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Christianity and human slavery

The abolition of human slavery, mostly in
the United States: Years 1860 to 2013.

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This is a continuation of a previous essay on the same topic.

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Highlights of the abolition process from 1860 until now:

bullet1860: Ministers and laity of the Methodist Episcopal Church's Genesee Conference in western New York state were expelled from the church for insubordination. They left to form the Free Methodist Church of North America. They split over a variety of factors, including theological disagreements, the perceived worldliness of the original church, and slavery. Their leader "...Roberts and most of his followers were radical abolitionists in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, at a time when many within the Methodist Episcopal church were hesitant in their condemnation of the practice of slavery." The denomination continues today in the U.S., Canada and in countries around the world. 1

bullet 1861: The Presbyterians had been able to remain united in spite of tensions created by the slavery issue. Shortly after the Civil War began, the Southern presbyteries of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America withdrew and organized the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States (later renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States). The split was healed in 1983 with the unification of these two bodies and the creation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

bullet 1861-1865: The Civil War (a.k.a. the war between the states) was fought, resulting in the greatest loss of life of any American war.

bullet

1862-DEC-31: President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on JAN-1. This is believed by many to have freed the slaves. Actually, it did not free a single slave. People in the Northern states who had been slaves had already been freed. Slaves in the South were within the Confederacy, and thus immune to Union proclamations. Still, it was of enormous symbolic significance.

The New York Times commented on the 150th anniversary of the signing:

"Watch-night" services in auditoriums, churches, camps and cabins united thousands, free as well as enslaved, who sang, prayed and counted down to midnight. At a gathering of runaway slaves in Washington, a man named Thornton wept: 'Tomorrow my child is to be sold never more.'

The Day of Jubilee, as Jan. 1, 1863 was called, arrived at last and celebrations of deliverance and freedom commenced. 'We are all liberated by this proclamation,' Frederick Douglass observed. 'The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated.' The Fourth of July 'was great,' he proclaimed, 'but the First of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, even greater'." 2

Author Joel Panzer concluded that Catholic bishops in the U.S. at this time taught that buying and selling slaves was immoral, but merely owning a slave was acceptable to the church. Panzer considers this to be a misinterpretation of Papal teaching. 3


bullet 1865: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified by a sufficient number of states to end human slavery.

bullet1866: The Holy Office of the Vatican issued a statement in support of slavery. The document stated that

"Slavery itself...is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law...The purchaser [of the slave] should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave."

Some commentators suggest that the statement was triggered by the passage of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. Others claim that the document referred only to a "particular situation in Africa to have slaves under certain conditions," and not necessarily to the situation in the U.S.  4

bullet 1873: Pope Pius IX was concerned about the "wretched Ethopians in Central Africa." He prayed that "Almighty God may at length remove the curse of Cham [Ham] from their hearts." Many Christian faith groups taught that God's curse on Ham resulted in the perpetural enslavement of the Canaanite people. Some theologians taught that the descendents of Ham were black Africans; they had long used this Biblical passage to justify enslavement of Africans.

bullet1888: Brazil became the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. The Roman Catholic Church reversed its stance "from the affirmation to the condemnation of slavery." 5 Pope Leo XIII sent a letter to the Brazilian Bishops saying that

"from the beginning, almost nothing was more venerated in the Catholic Church...that the fact that she looked to see a slavery eased and abolished...Many of our predecessors...made every effort to ensure that the institution of slavery should be abolished where it existed and that its roots should not revive where it had been destroyed."

This statement does not agree well with the historical record. Previous church documents clearly stated that slavery was quite permissible, as long as the slave was a non-Christian and the slave's captors were fighting in a just war.

bullet1917: The Roman Catholic church's Canon Law was expanded to declare a that "selling a human being into slavery or for any other evil purpose" is a crime.

bullet1965: The Vatican II document "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" stated:

"Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torture...whatever insults human dignity, such as...slavery, prostitution and selling of women and children...all these things and others like them are infamous...Human institutions...should be bulwarks against any kind of political or social slavery and guardians of basic rights under any kind of government."

