Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Christianity and Slavery. No. 18 of Oxford House Papers.
By H. Henley Henson, B.A., Head of the Oxford House in Bethnal Green. London: Rivingtons.

Some time ago I delivered a lecture in the London Hall of Science on "Christianity and Slavery." Among my critics there was one gentleman, and the circumstance was so noteworthy that my friend the chairman expressed a wish, which I cordially echoed, that we might have the pleasure of hearing him again. A few days ago a pamphlet reached me on the subject of that lecture, written by my friendly opponent, who turns out to be the head of the Oxford House in Bethnal Green. Mr. Henson sends me the pamphlet himself "with his compliments," and I have read it carefully. Indeed, I have marked it in dozens of places where his statements strike me as inaccurate and his arguments as fallacious; and, on the whole, I think it best to give him a set answer in this journal. Mr. Henson's paper is not, in my opinion, a very forcible one on the intellectual side. But perhaps that is, in a certain sense, one of its merits; for the Christian case in this dispute is so bad that sentiment does it more service than logic. I must, however, allow that Mr. Henson is a courteous disputant, and I hope I shall reciprocate his good feeling. When he opposed me at the Hall of Science, he admits that I treated him "with a courtesy which relieves controversy of its worst aspects." I trust he will be equally satisfied with my rejoinder. Whenever I may have occasion to express myself strongly, I shall simply be in earnest about the theme, without the least intention of being discourteous. I mean no offence, and I hope I shall give none.

Mr. Henson says he is dealing in a brief compass with a big subject, but "the outlines are clear, and may be perceived very readily by any honest man of moderate intelligence." Well, whether it is that I am not an honest man, or that I possess immoderate intelligence, I certainly do not see the outlines of the subject as Mr. Henson sees them. The relation of Christianity to slavery is an historical question, and Mr. Henson treats it as though it were one of dialectics. However, I suppose I had better follow him, and show that he is wrong even on his own ground.

Mr. Henson undertakes to prove three things. (1) That slavery is flatly opposed to the teaching of the New Testament. (2) That the abolition of slavery in Europe was mainly owing to Christianity. (3) That at this present time Christianity is steadily working against slavery all over the world.

Before I discuss the first proposition I must ask why the Old Testament is left out of account. Mr. Henson relegates it to a footnote, and there he declares "once for all, that the Mosaic Law has nothing to do with the question." But Mr. Henson's "once for all" has not the force of a Papal decree. It is simply a bit of rhetorical emphasis, like a flourish to a signature. Does he mean to say that the author of the Mosaic Law was not the same God who speaks to us in the New Testament? If it was the same God, "the same, yesterday, to-day, and for ever," the Mosaic Law has very much to do with the question; unless—and this is a vital point—Jesus distinctly abrogates it in any respect. He did distinctly abrogate the lex talionis, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but he left the laws of slavery exactly as he found them, and in this he was followed by Peter and Paul, and by all the Fathers of the Church.

Mr. Henson tells us that "the Jews were a barbarous race, and slavery was necessary to that stage of development," and that "the Law of Moses moderated the worst features of slavery." The second statement cannot be discussed, for we do not know what was the condition of slavery among the Jews before the so-called Mosaic Law (centuries after Moses) came into vogue. The first statement, however, is perfectly true; the Jews were barbarous, and slavery among them was inevitable. But that is speaking humanly. What is the use of God's interference if he does not make people wiser and better? Why did he lay down slavery laws without hinting that they were provisional? Why did he so express himself as to enable Christian divines and whole Churches to justify slavery from the Bible long after it had died out of the internal polity of civilised states? Surely God might have given less time to Aaron's vestments and the paraphernalia of his own Tabernacle, and devoted some of his infinite leisure to teaching the Jews that property in human flesh and blood is immoral. Instead of that he actually told them, not only how to buy foreigners (Leviticus xxv. 45, 46), but how to enslave their own brethren (Exodus xxi. 2-11).

When Jesus Christ came from heaven to give mankind a new revelation he had a fine opportunity to correct the brutalities of the Mosaic Law. Yet Mr. Henson allows that he "did not actually forbid Slavery in express terms," and that he "never said in so many words, Slavery is wrong." But why not? It will not do to say the time was not ripe, for Mr. Henson admits that in Rome "the fashionable philosophies, especially that of the Stoics, branded Slavery as an outrage against the natural Equality of Men." Surely Jesus Christ might have kept abreast of the Stoics. Surely, too, as he did not mean to say anything more for at least two thousand years, he might have gone in advance of the best teaching of the age, so as to provide for the progress of future generations.

