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The Role of Christianity in African Slavery



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Estimates vary, but somewhere between 20 million and 60 million people were captured, enslaved and brought to the Americas. Millions more died in the slave raids, in the dungeons and in the Middle Passage.

From: Through slavery’s darkest passages – Ghana’s slave dungeonsEssence, Special Travel Section, October 1992. Other estimates are lower (BBC gives 15 million), though they take into account only those Africans who made it into the New World alive:

According to the best current estimates a total of 10 to 11 million living slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. (Since others died in wars and in transit, Africa’s total population loss was much greater.) — American Slavery, 1619-1877, by Peter Kolchin

The above only deals with those that were displaced to the Americas, not with those who never made it. Not all were transported across the Atlantic, as others were taken to Europe (Spain and England, for instance). Additionally, not all the records and details of the human cargo of the various slave ships have been preserved. Therefore these estimates are highly conservative.


The number of Africans who died from the Christian slave trade cannot be estimated from the above. The conditions in which they were imprisoned on land and on board ship were not conditions suited to life but conducive to death.
Shock (from trauma, physical shock from branding, abuse, mistreatment), malnutrition, immobility caused by being chained, infections from untreated wounds, spread of diseases in the confined spaces of both dungeons and ship hulls; these would all have greatly reduced the odds of survival of even the most healthy. Considering that women and children were transported along with men – not all of whom would have been at their strongest, it is fair to say that many millions would never have made it alive. There is no estimate available for the chances of survival in those circumstances.

  • Large numbers of Africans were killedby the Christians trying to capture and enslave them
  • Once captured, many languished and died in the slave dungeonsin Africa
  • During some voyages, as much as 50% of the captured Africans onboard did not make it out alive.
  • Those who made it to the Americas, particularly to the South, were worked to death


Of the 11 million that crossed into the New World:

America absorbed relatively few of these Africans. The great bulk–more than 85 percent of the total–went to Brazil and the various Caribbean colonies of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Others went to the Spanish mainland. …the colonies that would later become the United States, imported only 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, some 6 percent of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World. From this small beginning, however, emerged by far the largest slave population in the Western Hemisphere. …in the United States, where well before the importation of slaves was legally ended in 1808 an excess of births over deaths produced what demographers refer to as “natural population growth.” …By contrast, Brazil and the Caribbean were graveyards for Africans and their descendants.
— American Slavery, 1619-1877, Peter Kolchin

Could any Christian say anything that is essentially worse than this of the slavery that existed in Pagan times, eighteen centuries earlier? In sheer brutality the Christian slave system of America outdid anything known to the ancient world.

“The policy of the slaveholder,” says Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, “was to kill off the negroes by overwork and buy more.”

— Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen

Though in North America more Africans managed to “survive” in spite of everything, most of those that made it to South America never had a chance.

Inhumane treatment on capture

Slave dungeons (with central Churches) built on indigenous shrines to Gods

In what is now Burkina Faso, Ghana’s neighbor to the north, the population was nearly decimated by the slave trade. Most who survived the raidscame to either Cape Coast or Elmina (Portuguese for “the mine”). The Dutch and Portuguese bought slaves from Elmina and shipped them via seagoing communal coffins to Brazil, Surinam and other colonies. Slaves from Cape Coast went to the Caribbean and the United States.Elmina, built by the Portuguese in 1482, was the first substantial structure erected by Europeans on the African continent. Around 1792, when trade in the black gold of human bondage became more profitable than looting yellow gold from the land, the storehouses at Elmina were converted into slave dungeons where men, women and children were held for months at a time. The governor had his pick of the women. The difficult ones were chained to cannonballs in the courtyard and made to stand in the hot sun for hours. Two female slave dungeons held 150 slaves each. And a thousand men at a time were crowded into a space only slightly larger.

Today there is a shrine in one of these vaults, erected by the people of Elmina. And deep inside the dungeon at Cape Coast there is another, reclaiming the land that had been profaned for more than 200 years. The slave castles had been built on sites held sacred by the indigenous peoples. At Cape Coast, the colonizers had replaced a shrine dedicated to one of the 77 tutelary gods, Nana Taabiri, with the imposing structure of the church that stands at the center of every slave castle. The church sat uncomfortably atop another shrine at Christianborg (now Osu Castle and the seat of state) in Accra and on still others at many other forts and castles. And in every case, the strategy had been the same: The church, backed by cannons and fortified by stone, was intended to obliterate the Africans’ link to their gods, their ancestors and anything else that empowered them. After independence the shrines were reestablished, in stone, on their original sites, where the people continue to pay their respects to their traditional deities today.

From: Through slavery’s darkest passages – Ghana’s slave dungeonsEssence, Special Travel Section, October 1992.


In the dungeons

It takes a visit to Cape Coast Castle to bring home the horror of the word dungeon. The cell where male slaves were kept, sometimes for months, is underground and as close to hell as human beings have come on earth. It is hot down there, and there is no light and no air. People were branded, thrown into these unsanitary holes with their open wounds, and starved, some shackled to the walls. And there they waited in their own waste, waste which after 200 years had raised the floor two feet. That is what you walk on when you visit the dungeon at Cape Coast. It is a place filled with the moans and crying of ghosts. The screams of those who were driven insane echo down through the centuries from the scratches they made in the walls with their fingers. Many died, and their bodies were thrown into the sea outside the castle. A thousand men were crowded into a space that would make 150 panic. Five hundred females at a time–mostly young girls–were thrown into similar conditions another dungeon. Those who survived the months of waiting were stripped naked, both male and female, and herded through a dark, narrow tunnel to the beach, the waiting ships and an unimaginable future.