The rejection of slavery as a profoundly immoral practice  became gradually accepted by Christians throughout Western countries. This had a serious negative effect on the Christian faith. By rejecting the validity of the pro-slavery passages in the Bible, they were forced to accept that the Bible could not be considered a totally reliable guide on civil and moral topics. This created a serious disillusionment among 19th century Christians. The authority of the Bible became suspect for the first time. In the intervening years, the slavery passages became almost entirely ignored. Some translations of the Bible softened the verses by replacing "slave" with "servant." However, the Bible could no longer be fully accepted as a guide for public and personal morality, equally applicable for all societies and all eras. Some Biblical moral truths became widely accepted as true only for a specific group or for a specific time in history.

bullet 1995: The Mississippi Legislature approved the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thus making Mississippi the last of the 50 states to do so. Unfortunately, the final paragraph of the law required the Secretary of State to forward a copy of the law to the federal Register's Office. That was overlooked, and thus Mississippi still had not ratified the Amendment. 6

bullet

2013: Inspired by the movie "Lincoln," Ranjan Batra and Ken Sullivan -- two professors at the University of Mississippi -- discovered the 1995 oversight by the Mississippi Secretary of State. Sullivan contacted the Secretary, Delbert Horsemann, who sent a belated copy of the law to the federal register's office on JAN-30. The state bill finally became law on FEB-07, and the 13th Amendment to end human slavery has now been ratified by all 50 states, after a delay of "only" 148 years. 6 This makes the state of Mississippi not only the poorest state in the union, 7 the state with the highest level of poverty, 8 the most religious state, 9 but also the last state to ratify the 13th Amendment. 6 We won't speculate about the relationship among these four items, but will leave that task to sociologists.

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Status of human slavery today:

A return to slavery is still advocated in North America by some Reconstructionist Christians and a few racist fringe groups within the Christian Identity movement.

Slavery continues in two predominately Muslim countries, although its existence is denied by their governments.

Human slavery was used widely by the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. The present German government has paid about 8 billion dollars in financial compensation to former slaves. Also during that war, Japan became what was probably the largest pimping operation in the world by enslaving one to four hundred thousand "comfort women" to function as sex slaves for the Japanese armed forces. The Japanese government has never offered either an apology or financial compensation to the women that they abused.

Near-slavery has now replaced slavery as a source of major concern.

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Related essays on this site:

bulletPassages condoning and regulating slavery in the Bible

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. J.G. Melton, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume I, Triumph Books, (1991), Volume 1, Page 211.
  2. Louis P. Masur, "How many slaves work for you?,"The New Yorkr Times, 2012-DEC-11, at: http://www.nytimes.com
  3. Joel Panzer, "The Popes and Slavery," Alba House, (1996) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Some reviewers at Amazon.com commented that this book is a useful source of Papal statements on slavery. However, the author is accused of bending the truth. Highlighting one example, a reviewer wrote: "Whereas he mentions the work of the Catholic priest, Bartolomeo de las Casas, in ending the enslavement of the indigenous peoples by the Spanish colonists, Fr. Panzer is completely silent about De las Casas' suggestion that Africans be used as slaves instead."
  4. Leonard Kennedy, " 'The Popes and Slavery' — book review," Catholic Educator's Resource Center," at:  http://catholiceducation.org/
  5. M. Fiedler & L. Rabben, Ed., "Rome has spoken...A guide to forgotten Papal statements and how they have changed through the centuries," Crossroad, (1998) Page 81.
  6. Dan Weil, "At Last: Mississippi Becomes Final State Officially to Abolish Slavery," NewsMax, 2013-FEB-18, at: http://www.newsmax.com/
  7. Sean Patterson, "Poorest State in America Revealed by the U.S. Census Bureau," WebProNews, 2012-SEP-26, at: www.webpronews.com/
  8. List of U.S. States by poverty rate," Wikipedia, as on 2012-DEC-08, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  9. Jeanna Bryner, "Most Religious States Revealed in New Survey," Live Science, 2012-MAR-27, at: http://www.livescience.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-FEB-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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