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The church was present throughout the life span of slavery in the New World. Contrary to popular opinion, Christianity was by no means solely an anti-slavery advocate. For the most part there is plenty of evidence to support the Christian church’s struggle for the abolition of the despicable institution, but there is also evidence to defend the contrary. Because slavery was such a lucrative business, many in the church continued to profit from the despicable institution. Notwithstanding this, there were still many who were adamant abolitionists.
There are obviously many different forms of religion derived from Catholic and Protestant roots, as well as an infinite number of independent beliefs. Different Christian sects had different ways of addressing the sensitive topic of African bondage. The religions on which this paper will focus are the Catholic church and the Quakers, Baptists, and Anglicans, which are all denominations within the Protestant tradition. There were differences of opinion both among and within these denomination when it came to slavery. Even the Quakers who developed a firm objection to slavery, had problems convincing all of their members that it was evil. Some of them even owned slaves.
1 Albert Barnes, a nineteenth-century abolitionist, suggested that the institution of Christianity alone was powerful enough to have stopped or even prevented slavery from developing in the New World.
2 The church, he argued was the great opponent of slavery during the Roman empire, as well as during colonialism in the New World.
3 The latter point is particularly debatable. Yet Barnes believed that if all of the different denominations pulled together there would be no other power strong enough to combat it. Slavery would have been non-existent.
4 Still, the fact remains that many slave-holders were Christians, and some were even members of the clergy. Even some missionaries to the colonies owned slaves. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Catholic Priest and missionary who stationed in Hispaniola in the early sixteenth century, owned Native American slaves, and later swapped them in for the more durable and work-friendly African slaves. He wrote to Spain suggesting that the slave holders cease the use of Native Americans as slaves because they were unable to cope with the harsh working conditions and European diseases that were wiping them out. The Africans on the other hand were sturdier, and were better equipped to withstand European disease.
The Catholic Church had a major presence in slavery in the New World. According to Richard Miller, Catholic countries were “the prime movers in the revival of slavery in the Old World and the introduction of it into the New World.” The five major countries that dominated slavery and the slave trade in the New World were either Catholic, or still retained strong Catholic influences including: Spain, Portugal, France, and England, as well as the Dutch.
5 Christopher Columbus himself thought first of enslaving the Natives that he encountered upon the discovery of the island of Hispaniola in 1492. Within the first month of his arrival Columbus seized six young men that had canoed up alongside his ship as prisoners to be sent back to the Catholic King and Queen of Spain as slaves. He also had seven women and three children captured because he believed that the men would work better as servants if they had women around.
6 He was also very fixed on sending the Natives to Spain to be converted to Catholicism. The Church of Rome did not consider the African slave a human being until 1839. Miller adds that this only occurred after the abolition movement by the American Anti-slavery Society, and “the certainty of the handwriting on the wall that someday slavery would be abolished . . .”.
7 The Quakers, one of the earliest opponents to slavery, believed that cruel treatment by masters drove slaves to decadence and ungodliness. The Quakers knew that they could not end this dominant institution on their own and like many other abolitionists, turned to British government for help. In a 📷petition to British Parliament in 1784, the Quakers pleaded the case that slavery must be ended not only to save the African slaves from evil, but also the English and all humanity as well. Slavery was impugning the reputation of Great Britain. The Quakers felt that it was their duty to save Britain and the slaves from the evilness of slavery.
8 The Quakers sympathized with the Africans on many levels. They were especially bothered by the way in which many Africans were brought to the New World. Many were kidnapped and stolen from their homes. Others were lured under false pretenses. Also the inter-tribal wars between the Africans which were supported by the slave traders, were destroying their societies.
9 Not only was slavery terrible for those directly involved, but the entire continent of Africa suffered.
There were many whites, even in the British colonies of the West Indies, who sympathized with the slaves. During the mid 19th century, there were letters, and petitions written to prominent religious leaders from both missionaries living in the colonies as well as church members in England who were aware of and concerned with what was going on. There were also pamphlets released in the colonies as well as England meant especially for public viewing. Abolitionists knew that they would need the support of the general population if they were to convince Parliament that abolition was a national phenomenon. Most petitioners pleaded for the immediate release of the slaves. There were others that were willing to compromise and allow for a gradual release program in which the slaves would be given proper preparations for entering the free world. An Anglican priest argues that “if they deem a slave not ready to be freed for some reason, they must take that into consideration, but the have no right to detain an innocent man…. Any detention must be as brief as possible and the least bit uncomfortable if seen as needed for his own welfare”.
10 This was taken from a published sermon and dedication from Reverend Wilkes to the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. He believed that slavery was absolutely contrary to the Ten Commandments and no man had the “moral right” to hold neither any person nor his children in subjugation, that had not committed a crime.
11 Wilkes also believed that it was the duty of the Church to denounce slavery, both publicly and officially. He blamed the Church for not ending slavery earlier. Not only did the Church not condemn slavery and those who practiced it, but they let it continue, not to mention 📷participated.
12 To many slavery was the lowest form of human existence, and no person should be delivered into such a state. In the words of Andrew Thomson “to be a slave is the basest style and state of man, and that to be a free man is the highest distinction and his truest glory.”
13 A Reverend Wilkes believed that slavery was based on an “economic and political greed.”
14 Robert Halley condemned the economic stresses of slavery; warning that “the gains of slave-labour are daily diminishing ‘Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire’.”
15 In contradiction of the argument that, once released, the African slaves would become idle and unruly, Halley refers to many freed and escaped slaves who were living normal and productive lives in many of the West Indian colonies:
Go to Suriname and there are Negroes, who forcibly recovered their liberty from the Dutch, now estimated at nearly 20,000, industriously occupied upon their lands . . . Go to Trinidad where are the fugitive slaves from American bondage- or to St. Lucia, where are those who have escaped from the French Islands of Martinique- all usefully and industriously occupied; in the latter instance, even to the introduction of a new manufacturing of pottery into the island, having built the kiln with their own hands.
16 Even though there were missionaries in the Islands who were devoted to the abolition of slavery, there were some that were just as bad as the plantation holders when it came to the treatment of their slaves. Halley argued that the Baptist missionaries in Barbados petitioned for the emancipation of slaves or at least the improvement of their living conditions, yet they were severely mistreating their own slaves. He also reported that the missionaries 📷neglected the slaves' religious lessons, and did not permit their slaves to learn to read. The slaves were not even given their Sabbath to worship. This time was allotted to them to care for their own land.
17 Robert Halley had similar comments on the slaves in Mauritius and Jamaica. “The slave must work on the Sabbath, and has little time for himself. . . The last Jamaica slave code allows twenty-six Saturdays in the year, which I have seen disingenuously represented as holidays. But as twenty –six days of labour, even that climate, are totally insufficient to maintain a family, he must be compelled to cultivate his provision-ground on the Sabbath.”
18 Here it was not only slaves belonging to the missionaries, but those belonging to white plantation owners. Nancy Prince was disappointed with the condition of the Baptist churches in Jamaica. She said that the meeting houses were unruly, and seemed more like “playhouses than a place of worship.”
19 She noted that the churches were over-crowed and unorganized. She also noted that the many of the blacks were underdressed, some without shoes.
20 Obviously Christianity played a variety of roles in slavery in the New World. There were missionaries sent to the colonies to convert the slaves into human beings by Christianizing them. Others went on their own accord, and wrote about some of the atrocities that the enslaved had to endure. Nancy Prince, a free black who herself had been baptized into the Baptist religion, went to Jamaica in 1840 for just that purpose. She was hoping to “to raise up and encourage the emancipated inhabitants and teach the young children to read and work, to fear God, and put their trust in the Savior.”
21 There were also those who argued that Whites could rid themselves of the abolition debate by cautiously converting slaves to Christianity. Sir George Henry Rose a member of British Parliament wrote a letter in 1823 ,arguing that the restlessness of the slaves in the West Indies could be quenched if only they were converted to Christianity. The slaves were in such a terrible state partially because they had not been properly instructed in the Christian ways. He believed that “the Gospel, when received into the heart of man, is able by motives both of this world and the world to come, to lead the reckless and ignorant barbarian from blind superstition, vice, and sensuality, through hope and fear, to rational obedience, order, industry, and morality.”
22 Christianity could also help the slave holder keep his slaves in line by teaching them through the ‘Gospel’ that they must obey their master and not question his law. Whites must in some way filter the truth otherwise the slaves would eventually awaken to that which they were entitled to as Christians and demand freedom and equality. This had already happened in Jamaica and Haiti to which Rose responds; “the blacks have learned too much, if we teach the no more; we must guide their curiosity to things innocent and useful; we must consider that the effusions of our licentious press cannot but reach them, and produce the most mischievous effects unless sound instruction counteract its poison, or reduce them to reject it.”
23 Christians, though in many cases, benevolent, had many different views about how slaves and the institution of slavery should have been dealt with. Many times there were differences within the many sects on not only the abolition of slavery, but whether or not church members should own slaves themselves. Like the many dynamics of the institution of slavery, the Christianity sponsored many different opinions. We acknowledge however, that without the support of religion the abolition of slavery would have taken an even slower route.