Christian support of slavery:
5th to 17th century CE
Christian attitudes towards slavery: 5th to late 17th century CE:
The Christian movement gradually reversed its stance on slavery, starting early in the 4th century CE.
This reversal may have been influenced by the establishment of
Christianity as the only allowable religion in the Roman Empire by the late
4th century. This subsequently created a close integration of church and
state. Since the Empire was dependent on slave labor, it was reasonable for
the church to support the institution. The church became generally
supportive of slavery, even as a very few of its theologians wrote in
opposition to it:
||Circa 400 CE: St. Augustine [354 - 430 CE] speaks of the
granting of freedom to slaves as a great religious virtue, and declares the Christian law
against regarding God's rational creation as property.
||595 CE: Pope Gregory dispatched a priest to Britain to purchase Pagan
boys to work as slaves on church estates.
||Circa 610: Isidore of Seville wrote: "I can hardly credit that a friend of
Christ, who has experienced that grace, which bestowed freedom
on all, would still own slaves." In his writing "Regula
monachorum" which describes the monastic life, he wrote that "God
has made no difference between the soul of the slave and that of the
||Circa 600 CE: Pope Gregory I wrote, in Pastoral Rule: "Slaves
should be told...not [to] despise their masters and recognize that they are only slaves."
||655 CE: In an attempt to persuade priests to remain celibate, the 9th
Council of Toledo ruled that all children of clerics were to be automatically enslaved.
This ruling was later incorporated into the canon law of the church.
||13th century CE: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) accepted the
teachings of the ancient Greek Pagan philosopher, Aristotle, that slavery
||1404 CE: After Spain discovered the Canary Islands the
Spanish colonized the islands In 1435 Pope
Eugene IV wrote a bull to Bishop Ferdinand of Lanzarote titled "Sicut
Dudum." In it, he noted that the black inhabitants of the
Islands had been converted to Christianity and either baptized
or promised baptism. Subsequently, many of the inhabitants were
taken from their homes and enslaved. He commanded that all enslaved
Christians who were inhabitants of the Canary Islands be freed from
slavery. The Pope's concern appears to have been over the enslavement of
Christians by Christians, not the institution of human slavery itself.
||1452/4 CE: Pope Nicholas V wrote Dum Diversas which granted
to the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens [Muslims]
and pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery.
||1519: Bartholomew De Las Casas, a Dominican, argued against slavery.
"No one may be deprived of his liberty nor may any person be enslaved" He
was ridiculed, silenced and ignored. 3
||1537 CE: Pope Paul III wrote in Sublimis Deus
about the enslavement of persons in the West and South Indies. He wrote
"... the enemy of the human race...has thought up a way, unheard
of before now, by which he might impede the saving Word of God. ...
Satan has stirred up some of his allies ... who are presuming to
assert far and wide that the Indians be reduced to our service like
brute animals. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with
afflictions we would scarcely use with brute animals. ... Rather, we
decree that these same Indians should not be deprived of their
liberty…and are not to be reduced to slavery." only hostile
non-Christians, captured in just wars, could become slaves.
||1548 CE: Pope Paul III confirmed that any individual may freely buy,
sell and own slaves. Runaway slaves were to be returned to their owners for punishment.
||1660: Charles II of Britain urged the Council for Foreign
Plantations to teach Christianity to slaves.
||1629 to 1661 CE: Pope Urban VIII in 1629, Pope Innocent X in 1645 and
Pope Alexander VII in 1661 were all personally involved in the purchase of Muslim slaves.
||Late 17th century: The institution of slavery was a integral part of
many societies worldwide. The Roman Catholic church only placed two restrictions on the
purchase and owning of slaves:
||They had to be non-Christian.
||They had to be captured during "just" warfare. i.e. in wars involving
Christian armies fighting for an honorable cause.
Late in the 17th century, Leander, a Roman Catholic theologian, wrote:
"It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man
serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy
Scripture...It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things
which are captured in a just war pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so
persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors... All theologians are
unanimous on this." 5
We have been unable to find anyone other than St. Augustine and Bartholomew De Las Casas,
opposing the institution of slavery prior to this
time. People considered it quite appropriate for one person to own another human being as
a piece of property. Paul's comment in Galatians 3:28: "There
is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free...for ye are all one in Christ
Jesus." did not appear to have been followed, except perhaps spiritually.
Neither were the statements by Jesus about treating one's fellow humans accepted and
||1667: The Virginia Assembly passes a bill which denied that a
Christian baptism grants freedom to slaves.|
||The Anglican Church in Virginia started a debate, which
lasted for 50 years, on whether slaves should be given Christian
instruction. They finally decided in the affirmative. However the
landowners and slave owners opposed this program. They feared that
if the slaves became Christians, there would be public support to
recognizing them as full human beings and to grant them freedom.
||The Roman Catholic church in South America insisted that
slaves be allowed to marry. They forbade "promiscuous
relationships between slaves as well as between masters and
slaves, and it encouraged marriage instead of informal mating."
||In the predominately Protestant North America, slaves were
considered property and were not allowed to marry. The courts
decided that a slave owner should be free to sell his property has he
wished. This overturned laws which prevented slave families from being
broken up and the individuals sold separately. 6
Author Eddie Becker wrote:
"Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among
white Americans was virtually nonexistent. Settlers in the 17th and early 18th
centuries came from sharply stratified societies in which the wealthy savagely
exploited members of the lower classes. Lacking a later generation’s belief in
natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of
In a book review, Dennis Hidalgo stated that the
"... most abominable aspect of the slave trade, was fueled by the
idea that Africans, even children, were better off Christianized under a system
of European slavery than left in Africa amid tribal wars, famines and paganism" 7
Related essays on this site:
"St. Isidore of Seville," New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, at:
Mark Brumley, "Let My People Go: the Catholic Church and Slavery,"
Edward C. Rogers, "Slavery illegality in all ages and nations,"
(1955). Online at:
"The Saints of Canada," at:
Leander, "Quaestiones Morales Theologicae," Lyons 1668 - 1692,
Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3. Quoted in Reference 17.
Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism,"
Dennis Hidalgo, Review of Willie F. Page, "The Dutch Triangle: The
Netherlands and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1621-1664," Garland Publishing,
(1997), Page xxxv, in H-Review, 1998-AUG, at:
Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2007-AUG-24
Author: B.A. Robinson