Investigator No. 76 2001 January


Investigator's debate about slavery comprised seven articles:
1    The Bible On Slavery 76 Anonymous
2    Apologetics & Slavery – A Critique  79 K Straughen
3    The Bible Opposes Slavery  80 Anonymous
4    The Bible & Slavery – A Final Reply 81 K Straughen
5    Christians, Ethics and Slavery 81 B Potter
6    The Bible Against Slavery 82 Anonymous
7    Does the Bible Condone Slavery? 84 J Bergman



(Investigator 76, 2001 January)


Some criticisms of the Bible by Mr Straughen and Mr Dowling in Investigator 60, 68, 69 and 71 contain misunderstandings that require detailed replies.  In this article we'll consider slavery.  Straughen and Dowling claimed slavery is evil and the Bible condones slavery. Many skeptical websites agree. For example:

Slavery was established, regulated, supported and sanctioned by the Bible.

Slavery…and genocide are…values promoted by the Bible.

Other websites disagree.  Herb Vander Lugt, for example discusses: What Does the Bible Really Say About Slavery?

George Bourne (1780-1845) condemned American slavery in Condensed Anti Slavery Bible Argument (1845).



South Australian academics Rodney Allen and Ian Hunt, of the Centre of Applied Philosophy at Flinders University, argue for the reinstitution of slavery – but slavery with safeguards.  The idea is to: "solve…problems of long-term unemployment and socially excluded underclasses.

Slave buyers would take people out of the welfare system and provide for their needs: "The institution of slavery would be a huge help in stemming the tide of tax payer funded welfare payments."
Needy people could then offer themselves as slaves for set periods such as ten years. The law would regulate types of work permitted and prevent maltreatment. An "Inspector of Slavery" would ensure no mistreatment occurs. Slave owners could not split up families.

Such benign, voluntary slavery is analogous to a stint in the army, or to a work contract, or to the position of mid-20th century wives.


Critics often argue that an Almighty God could easily stop evil. God could, if God exists, make the world pain-free, happy and without slavery instantly.

A simplified answer appears in the "Four Skeptics" debate. (Investigator 63 to 72)

The answer is that the original humans wanted to rule themselves without God.  How well humans would do at governing and in choosing values independently of God is an experiment.  Most subsequent humans showed by their choices and actions that they approved of the experiment.

The Bible indicates that social structures and policies such as kingdom-type rule, animal sacrifices, polygamy, slavery, war, idolatry, infanticide, prisons and torture and maiming are of human origin. Such practices were instituted by humans independently of God in trying to build viable societies.

Several examples:

According to the Bible God ordained monogamous marriage of one man to one woman. (Genesis 3)  Jesus pointed to Genesis 3 to argue for such 1:1 marriages.  Humans, however, thought up polygamy. (Genesis 4:19)

Genesis 3 shows humans initially having two-way communication with God. Humans, however, invented ritualistic worship including animal and grain sacrifices. (Genesis 4:1-5)

Genesis 1 to 3 also has implications for slavery. Genesis 1:27 teaches:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:28 lists what things humans should "dominate" – not each other but the "earth…fish…birds…every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Therefore, if anyone has a right to regard humans as property it would be God – because he created them. But Genesis does not portray God as insisting on such a right. He instead permits humans to be autonomous and even rebel against him and go their own way. Furthermore "God", by definition, is not owned but free – and this should therefore be true of anyone "in God's image".

All this we infer from statements in Genesis 1 to 3.

The New Testament teaches the reconciliation between God and humans. Humanity is "ransomed" or "purchased" by Jesus punished on their behalf:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son… (John 3:16)
From this doctrine it again follows that if anyone has the right to own other humans it would be the God who ransomed or "bought" them. Hence, slaves should try to "gain freedom":
If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity…
You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Corinthians 7:21, 23)


Slavery was an integral part of ancient society. It allowed debtors to pay off debt with work, thieves to pay for things they stole, the poor to escape poverty, and prisoners of war to be kept alive.

The Law of Moses is in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This Law was, the Bible says, a covenant (=legal contract) between God and Israel. (Psalm 147:19-20)

The Law did not oppose social institutions that humans had already previously set up except for devastating ones such as idolatry, sacrifices of children to idols, maiming of slaves, torture, religious prostitution, dangerous sexual practices, working people or animals to death, and punishing parents for children's crimes.

Other social/cultural institutions – ones that could be made benign – the Law regulated to minimize the harm.

As indicated above, slavery is not necessarily harmful. If slavery is regulated and made benign it would resemble a work contract.

Slavery by the Law of Moses was benign. Exploitation of widows and orphans whether slaves or not was forbidden. (Exodus 20:17; 21:2, 11, 26-32)  Female betrothed slaves could not be sexually violated. (Leviticus 19:20)  Hebrew slaves were set free after six years – unless they chose to remain slaves. (Exodus 21:2-7; Deuteronomy 15:12)  Every 50th year was a "Jubilee".  Israelite slaves were freed; farms that had been sold and sold houses in unwalled villages were returned to former owners. (Leviticus 25:35-42)

Thus the Law guarded against permanent slavery and permanent impoverishment that could lead to slavery. (Crossan 1998 pp. 188-197)

Slaves were to be treated as a "hired servant":

As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him; he shall not rule with harshness over him in your sight. (Deuteronomy 25:53, 39-55)
Non-Israelites purchased by Israelites or taken as prisoners of war were, however, not released after six years. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

The sabbath reduced all people – masters and slaves – to equality one day per week and one year out of seven. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11)  Slaves could also participate in annual national festivals.

With such benign slavery slaves would not ordinarily abscond.  To abscond – thus risking death by starvation and wild beasts – implied mistreatment by owners.  Surrounding nations had laws to return run-away slaves – there were even extradition treaties – but the Law of Moses stipulated:

You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you; he shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
The word "escape" rather than "run away" suggests this meant slaves who fled harsh treatment. Israel as a whole – the nation – was itself according to the story of Exodus an escaped "slave" from Egypt. If any slave, therefore, experienced harsh treatment the Law of Moses had an escape clause.

The escape clause appears unlimited–applying to Israelite and foreign slaves.  By "escaping", a foreigner would then be a free "sojourner" in Israel protected by the commands:

Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

…you shall love your neighbour as yourself… The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:18, 34)

The Law of Moses was intended as the fairest Law in the ancient world:
And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:8)
We see this fulfilled in the horrible social institutions set aside and in how others – such as slavery – were made benign.


That the Law of Moses intended only good treatment of slaves we see by the provision that slaves due to be set free could reject freedom. (Exodus 15:12-18)  Such a provision makes sense on the presumption that being a slave was a good way to live!

The Law also assumed that an Israelite slave could be prosperous and buy his own freedom. (Leviticus 25:47-49)

Straughen uses Exodus 21:20-21 to put the Bible in as bad a light as possible:

When a male strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money.
Staughen calls slavery a "barbaric" institution and says:
Is it acceptable to beat another human being within an inch of their life, and go unpunished because the slave owner profits from their bondage? … Once again the Bible sanctions the use of violence against helpless individuals. (Investigator No. 69 p.42)
Similarly B A Robinson says on his Internet site: "The owner would have to avoid beating the slave to death. But it was acceptable to beat the slave so that he/she was mortally injured and died a day or two later."

Such comment assumes that Exodus 21:20-21 refers to discipline of slaves by beating.