But, says Mr. Henson, Jesus Christ "laid down broad principles which took from Slavery its bad features, and tended, by an unerring law to its abolition." Well, the tendency was a remarkably slow one. Men still living can remember when Slavery was abolished in the British dominions. I can remember when it was abolished in the United States. Eighteen centuries of Christian tendency were necessary to kill Slavery! Surely the natural growth of civilisation might have done as much in that time, though Jesus Christ had never lived and taught. How civilisation did mitigate the horrors of Slavery, and was gradually but surely working towards its abolition, may be seen in Gibbon's second chapter. This was under the great Pagan emperors, some of whom knew Christianity and despised it.

"Slavery is cruel," says Mr. Henson, while "Christianity teaches men to be kind and to love one another." But teaching men to love one another, even if Christianity taught nothing else—which is far from the truth—is a very questionable expenditure of time and energy; for how is love to be taught? Besides, a master and a slave might be attached to each other—as was often the case—without either seeing that Slavery was a violation of the law of love. What was needed was the sentiment of Justice. That has broken the chains of the slave. The Stoics were on the right track after all, while Christianity lost itself in idle sentimentalism.

"Slavery denies the Equality of Men," says Mr. Henson, while "Christianity asserts it strongly." I regret I cannot agree with him. Certain amiable texts which he cites might easily be confronted with others of a very different character. What did Christ mean by promising that when he came into his kingdom his disciples should sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel? How is this consistent with his saying, "call no man master"? What did Paul mean by ordering unlimited obedience to "the powers that be"? What did he and Peter mean by telling slaves to obey their owners? Is all this consistent with the doctrine of human equality? Mr. Henson simply reads into certain New Testament utterances what was never in the speakers' minds. His abstract argument is indeed perilous in regard to such composite writings as the Gospels and the Epistles. Let it be assumed, for argument's sake, that Christianity does somewhere assert the Equality of Men. Then it condemns Royalty as well as Slavery; yet Peter says, "Fear God and honor the King." I leave Mr. Henson to extricate himself from this dilemma.

I repeat that all this dialectic is a kind of subterfuge; at least it is an evasion. The great fact remains that Jesus Christ never breathed a whisper against slavery when he had the opportunity. Yet he could denounce what he disapproved in the most vigorous fashion. His objurgation of the Scribes and Pharisees is almost without a parallel. Surely he might have reserved a little of his boisterous abuse for an institution which was infinitely more harmful than the whole crowd of his rivals. Those who opposed him were overwhelmed with vituperation, but not once did he censure those who held millions in cruel bondage, turning men into mere beasts of burden, and women, if they happened to be beautiful, into the most wretched victims of lust.

Let us now turn to Paul, the great apostle whose teaching has had more influence on the faith and practice of Christendom than that of Jesus himself. Mr. Henson says that "the Apostle does not say one word for or against slavery as such." Again I regret to differ. Paul never said a word against slavery, but he said many words that sanctioned it by implication. He tells slaves (servants in the Authorised Version) to count their owners worthy of all honor (1 Tim. vi. 1); to be obedient unto them, with fear and trembling, as unto Christ (Ephesians vi. 5); and to please them in all things (Titus ii. 9). I need not discuss whether servants means slaves and masters owners, for Mr. Henson admits that such is their meaning. Here then Paul is, if Jesus was not, brought face to face with slavery, and he does not even suggest that the institution is wrong. He tells slaves to obey their owners as they obey Christ; and, on the other hand, he bids owners to "forbear threatening" their slaves. But so much might have been said by Cicero and Pliny; the former of whom, as Lecky says, wrote many letters to his slave Tiro "in terms of sincere and delicate friendship"; while the latter "poured out his deep sorrow for the death of some of his slaves, and endeavored to console himself with the thought that as he had emancipated them before their death, they had at least died free men."

Paul does indeed say that both bond and free are "all one in Christ." But Louis the Fourteenth would have admitted that kinship between himself and the meanest serf in France, "One in Christ" is a spiritual idea, and has relation to a future life, in which earthly distinctions would naturally cease.

