Slavery in the early church

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Liberation of slaves was frequent in the early church. Christianity was born in a world that was overwhelmed with slavery. Rome, the dominant world power, was utterly dependent on slave labor. The message of Jesus and the New Testament, while not forbidding slavery nor organizing any campaign to abolish it, struck at the very roots of slavery, to dry up its power much as popular herbicides work to kill stubborn weeds from the roots up.[1]

The World into Which Christianity was Born

Slavery thrived because the elite classes despised manual labor, but Jesus dignified labor by working as a carpenter. Slavery thrived on the distinction of privileged masters and powerless servants. Jesus chose to take the form of a servant, washing His disciples’ feet. Slavery thrived with loving oneself and looking down on enemies, especially those captured in warfare; Jesus taught us to love, pray for, and serve even our enemies. Slavery thrived on deep-rooted traditions based in the sinful nature of man; Jesus had a habit of calling people back to God’s original intention in the beginning of things. He reminded us that God created people free and gave them the dignity of choice. The exercise of choice is possible only in liberty and not in slavery. Christianity promoted the equality of its members, accepting slave and slavemaster as equal brothers and sisters serving side by side in the church.[2][3]

Christianity Begins to Make Social Changes

Because of the Christian emphasis on love and mercy to all, slavery was soon rid of most of its extreme features of cruelty. For instance, a popular Christian writing said a master just love his servant: “Let him consider wherein they are equal even as he is a man…he should love his slave as a brother.” [4] The same book instructed masters not to command their slaves “with bitterness of soul, let they groan against thee and wrath be upon thee from God.” [5] It further taught Christians that the slaves ought to work only five days a week and be permitted to go to church for instruction on Sunday and other special days of the church.[6] Christians who had taken concubine slaves before conversion were required to marry them legally before baptism.[7]

This does not mean Christians approved of slavery. The admonitions of early Christian writers for believing slaves to serve their masters wholeheartedly may be compared with admonitions of pro-lifers to avoid bombing abortion clinics and executing abortionists. The act of abortion is abhorrent and inherently immoral, but since it is now legal and Christians have thus far been unable to change that, Christian leaders urge their followers to keep within the limits of the law.[8] What we find in early Christian writers (popularly called the Church Fathers) is an emphasis on being free in spirit to serve Christ, regardless on one’s status in life. Abrose wrote that the slave might be superior in character to his master and might be more truly free. [9] He encouraged Christians to free slaves, writing, “the highest kind of liberality is to redeem captives, to save them from the hands of their enemies.” In 378 A.D., Trace and Illyria were devastated by the Goths and a multitude were carried away into slavery. At that time, Ambrose redeemed all he could.

Early Christians liberate slaves at their own expense

In the second and third centuries after Christ, tens of thousands of slaves were freed by people who converted the Christ, and then understood the inherent wrongness of the slave condition. Melania is said to have freed 8,000 slaves, Ovidus 5,000, Chromatius 1400, and Hermes 1200.[10] One popular Christian book of the early church said that Christians should not attend heathen gatherings “unless to purchase a slave and save a soul” (by teaching the slave of Christ and then freeing him or her).[11]

Church law in the early fifth century allowed for liberation (called manumission) of slaves during church services.[12] This happened because many Christian converts at that time were people of considerable wealth. Converted out of a decadent, totally self-centered society, many Christians sold their goods and lands and used the proceeds to help the poor, support hospitals, take in orphans, free prisoners, and liberate slaves. Liberation was frequent, and freedmen soon became a prominent feature of society.[13]

Augustine led many clergy under his authority at Hippo to free their slaves “as an act of piety.” [14] He boldly wrote a letter urging the emperor to set up a new law against slave traders and was very much concerned about the sale of children. Christian emperors of his time for 25 years had permitted sale of children, not because they approved of it, but as a way of preventing infanticide when parents were unable to care for a child (The Saints, Pauline Books, 1998 p. 72). In his famous book, “The City of God,” the development of slavery is seen as a product of sin and contrary to God’s divine plan”.[15]

Freeing slaves in those days took great conviction and courage, since the Roman emperors issued edicts unfavorable to it, and keeping on the good side of the emperor was essential to survival. Not until Justinian (527-565 A.D.) did Christians find an emperor who was sympathetic to what they had been doing [16]

The practice of freeing slaves began quite early, for Clement of Alexandria, who was probably a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, said in his Epistle to the Corinthians no. 55, “Some Christians surrendered their own freedom to liberate others or even money to provide food for others.” He talks as if it is common knowledge of which he is reminding them. He also says it was a church custom in his time to redeem prisoners of war from servitude. He wrote that Christians should not have too many domestic slaves. He said men did this because they disliked working with their own hands and serving themselves.[17]

Ignatius, in his epistle to Herodustus, urges believers to “despise not servants, for we possess the same nature in common with them." [18] Basil (330-379) wrote of slaves and masters as all being fellow slaves of our Creator and spoke of “our mutual equality of rank.” [19] Lactantius in the fourth century wrote that in God’s eyes there were no slaves.[20]

In the fourth century, Chrysostom wrote that Christ annulled slavery and admonished Christian to buy slaves, teach them a marketable skill, and set them free. The freeing of slaves by Christians was so common in his time that some people complained Christianity had been introduced just for that purpose.[21] In the fifth century, Patrick, Celtic Christian missionary to Ireland, actually condemned slavery.[22]

Christianity eclipses slavery in Europe

In fact, due to the influence of Christianity, slavery was rapidly declining and had all but disappeared from much of Europe when the advent and subsequent conquest of Islam brought a rebirth of the slave trade.[23]

See also


  1. Lorella Rouster, Anti-Slavery Activism 101-- "Early Christian Influence Against Slavery", Every Child Ministries, Edition 2, 2011, pp. 18-22
  2. Galatians 3:28
  3. Rouster, p 18.
  4. Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book IV, xii
  5. Constitutions, Book VII, xiii
  6. Constitutions, Book VII, xxxiii
  7. Constitutions, Book VII, xxxii
  8. Rouster,p.19
  9. Kenneth Scott Latourette, The History of the Expansion of the Christian Church, Zondervan, 1943, p. 622
  10. Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence, How Christianity Transformed Civilization, Zondervan, 2001, p. 274
  11. Constitutions, Book ii, Section VII
  12. Canon LIIIV, The African Code Canons, also called the Canons of the Fathers assembled at Carthage, 419.A.D.
  13. Rouster, p. 19-20
  14. Of the work of Monks, p. 25, Vol. 3, Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers
  15. The City of God, Ch. 15, p. 411, Vol II, Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers
  16. Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence, How Christianity Transformed Civilization, Zondervan, 2001, p. 274
  17. The Instructor, Book II, Chapter IV
  18. Ignatius, Epistle to Herodotus, I, p. 114
  19. Basil, On the Spirit, Ch. xx
  20. Lactanius, Divine Institutes, mentioned in Schmidt, p. 274
  21. Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily XI, Vol XIII, Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers, p. 74
  22. Schmidt, p. 275
  23. Rouster, p.23