However, by reading further – verses 12 to 27 – it seems the clauses deal with single acts of "striking" someone as in a quarrel or accidentally. These verses are not about discipline.  Verse 18 uses the example of a "stone or fist".  Verses 20-21 use the example of a "rod". To see this as permission to beat without restraint or as permitting unregulated discipline is, then, a misunderstanding. A seriously injured slave had to be released from slavery (vs. 26-27). And released slaves received assets to make a new start. (Deuteronomy 15:12-18) This would be a serious financial blow to the slave-owner and therefore strong motivation not to injure – deliberately in a quarrel, or accidentally – any slave.

Ancient Israel had beating as a punishment for some offences but this would have been done by the proper authorities, after investigation, and not left to individuals to do to each other. And if a slave did have a nasty master who mistreated him, he had the "escape" clause already mentioned.

Another clause in Moses' Law misused by skeptics is:

If a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave, betrothed to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death because she was not free; but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… (Leviticus 19:20-22)
Robinson comments: "There is apparently no punishment or ritual animal killing required if the female slave were not engaged; men could rape such slaves with impunity."
Robinson is mistaken. The Law of Moses emphasises virginity until marriage – never fornication or rape.  The clause in Leviticus 19 should be contrasted with chapter 20:
If a man commits adultery with the wife [which to ancient Israelites include a betrothed] of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
If the woman committing adultery was a slave it was a mitigating circumstance and the death penalty was waived.  That's the point intended in chapter 19 – not that unengaged slaves could be raped "with impunity."  Also, if mistreated she had an "escape" clause as already explained.

Third:  If a slave-owner gave a male slave a wife, the owner could keep the wife and kids when the slave became free. (Exodus 21:1-7; Deuteronomy 15:12-18)

This does not imply breakup of families. The slave could choose to remain a slave, or live nearby, or when able he could purchase their freedom.

Fourth:  Skeptics criticise the custom of barren wives having children by proxy by giving a maid to the husband to get pregnant by him. (Genesis 16:1-6; Genesis 30:3-4, 9-10)  Robinson says:

Being property, female slaves could be required to engage in sexual intercourse and become pregnant against their will.
The events of Genesis 16 and 30 occurred prior to the Law of Moses and reflected Bedouin custom of the time. The Bible does not in Genesis 16 and 30 comment on the right or wrong of it. Also we're not directly told whether the maids consented or not – although becoming a concubine and bearing a child would normally elevate such a woman's status. In the first instance (Chapter 16) the maid on getting pregnant considered herself superior to the barren wife. This suggests the maid was not forced "against her will" but had accepted an opportunity.

Plurality of wives and concubines were a human institution. What the Bible teaches God wants is seen in Adam and Eve – marriages of one man to one woman. (Investigator No. 19)


Job 31:13-15 heralds the concept of equality of all before God:

If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me;
What then shall I do when God rises up?
When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?
Did not he who make me in the womb make him?
And did not one fashion us in the womb?
(Job 31:13-15)
Many Old Testament predictions portray a future world where all nations and people live in harmony and equality under one God:
All the nations that thou hast made shall come and bow down before thee, O LORD, and glorify they name. (Psalm 86:9)
Slavery is inconsistent with such concepts.


The institution of slavery permeated the Roman Empire. Italy alone had 3 million slaves in a population of 7 ½ million. (Christ 1984 p. 44)

We've already noted that Paul urged Christian slaves to seek freedom.  In addition the following principle would have undermined slavery among Christians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28)
Yet, some Christians owned slaves. The Apostle Paul counselled a runaway slave who became a Christian after absconding, to return to his master also a Christian. (Philemon 1-22)  How is that consistent with principles that undermine slavery?

Firstly, being "free" in the Roman Empire was not necessarily the best situation:

The most oppressed social strata of the Roman Empire were the fairly poor and impoverished sections of the rural population. Among those sectors those who suffered worst were not the slaves on the latifundia [plantations], who were of value to their masters and were at least regularly fed, but the mass of nominally "free" peasants, who were without means of support and who, in the provinces,  often also lacked the privileged status of a Roman citizen. For example, the life of the "free" country-dwellers of Judea or Egypt was far worse than that of the slaves on [an Italian] estate.
(Alfoldy 1985 pp. 145-146)
Basic subsistence-level living in the Roman Empire required a yearly income of 850 to 1000 sesterces. (Crossan 1998 p. 180)   Compare:
Normal salary for a day-laborer        1-3 sesterces
Cost of maintaining an urban slave  350-500 sesterces yearly
Price for an unskilled slave                At least 600 sesterces
Salary of a Roman soldier                 900 sesterces yearly
Salary of provincial governors           1 million sesterces yearly

Obviously a "free" laborer might live in poverty or even starve!

Secondly, slaves who gave outstanding service could gain privileged status:

Individual qualified slaves might be entrusted with supervisory functions, like the villicus, the slave administrator… Still more favourable conditions were enjoyed by the artisan and house slaves,  who often held positions of trust… (Christ 1984 p. 44)
Trusted slaves could conduct business for the master, keep a share of the profits, buy and own property, and even buy their freedom. Runaway slaves in contrast lacked means of support and faced execution, as did rebellious slaves. The New Testament counsel to slaves to give outstanding service was therefore rational and in their best interest and not "infamous" as some thoughtless skeptics claim:
Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye-service, as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord.
(Colossians 3:22-24; Ephesians 6:5-8; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Timothy 6:1-2)
Christians who owned slaves had to treat them well:
Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly.
(Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9; Philemon 15-17)
Thirdly, Christians numbered around 10,000 in the first century and so could not overturn social institutions of an Empire of 40,000,000. The New Testament teaches:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors… (1 Peter 2:13)
Christians, therefore, obeyed every law that did not conflict with God's requirements. (Romans 13:1-7; Acts 5:29)  They aimed to:
Strive for peace with all men… (Hebrews 12:14)
Nevertheless the Bible reports imprisonment of Christians, murders and riots. History records Nero's persecution in 64 AD in Rome where 977 Christians were murdered. (Frend 1986) What horrors would have happened had Christians been seditious and urged slaves to runaway?

Consider also how slave-numbers were replenished.  John Madden (1996) discusses sale of offspring by parents, slaves bought from outside the Empire, reproduction within the slave community, self-sale, enslavement for debt, penal enslavement (ie conviction in law), kidnapping, and prisoners of war. After considering these sources of slaves Madden sees:  "an annual deficit of several hundred thousand slaves."

Where did the deficit come from?

In Biblical Values Promote Safer World (Investigator 41) I showed that the ancient world was rife with infanticide – murder of unwanted children. This practice contravened the Scriptures and so was opposed by Jews and Christians.  Tertullian, for example wrote:

You [the Pagans] in more cruel fashion stifle your children's breath in water, or expose them to cold and hunger and dogs….
In 374 AD, after Christians were numerous and influenced legislation, infanticide became illegal.

However, in the preceding centuries, foundlings – babies and children abandoned by parents – made up the shortfall of  "several hundred thousand" per year. Slave traders would find abandoned babies, or purchase them from finders, and sell them.

Outright opposition to all forms of slavery would have been tantamount to condoning the deaths of  "several hundred thousand" infants per year by taking away the profit motive that saved them.


The European slave trade from the 16th to early 19th centuries involved taking kidnapped Africans to America. Some defended this by citing the Law of Moses but they cited it only partially. Kidnapping someone and selling him was, by that Law, a death-penalty offence (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 7) but this penalty the European nations and America did not enforce on slave traders.

Bourne (1845) stated that all slave traders, legislators who condoned slavery, buyers, enforcers and owners deserved to be executed!

