After two years of sensitive negotiations, the United States government is about to deliver an agreement ending the persecution of Christians and genocide in Sudan. For the past six years, I and other Christian leaders have been involved in a campaign to bring an end to the murder and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Christians.
But fighting slavery is nothing new for Christians. After all, Christianity was born into a world where chattel slavery, one person owning another, was the cornerstone of the economy.
Ironically, many famous historians, including those most critical of Christianity, were indifferent about the role that slavery played in antiquity. Edward Gibbon called the “cruel treatment” of slaves “almost justified by the great law of self-preservation.”
Western Christianity saw matters differently. Its spread through western Europe was accompanied by calls for an end to chattel slavery. Saint Bathilde, the wife of the seventh-century Frankish king Clovis, was canonized, in part, for her efforts to free slaves and end the slave trade.
The result of hers and similar efforts was that, by the eleventh century, slavery had been effectively abolished in western Europe. The lone exceptions were areas under pagan or Muslim control. By the time Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica in the thirteenth century, slavery was a thing of the distant past. That’s why Aquinas paid little attention to the subject, devoting himself instead to the issue of serfdom, which he considered “repugnant.”
So, why did slavery make a comeback in the Americas? As historian Rodney Stark writes in For the Glory of God, the problem was that people stopped listening. The distance between the Americas and western Europe, coupled with the rise of nation-states and commercial interests, meant that Christian teaching about the evils of chattel slavery was less likely to be heeded.
The failure to obey this teaching doesn’t change the fact that, according to Stark, the “moral predisposition” to oppose slavery was unique to Western Christianity. It certainly didn’t exist in the Islamic world, where legal slavery existed until 1981 and where informal slavery still exists.