Mr. Henson is obliged to face the story of Onesimus, the runaway slave, whom Paul deliberately sent back to his master, Philemon. "The Apostle's position," he says, "is practically this"; whereupon he puts into Paul's mouth words of his own invention. I do not deny his right to use this literary artifice, but I decline to let it impose on my own understanding. There is a certain pathetic tenderness in Paul's letter to Philemon if we suppose that he took the institution of Slavery for granted, but it vanishes if we suppose that he felt the institution to be wrong. Professor Newman justly remarks that "Onesimus, in the very act of taking to flight, showed that he had been submitting to servitude against his will, and that the house of his owner had previously been a prison to him." Nor do I see any escape from the same writer's conclusion that, although Paul besought Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, "this very recommendation, full of affection as it is, virtually recognises the moral rights of Philemon to the services of his slave." Mr. Benson apparently feels this himself. "Christian tradition," he says, "declares that Philemon at once set Onesimus free." But "tradition" can hardly be cited as a fact. Mr. Henson says "it is more than probable," or, in other words, certain; yet he cannot expect me to follow him in his illogical leap. Nor, indeed, is the "traditional" liberation of Onesimus of much importance to the argument. Not Philemon's but Paul's views are in dispute; and if Philemon did liberate Onesimus—which is a pure assumption—Paul certainly did not advise him to do anything of the kind.

Paul's epistle to Philemon does not, from its very-nature, seem intended for publication. Why then, in the ease of private correspondence, did he not hint that Slavery was only tolerated for the time and would eventually cease? Instead of that he sent back Onesimus to a servitude from which he had fled. How unlike Theodore Parker writing his discourse, with a runaway slave in the back room, and a revolver on his desk! How unlike Walt Whitman watching the slumber of another fugitive, with one hand on his trusty rifle!

Mr. Henson lives after the abolition of Slavery, and as he clings to his Bible as God's Word he reads into it the morality of a later age. Let him consult the writings of Christian divines on the subject, and he will see that they have almost invariably justified Slavery from scripture. Ignatius (who is said to have seen Jesus), St. Cyprian, Pope Gregory the Great, St. Basil, Tertullian, St. Isidore, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Bossuet, all taught that Slavery is a divine institution. During all the centuries from Ignatius to Bossuet, what eminent Christian ever denounced Slavery as wicked? Even the Christian jurisprudists of the eighteenth century defended negro slavery, which it was reserved for the sceptical Montesquieu and the arch-heretic Voltaire to condemn. Montesquieu's ironical chapter on the subject is worthy of Molliere, and Voltaire's is an honor to humanity. He called Slavery "the degrada of the species"; and, in answer to Puffendorff, who claimed that slavery had been established by the free consent of the opposing parties, he exclaimed, "I will believe Puffendorff, when he shows me the original contract."

Negro slavery was defended in America by direct appeal to the Bible. Mr. Henson seeks to lessen the force of this damning fact by referring to these defenders of slavery as "certain clergymen and other Christians," and as "ignorant and unworthy members of the Church." Certain clergymen! Why, the clergy defended slavery almost to a man, and in the Northern States they were even more bigoted than in the South. Mrs. Beecher Stowe said that the Church was so familiarly quoted as being on the side of Slavery, that "Statesmen on both sides of the question have laid that down as a settled fact." Theodore Parker said that if the whole American Church had "dropped through the continent and disappeared altogether, the anti-Slavery cause would have been further on." He pointed out that no Church ever issued a single tract, among all its thousands, against property in human flesh and blood; and that 80,000 slaves were owned by Presbyterians, 225,000 by Baptists, and 250,000 by Methodists. Wilberforce himself declared that the American Episcopal Church "raises no voice against the predominant evil; she palliates it in theory, and in practice she shares in it. The mildest and most conscientious of the bishops of the South are slaveholders themselves." The Harmony Presbytery of South Carolina deliberately resolved that Slavery was justified by Holy Writ. The Methodist Episcopal Church decided in 1840 against allowing any "colored persons" to give testimony against "white persons." The College Church of the Union Theological Seminary, Prince Edward County, was endowed with slaves, who were hired out to the highest bidder for the pastor's salary. Lastly, Professor Moses Stuart, of Andover, who is accounted the greatest American theologian since Jonathan Edwards, declared that "The precepts of the New Testament respecting the demeanor of slaves and their masters beyond all question recognise the existence of Slavery." So much for Mr. Henson's "certain clergymen."

Mr. Henson also argues that the Northern States were "the most distinctly Christian," and that they were opposed to Slavery. History belies this statement Harriet Martineau, when she visited America and stood on the anti-slavery platform, says she was in danger of her life in the North while scarcely molested in the South. When William Lloyd Garrison delivered his first anti-slavery lecture in Boston, the classic home of American orthodoxy, every Catholic and Protestant church was closed against him, and he was obliged to accept the use of Julian Hall from Abner Kneeland, an infidel who had been prosecuted for blasphemy. It was not "the true spirit of Christianity" which abolished Slavery in the United States, but "the true spirit of Humanity," which inspired some Christians and more Freethinkers to vindicate the natural rights of men of all colors. Even in the end, Slavery was not terminated by the vote of the Churches; it was abolished by Lincoln as a strategic act in the midst of a civil war, precisely as was predicted by Thomas Paine, who not only hated Slavery while his Christian defamers lived by it, but was more sagacious in his political forecast than all the orthodox statesmen of his age.

"A movement headed by Clarkson and Wilberforce," says Mr. Henson, "could be no other than Christian," But why? Were not the slave-owners also Christians? Was not the strength of Freethinkers, from Jeremy Bentham downwards, given to the abolition movement? Were not the Freethinkers all on one side, while the Christians were divided? And why did the abolition movement in England wait until new ideas had leavened the public mind? Had it been purely Christian, would it not have triumphed long before? The fact is there was plenty of Christianity during the preceding thousand years, but the sceptical and humanitarian work of the eighteenth century was necessary before there could be any general revolt against injustice and oppression. No perversion of history can alter the fact that, in the words of Professor Newman, "the first public act against Slavery came from republican France, in the madness of atheistic enthusiasm." Mr. Henson sees this clearly himself, and therefore he pretends that all the best ideas of the French Revolution were borrowed from Christianity. Shades of Voltaire and Diderot, of Mirabeau and Danton, listen to this apologist of the faith you despised! Voltaire's face is wreathed with ineffable irony, Diderot contemplates the speaker as a new species for a psychological monograph, Mirabeau flings back his leonine head with a swirl of the black mane and a glare of the great eyes, and Danton roars a titanic laugh that shakes the very roof of Hades.

Now let us turn to the old indigenous Slavery of Europe. Mr. Henson appeals to "the witness of history," and he shall have it. He undertakes to prove "That among the various causes which tended to assuage the hardship and threaten the permanence of Slavery, the most powerful, the most active, and most successful was Christianity"; also "That when the barbarian conquests re-established slavery in a new form, the Church exerted all her energies on the side of freedom."

That Christianity "threatened" the permanence of Slavery is, of course, purely a matter of opinion. Mr. Henson takes one view, I have given reasons for another, and the reader must judge between us. That it softened the rigors of Slavery is a very questionable statement. When Mr. Henson says that "Roman Slavery was, perhaps, the most cruel and revolting kind of Slavery," he is guilty of historical confusion. Roman Slavery lasted for very many centuries. In the early ages it was brutal enough, but under the great emperors, and especially the Antonines, it was far more merciful than negro Slavery was in Christian America. Slaves were protected by law; the power of putting them to death was taken from the masters and entrusted to the magistrates; and, as Gibbon says, "Upon a just complaint of intolerable treatment, the injured slave either obtained his deliverance or a less cruel master." Compare this with the condition of serfs under the Christian feudal system, when, in Mr. Henson's own language, "the serf was tied to the soil, bought and sold with it, the chattel of his master, who could overwork, beat, and even kill him at will."

The phrase "re-established Slavery in a new form," seems to imply that Christianity had abolished Slavery before the barbaric conquests. But it had done nothing of the kind. Nay, as a matter of fact, Constantine and his successors drew a sharper line than ever between slaves and freemen. Constantine (the first Christian emperor) actually decreed death against any freewoman who should marry a slave, while the slave himself was to be burnt alive!

Much of what Mr. Henson says about the manumission of slaves by some of the mediaeval clergy is unquestionably true. But who doubts that, during a thousand years, a humane and even a noble heart often beat under a priest's cassock? These manumissions, however, were of Christian slaves. The Pagan slaves—such as the Sclavonians, from whom the word slave is derived—were considered to have no claims at all. Surely the liberation of fellow Christians might spring from proselyte zeal. "Mohammedans also," as Professor Newman says, "have a conscience against enslaving Mohammedans, and generally bestow freedom on a slave as soon as he adopts their religion." Manumission of slaves was common among humane owners under the Roman Empire; indeed Gibbon observes that the law had to guard against the swamping of free citizens by the sudden inrush of "a mean and promiscuous multitude." Clerical manumission of slaves in mediaeval times was therefore no novelty. On the other hand, bishops held slaves like kings and nobles. The Abbey of St. Germain de Pres, for instance, owned 80,000 slaves, and the Abbey of St. Martin de Tours 20,000. The monks, who according to Mr. Henson, did so much to extinguish slavery, owned multitudes of these servile creatures.

The acts of a few humane and noble spirits are no test of the effects of a system. The decisions of Church Councils are a much better criterion. They show the influence of principles, when personal equation is eliminated. Turning to these Councils, then, what do we find? Why that from the Council of Laodicea to the Lateran Council (1215)—that is, for eight hundred years—the Church sanctioned Slavery again and again. Slaves and their owners might be "one in Christ," but the Church taught them to keep their distance on earth.

Civilisation, not Christianity, gradually extinguished Slavery in Europe. Foreign slavery, such as that in our West Indian possessions, is an artificial thing, and may be abolished by the stroke of a pen. But domestic slavery has to die a natural death. The progress of education and refinement, and the growth of the sentiment of justice, help to extinguish it; but behind these there is an economical law which is no less potent. Slave labor is only consistent with a low industrial life; and thus, as civilisation expands, slavery fades into serfdom, and serfdom into wage-service, as naturally as the darkness of night melts into the morning twilight, and the twilight into day.

Mr. Henson throws in some not ineloquent remarks about the abolition by Christianity of the gladiatorial shows at Rome. He himself has stood within the ruined Colosseum and re-echoed Byron's heroics. Mr. Henson even outdid Byron, for he looked up to the dome of St. Peter's, where gleamed the Cross of Christ, and rejoiced that "He had triumphed at last." "If only Mr. Foote had been there!" Mr. Henson exclaims. Well, Gibbon was there before Mr. Henson and before Byron. What he thought in the Colosseum I know not, but I know that the great project of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took shape in his mind one eventful evening as he "sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter." Yet I suppose Gibbon's fifteenth chapter is scarcely to Mr. Henson's taste. Had I "been there" with Mr. Henson, I too might have had my reflections, and I might have thrown this Freethought douche on his Christian ardor. "Yes, the Cross has triumphed. There it gleams over the dome of St. Peter's, the mightiest church in the world. Below it, until the recent subversion of the Pope's temporal power, walked the most ignorant, beggarly and criminal population in Europe. What are these to the men who built up the glory of ancient Rome? What is their city to the magnificent city of old, among whose ruins they walk like pigmies amid the relics of giants? This time-eaten, weather-beaten Colosseum saw many a gladiator 'butchered to make a Roman holiday.' But has not Christian Rome witnessed many a viler spectacle? Has it not seen hundreds of noble men burnt alive in the name of Christ? When Rome was Pagan, thought was free. Gladiatorial shows satisfied the bestial craving in vulgar breasts, but the philosophers and poets were unfettered, and the intellect of the few was gradually achieving the redemption of the many. When Rome was Christian, she introduced a new slavery. Thought was scourged and chained, while the cruel instincts of the multitude were gratified with exhibitions of suffering, compared with which the bloodiest arena was tame and insipid. Your Christian Rome, in the superb metaphor of Hobbes, was but the ghost of Pagan Rome, sitting throned and crowned on the grave thereof; nay, a ghoul, feeding not on the dead limbs of men, but on their living hearts and brains. Look at your Cross! Before Christ appeared it was the symbol of life; since it has been the symbol of misery and humiliation; and in the name of your Crucified One the people have been crucified between the spiritual and temporal thieves. But happily your Cross has had its day. St. Peter's may yet crumble before the Colosseum, and the statue of a Bruno may outlast the walls of the Vatican."

Previous Chapter | Home | Contents | Next Chapter

HTML © 2002 - 2017