According to Genesis 3:20 and Acts 17:26 all people have one origin. Therefore social distinctions based solely on colour or nationality, as was American slavery, are scripturally invalid. American slavery, therefore, was based on lies for profit:

The love of money is the root of all evils. (1 Timothy 6:10)
In the 18th century increasing numbers of churchmen protested against slavery.  Common arguments were:
1 The "golden rule" of Jesus–"So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)
2 "You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:9-10)

A bill for slavery's abolition was passed in Britain in 1807.  Britain and the US signed a treaty in 1808 banning the slave trade. Spain signed in 1817.  Hundreds of  Abolitionist groups operated in the United States.

The American Civil War (1861-1865), with 600,000 killed and a nation devastated, was fought partly over the issue of slavery.

Liberated American slaves often suffered economically. But in time they benefited from new labour laws–which, incidentally, have their roots in the British Evangelical Revival.

Slavery is currently returning in Africa–and not the benign sort in the Law of Moses.  Eads (1996) wrote on Slavery's Shameful Return to Africa particularly Sudan:

Captives are treated brutally. They are branded, beaten and sexually abused. Slaves who try to escape are beaten, mutilated or murdered.
Slavery is part of the strategy for the Islamization of Southern Sudan by the Khartoum regime with slaves being exported to Libya, Chad, Mauritania and Persian Gulf lands.

The Law Report on Radio National (Australia), November 14, reported that 2 million women and children are trafficked into sexual slavery each year including to all western countries.  Illegal trade on such a scale has to include large numbers of recruiters, kidnappers, guards, transporters, agents, buyers and brothel owners.

Such slavery has nothing in common with the slavery taught in the Law of Moses. It also violates Bible commands against kidnapping, immorality, law-breaking and doing no harm to your neighbour.


Does the Bible advocate slavery?  No. The strategy in both the Old and New Testament was to make the institution of slavery – originally set up by humans ruling in opposition to God – benign while also promoting principles that would undermine it.

For thousands of years the Bible undermined slavery by teaching that:

1 Humans were created in God's image;
2 Harmful institutions are of human origin – part of their rebellion against God;
3 Humanity was ransomed or purchased by God for a price;
4 All humans have one origin;
5 You shall love your neighbour as yourself;
6 Where slavery exists we should work by peaceful means to make it benign;
7 Abandonment of children and kidnapping – major sources of slaves – are wrong;
8 God will rule the world in "righteousness" and all evil will be abandoned.

The demise of slavery is among the numerous benefits of the "Word of God" to the modern world. Humans who chose to rule the world without God and instituted inhumane versions of slavery were wrong. Everyone who promoted slavery other than the most benign sort was also wrong.  In ethics and values the Bible was thousands of years ahead of its time – just as it was in numerous scientific points that I've discussed elsewhere.


Alfoldy, G 1985 The Social History of Rome. Translated by David Braund and Frank Pollock. Croom Helm. London.
Allen, R and Hunt, I  A Modest Proposal For The New Millennium
Anonymous 1995 Biblical Values Promote Safer World, Investigator Magazine, March, pp. 9-13
Bourne, G 1845 Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument, By a Citizen of Virginia, Printed by S W Benedict, New York.
Christ, K 1984 The Romans  An Introduction To Their History And Civilization, Chatto & Windus The Hogarth Press, London. p. 44
Crossan, J D 1998 The Birth of Christianity, Harper San Francisco, USA.
Douglas, J D (Organizing editor) 1982 New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition; Inter-Varsity Press; England.
Eads, B 1996 Slavery's Shameful Return, Reader's Digest, April, pp. 97-104.
Frend, W H C 1986 The Rise of Christianity, First paperback edition, Darton, Longman &Tod, England, p. 109.
Haley, JW 1992 Alleged Discrepancies in the Bible, Whitaker House, USA.
Harrison, R K (General Editor) 1987 Encyclopedia of Biblical And Christian Ethics, Thomas Nelson Publishers, USA
Madden, John 1996 Slavery in the Roman Empire, Classics Ireland, Volume 3.
Robinson, B A  file://AIWhattheBiblesaysaboutslavery.htm
The Bible Revised Standard Version, Wm. Collins & Sons, Great Britain.
Vander Lugt, H

Apologetics & Slavery - A Critique

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 79,  2001 July)


I have read Anonymous' article The Bible on Slavery (Inv. 76), and am unable to agree with his central arguments, which appear to be: (1) Slavery is acceptable if it is benign. (2) The Bible contributed in a significant way to the abolition of slavery. I shall now examine these contentions.

Benign Slavery?

Anonymous attempts to downplay the evils of slavery by quoting passages of Scripture that recommend slaves be treated humanely, however, slavery with a less brutal face is still slavery, and therefore just as wrong. Indeed, these recommendations merely seek to abolish the symptoms rather the cause – the institution of slavery itself. That this approach is of questionable value is indicated by the following:

"The cases of runaway slaves in Israel bear testimony to their sufferings even at the hands of their fellow countrymen; cf. the experiences of the churl Nabal (1 S. 25-10), of the passionate Shimei (1 K. 2:39), and Sarah (Gn. 16:6), the implications as to the frequency of such cases in the law of Dt. 23:15ff and in later times (Sir. 33-.24-31)." (Dictionary of the Bible, page 864.)
As far as I can see, there is no real protection for the slave from his master, except the good will of the master and this can't he guaranteed. Although a slave must be freed if his eyes or teeth are injured (Ex. 21:26-27), cruel beatings can be inflicted without injury to eyes or teeth. A slave might be able to flee from a cruel master in theory, however, in practice it may not have been possible for all slaves to do so. It is important to remember that there were neither slave unions to protect a slave or argue for better work conditions, nor slave inspectors who carried out audits on slave owners to ensure the humane treatment of their chattels.

Concerning Ex. 21:20-21: My opinion that this passage of Scripture relates to the punishment of slaves is supported by Biblical scholars:

"If the slave survived a day or two, the master would escape punishment for "the slave is his money" (Ex 21:21) – a phrase more appropriate to the concepts of other Near Eastern laws. The beating was assumed to be disciplinary. Corporal punishment of slaves and children was commonly accepted."
(Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, page 664)
In my opinion, attempts to make slavery humane are doomed to failure because: (1) It is a system based on inequality and exploitation, and (2) An individual's humanity is negated by being reduced to something that that can be bought an sold like an object. Consequently, slaves were often treated like objects.

On page 35, Anonymous appears to suggest that God allows slavery to exist because it is an institution established by rebellious humans. I am unable to agree. Firstly, there is no evidence that God exists. Secondly, there is no evidence that, even if God exists, humans have rebelled against this being. Thirdly, even if the first and second points are true, the problem is that God does not merely permit slavery but actually encourages it by granting permission to enslave people.

On page 41 and 42, Anonymous appears to be justifying slavery by citing some alleged benefits of slavery, such as saving abandoned children and the better standard of living enjoyed by slaves. However, as these benefits can be achieved without recourse to slavery and the evils thereof, this argument is of little value. Furthermore, Roman plantation slavery was of the worst order:

"Since the supply of such slaves was large and their price cheap, their owners paid very little attention to the health and well-being of their human tools. When the slaves were worn out, replacement was easy."
(C. Roebuck: The World of Ancient Times, page 488)
On the same page (41), Anonymous says: "Obviously a "free" laborer might live in poverty or even starve!" True. However, can we assume that a slave's regular meals are the sole measure of his quality of life? Along with regular meals he might also receive regular beatings. Need I remind my readers that Man does not live by bread alone.