From: Through slavery’s darkest passages – Ghana’s slave dungeonsEssence, Special Travel Section, October 1992.


Inhumane treatment in the slave ships

Pious Christian slave traders and how they captured Africans

The English Parliament authorized [the slave trade] in 1708, and the most famous trader, Sir John Hawkins, who was so pious that he gave such names as “Jesus” to his ships, was knighted for his success. — A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, Joseph McCabe

The ship in which Hawkins commenced the trade was named The Jesus…..

Other ships of this pious Christian slave trader John Hawkins bore the names Solomon and John the Baptist.

I have referred to the slave-ship Thomas. Here is a copy of one of the bills of lading:–

Shipped by the grace of God in good order, and well conditioned by James Dodd, in and upon the good ship “Thomas,” master under God for this present voyage, Captain Peter Roberts, and now at anchor at Calabar, and by God’s grace bound for Jamaica, with 630 slaves, men and women, branded D.D., and numbered in the margin 31 D.D., and are to be delivered in good state, and well conditioned, at the port of Kingston (the dangers of the seas and mortality alone excepted) unto Messrs. Broughton & Smith. In witness whereof the master and purser of the ship “Thomas” hath affirmed to this bill of lading, and God send the good ship to her destined port in safety, Amen. October 31st, 1767.

This unctuous piety was made to cover the most villainous traffic that the world has ever seen. African villages were burned, and the inhabitants–men, women, and children–marched to the coast, branded, pushed into the holds, and carried away to Kingston or elsewhere for sale. Parties of negroes were invited on board ships to trade, and were seized and made slaves. Slaves that fell sick were so much useless lumber, and were often thrown overboard out of hand. Some attempt to keep them in health was made by bringing them out of the hold in batches and compelling them to jump about the decks under the persuasive influence of a cat-o’-nine-tails. The deaths of a few slaves more or less, however, roused no comments so long as the dividends remained high. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen (1931)


Ships packed beyond regulations, where even strong men died of disease

A ship of 300 tons was allowed to carry 500 slaves, with a crew of 50. But these regulations seem to have been only nominal. Thus the work from which I am quoting gives the actual dimensions of a famous slave ship, the Brookes. The vessel … was allowed to carry 450 persons. As a matter of fact, she had carried 351 men, 127 women, 90 boys, and 41 girls–a total of 609. The length of the lower deck, on which the slaves were carried, was only 100 ft., and in this space the slaves were packed without regard for health or decency. …Had they been measured for coffins, not much less space could have been allowed; and coffins these ships often were. In fact, in some cases it was only possible for the slaves to lie down to sleep by arranging them alternately head to feet. So close were they, one could not walk without treading on them; but they were only slaves. One kind-hearted sailor, when passing over them, would remove his shoes, so as not to hurt them. So close and foul was the stench arising from the negroes, they have been known to be put down the hold strong and healthy at night, and to have been dead in the morning. A trader stated that, after remaining ten minutes in the hold, his shirt was as wet as if it had been in a bucket of water.
— Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen


Death toll – sometimes 50%

In the case of one Liverpool ship, the Thomas, carrying 630 slaves, 100 died on the voyage; but as the remaining 530 sold at Jamaica at £60 per head, the owners were, doubtless, well satisfied with the trip. In some cases, however, the mortality was much greater–running to fifty out of every hundred. All the slaves were not sold abroad; some were disposed of in Liverpool. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen


Inhumane treatment upon arrival

People branded like cattle, and mutilated – unlike cattle

In the colonial papers long lists of runaway slaves were advertised, most of them branded like so many cattle. The following will serve as specimens: “Robert, R.P. on each cheek, and Kingston, marked Yorke on each shoulder and breast.” Another is branded with “a cattle mark.” “An old woman with her two sons and two daughters, one of them big with child.” One man is to be recognised by his having had “both ears cropt”; another by having had “his nose and ears cut off.” … Most of the old Liverpool families were more or less steeped in the slave trade, and their enterprise made Liverpool the greatest slave town in Europe. Some of its “brands” were famous, particularly that of “D.D.” …the announcements of the sale and the descriptions of the slaves differs in no respect from those of cattle. …They were branded exactly as cattle are branded. The slave was made to kneel down, and the red-hot branding iron was placed on the bare flesh–usually on the buttock. No one, for a long time, seems to have seen anything unusual or cruel in this. It was just part of a commercial transaction. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen


Family bonds not recognised

Not counted as humans, their Christian captors cared not at all for existing family bonds. If African families were not already separated upon their capture in their homelands, they frequently would be upon entering the dungeon, when packed off into slave ships, on reaching their destination, or when sold to their new masters. Relationships formed and created by their descendants would not be recognised either, let alone respected.

Legally the slave was not a person at all; he was a chattel; and domestically the matter was well stated by a clergyman – the Rev. R. Breckenridge:

“In the eye of the law no coloured slave man is the husband of any wife in particular, nor any slave woman the wife of any husband in particular; no slave man is the father of any children in particular, and no slave child is the child of any parent in particular.”

— Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen


No bounds to cruelty

…a law of Louisiana, passed in 1806, which stipulated that a slave shall have at least two-and-a-half hours’ rest out of each twenty-four.

Not even a dog is refused sufficient sleep.

Mr. Weld, in his American Slavery as It Is, describes the condition of the slaves as follows:–

They are overworked, underfed, wretchedly clad and lodged, and have insufficient sleep; they are often made to wear round their necks iron collars armed with prongs, to drag heavy chains and weights at their feet while working in the fields….They are frequently flogged with the terrible severity, have red pepper rubbed into their lacerated flesh, and hot brine, spirits of turpentine, etc., poured over the gashes to increase the torture….Their ears are often cut off, their eyes knocked out, their bones broken, their flesh branded with hot irons….We shall show, not merely that such deeds are committed, but that they are frequent; not done in corners, but before the sun…perpetrated by magistrates, by professors of religion, by preachers of the Gospels, by governors of States, by gentlemen of standing, and by delicate females moving in the highest circles of society.

— Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen


Biblical justification

God Slaughters Blacks

II Chronicles 14:9: “And there came out against them Zerah the Ethiopian with an host of a thousand thousand, and three hundred chariots…” II Chronicles 14:12: So the LORD smote the Ethiopians before Asa, and before Judah; and the Ethiopians fled.

Comment: It appears that Black Christian Bible studies programs ignore these verses, for it says that the Lord God slaughtered over a million blacks. The association of black with evil goes far back in Western Christian culture. The early Church fathers, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo wrote about devils appearing as Ethiopians. …


God Accepts Slavery

Exodus 21:5-6: “And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.”

Comment: The Bible bears witness to the fact that God accepts not only slavery but violence against such slaves (in this case a awl driven through the ear) for the innocent statement of love for their master, wife and children. It came from precisely these verses that justified, in many peoples minds, the tortures inflicted on African slaves when they tried to leave their cruel masters in the American colonies. “Good” Christians of the day would drive nails and spikes through the ears of defenseless slaves whose only offense came from the will to no longer serve as slaves. …

The Curse of Ham

The “just and righteous” Noah (Gen.6:9, 7:1) plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and lies around naked in his tent. His son, Ham, happens to see his father in this condition. When Noah sobers up and hears “what his young son had done unto him” (what did he do besides look at him?), he curses not Ham, who “saw the nakedness of his father,” but Ham’s son, Canaan. “A servant of servants shall he [Canaan] be unto his brethren.” This is a typical case of biblical justice, and is one of many Bible passages that have been used to justify slavery.

And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. … And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. Gen.9:20-25


…the word “ham” has connotations of “hot” and “dark” in Semitic languages. To the ancient Israelites, as well as some modern Jews and Christians, the “children of Ham” had dark skin and lived in eastern Africa. Thus they see the “Curse of Ham” as a link with black skin and sexual license.


God Condones Slavery

Leviticus 25:44, KJV: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.” Leviticus 25:44, NRSV: “As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may aquire male and female slaves.”

Comment: The Biblical meaning rings clear: God not only condones slavery, but gives permission to buy and own slaves. The Southern United States fought The Civil War over such Scriptural teachings.

LinkLeviticus continues as follows:

Leviticus 25:45-46, KJV: Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever.


In his epistles to the Colossians, Paul had this to say to Christian slaves: Colossians 3:22: “Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord.”

Link More: Slavery and the Bible

Churches and slavery

African slavery … was without a doubt one of the worst form of slavery known to history. It was started in the fifteenth century by the Christian countries of western Europe. It was used mainly in the colonies to supply much needed manpower in the plantation of cotton, rice and sugar.


Brace says that “the guilt of this great crime rests upon the Christian Church as an organized body”. It is the same with the initiation of the trade. — A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, by Joseph McCabe

Denomination mattered little, for support for the racist creed ran the gamut from urban Episcopalians to country Baptists. — White Protestantism and the Negro, by David M. Reimers

First to start and last to end enslavement of Africans

Significantly, the beginnings of black slavery can be traced to the request of a Christian bishop, the Catholic Bishop of Chiapa in Mexico, Bartoleme de las Casas. In 1517 Padre Las Casas (he was not yet a bishop then) implored the King of Spain, Charles V, to allow the import of African slaves into the continent. Charles granted the request, made ostensibly on humanitarian grounds. Thus began the infamous Asiento, an “import” license for slave trade to Spanish controlled America. Eventually this trade expanded to North America. By 1860 a census in the US counted almost four and a half million slaves.


It is usual to blame this upon Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas… What Fiske, like every other impartial historian, tells is that Las Casas, who certainly did not like slavery, found that the Spaniards made the Indians hostile to Christianity by virtually enslaving them, and concluded that if there had to be choice between the two kinds of slavery, Indian or African, the latter–especially as the blacks could be made Christians–was to be preferred. He submitted this to Church and State in Spain, and the theologians concurred that the Church did not condemn slavery. Whatever measure of influence we ascribe to Las Casas, the plan was adopted, and the Churches of Spain, Portugal, France, England, and the American colonies, blessed the hideous traffic. — A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, Joseph McCabe



  • Europe’s first African slave market was opened by Papal decree.
  • In 1839, the Vatican defined just and unjust slavery. If the enslavement took place in a just manner, then slavery was still acceptable.

    “in the Lord all believers in Christ, of whatsoever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, Negroes, or other men of this sort; …or to reduce them to slavery…” — Pope Gregory XVI, Supremo Apostolatus, 1839

    Prior to this, all that had been required was to obtain papal permission to enslave a new people (to start slavery of Native Americans and of Africans).

  • Then, in 1873, Pope Pius IX prayed for the

    “wretched Ethopians in Central Africa”


    “Almighty God may at length remove the curse of Cham from their hearts.” (Cham is the same as Ham)

    Very humane of the Pope and the Church to pray for them, in spite of the fact that the Ham tale was but another Biblical nonsense story that made scapegoats out of various people. In reality, Ethiopians and other Africans have never been under a curse. (Besides, it’s not like the Church cared anything for the Ethiopians: the Vatican was all for Italy’s attack of Ethiopiain 1935.)

  • And of all the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church was the last to condemn all forms of slavery. It finally did so in 1888, after the Civil War between the pro-slavery South and pro-abolition North.


Where will you find the luminous wisdom, the austere and uncompromising idealism, of the Papacy on that subject [of black slavery]? It emerges clearly from all the controversy on the subject that the crime had two ecclesiastical roots apart from the greed of Spanish and Portuguese traders. The clergy decided that since the conversion of the Amer-indian’s was checked by the imposition of forced labour it was expedient (for the good of the Church) to employ Africans, and that the cruelty and misery which this involved for the Africans was compensated by the fact that it brought them into the Church outside of which — as the Church then taught — there was no salvation.A point which is never made in the endless controversy on this subject — at least I have never found it mentioned except by the Rev. Dr. Agate in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics — is that slavery was the more easily imposed upon the Africans because the Church had never condemned it. Most writers on the subject imagine a long interval between what they call ancient slavery and, the beginning of the African slave-trade; some, in fact many, suppose that, through the efforts of the Church of Rome, slavery had died with the pagan Romans. There was, on the contrary, as Dr. Agate shows, a continuous traffic in slaves. It was one of the chief industries, in the west of England (in Irish slaves) in the 10th Century, and it flourished in north Italy until the middle of the 15th Century, when the Turks destroyed the commerce of the Venetians and the Genoese. The heirs of these, the Spanish and Portuguese, merely transferred the traffic to the Atlantic. No Papal or theological pronouncement forbade them. Thomas Aquinas had, like Augustine, put the seal of Catholic scholarship upon it.

As to the abolition of the traffic we never find the Roman Church mentioned amongst the claimants of merit. It was not even a moral problem in Catholic lands until the French revolutionaries, whom the Pope anathematised, condemned it in their colonies. The moral guide of the universe failed to see what a Protestant apologist has called “the blackest crime of modern times.” It was only in the light of a skeptical age that the Popes realised that the brotherhood of man implied that all men, white, black, and yellow, Are brothers and had a right to freedom and a decent life. — The Church The Enemy Of The Workers, by Joseph McCabe, historian and former Franciscan monk

See more: The history of Church and slavery


Religious reasons used to institute and uphold slavery

…historian Drew Gilpin Faust suggested that “the Bible served as the core” of the “proslavery mainstream.”
Three kinds of religious arguments in behalf of slavery were most common.

  1. To Southerners steeped in the Bible and predisposed to look to precedent for guidance, the facts that the ancient Hebrews (God’s chosen people) owned slaves and that Jesus, who was not hesitant to condemn behavior that he considered immoral, never criticized slavery or reproached anyone for owning slavesseemed to provide clear divine sanction for the peculiar institution.
  2. So, too, did the specific biblical precedent provided by Noah’s curse of his son Ham, and through him his grandson Canaan, for Ham’s indiscreet gaze upon his father as he lay drunk and naked in his tent (Genesis 9:25: “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers”), a story that white Southerners frequently cited to indicate God’s condemnation of the black (or Hamitic) peoples to eternal slavery.
  3. But probably the most widespread and effective religious argument was the simple suggestion that slavery was part of God’s plan to expose a hitherto heathen people to the blessings of Christianity.

— American Slavery, 1619-1877, by Peter Kolchin

Further illustration of point 3:

As Presbyterian minister (and Georgia slave owner) Charles C. Jones argued in The Religious Instruction of the Negroes (1842), blacks “were placed under our control…not exclusively for our benefit but theirs also,” so they could receive moral and religious uplift; “we cannot disregard this obligation thus divinely imposed, without forfeiting our humanity, our gratitude, our consistency, and our claim to the spirit of christianity itself.”
Not only did the slaves adopt the general religion of their masters – christianity – but they also adhered to the same specific (usually protestant) denominations. … most often Baptists and Methodists, with much smaller numbers of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, and members of other sects. — American Slavery, 1619-1877, by Peter Kolchin

In like manner, those enslaved and set to work in South America, were mostly Catholics like their self-appointed owners. All of them, wherever they had ended up, were forced to relinquish their own indigenous pre-Christian religions, thus ensuring their cultural subjugation too.


American Churches

But despite all the horror and degradation of Christian slavery, less than a hundred years ago, the Churches stood as its great bulwark, supplying a religious sanction and a moral justification. Thus, in 1836, the Charlestown Union Presbyteryresolved–

that in the opinion of this Presbytery, the holding of slaves, so far from being a SIN in the sight of God, is nowhere condemned in his holy word; that it is in accordance with the example, or consistent with the precepts of patriarchs, apostles, and prophets, and that it is compatible with the most fraternal regard to the best good of those servants whom God may have committed to our charge.

— Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen

Both Protestants and Catholics defended their right to keep slaves, resting their arguments on the Bible where the “cursed” ancestry of Africans condemned them to slavery.

The record is worse for the churches in America. The Christians there did not stop to think whether the institution of slavery is, in itself immoral. Their chief concern was whether the Bible condoned or condemned it.The answer, as we have seen, was obvious. Thus the Christians in the U.S. supported slavery. In 1836 the South Carolina Methodist Conference declared that:

The Holy Scriptures, so far from giving any countenance to [the] delusion [of abolitionism] do unequivocally authorize the relation of master and slave.

In the same year, the editor of the journal of the Theological Seminary at Princeton, Charles Hodge wrote:

The assumption that slave holding is in itself a crime … is an error fraught with evil consequences. It not merely brings its advocates into conflict with the scriptures, but it does much to retard the progress of freedom: it embitters and divides the members of the community and it distracts the Christian Church.

A couple of years later, Hodge wrote that the abolitionists “consider their own light as more sure than the word set down in scripture.” [Referencing Margaret Knight, Honest to Man]
Of course the Bible was also used to specifically justify black slavery. The passage was Genesis 9:20-27. In this passage the story is told of how Ham, one of Noah’s sons saw him naked. Upon discovering this Noah pronounced his curse to Ham: “the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). Since the black Africans are generally believed to be the descendents of Ham (Genesis 10:6-20), this was intepreted to mean that African slaves are a natural result of this curse. One of Ham’s sons, (Genesis 10:6) was named Cush- which is Hebrew for “black”. By Hebrew tradition Cush was believed to be the ancestors of the Cushites, a black African tribe that settled in the south of Egypt.

Link (these Biblical passages would also greatly influence Rwanda) Four main American denominations splitover the issue of slavery, thereby forming northern and southern variants. Among them is the nation’s Baptist Church. The Southern Baptist Church owes it’s separate identity to the fact that it did not support the cause of the enslaved protestors and the abolitionists.


Supporting slavery, antagonising the abolitionists

It was this very atheistic Declaration [of Independence] which had inspired the “higher law” doctrine of the radical antislavery men. If the mischievous abolitionists had only followed the Bible instead of the godless Declaration, they would have been bound to acknowledge that human bondage was divinely ordained. The mission of southerners was therefore clear; they must defend the word of God against abolitionist infidels. — Sermon by Thomas Smyth (1861), minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, attacking the Declaration of Independence

— In His Image, But…: Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910, by H. Shelton Smith

In France, in his day [18th century], Voltaire estimated that the Church held between 50,000 and 60,000 slaves. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen

Wilberforce and Theodore Parker stated that, in their time, American Churches supported slavery: Presbyterians owned 80,000 slaves: Baptists 225,000, and Methodists 250,000. Many theological colleges hired out their slaves; and the northern states–including Boston–refused to allow Liberationists to lecture, calling them infidels, and deniers of the commands of holy writ. In 1788 the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel” refused to allow slaves to be educated, lest they should rebel (see Westminster Review, Dec. 1888). — Faiths of Man Encyclopedia of Religions, J.G.R. Forlong

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel employed slaves on its estates in the West Indies, and there were 80,000 black slaves in London as late as 1760 (Independent Review, October 1905). The American Churches, Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist, owned 600,000 slaves, and “the authority of nearly all the leading denominations was against the abolitionists,” says J. Macy in the chief and impartial recent American work (The Anti-Slavery Crusade, 1920, p. 74). The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian authorities, he shows, expelled any minister who advocated abolition. — A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, Joseph McCabe


The eighteenth century Anglican Church made it clear that Christianity freed people from eternal damnation, not from the bonds of slavery. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, wrote:

The Freedom which Christianity gives, is a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Domination of Men’s Lusts and Passions and inordinate Desires; but as to their outward Condition, whatever that was before, whether bond or free, their being baptised, and becoming Christians, makes no manner of Change in it.

— The Dark Side of Christian History, Helen Ellerbe

Even in 1832 [British PM] Mr Gladstone only proposed that Christian converts should be emancipated; and his father was a slave owner. — Faiths of Man Encyclopedia of Religions, J.G.R. Forlong


The clergy and Christian laity did nothing to further the cause of anti-slavery. When the abolitionist Lyold Garrison wanted to deliver a public speech on abolition in Boston, the only building he could obtain to speak in was that of Abner Kneeland, the editor of the Boston Investigator, who was once jailed for blasphemy. Most of the other available buildings belonged to the various Christian churches, all of which refused him permission to use them. Some clergymen actually went as far as attempting to get Lyold Garrison hanged!When abolition was first advocated in the U.S. in 1790, the politicians from the south used religious arguments against it. Some said that, correctly, the southern clergy “did not condemn either slavery or the slave trade.” while others asserted that the whole tone of the Bible “from Genesis to Revelation” was favorable to slavery.

It cannot be denied, therefore, that Christian churches on both sides of the Atlantic generally supported slavery. The Finnish anthropologist, Edward Westermark (1862-1939) in his book The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas(1908) stated that:

this system of [black] slavery, which at least in the British Colonies and the slave states, surpassed in cruelty the slavery of any pagan country, ancient or modern, was not only recognized by Christian governments, but was supported by the large bulk of the clergy, Catholic and Protestant alike.

Slavery was finally abolished in Christian England in 1833, in Christian America in 1865. The last Christian country to abolish slavery was Abyssinia, in 1942.



Who agitated for abolishing African slavery?

The call for the abolition of black slavery came not from Christians but from freethinkers generally. Slavery was abolished in France in 1791, not by the church, but by the atheistic founders of the revolution. In the U.S. the early critics of slavery, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), were all either freethinkers or Deists. Later the abolitionist cause was taken up by such people as Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), a Deist, Raplh Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a Unitarian minister turned free-thinker, and William Lyold Garrison (1805-1879), an agnostic. In England, the battle for the abolition of slavery was fought mainly by free-thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
While it cannot be denied that some Christians were involved in abolitionists movements, they were the exception rather than the rule. In some cases these Christians acquired their anti-slavery beliefs not from their religion. Take the example of the name most used by Christian apologists to show that Christians were opposed to slavery: William Wilberforce (1759-1833). [He was skeptical, an agnostic] the first thirty years of his life … [when] he developed his sense of abhorrence towards slavery. He was, at that time a Deist, as were his closest associates. [The Social Record of Christianity, Joseph McCabe] Furthermore, his chief allies in his battle for abolitionism were Quakers, dissenters and free-thinkers, not the mainstream Christians. The support from the established churches for his actions was described by Wilberforce himself as “disgracefully lukewarm.” In fact, many conservative members of the clergy actively tried to suppress and obstruct his anti-slavery cause.

LinkAmong the Christian denominations, the Quaker Church was the first to oppose slavery.

Speaking generally, the only Christian body in America that consistently condemned slavery was the Quakers; but even these, while favourable to emancipation, kept aloof from the Abolitionists. It was left for [Deist] Thomas Paine to sound the first clear and effective note on the subject. His article on “Justice and Humanity,” demanding emancipation, was published in March, 1775. The article attracted considerable attention, and thirty-five days later led to the establishment of an American Anti-Slavery Society. And it is only fitting that the campaign against slavery thus inaugurated should have been triumphantly closed by Abraham Lincoln, another Freethinker. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen

It was the Deists Franklin and Paine, inspired by the “infidel” literature of France, who initiated the protest – the first shot was Paine’s African Slavery in America (1775) – and the effective Abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century was led by Rationalists. In England, Locke first attacked slavery (in his Treatise on Civil Government, 1689), calling it a “vile and miserable estate of man.” The Church still remained silent–Tabrum sophistically quotes clerics, whose protest was against the cruelties practised in the trade–while the Deistic and Atheistic protest in France gathered strength and was echoed in England (Pope, Adam Smith, etc.).
The standard authority on the English movement is the History of the Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (2 vols., 1808) of T. Clarkson, who, with Wilberforce, organized the first committee. It does not tell that Wilberforce derived the idea from Rationalist literature in his sceptical youth, or that Clarkson was inspired by the Quakers. It is enough here to say that a few clergymen out of the many thousands, joined the movement, but it was powerless until it was taken up by the great Rationalists, Fox and Pitt, in the Government, and by Bentham in the country. The Churches, with the story of three centuries of barbarism unfolded before them, were still dumb, and one has the usual difficulty, of understanding the mentality of Christian writers who boast that a dozen ministers, out of the tens of thousands who had seen the horrors of slavery, concluded that it was not in accord with Christian principles.
— A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, Joseph McCabe

Prof. Francis Newman points out that Republican France was the first European state to make an act against slavery. — Faiths of Man Encyclopedia of Religions, J.G.R. Forlong


Christian apologetics: “the Ancients were worse”

…anyone who compares ancient slavery with modern negro slavery–a system that was actually instituted by Christians–will find it hard to point out in what direction the modern was an improvement on the ancient slavery, while it is easy to show that in some respects it was distinctly worse. And there is always the important distinction that, while ancient slavery represented a phase of social development, and tended to something better, modern, or Christian, slavery stood for a deliberate retrogression in social life. … In old Rome, as we have seen, encouragement was given to acts of manumission [giving slaves their freedom]. In Christian America the reverse policy was followed. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen (1931)

Greco-Roman slavery had nothing to do with skin-colour

The non-Christian Greco-Roman world did not enslave people based on colour, like Christians of a later era did to Africans and Native Americans. The ancients turned prisoners of war into slaves instead of killing them. These naturally included other Mediterranean peoples like Thracians, Gauls, Basques in larger numbers than those of more distant lands. Several modern films try to be politically correct vis-a-vis Christianity’s racist slavery by implying that the Romans must have been racist also (see for instance the recent TV remake of Spartacus). However, this is utterly wrong and shows that Hollywood can’t step beyond the current worldview. Racism did not yet exist in the ancient world.

Although the Greeks and Romans considered others outside their respective cultures to be barbarians and themselves as civilised, they never took skin colour into consideration for this.

…there was no distinction of colour.The Roman or the Greek, might consider himself superior to others, but his superiority was based on considerations that were personal, national, or cultural. When Rome conquered a people, absorption in the empire almost automatically brought a share in the empire’s dignities and privileges. Inter-marriage took place…The theory that the control of the world should rest with the white races is a modern theory, and, as a consequence, colour has in modern times carried with it a badge of inferiority, or divinely ordained servitude. Roman religion was polytheistic, inclusive, and tolerant. Christianity was monotheistic, exclusive, and intolerant. And as the latter extended its sway over the world of politics it introduced the spirit of exclusiveness and intolerance into all departments of life. “Saved” and “lost” in theology were the equivalents of superior and inferior in sociology. And as the overwhelming bulk of the coloured people remained outside the Christian pale, the development of the colour bar was easy. Christianity gave just that religious sanction which slavery required for its ethical justification. Slavery applied to whites was revolting; slavery applied to blacks became part of the divinely appointed order.

It was the Christian who elaborated the theory that black slavery was permissible because the whole of the dark-skinned people were suffering from the curse God pronounced on Ham, the son of Noah. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen (1931)


No comparison with the brutalities of Christian slavery

In a larger degree the slave in Rome, in addition to his employment in agriculture and in the household, engaged in all trades and trading. The whole field of trade and industry was open to the slave, and Professor Dill comes close to the facts when he says that

“the slave class of antiquity really corresponded to our free labouring class.”

It will not do, therefore, to identify Pagan with Christian slavery.Slavery as an institution existed in both cases, but, as Professor Cairnes says,

“We look in vain in the records of antiquity for a traffic which in extent, in systematic character…can be regarded as the analogue of the modern slave trade.”

The Christian slave trade represents one of the most frightful and systematic brutalities the world has ever known.
… “Christianity met the movement by turning freemen into slaves. Under Paganism, bodies only were enslaved; minds were left free. Christianity enslaved both body and mind.— Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen (1931)

The topic of slavery in the ancient world is further discussed in the section Lying about slavery.


Christian apologetics: the Moslems were just as bad

Christians apologists point to the Islamic slave trade and its numerous cruelties. The following excuses are among those listed:

  • Islamic slave markets had long been capturing and selling Africans as slaves. They were only officially closed long after the start of the 20th century. Initial European traders purchased African slaves from the Islamic slave markets in Arabia, so Christianity didn’t invent African slavery.
  • Sudan’s Arabian north still captures, enslaves and trafficks African Sudanese from the south. Christians additionally like to point out that the African Sudanese are mainly Christian, though they sometimes forget to mention that a significantnumber of those captured still follow their pagan religions. These non-Christians are also among those enslaved.
  • The Islamic slave trade was race-based too. The African slaves were very numerous in Arabian countries and Iranian countries under Islam. In Iraq, there used to be many enslaved Africans. Yet there’s nary a trace of them to be seen there today, except for a very few from recent times. This is because Moslem slavers employed castration of Africans to prevent them from marrying and having children with other slaves or with the local Moslem Arabians and Iranians. On the other hand, many slaves from Central Asia and north-west Europe who were sold into the markets all the way up to the 10th century, were not sterilised or segregated from the Islamic population. They were called Mamluks (literally “white slave”, which much later on also became the name of a ruling Moslem dynasty which had some slave ancestry).
  • Although slaves were forced to become Christian upon their arrival in the Americas, Moslems had done the same to those they had enslaved. Either immediately upon capture, or at some point during their enslavement, non-Moslem people had to take on the enslaving religion.

Though true, how do the above exhonerate Christianity from its complicity in slavery and racism?

  • Islam, not Christianity invented the African slave trade: Although Christians did initially purchase African slaves from Moslem Arabia’s slave markets, this act in itself shows that they condoned slavery. And the cruelty with which the Africans were treated shows that they did not care about their victims. Eventually, the Christian Europeans thought that since Africa was full of people, they could set up their own slave markets to capture and sell Africans without having to pay the Moslems. However, slavery itself already existed and Christianity did not learn it from the Moslems. Monasteries had been keeping slaves for centuries, before Columbus even set foot in the Americas. See the History of Church and slavery.
  • Islamic slavery in Sudan today:In pointing out the crimes of Moslems here, Christian apologists sidestep the manner in which many of the pre-Christian Africans in south Sudan are still being converted to Christianity. This is often accomplished through unethical means and at times through force: the war between the Moslem Arabian north and Christian south has now started involving the rest of the population. The two main sides are fighting over converting the remaining non-Christian non-Islamic Sudanese. The north enslaves them and converts them to Islam, whilst in the south the Christian “liberation” armies are converting them with threats. Besides which, both northern and southern armies are forcing the remaining population to join up.
  • The Islamic slave trade was racist too, therefore racism was not Christian: Racism in the Islamic slave trade may be independent of Christianity, but this also works the other way. Christians were not inspired by Islam either: they did not look further than Biblical and Church teachings for the source of their racism. Contrasting the two is moot, since both religious institutions were racist in enslaving. Moslems sterilised most African slaves (whilst the opposite was true for the white slaves):True. However, enslaved Africans in the Americas were often not even allowed to marry people even of their own nationality unless it suited their masters. They’d be separated from their spouses and their children taken away at any time. Although this was certainly short of sterilisation, it is nevertheless still population control.
  • Moslems also converted the enslaved Africans to their faith: Again, how does this make Chrisitanity’s case any better? The fact is, neither religion was voluntarily chosen by the Africans. Both required the unwilling persons to relinquish their original religion and Gods, and forced them to accept the new faith.


  • Race and Slavery in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis
  • The Role of Islam in African Slavery, part I and part II at About.com. These two articles are instructive. However, some of the other articles on Slavery at About.com tend to not investigate the matter in depth. For instance, they ignore the level of Christian input into Europe’s African slavery, which was very much a Christian institution. The author(s) should have shown the same level of investigative interest in discussing this as they had done with Islam’s role in slavery. A final criticism is that the article tends to be too lenient towards the European colonisation of Africa (after the period of enslavement). Colonisation brought with it its own missionary and imperialistic goals which wreaked a different form of havoc on the continent. See Congo and Rwanda.

