brotherhood. Pope Gregory the Great, one of the most humane of the popes, presented bondservants from his own estates to convents, and exerted all his influence to recover a fugitive slave of his brother.337337    Epist. X. 66; IX. 102. See these and other passages in Overbeck, Verhältniss der alten Kirche zur Sklaverei, in his “Studien zur Gesch. der alten Kirche” (1875) p. 211 sq. Overbeck, however, dwells too much on the proslavery sentiments of the fathers, and underrates the merits of the church for the final abolition of slavery. A reform Synod of Pavia, over which Pope Benedict VIII., one of the forerunners of Hildebrand, presided (a.d. 1018), enacted that sons and daughters of clergymen, whether from free-women or slaves, whether from legal wives or concubines, are the property of the church, and should never be emancipated.338338    Hefele IV. 670. No pope has ever declared slavery incompatible with Christianity. The church was strongly conservative, and never encouraged a revolutionary or radical movement looking towards universal emancipation.

But, on the other hand, the Christian spirit worked silently, steadily and irresistibly in the direction of emancipation. The church, as the organ of that spirit, proclaimed ideas and principles which, in their legitimate working, must root out ultimately both slavery and tyranny, and bring in a reign of freedom, love, and peace. She humbled the master and elevated the slave, and reminded both of their common origin and destiny. She enjoined in all her teaching the gentle and humane treatment of slaves, and enforced it by the all-powerful motives derived from the love of Christ, the common redemption and moral brotherhood of men. She opened her houses of worship as asylums to fugitive slaves, and surrendered them to their masters only on promise of pardon.339339    Synod of Clermont, a.d.549. Hefele III. 5; comp. II. 662. She protected the freedmen in the enjoyment of their liberty. She educated sons of slaves for the priesthood, with the permission of their masters, but required emancipation before ordination.340340    Fifth Synod of Orleans, 549; Synod of Aachen, 789; Synod of Francfurt, 794. See Hefele III. 3, 666, 691. If ordination took place without the master’s consent, he could reclaim the slave from the ranks of the clergy. Hefele IV. 26. Marriages of freemen with slaves were declared valid if concluded with the knowledge of the condition of the latter.341341    Hefele III. 574, 575, 611. The first example was set by Pope Callistus (218-223), who was himself formerly a slave, and gave the sanction of the Roman church to marriages between free Christian ladies and slaves or lowborn men. Hippolytus, Philosoph. IX. 12 (p. 460 ed. Duncker and Schneidewin). This was contrary to Roman law, and disapproved even by Hippolytus. Slaves could not be forced to labor on Sundays. This was a most important and humane protection of the right to rest and worship.342342    The 16th Synod of Toledo, 693, passed the following canon: “If a slave works on Sunday by command of his master, the slave becomes free, and the master is punished to pay 30 solidi. If the slave works on Sunday without command of his master, he is whipped or must pay fine for his skin. If a freeman works on Sunday, he loses his liberty or must pay 60 solidi; a priest has to pay double the amount.” Hefele II. 349; comp. p. 355. No Christian was permitted by the laws of the church to sell a slave to foreign lands, or to a Jew or heathen. Gregory I. prohibited the Jews within the papal jurisdiction to keep Christian slaves, which he considered an outrage upon the Christian name. Nevertheless even clergymen sometimes sold Christian slaves to Jews. The tenth Council of Toledo (656 or 657) complains of this practice, protests against it with Bible passages, and reminds the Christians that “the slaves were redeemed by the blood of Christ, and that Christians should rather buy than sell them.”343343    Hefele III. 103; comp. IV. 70. Balmes, p. 108. Individual emancipation was constantly encouraged as a meritorious work of charity well pleasing to God, and was made a solemn act. The master led the slave with a torch around the altar, and with his hands on the altar pronounced the act of liberation in such words as these: “For fear of Almighty God, and for the care of my soul I liberate thee;” or: “In the name and for the love of God I do free this slave from the bonds of slavery.”

Occasionally a feeble voice was raised against the institution itself, especially from monks who were opposed to all worldly possession, and felt the great inconsistency of convents holding slave-property. Theodore of the Studium forbade his convent to do this, but on the ground that secular possessions and marriage were proper only for laymen.344344    Overbeck, l.c., p. 219. A Synod of Chalons, held between 644 and 650, at which thirty-eight bishops and six episcopal representatives were present, prohibited the selling of Christian slaves outside of the kingdom of Clovis, from fear that they might fall into the power of pagans or Jews, and he introduces this decree with the significant words: “The highest piety and religion demand that Christians should be redeemed entirely from the bond of servitude.”345345    Conc. Cabilonense, can. 9: ”Pietatis est maximae et religionis intuitus, ut captivitatis vinculum omnino a Christianis redimatur.” The date of the Council is uncertain, see Mansi, Conc. X. 1198; Hefele, III. 92. By limiting the power of sale, slave-property was raised above ordinary property, and this was a step towards abolishing this property itself by legitimate means.

Under the combined influences of Christianity, civilization, and oeconomic and political considerations, the slave trade was forbidden, and slavery gradually changed into serfdom, and finally abolished all over Europe and North America. Where the spirit of Christ is there is liberty.


In Europe serfdom continued till the eighteenth century, in Russia even till 1861, when it was abolished by the Czar Alexander II. In the United States, the freest country in the world, strange to say, negro slavery flourished and waxed fat under the powerful protection of the federal constitution, the fugitive slave-law, the Southern state-laws, and “King Cotton,” until it went out in blood (1861–65) at a cost far exceeding the most liberal compensation which Congress might and ought to have made for a peaceful emancipation. But passion ruled over reason, self-interest over justice, and politics over morals and religion. Slavery still lingers in nominally Christian countries of South America, and is kept up with the accursed slave-trade under Mohammedan rule in Africa, but is doomed to disappear from the bounds of civilization.

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