The Bible & Abolition

Anonymous claims that the Bible does not advocate slavery and promotes principles that undermine it. Unfortunately, I can't agree with this statement when I read:

"You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness." (Lev. 25:45-46).
As can be seen, the nature of Biblical slavery, like that of the American version, contained elements of discrimination:
"Leviticus makes a very clear distinction between the "ebed ibri", the Hebrew slave, and the non-Israelite "ebed", for whom there was no freedom in the seventh, or Jubilee year and who lacked the legal protection given to enslaved Israelites. The Israelites, therefore, could not become slaves permanently."
(Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, page 664.)
Anonymous says that when Christians were in the minority they were in no position to "overturn [the] social institutions of an Empire" (page 42). True. However, when they were eventually a majority nothing was done to outlaw slavery. Indeed, Christians have owned slaves throughout history.

In order to end slavery, Christians need not have "been seditious and urged slaves to run away" (Ibid). If the Bible clearly condemned slavery and urged Christians to free their slaves, then they could have done so and retained them as freed laborers I servants. As the number of Christians grew, so too would the number of freed men and women, and by the time the Empire was significantly Christianised slavery would have come to an end.

On page 43, Anonymous appears to be suggesting that Ex. 21:16 would have prohibited the European slave trade. However, the bulk of African slaves were supplied to Europeans by fellow Africans, and many of these were victims of wars between rival African kingdoms. So the Europeans obtained many of their slaves in the same manner that the Israelites obtained theirs – by purchase from others.

Concerning the Bible and abolition: As far as I can see, it is questionable that the Bible played a significant role in the abolition of slavery. Rather:

"The opposition [to slavery] which began to mount in the 18th century reflected the growth of humanitarian feeling, the increase in democratic sentiment, and the doctrines of Jean Jacques Rousseau and other philosophers." (Encyclopedia International, Vol. 16, page 535).
To this I add the following: (1) The growth of humanitarian sentiment is unlikely to be due solely to the Bible, for if it were European civilisation would have been far better far earlier than what it was. (2) The idea of democracy was developed by the ancient Greeks and owes no influence to the Bible. (3) Many of the philosophers of  The Enlightenment who desired to outlaw war, slavery, poverty and intolerance can be best described as freethinkers, rationalists and sceptics.


I think it fair to say that slavery is sanctioned by the Bible, that this institution breeds injustice because it is inherently flawed and that Anonymous' claim that "the demise of slavery is among the numerous benefits of the Word of God" (page 44) is not supported by any sound evidence.


Corwell, F.R. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1972.
Ofosu-Appiah, L.H. People in Bondage, Lerner Publications Co., Minneapolis, 1971.
Roebuck, C. The World of Ancient Times, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, no date given.
Unwin, K. A Century of Freedom. C.A. Wans & Co. Ltd., London. 1946.
Dictionary of the Bible. T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1914.
Encyclopedia International. Grolier Inc. New York, 1972.
Holy Bible (Revised Standard Version).
Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, Macmillian Company, New York. 1964.




(Investigator 80, 2001 September)


The Bible undermined the institution of slavery for thousands of years via at least eight principles listed in Investigator No. 76. The Law of Moses for the Israelites allowed slavery of a benign kind. That Law did away with human institutions that were hurtful but retained others that could be made tolerable if regulated. See No. 76.


Mr Straughen sees "no real protection for the slave" in the Law of Moses as there were no slave inspectors. (No. 79 p. 40)

If, however, there had been "inspectors" but who accepted bribes from slave owners there would still be no "real protection". It's a problem everywhere that people break the laws of their country and victims suffer. Laws and regulations are not necessarily useless because some people break them. The Law of Moses was benign on slaves – if obeyed. Furthermore, under that system priests administered the Law and they – if obedient to all the principles – would have performed the role of "slave inspector" too.


When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies…he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money. (Exodus 21:20-21)

Straughen still thinks this clause in Moses' Law permitted a slave-owner to discipline a slave by beating him to death.

The Hebrew "nachah" is usually translated "strike" or "smite" as in my RSV Bible. (Wigram pp. 814-817)  Exodus 21:12-27 gives case law examples of striking with a fist or instrument, accidentally or deliberately, and the penalty: 

Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.
Whoever strikes his father or his mother…
When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist…
When a man strikes the eye of his slave…

So taken in this context, verses 20-21 are about a slave owner who "strikes" his slave with a rod – which may be accidentally or in a quarrel.

If a free person injured another free person the penalty in Moses' Law was "eye for eye, tooth for tooth". If, however, a master injured a slave the penalty was different – the slave was offered his freedom.

What about accidents? If a free person accidentally killed another free person, his own life was severely disrupted – he had to move to one of six cities called "cities of refuge" and stay there throughout the tenure of Israel's high priest. (Numbers 35; Exodus 21:12-13)

But what if a slave-owner accidentally injured his slave who then died from the injury some time afterwards? I suggest this situation is covered by the phrase "for the slave is his money." The requirement to move to a city of refuge was waived because the master has already suffered loss. In other words the master was not to suffer twice – firstly by losing "his money" and secondly by transferring to a city of refuge. What Straughen construed as license to beat someone to death seems instead a ruling to prevent a double penalty.


Under the Law of Moses, Israelite slaves were set free every seventh year. Slaves in Israel from other lands – foreigners – lacked this particular benefit.

The Law of Moses had 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands many being case law starting with "If" or "When" and describing specific situations.

The Sabbath rest and festivals included all slaves – Israelite and foreigners. (Exodus 20:10; 23:12) The entire law – if obeyed – had much that benefited foreign slaves. Such would be "strangers" – ie foreigners – and could also be "neighbours". The Law stipulated:  

You shall not oppress a stranger… (Exodus 23:9)
…you shall love your neighbour as yourself… (Leviticus19:18)


The New Testament taught principles that promoted freedom from slavery but without actually ordering anyone to free his slaves. Anything more would have increased Roman efforts to exterminate Christians for sedition.

Paul sent a runaway slave – who converted to Christianity while on the run – to his master also a Christian. Paul wrote:   

Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother… receive him as you would receive me. (Philemon 15-17)

This is close to saying "free him" without directly demanding it.

Freeing of slaves had economic and legal repercussions for both slave and master – therefore there had to be allowance for individual circumstances. The Christian principle was:

"If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity…" (1 Corinthians 7:21)


Straughen denies that Bible principles influenced the demise of slavery in the 19th century. He cites the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The opposition [to slavery] which began in the 18th century reflected the growth of humanitarian feeling, the increase in democratic sentiment, and the doctrines of Jean Jacques Rousseau and other philosophers.

This quote does not deny that Christianity was behind such "humanitarian feeling" or deny that Rousseau derived ideas from the Bible. He was a Catholic and also studied Calvinism. His slogans "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains" echo biblical sentiment.

It's said that:

The religious revivals of the Great Awakening (1725-1770)…brought about a radical change in the prevailing attitude toward slavery. By 1804, most northern states had outlawed it. (Vander Lugt)

More specifically Some Historical Accounts of Guinea (1771) by Anthony Benezet, an American Quaker, argued against slavery.

John Wesley (1703-1791), English religious leader and founder of Methodism, wrote an 8,000-word tract–Thoughts Upon Slavery–published in 1774. It received wide distribution.

Wesley answered arguments that slavery is necessary. For example to the argument that slaves were needed to cultivate land in British colonies where it was too hot for Whites to work Wesley wrote:   

I answer, First, it were better that all those islands should remain uncultivated for ever…than that they should be cultivated at so high a price as the violation of justice, mercy, and truth. But, Secondly, the supposition on which you ground your argument is false. For white men, even Englishmen, are well able to labour in hot climates; provided they are temperate both in meat and drink, and that they inure themselves to it by degrees.

Throughout his tract Wesley invoked Bible principles against fraud, murder, blood-guilt, love of wealth, cruelty, inhumanity and hurt to the innocent. He cited principles of liberty, justice, setting an example, honesty, love, family life, "doing as you would be done to" – and mercy.

Seventy years later George Bourne published Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument By a Citizen of Virginia (1845). Again numerous Bible principles were cited.

Hundreds of anti-slavery organizations – "abolitionists" – operated in America, many motivated by Bible principles.

John Brown was one who overdid it. In 1859 he and some supporters seized a government arsenal with the intention of arming an "army of emancipation". John Brown was tried in Virginia, convicted of treason, and hanged.

That same day William L Garrison – America's best-known abolitionist – gave a speech in Brown's honour advocating that the Northern states end slavery by seceding from the South. In part he said:

God forbid that we should any longer continue the accomplices of thieves and robbers, of men-stealers and women-shippers! We must join together in the name of freedom…

The slaveholder with his hands dripping in blood–will I make a compact with him? The man who plunders cradles – will I say to him, "Brother, let us walk together in unity?"…No, never – never! There can be no union between us: "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" What union has freedom and slavery?

…Oh, that the South may be wise before it is too late, and give heed to the word of the Lord!


Straughen disagrees with my explanation of why God allows evil including slavery (No. 76 p. 35) because he sees no evidence God exists or that humans rebelled against God. (No. 79 p. 41)

My explanation answered skeptics who ask, "If God exists  – and is limitless in power and loves humans – then why doesn't He stop evil (including slavery) instantly?"  Discussion of this "If" and "why" does not require belief in God because we're considering what reason God "could" or "would" have if He exists. The Bible's teaching on slavery can ignore God so long as this question is not raised.


My main evidence on the Bible's position on slavery is in Investigator 76 where the conclusion remains valid:

The strategy in both the Old and New Testament was to make the institution of slavery – originally set up by humans ruling in opposition to God – benign while also promoting principles that would undermine it.


<>Anonymous The Bible On Slavery, Investigator 76, January 2001.
Bourne, G 1845 Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument, By a Citizen of Virginia. S W Benedict, New York.
Straughen, K Apologetics & Slavery–A Critique, Investigator No. 79, July 2001.
Vander Lugt, H What Does the Bible Really Teach about Slavery? Accessed in August 2001.
Wesley, John: Holiness of Heart and Life Accessed in August 2001
Wigram, G W The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, Fifth Edition, Samuel Bagster and Sons, London. pp. 814-817.

The Bible & Slavery–

A Final Reply

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 81, 2001 November)

After reading Anonymous' article on this topic, I still find myself unable to agree with the main premise of his argument – that the Bible played a significant role in the abolition of slavery.

In the ancient world slavery was accepted as a fact of life and the authors of Scripture, who were influenced by the prevailing views of the age, adopt a similar attitude towards this institution. Furthermore, the Bible was not written by one person, but by many different people whose personal views are reflected in its pages – on the one hand we can find exhortations of brotherly love, and on the other commands to massacre entire populations.

Many believers have claimed that Christianity was instrumental in bringing about the end of slavery. In my opinion, however, this is an overstatement. In Northern Europe slavery was in decline by about 1000 AD, and ended circa 1100 AD. The factors most likely responsible for its demise are as follows:

(A) The introduction of labour saving devices – large cart horses, with frontal collars; frontal yokes for oxen; the new fail, the wheeled plough with mouldboard; iron tools; and the proliferation of water mills.

(B) Too few foreign wars during the early Middle Ages to provide captives.

(C) Slave revolts, such as the one against King Aurelius in Austrius in 770 AD.

(D) Economic advantages–the feudal system was more productive than slavery.

Unfortunately, in Southern Europe the situation was different – slavery flourished during the Middle Ages, and the system was again resurrected by Northern Europeans during the time of European imperialism which, by and large, had the blessing of the churches.

I have no doubt that the Bible did play a part in the abolition of slavery – opponents of the trade did quote Scripture in support of their stance. However, proponents of slavery were able to do likewise. The Reverend Thornton Stringfellow's essay, A Scriptural View of Slavery, is a typical example. He closes his defence of servitude as follows:

"In reference to the question which was then started, whether Christianity did not abolish the institution, or the right of one Christian to hold another Christian in bondage, we have shown, that "The words of our Lord Jesus Christ" are, that so far from this being the case, it adds to the obligation of the servant [slave] to render service with good-will to his master, and that gospel fellowship is not to be entertained with persons who will not consent to it!"
(T. Stringfellow: A Scriptural View of Slavery, Page 98 in McKitrick, E.L. Slavery Defended Views of the Old South)

In view of the fact that both abolitionists and slave owners could defend their respective views with Scripture, it seems to me that the Bible was not the significant factor that decided the issue. Indeed, I think it is more accurate to say that opposition to the slave trade arose from slave owners cruel treatment of their chattels and, as previously mentioned, the ideals of democracy, which influenced Christian and non-Christian alike.


McKitrick, E.L. Slavery Defended: Views of the Old South, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1963.
Thomas, H. The Slave Trade, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London, 1998.

Christians, Ethics and Slavery

Bob Potter

(Investigator 81, 2001 November)

"The Bible undermined the institution of slavery for thousands of years", says Anonymous (Investigator 80 p.12). Such nonsense is regularly propagated by Christian apologists. It is so false, so contrary to what really happened in history, that it must be answered.

At the time of writing, former Yugoslav chieftain, Slobodan Milosevic stands before an international court to answer for colossal 'crimes against humanity' – mass murders, mass rapings, all in the name of 'ethnic cleansing'. However, the crimes of Milosevic pale into insignificance when compared to the deeds of the Israelites described in Holy Scripture ... and allegedly carried out in obedience to their God.

For starters, let's look at how the victorious Israelites behaved as they swept across the Middle East, conquering the villages – on this occasion, of the Midianites:

"And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? ... Now therefore kill every mate among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that hath not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." Numbers xxxi 15-18

There are scores of similar accounts to be found in these Scriptures (Deut vii 1-6; Deut xx 16,17 for example) – all these crimes carried out by 'God's chosen people', under God's appointed leader, receiving his instructions direct from God! No rational and objective reader can interpret these accounts as other than the implementation of orders for mass murder, mass rapings, mass enslavement specifically ordered by the Creator. If the Bible be true, God commanded the genocide of whole peoples; like the Amalekites (finally exterminated during the reign of Hezekiah) for the terrible crime of defending their native lands from a foreign invader.

As we look at the Middle East today, it must appear little progress has been made in the intervening centuries! As the killing continues, all those centuries later, participants still claim to be acting under orders from their Supreme Being.

The question of slavery

Some more 'godly instructions': Leviticus (25: 44-46) tells us–

"Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have; shall be of the heathen round about you; of them ye shall buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among 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 forever."

Principles such as these are frighteningly similar to those vigorously adopted by the conquering Nazis as they set about the enslavement of Eastern Europe in the early 1940s.

Nowhere in the Bible is there any condemnation of slavery – indeed the passages cited show that Jewish (hence Christian) scripture advocates the taking of slaves. Throughout these Scriptures slavery is as cheerfully and leniently assumed as are war and poverty. It was an institution that extended world-wide and endured for centuries. It was accepted by Jesus and his disciples – in our translations, especially of the parables, there is frequent mention of 'servants', but the original Greek almost always reads 'slaves'. Naturally, Jesus says we must love them, but he never expresses a syllable of condemnation of the institution itself. Likewise, Paul approves – in fact, he is worse than Jesus –, he travelled widely throughout the Greco-Roman world everywhere he visited he would have seen thousands of slaves, but he never uttered a word of protest.

Anonymous reminds us that Paul sent a runaway slave, converted to Christianity while on the run, back to his master. He makes much of this, as do Christian apologists, always, that Paul urged kindly treatment of those enslaved, apparently unaware that this was the common attitude of the pagan moralists at that time – Aristotle urged humane treatment; Zeno included slaves in his principle that all men were born equal, Epicurus was conspicuous for his kindness to slaves; he publicly welcomed them to his table. This enlightened view was generally accepted by the Stoic-Epicureans. The Greek moralist, Dio Chrysostom (about AD 50-117), who taught in Rome, made two of his most famous orations condemning slavery root and branch. We seek in vain for similar orations from the Christian Paul!

Roman Law did much to mitigate the condition of the slave. As early as 82 BC, the Cornelian Law abrogated the right of a master to kill an offending slave... Claudius (AD 41-54) ruled a master was guilty of murder if he neglected with fatal effect, the treatment of a sick slave... Seneca induced Nero in his earlier years (AD 54) to grant slaves the right to appeal to the courts against cruelty.

Christianity became the state power under Constantine (?288-337 AD). It is impossible to determine in what sense the Emperor was a Christian. Throughout his life he bore pagan offices and titles and was baptized only a few days before his death. Amongst his deeds were the murder of his wife, his son and a boy nephew. In the newly established 'Christian state', not a word was said (or was to be said,) by any Pope or bishop or saint about the sufferings of slaves; in many ways their lot worsened.

Slaves could not marry, they could (unlike free men) be tortured to get evidence and could be burned alive for false charges against their masters. Legislation introduced by Constantine was of mixed value and his patronage of Christianity and rewards for baptism led to still more debilitating and truculent persecution. He abolished many earlier reforms – parents were now allowed to sell their children into slavery and finders of exposed children were permitted to enslave them (or sell them as slaves). He also passed the law that if a Christian woman had intercourse with a slave, both should be put to death.

Future Christian emperors continued with the same repressive policies–proportionately there was more slavery in Christian Rome than in any other city in the world. No Christian leader denounced slavery until the ninth century AD, when the classical 'age of slavery' had ended.

Black Slavery

When this subject is discussed today, most people probably have 'black' slavery and the 'slave trade' in mind. The capture and transportation of black Africans is the fertile area for most of the modem myths propagated by today's Christian apologists.

The main activists in the 'slave trade' were Protestant England, Catholic Spain and Portugal. Between them, in the century beginning 1680 (at that time there were 80,000 black slaves in London–but several years later, the civil authority, NOT the Church, forbad slavery in England!), nearly three million slaves were transported to the Americas–ultra-pious Spain drafted treaties of this traffic "in the name of the Most Holy Trinity". The English Captain John Hawkins gave such names as "Jesus" to the ships he used to transport the captives. The British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands, which sent out missionaries to tell the bewildered blacks how superior Protestantism was to Catholicism, had slaves on its own plantations in Barbados. In the southern American states, Baptists owned 225,000 slaves, the Methodists 250,000 slaves.

Whitfield, joint founder of the Methodists, believed in slavery and advocated the slave trade. It was of Whitfield that hymn writer Whittier composed the two lines:

"He bade the slave ships speed from coast to coast, Fanned by the wings of the Holy Ghost."

The history of the early campaigns for abolition is that the opponents of this horror were the Quakers and Unitarians of America–had the established church had the power, in those times, these People would have been burned at the stake as apostates from Christianity. The 'received wisdom' is that slavery was abolished as a result of the valiant efforts of a small band of dedicated Christians. The truth is rather different. The first texts against slavery published in America were by Thomas Paine. [In America, in 1854, all the anti-slavery groups united to form the Republican Party. Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson were all freethinkers.]

It is true that for every million Christians who supported slavery there was one who opposed it. William Wilberforce is most often cited although it is rarely appreciated he learned his zeal against slavery from the French Rationalists, while a sceptic and still at school. He remained a sceptic until he reached the age of thirty. His important backer in parliament on the abolitionist position was William Pitt who was an atheist.

Wilberforce's Christianity must have been strongly diluted with unbelief. As an abolitionist he did not believe Lev xxv 44-6; he must have rejected Ex xxi 2-6; he obviously did not approve of the many injunctions and permissions by Jehovah to his chosen people to capture and hold slaves to which he referred earlier. In the House of Commons on 18 Feb 1796, Wilberforce reminded that Christian assembly that infidel and anarchic France had given liberty to the Africans, whilst Christian England was "obstinately continuing a system of cruelty and injustice". Wilberforce found the whole influence of the English Court and the great weight of the Episcopal Bench against him. George III, a most Christian king, regarded abolitionist theories with abhorrence and the Christian House of Lords was utterly opposed to the granting of freedom to the slaves.

Not surprisingly, in the light of what has already been considered, the abolition of slavery has taken place in spite of Christianity, not because of it. Do not misunderstand me.

It is not my intention to discredit Wilberforce and his colleagues. Students of the Third Reich will know that a few individual members of Hitler's SS secretly helped Jews escape the ovens of Treblinka. They were brave and admirable people–but to argue, therefore, that the Nazi Party campaigned for the rights of Semites is no more ridiculous than to cite the odd Wilberforce as evidence that Christianity opposed slavery.

The facts clash with the popular 'received' view of history (which Anonymous goes along with) – the abolition of slavery has not depended upon the deeds of great Christian gentlemen.

The Black Jacobins,

A little over two hundred years ago, there began a slave rebellion which in the next ten years defeated the three greatest empires on earth and banished slavery from the place where it was most secure and profitable. Haiti is now one of the poorest places in the world, in the 1780s it was possibly the richest. The island which Columbus had 'discovered' (and named Hispaniola) was colonised and brutalized for 300 years by French and Spanish empires. Whole cities such as Nantes and Bordeaux were built on trade from San Domingo–almost all the coffee, sugar, indigo, cotton and tobacco consumed in France came from there. In the decade before the French Revolution (1789) production in San Domingo doubled. Slavery was the key to this prosperity. In 1789 the population was 570,000 – 20,000 were whites (slave owners, adminstrators; and their families), 40,000 mulattos (half-castes, mostly the products of white rape!) and the remainder black slaves.

Revolt broke out in August 1791–many plantations were plundered and burnt, owners and foremen killed. A huge army of runaway slaves collected in the mountains–the plantation owners quickly formed an army of mulattos, with extra guns borrowed from the governor of British Jamaica. That winter the slaves were joined by a semi-literate coachman named Toussaint (since he was born on All Saints' Day). He had read some of the anti-slavery literature coming from revolutionary France. Within months he became the recognized leader and moulded the slaves into a fighting force. During the following months the slaves seized all the northern ports.

In February 1794 three delegates arrived from revolutionary France (one of the delegates was an ex-slave)–the delegates declared "the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of religion have been destroyed". The new government in Paris abolished all slavery unconditionally (note–not because of but in spite of the religious elements who still supported slavery). A large British army arrived to overthrow the slaves. Toussaint declared his allegiance for revolutionary France; he promptly threw the Spaniards from all the port (in ten days of forced marches and surprise attacks) and then campaigned against the larger British forces. In four years of war the British lost 100,000 men killed in action before they were expelled from the island. (The British government of the time was that of William Pitt and William Wilberforce!!)

The superior morality of the black slave leader to that of Christian England is reflected in a letter Toussaint sent to the British commander, General White, where he wrote:

"You have demeaned yourself in the eyes of this and future generations in allowing one of your commanders, the cowardly Lepointe, to issue an order which it is not possible could have been issued without your knowledge: "Give the Brigands No Quarter! Take no prisoners!" I am only a black man. I have not received as fine an education as you and the officers of His Britannic Majesty, but I feel that if I were to be guilty of such infamy it would reflect upon the honour of my country and I would have tarnished its glory."

In less than ten years the slave army under Toussaint had beaten off the counter attacks of the planters and their mulatto army and the French, had beaten the full might of the British Empire; had beaten the Spanish and had abolished slavery throughout the island. (The slave leader had changed his name to L'Ouverture–"the opening" to liberty and is usually known as Toussaint L'Ouverture in historical texts...)

'Back home', in France, the Revolution had been replaced by the man who would soon restore a ‘imperial power'. Deals were to be done with the Church and the Pope, and Napoleon, who aspired soon to be 'crowned' in Paris by the Pope needed to become a 'true defender' of Christian doctrines including a return of slavery in the colony. The French offered Toussaint negotiations to discuss a treaty with their General Brunet–Toussaint agreed, but when he arrived in good faith for those discussions was arrested, bound and shipped back to France in chains. He died in a wet unheated cell soon after.

Here is the true story of the end of slavery on Haiti. Slavery never returned there. Haiti became an independent country and has been so ever since. These events took place in spite of Christianity, not because of it. Christian England and Christian France were the true supporters of slavery at those critical moments when Toussaint's life was sacrificed.

I hope you will want to read more about this...history as it actually happened. Could I recommend the book The Black Jacobins by C L R James. It is world famous–originally it took form as a stage play he had written for his friend Paul Robeson. I have not used this book as I have written the above paragraphs; I do not myself have a copy of it to hand. But I met CLR on several occasions in his home and at meetings when he lived in London, where he died in 1989.

The crucial steps were taken in 1807 and 1834, when the British parliament abolished first the trade in slaves and then slavery itself in the British Empire. This action by the major naval, imperial and commercial power was decisive; similar measures were soon enforced by other European nations and slavery finished in the United States in 1865. The end of the process may be reckoned to be the emancipation of slaves in Brazil in 1888, at which date colonial governments and the Royal Navy were pressing hard on the operations of Arab slave-traders in the African continent and the Indian Ocean. Many forces, intellectual, religious, economic and political, contributed to and explain this great achievement, and debate about their precise individual significance continues. It is perhaps worth pointing out here only that, however abolition came about, and though it was after three hundred years and more of large-scale slave-trading, no civilization once dependent on slavery has ever been able to eradicate it except the European. (Roberts, J. M. 1981, The Pelican History of the World, Penguin Books, p.741)



(Investigator 82, 2002 January)


In The Bible on Slavery (Investigator No. 76) I listed eight Bible principles that undermined the institution of slavery. Dr Bob Potter and Kirk Straughen (No. 81) ignored these points and instead raised others that I'll now address.

Dr Potter also compared the Israelite extermination of the Canaanites with "crimes against humanity" by the Nazis. I'll leave this point as a separate topic and show another time that there is no resemblance.

Potter's claim, however, that treatment of the Canaanites included "mass rapings" is mistaken. Leviticus 20 lists the Canaanites' morality – men having sex with each other and with mothers, sisters, aunts, neighbours and animals. Verse 23 commands "You shall not walk in the customs of the nations which I am casting out before you." Israelites who joined the locals in such conduct were sentenced to death. (Numbers 25)


By citing 18th & 19th century Christians who opposed slavery I did not suggest that: "slavery was abolished as a result of the valiant efforts of a small band of dedicated Christians." (p. 37) I cited them to show that the Bible's opposition to slavery is not something dreamed up by me but was obvious centuries ago. To what extent those writers influenced the modern demise of slavery is a question of historical analysis about which historians disagree:

Many forces, intellectual, religious, economic and political, contributed to and explain this great achievement, and debate about their precise individual significance continues. It is perhaps worth pointing out…that, however abolition came about…no civilization once dependent on slavery has ever been able to eradicate it except the European. (Roberts 1981, p. 741)

Potter attributes the demise of European slavery to French rationalists. However, nations could not have banned slavery without the approval of most of their subjects. And what message did most subjects regularly hear? In millions of churches people heard principles like:

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them… (Matthew 7:12)
…always seek to do good to one another and to all. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

Add to this that Christianity is for "every nation…and people" (Revelation 14:6-7) and that all humans originated from one couple (Acts 17:26), and the anti-slavery implications are obvious.

Even "rationalists" – French and otherwise – must have been influenced by the Bible since, as Protestants and Catholics, it was the book they grew up with.

Straughen thinks that "introduction of labour saving devices" – large horses, iron tools, water mills, etc – contributed to slavery's demise. However, extra devices are no reason to dismiss one's workers – whether slave or free – and do the work oneself. If it were, we wouldn't have people known as "employers".



"Christians" who owned slaves had an "axe to grind" – they enjoyed the privileges that being slave-owners gave them.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third American president, opposed slavery in his 30s. As an ambassador in Paris in 1784 he joined in discussions on how to end slavery and vowed to free his own slaves in America. However, debt from extravagant-living plus his regular sexual use of a female slave made him ignore his earlier idealism:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. The love of money leads to all [sorts of] evil. (1Timothy 6:9-10)

The Bible teaches that many Christians superficially appear to follow Jesus but deny him by their conduct:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore be alert… (Acts 20:29-31)

I'll show below, however, that some Christians may, by owning slaves, also have acted rightly.


Dr Potter cites several ancient Greeks who condemned slavery and says, "We seek in vain for similar orations from the Christian Paul."

The New Testament is not about how to manage nations and societies but about living a godly life in them. Paul, as previously explained, urged slaves to "avail yourself of the opportunity" if freedom became possible. (1 Corinthians 7:21) Anything more might have gotten the tiny, already beleaguered, Christian communities exterminated for sedition. In addition I showed that the Roman Empire practiced infanticide. They left hundreds of thousands of infants yearly exposed to die but many were rescued by becoming slaves. Outright opposition to slavery without addressing infanticide was tantamount to condoning the murder of infants by opposing the motive for saving them. Furthermore, freeworkers in Rome lived at subsistence level – often worse than slaves. (Investigator No. 76) Paul advised slaves to excel in good service. This was consistent with opposition to slavery since Roman slaves often earned freedom by good service–and then had skills to live above subsistence level.

The Christian Scriptures therefore had the best anti-slavery advice under prevailing circumstances:

But innumerable slaves [in the Roman Empire] were freed for good service. Masters in Rome constantly spurred on their slaves to work hard by offers of bonuses with which they could buy their freedom… Roman slaves were often able to secure that they were well treated. Many had hours of recreation during the afternoon, and might have found the week of forty hours in the twentieth century irksome.
(Thomas 1981, pp. 109, 110)

By focusing on one principle – slavery – and forgetting others, Dr Potter ignored infanticide, living standards, the best way to secure freedom, and Christians having the right to avoid self-destruction.

True, the New Testament lacks a single lengthy oration against slavery but that merely critiques the relative space given to that topic. The NT opposes all evil that hurts people including murder, hate, deceit, war, idolatry, false prophecy, betrayal, racial prejudice, sexual immorality, inhumanity, greed, inhospitality and many other human failings. Whether the Bible allocates appropriate space to each subject is a different debate!


My first article on slavery (No. 76) conceded that the Law of Moses allowed benign slavery among Israelites – so benign that slaves scheduled for release might choose to remain slaves. I also cited persons in the Flinders University Philosophy Department who argue that benign slavery – limited to perhaps ten years and equivalent to a work contract – could solve employment and economic problems of modern societies.

