Slavery existed as a fact of life in the ancient world, and the Bible mentions slavery in many places.

  • When the Bible speaks of slavery, is it supporting it, or merely describing it? Does the Bible encourage slavery, merely condone it, or is it actively against it?

  • What Scripture addresses the treatment of slaves, and how does this compare with how other nations in the same time period addressed their slaves?

  • Along these same lines, what was the role of Christians in the slavery debate? Since the status of Africans was in many ways the philosophical underpinning of their servitude, were there any particular denominations that were distinguished in their rejection of this prevailing attitude.

Put another way, are passages about slavery in the Bible prescriptive or descriptive in their treatment, and did the Bible have any discernible impact on the actual practices of Christians?

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    Whether the Bible supports slavery and whether it supports white supremacy are, IMO, two completely separate, and unrelated questions.
    – Flimzy
    Feb 18, 2012 at 9:31
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    I would argue they are related only in that slavery persisted in the West because white people believed they were better than Blacks - though I couldn't think of a good way to define that inequality. Feb 18, 2012 at 12:42
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    How "White supremacy" was used to support slavery is of course relevant, but that has little or nothing to do with the separate questions of if the Bible supports slavery, or if the Bible supports white supremacy. And the answers to those two questions will be completely different (even if the answers to both were used to support the political position).
    – Flimzy
    Feb 18, 2012 at 21:31
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    The Bible does not support white supremacy except in anachronistic 19th century American readings. It might be argued to support some form of semitic supremacy, since the sons of shem are favored, and these includes the semitic tribes, but this is difficult considering the even-handedness with which it treats tribes. The real bigotry in the old-testament is against Canaanites, and in the new testament it is against pagans. The white/black issue is not present in the Bible, it's a product of the 18th century slave trade.
    – Ron Maimon
    Oct 5, 2012 at 20:34
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    -1 Slavery also persisted because of some black tribes considering the other weaker tribes fair play and a legitimate source of income. Putting the blame of slavery's persistence squarely on white supremacy is the hocus pocus based on ignorance of history (Arabs, e.g., and other blacks already made for established markets for slavery before the whites even looked at Africa. And slavery still exists in those parts of the world). Having read your answers before I am more disappointed than offended. And this is from a guy who is not even white.
    – user1160
    Feb 5, 2013 at 16:04

2 Answers 2


As stated, slavery was a fact of the Ancient World, and so when the Bible addresses the topic, it should not be compared against the sensibilities of the modern world, but rather against the sensibilities of the ones to whom the Bible was addressed.

It is an anchronism to apply questions of, for example, feminism or communism, to the Scriptures, because the original audience would have had no means of apprehending it as such. It would have made no sense, for example, to put an apologetic against evolution into Genesis, because until the 1860s, no one had ever conceived of the notion. Likewise, to rail against the evils of slavery would not have made sense to the original audience.

What was the status Quo on Slavery?

As Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary puts it:

People could become slaves in several ways. The poor who were unable to pay their debts could offer themselves as slaves (Ex. 21:2–6; Neh. 5:1–5). A thief who could not repay what he had stolen could also be sold as a slave. Children born of slave parents became “house-born slaves” (Gen. 15:3; 17:12–13). Sometimes children would be taken as slaves in payment for debts (2 Kin. 4:1–7).

What did the Bible teach?

That said, when Scripture is compared to prevailing attitudes, Scripture is remarkably anti-Slavery in comparison.

  1. The laws concerning the treatment of slaves were remarkably liberal:

    • a. Israel was instructed by the law not to rule over a fellow Israelite harshly (Lev. 25:39; Deut. 15:14).

    • b. If a master beat a slave or harmed him, the law provided that the slave could go free (Ex. 21:26–27); and the killing of a slave called for a penalty (Ex. 21:20).

    • c. Slaves were allowed to secure their freedom. Under the law, no Hebrew was to be the permanent slave of another Hebrew. After six years of service, a slave was to be released (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12).

    • d. In the Year of JUBILEE, no matter how long a slave had served, he was to be released (Lev. 25:37–43). If a slave desired to continue with his master, he would have a mark made in the ear; this mark would signify that he had chosen to remain a slave (Ex. 21:5–6).

    • e.A slave could also buy his freedom, or another person could buy his freedom for him (Lev. 25:47–49).

    N.B. In fairness, there is no evidence that the Hebrews ever actually did the Jubilee, but it is instructive that the concept was embedded both in the Law and the Prophets. Additionally, the fact that it was never practiced shows how radically out of step with the time it was.

  2. The prophets are remarkably on the side of the slave and against the master.

    The Bible contains warnings about the practice of slavery. The prophet Amos spoke woe to Gaza and Tyre for their practices of slave-trading entire populations (Amos 1:6–9). The Book of Revelation declares that disaster awaits those who sell slaves (Rev.18:13). ... Paul appealed to Philemon to receive back Onesimus, a runaway slave who was now a Christian and therefore a brother (Philem. 1:16). Elsewhere Paul counseled believing slaves to seek freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21). Since slave practices were part of the culture in biblical times, the Bible contains no direct call to abolish slavery. But the implications of the gospel, especially the ethic of love, stand in opposition to slavery.

    Additionally, Paul is as clear as you can get that there should be no difference between slave and free: Galatians 3:28 says:

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    The Good News of the Kingdom of God in Isaiah is that Jubilee (Lev 25:37) would actually come about. Mary is also equally clear that she thinks the tables are going to be turned, and the "oppressed" would be free.

What was actual practice?

