Slavery under the pagan Roman empire was so firmly entrenched that the prospect of opposing—let alone ending—that institution, was unimaginable. Christianity existed for hundreds of years as a persecuted minority, as Rome held tightly to slavery in all its harshness. Then a door opened as Christianity was legalized under the emperor Constantine and the moral basis of slavery slowly began to be questioned.
Around 385 A.D., St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a scathing condemnation of slavery:
“You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and you make laws opposed to God and contrary to His natural law. For you have subjected one who was made precisely to be lord of the earth, and whom the Creator intended to be a ruler, to the yoke of slavery, in resistance to and rejection of His divine precept. Have you forgotten what limits were given to your authority? Your rulership has been limited to the extent, namely, that you may only have ownership over brute animals. . . . [T]he only proper slaves of mankind are the animals devoid of intelligence. . . . [W]hy should you . . . think that you can be the owner of a man?” Gregory of Nyssa, Ecclesiastes IV.
At this point, the Bishop of Nyssa was nearly alone in his mocking condemnation. Few would embrace his novel attitude: St. Augustine in 419 A.D., taught in his City of God that men are free by nature, but slavery came as a punishment because of sin. Slavery would not disappear from Christendom for more than a millennium. It would, however, begin a long decline.
The Middle Ages
Most challenges to slavery would not come from government, but from the people. While the Church did not directly challenge slavery, it did teach the equal value of all, whether free or slave; it taught Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. Thus it was inevitable that the disharmony between owning one’s fellow man and loving him would undermine the institution of slavery from the bottom up.
St. Paul’s suggestion to Philemon to free Philemon’s slave Onesimus was a starting point. This treated emancipation of slaves as a Christian virtue, permitted by law, encouraged by the Church, but not a legal duty. Many wealthy Christians emancipated their own slaves, while others bought slaves only to free them. Saint Eligius (588–60) chief counselor to Dagobert I, king of France, used his own wealth “to buy British and Saxon slaves in batches of 50 and 100, in order to give them their freedom.” Marjorie Rowling, Life in Medieval Times. Orders of monks were founded for the purpose of freeing slaves.(“ransoming captives”).
Christendom became more concerned about distinctions between legal and illegal slavery. From antiquity, a person became a slave by various means. Enslavement of war captives was common and considered a merciful (or mercenary) alternative to executing prisoners.
The child of a slave mother was considered a slave. A debtor could sell himself (or be sold) into slavery to make good a debt. The destitute would sell a child to survive. Criminals could be enslaved as punishment for their offenses. Even today, involuntary servitude is still permitted under the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the state’s authority to forcibly conscript soldiers to fight its wars goes unquestioned.
During the middles ages, theologians both defined and narrowed the legal justifications for slavery. The enslavement of Christian war captives—by Christians—was outlawed, leaving that fate reserved chiefly for Muslim captives. Except for non-Christian slaves, slavery in the west was nearly abolished by the end of medieval times. Slavery might have died out, but for two great movements at the beginning of the 16th-century: