If you believe some corners of the Internet, slavery happened because of the Bible.
According to memes and half-baked ahistorical analysis, the Bible condones slavery, white people enslaved black people because Scripture told them to, and the success of slavery was guaranteed as long as the enslaved Africans were forcibly converted to Christianity. That’s it in a nutshell, right? Let’s just end this blog post here! But Christianity’s relationship to slavery is actually more complex than that…
The first group to formally petition Parliament for the cessation of British involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the Quakers in 1783. The Quakers were one of a few dissenting groups of Christians who were unhappy with the Church of England, and began practising differing expressions of Christianity after the English Civil War in the 1600s. As well as petitioning Parliament, the Quakers published and distributed anti-slavery literature that amongst other things, called out those who professed to be Christian but were involved in trading humans like animals. These religious activists did not skirt around the instances of slavery recorded in the Bible. They directly acknowledged them as a symptom of fallen humanity, and clearly advocated for the equality of all using New Testament Scripture, whilst warning of the sure judgement of God that would fall upon those who participated in brutalising their fellow man.
The testimony of James Ramsey, a former naval surgeon, was another pamphlet distributed that left a deep impression on the collective conscience of the time. Ramsey had resigned from the navy after seeing firsthand the treatment of enslaved Africans aboard British ships transporting their ill-gotten human cargo across the Atlantic. After his resignation he lived in St Kitts where he became an ordained reverend and also tried to improve the lives of enslaved Africans on the plantations that he visited, antagonising government officials and plantation owners in the process.
Amongst the general public these arguments began gaining momentum. The obvious humanity of the enslaved Africans coupled with the Christian moral argument was hard to ignore. Until then the most convincing arguments for the Slave Trade had been economic and imperialistic, but the weight of these two positions paled in comparison to the burden that now weighed on the wider public’s conscience. In an effort to fight back pro-slavery groups changed track, attempting to answer the arguments put forth by Christian abolitionists in kind. They found their own reverends to write literature on the legitimacy of slavery, while also playing on the ignorance of a society that knew nothing about life on the rich coasts of West Africa. They claimed that the people shipped across the seas were in fact criminals, who would otherwise be sacrificed by their communities should they have stayed in their homeland. They also argued that they were merely transporting a “surplus” population, who were being saved from starvation and given a better quality of life in the West Indies. The White Saviour Complex, and the lies that it employs to justify its exploitation, are nothing new.
In terms of religious arguments, the moral gymnastics used by pro-slavery clergy is almost amusing. In a pamphlet entitled “Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade”, Reverend Raymund Harris argued for the slave trade on a technicality. Not being able to ignore the horror and indignity of forcible enslavement, he instead put forth the suggestion that slavery itself was fine, it was just being practiced wrong. Reading this I wonder if once again, he is playing on the ignorance of the public who are being addressed. While citing Abraham as an example of a Biblical slave owner (conflating the very different positions of bondservant and slave), Harris very noticeably cuts a wide, silent berth around Exodus and the liberation of enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. It seems to me that anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of Scripture and Bible stories could find glaring holes in his arguments. However, this was a time where many people’s access to religion and Christianity may still have been mediated by clergy, although literacy rates in Europe were rising.
Perhaps in an effort to assuage his own guilt, Harris’ pamphlet ends by saying that he had hoped to include some notes on the “proper treatment” of enslaved people, but that he unfortunately “did not have the time” to do so. Of course his pro-slavery sponsors had no interest in creating better living conditions for the enslaved people who turned over incredible profit for their plantations. James Ramsey had argued previously that even on a purely economic level it made sense to treat enslaved labourers better. Better living conditions would improve their efficiency and reduce the horrific turnover of human life on each plantation. But unsurprisingly, this advice was largely ignored.
You may be wondering where pro-slavery groups found ordained clergy to argue their case, or perhaps the answer is quite clear. Many churches relied directly on the generosity of wealthy Englishmen for the land that their beautiful church buildings sat on, as well as money for their upkeep. How did these wealthy Englishmen amass such a fortune, or what investments did they make that kept their pockets fat and hands generous? A lot, if not all, of them had direct and indirect stakes in West Indian plantations, as well as the Slave Trade that kept the plantations going. It is understandable then why the Church of England would not wish to bite the hand that fed it, lest their landlords decide to evict them, or stop paying for the stained glass windows and golden altars that made their churches look so impressive. This also explains why the most vocal Christian opposition for the Slave Trade came not from an established institution that was reliant upon the status quo, but from non-conformist, grassroot expressions of Christianity who had allegiance to none but the faith that they professed.
(You may also have heard the position that tries to downplay the moral arguments’ influence on the abolition of slavery, claiming instead that its end was really a result of it not being financially viable to continue. However, most historical scholars agree that slavery continued to turn handsome profits for all who were involved right up until it finally ended in Britain in 1833.)
Christianity was not blameless when it came to the Slave Trade, but it was not solely at fault either. Here we find Christianity as a cultural phenomenon that was simultaneously both on the right and wrong side of history, depending on how those who professed this faith chose to respond to their convictions. Also, it is important to note that enslaved black people were not just sitting and waiting for white men to liberate them. They too were fighting for their freedom, many taking direct inspiration from the Christian faith that they held. But more on that another time…