Christian apologetics: Africans participated in the slave trade

This usually tends to be the final excuse given. Although certain African kingdoms most definitely did participate in selling slaves (capturing and selling people from rival or enemy kingdoms), it bears noting the names and religions of the African slave traders and kings. They tend to be either of the Christian or Moslem persuasion. An example would be the 16th century King Alfonso of the Congo, whose courtiers wore European dress. The kingdom’s hierarchy was also changed to work like that of Portugal: with dukes, counts, etc. This shows that Africans had internalised European Christian ideas on slavery. After all, Portuguese missionaries had been sent to the Congo since the generation preceeding Alfonso’s kingship, for the express purpose of converting their elite (thereby making the acquisition of African slaves easier for Christian Portugal).

Eventually, a few unconverted African nations retaliated by returning the favour: in their turn, they sold people they captured from Christian-ruled Congo and Islamicised African lands. In the end, this rush to enslave enemy populations within Africa, was only to the benefit of the Arabian and European traders.

Today’s African apologists – who attack only Christian slavery of Africans but remain silent on (or even defend!) the Islamic slave trade of Africans – tend to be Moslem, predictably. Neither of these religions are indigenous to Africans, and both were imposed by force. Today’s African adherents of these two religions tend to suffer from ignorance or selective amnesia on the matter.


The brutal colonisation of the Congo

Congo was terrorised and its people mutilated under the Christian colonial rule of Belgium:

Before 1874 the Congo basin was a well-populated district, inhabited by a number of uncivilised [the 2nd to last paragraph here will contrast this with ‘civilisation’] tribes. These tribes were engaged more or less in tribal wars, which were largely a result of contact with the whites, since they were generated and perpetuated chiefly on account of slave raids.It was also at this period that there developed an intensified “scramble for Africa.” England, France and Portugal already owned possessions there, and Germany and Italy became also desirous of acquiring possessions. So also did Belgium, which had been an independent kingdom under Leopold since 1831. Leopold’s method was to form an International African Association–of course, with the usual professions of piety and disinterestedness. A lavish expenditure on the Press and in other directions gained for the Association the support of public opinion in Britain; and largely in order to check the supposed designs of France, Great Britain agreed to a West African Conference in 1884. The Conference opened its sittings “in the name of Almighty God,” and the result of its deliberations was the handing over of certain territory to the control of the International African Association, under certain stipulated conditions. Needless to say, no representative of the natives was present at the Conference. The Conference gave what didn’t belong to it to an Association that had no claim to what it received.

In August, 1885, King Leopold notified the signatories that his Association would henceforth be known as the “Congo Free State,” and that he himself was monarch of the domain. The whole of the population of the area was thus handed over, and the cruelty and heartless exploitation of the people almost passes belief. A population of about two millions was converted by a stroke of the pen into a nation of slaves, under the control of officials whose brutalities beggar description.

The Belgian Secretary of State wrote to the Governor-General that the officials

“must neglect no means of exploiting the forests,”

and they did not. They were paid a bonus on the rubber and ivory collected, and at the point of the rifle and to the crack of the whip the natives were driven forth to collect what was required. Villages were raided, the natives seized, and released in order to collect the ivory and rubber. Nearly fourteen million pounds’ worth of goods was forced from the natives in seven years. If the people refused or rebelled, or failed to bring in what was required, punishment–death or mutilation, or death and mutilation–followed. Some few travellers and missionaries sent home to England and America reports of the atrocities–reports that were discreetly shelved.


The native troops employed proved their zeal in bringing back to their officers the severed hands of those who had been murdered–in one case 160 hands, in other cases fifty or eighty. This, said our own Consul, was not the native custom; it was “the deliberate act of the soldiers of a European administration…obeying the positive orders of their superiors.” The photographs published in Mark Twain’s book of the children so treated place the fact of the mutilations beyond doubt. … Whole districts were depopulated. Of eight villages with a population of over 3,000, only ten persons were left. Of another district the population dropped in fifteen years from 50,000 to 5,000. The Bolangi tribe, formerly numbering 40,000 sank to 8,000. King Leopold, it is calculated, netted a profit of between three and five millions sterling, and could call God to witness the purity of his motives and his desire to promote civilisation.
… The silence of the missionary societies was…striking. Mr. [E.D.] Morel points out that, although plenty of information was available, the executives of the missionary societies took no action, and “with three exceptions,” no missionary gave public expression to his experiences until October, 1903. The Roman Catholic missionaries were altogether silent until 1903 – was not Leopold a devout Catholic? And when Mr. Morel visited the United States of America in 1904 to ventilate the Congo horror, he was bitterly opposed by Cardinal Gibbon, the leading Catholic ecclesiastic in the United States. — Christianity, Slavery and Labour, by Chapman Cohen (1931)

Leopold reigns for a day in Kinshasa– The Guardian, February 4, 2005

King Leopold, who never set foot in the Congo, controlled the vast country as his personal colony from 1885 to 1908, when it was handed over to Belgian government rule.During those decades his agents enslaved its people to harvest rubber, beating workers with a hippo-hide whip known as the chicotte and severing the hands of men, women and children who failed to meet their quotas.

As many as 10 million Congolese are estimated to have died as a result of executions, unfamiliar diseases and hunger.

There is still no end to the tragedy in Congo. The violence and strife that the Christian imperialists introduced in the 19th century continues today to drain the region of millions of lives. In the last 6 years or so, 3 million Congo people have died: killed by continuous internal warfare and the famine it induced. While its people are kept so occupied, the country’s vast resources in gold and oil are being plundered by foreign nations.

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