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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
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
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.”