Slavery conditions in Medieval Europe and the Americas varied:

There were, too, many diversities of treatment among those who were slaves during the Dark ages in Europe. Some slaves were looked upon as human cattle in their master's house. Some were, in effect, 'tenant' slaves, living like free tenants though unable to participate in judicial assemblies or be summoned to the army… But slaves in mediaeval Europe often had a cottage and yard of their own, even if the duties demanded of them were constant. (Thomas 1981, p. 110)

Domestic slaves throughout the Americas were in a privileged position and often gained freedom in the end. In general the Americas slaves were able to rely on better food than the free poor white, black or mulatto. It was chiefly these latter who, owing to a lack of vigour induced by undernourishment, fell a prey to anaemia, beriberi, worms and buboes. (Thomas 1981, p. 295)  

Considering that slavery often gave better living conditions than freedom, many Christian slave owners may have retained their slaves out of concern for them. The basic Christian standard is not "You must oppose slavery" but rather:
  The commandments…are summed up in this sentence, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)


Remember, 19th century opposition to slavery grew in countries that often added Bible principles into their laws. Where governments opposed the Bible and Christianity, slavery often returned. Millions became slaves in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany:

Yet the carriage of nearl four million people by railway to Poland was a severe burden on the German war machine while if the Germans had used the Russian Jews intelligently, along with other nationalities, they might have won the war. (Thomas 1981, p. 681)

The Japanese Empire forced 200,000 women into "sexual slavery" and tried to work 500,000 prisoners of war to death. Slavery – enforced by beating and mutilation – is currently rife in Eastern Africa. There, a Christian charity – Christian Solidarity Worldwide – buys slaves their freedom. (Green, 2001)


In Investigator 76 I gave eight Bible principles against slavery. John Wesley's tract that I also referred to gave additional Bible arguments.

Principles derived from the Genesis creation story suggest that the institution of slavery was invented by rebellious humans in opposition to God. The Law of Moses retained human institutions that could be made benign – including slavery – and regulated them to make them benign.

The New Testament is against slavery but not if their release causes added suffering – "Love your neighbour" has priority over opposition to slavery whenever the two principles clash.


Green, C. $60 for a Human Life, Focus, No. 106, September 2001, pp. 14-20
Roberts, J.M. The Pelican History of the World, Reprinted 1981, Penguin
Thomas, H. An Unfinished History of the World (Revised 1981), Pan Books.

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Jerry Bergman

(Investigator 84, 2002 May)

Much discussion has ensued in these pages over the question "Does the Bible condone slavery" without ever defining the word slave. The term slave has referred to a wide assortment of people involved in a large variety of social systems throughout history. Professor Jewett noted that when the New Testament was written

the term slave had a formal bureaucratic meaning for the Roman audience. The Roman bureaucracy that was rapidly developing at the time Paul wrote this letter was made up of highly trained and highly paid slaves of Caesar. These persons were preferred in the imperial offices because they were loyal to the emperor alone, hoping for their freedom after some years of loyal service.  Many of the slaves serving in the imperial bureaucracy became fabulously rich because of their handling of imperial finances.  Also, during the time Paul wrote, the expression "slave of Caesar" was often used for imperial ambassadors or representatives of various kinds. Such persons carried the majesty and power of the emperor with them as they represented him in foreign courts (1997, p. 11-12).
In Bible times, therefore, the term in Rome had a meaning very different than it does for many persons today. In Rome the slave status was a honor, a position of trust and authority that could lead to becoming emperor, as sometimes happened then.  The pre-civil war slavery system in the southern United States was in many ways very different than many slave social systems. Therefore, to conclude that the Bible condones slavery implies something very different in modern America than in ancient Rome.

The Christian Greek Scriptures emphatically condemn mistreatment of one's fellow humans, and this teaching was a major factor in the overthrow of the notorious American system of slavery. Many of those in the antislavery movement, as is also true in the modern American civil rights movement, were motivated by Christianity. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Jessie Jackson, and many others were very clear as to the source of their opposition to the many injustices committed for decades by the American government and people against Blacks living in America.  Carroll and Shiflett note that

Indeed, Christianity's importance to abolitionists may have been equaled only by its importance to slaves themselves, who were sustained by its message of hope and its assurance of a liberty that transcended their current bondage (2002, p. 47).

And Walvin notes:

The simple message of the brotherhood of Christ, of the equality of all believers and the fraternity of the life-hereafter sent a fizz through the slave quarters–and a cold chill through the slave-owning community (Quoted in Carroll and Shiflett, 2002, p. 47).
Furthermore both
religious belief and public commitment was common at all levels of the antislavery campaign. Robert William Fogel observes that even "the principal architects of the secular appeal – including John Quincy Adams, Joshua R. Giddings, and Salmon P. Chase – were deeply religious men" who also realized that "the evangelical movement was a major political constituency that could not be won for the antislavery banner by purely secular appeals" (p. 47).

In Ireland, Christianity eventually helped to revolutionize the world, replacing the old values of a warrior society with the new values of Christianity.  Within St. Patrick's lifetime, warriors cast aside their swords of battle, intertribal warfare decreased markedly, and the slave trade ended.  A culture of battle and brute power was transformed by an ethic that sanctified manual labor, poverty, and service. A culture of illiteracy and ignorance became a culture of learning (Colson and Pearcey, 1999, p. 301).

It is noteworthy that even the socialist publication New Internationalists (June, 1989, p. 31) admitted that "individuals of conscience" such as clergyman William Wilberforce, helped to bring slavery in Britain and elsewhere to an end. Called "deeply Christian, vibrantly evangelical" Wilberforce wrote in his diary when he was 28 that "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and Reformation of [Morals]" (Quoted in Piper, 2002, p. 37). Wilberforce fought battle after battle in Parliament, many which he lost. He persisted though, and finally prevailed after 20 years. As a result in 1807 the slave trade became illegal in Britain. "Before this great cause," he said, "all others dwindle" (quoted in Piper, 2002, p. 37).

Today, a form of slavery exists that is in many ways worse than most systems that have existed in history. These modern day slaves must work in poor conditions, often for over 12 hours per day, and are paid as little as 50 cents American a day. If they complain, they can be released without just cause because 10 people are often in line for their job, each one anxious to take their place.  In the old American slavery system the slave owners had a considerable investment in their slaves and therefore, for selfish reasons, slave owners were usually very concerned about the slaves health and welfare. This contrasts to modern slavery, which has little regard for the future of its easily replaceable workers.

This modern form of slavery encompasses close to one billion human beings, and has made a tiny minority of owners so wealthy that the wealthiest 358 persons in the world are worth more then the combined annual incomes of the poorer countries that are home to 45% of the entire worlds population (Kawachi and Kennedy, 1997, p. 1037).

The sin of Christians, both then and now, is to ignore their own holy scriptures. The New Testament especially condemns in no uncertain words the modern form of slavery, both as practiced in pre civil war America and that practiced today.


Colson, Charles and Pearcey, Nancy 1999 How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton, IL: Tyndale
Carroll, Vincent and David Shiflett 2002 Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, Chapter 2: "Christianity and Slavery," pp 24-53
Jewett, Robert 1997 Romans to Revelation, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press
Kawachi, Ichiro and Bruce Kennedy "Health and Social Cohesion: Why Care About Income Inequality?" British Medical Journal, 5 April, 1997:1037-1039
New Internationalist June 1989. "Outgrowing Slavery," p. 31
Piper, John. 2002 "Coronary Christians", World 17(7):37.

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