I'm not going sugar-coat Christian history. Whites treated Blacks horrendously. The AME Church was founded by a black minister who was savagely beaten at the altar of St. George's Church. Slave masters often tried to stress the value of obedience amongst slaves. Theological cases (like Ham in Genesis 10) were often made to to try to say that the white man was superior.

But interestingly, it was still within the church that opposition to slavery was at its greatest.

  • William Wilberforce and John Newton are widely credited with the abolition of slavery in Great Britain, and the ban in 1808 on the trading of slaves. Both unashamedly said their opposition to slavery was born out of their understanding of Christianity.

  • The Quakers were remarkably opposed to the subjugation of people - their refusal to simply take land from the Indians to their united opposition to slavery was a constant force in the abolitionist movement.

  • Finally, from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to even the Reverend Jesse Jackson - most of the stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement were leaders in the Christian Church.

What did the rest of the world believe?

In contrast,

While slavery was practiced worldwide, the Christian church was the first to react heavily against it. It was the Christian church that first abolished and then "forced" that view on many of what I freely admit were its subjugated colonies. Still, the point is this - it is not natural to set your property free. It takes something engrained in a society to make it change, a "religion" of freedom, and Christianity seems that most likely force.

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    It is a bit contradictory to say that the church was against slavery. There was no single church position here, unless you count the papal bull (endorsing, even encouraging, slavery). Also: I've made this point before but you gloss over it: there were also a great many non-Christian (free-thinker) voices against slavery - such as Thomas Paine. It is overly simplistic (not to mention a little deceptive, and dare I say a little self-serving) to say this important issue was faced purely along religious lines. Religion was orthogonal, with pro- and anti- in both Christian and non-Christian ranks. Feb 17, 2012 at 19:47
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    I should also note that within the other religions you mention there is also not a single defining view. People are more complex than that, and (to their credit, IMO) do not always let their religion define their view on everything. Feb 17, 2012 at 19:53
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    I've lived in Hindu countries [lived in Nepal specifically, and my wife lived in UP], and frankly their religion frames the issue in such a way that the debate is very hard to find. Until Megawathi started championing the rights of the Dalit in Uttar Pradesh, I never heard people talking about the rights of the oppressed. Hinduism really does frame the issue in such individual terms (see Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and karmic terms that it really doesn't occur to people to view the individual as a child of God, worthy of the dignity afforded all his children. Feb 17, 2012 at 20:04
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    On the historical point: Slavery was first abolished in countries where Christianity was strong. Anti-Christians who blame Christianity for the perpetuation of slavery really need to explain that. Many places had slavery under pagan governments but abolished slavery when Christians took control. I don't know of any country that had slavery until an atheist government came to power and abolished it. Just the opposite: Soviet Russia pretty much re-introduced slavery (without calling it by that name) after Christians had ended it.
    – Jay
    Feb 21, 2012 at 8:25
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    @Trig You are misparsing that one sentence. Wilberforce returned to his conservative roots (1.campaigning against the lottery) (2.freeing children ...) (and [for] 3. immediate abolition). He was against the lottery but for the other two. May 23, 2012 at 11:42

Hilaire Belloc enlightened me to the meaning of pre-christian slavery in the Servile State.

There was no question in those ancient societies from which we spring of making subject races into slaves by the might of conquering races. All that is the guess-work of the universities. Not only is there no proof of it, rather all the existing proof is the other way. The Greek had a Greek slave, the Latin a Latin slave, the German a German slave, the Celt a Celtic slave.

The theory that "superior races" invaded a land, either drove out the original inhabitants or re-duced them to slavery, is one which has no argument either from our present knowledge of man's mind or from recorded evidence. Indeed, the most striking feature of that Servile Basis upon which Paganism reposed was the human equality recognised between master and slave. The master might kill the slave, but both were of one race and each was human to the other.

You might say, well that's well and good, but that's pre-christian slavery. What about Christian slavery? Well, 1.) that's a misnomer and 2.) the dark ages were a slow process of forgetting slavery through private or collective ownership by the people. It may not have been the intended effect, but the crusades did more to free English serfs (who by that time were technically free from slavery, but tied to the land which they did not own) than any other movement of the last 2000 years. And if you can't call the Crusades a product of Christianity, I'm not sure what you can call a product of Christianity.

During the Crusades, a noble would have to finance his journey to the Holy Land by granting large tracts of land to the serfs whom he previously lorded over. Sometimes, in exchange for not granting these tracts of land, they'd just ask for more freedoms for the serfs1.

That's all tangential to the point in the question, but I mention it to draw the distinction between what effect the Gospel message had on slavery. People became willing to sell all they had (slaves, land and other possessions) just to do what they thought was God's will.

Philemon for instance, is a tacit acceptance of slavery as it was. Part of the epistle is read at Mass once every 3 years and it is almost always followed by a homily about race relations, civil rights, etc... What should be carried away is that in Christ we're all brothers and sisters.

So, the point is, if Jesus doesn't call us slaves, he calls us friends. And in ancient times, slavery wasn't about a master race enslaving all the poor races of the world (even Saul/Paul was granted the rights as a Roman citizen as a Jew). Slaves are those individuals who are bound to their master, there is no slave race bound to a master race. Being a servant or a slave, to Jesus and Paul and Jude, was a very, very good thing.

1. I known I'm going to get beat down by an Englishman for pretending to know anything about medieval England, so I'll just say this is my synthesis of Belloc and Chesterton's histories and if you haven't read them then you can't really call yourself an Englishman anymore than I can!

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