Last month, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire publication to remembering the 400th anniversary of American slavery. In the introduction to the project it wrote,
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
But the transatlantic slave trade goes back to the 15th century, when Portuguese merchants began trading North African people as slaves. The industry’s growth happened alongside massive changes in the church, including the Reformation in 1517 and subsequent church fighting and division between Catholics and Protestants.
To understand the church’s beliefs about slavery at the time, you have to go back to the Patristic period, says Michael A. G. Haykin, a professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Augustine and Aquinas argued that while slavery was not part of God’s first intention, it was a result of the fall—a conclusion embraced by the church for years.
“The only clear abolitionist in the patristic period is Gregory of Nyssa who argues that slavery violates the image of God in man, to hold another individual as a possession is a violation of his human dignity and value in the sight of God,” said Haykin.
Haykin joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss the genesis of the church’s views on slavery, how the missions movement affected the slave trade, and the role of the Quakers in pricking the Protestant conscience on this atrocity.
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 176
Can you tell us a little bit about the Catholic church's first and initial position on slavery during the start of the slave in the 15th century?
Michael: I think it's important to go back even further than that to the Patristic period where you have a number of authors—particularly important for the West is Augustine—interacting with slavery in the Roman Empire, as well as interacting with classical thought by people like Aristotle regarding slavery.
Aristotle essentially argued in many respects that slavery was part of the natural order of things. Some people were essentially slaves by nature, that was simply the reality with which they were born. The church responded to that sort of argument and used it to justify slavery in the Roman Empire along a number of lines.
The only clear abolitionists in the patristic period is Gregory of Nyssa, who argues that slavery violates the image of God in man. To hold another individual as a possession is a violation of his human dignity and value in the sight of God.
Augustine is more nuanced, and from our point of view probably not as helpful in thinking about slavery. For Augustine, slavery is certainly not part of God first intention in creation but is a result of the fall. And so essentially Augustine's position is embraced through the Middle Ages by the Roman Catholic Church.
Thomas Aquinas argues along Augustinian and Aristotelian lines that slavery is not part of God's original intention but comes into effect in the life of humanity or among human beings as a result of sin. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church endorsed the idea of holding other human beings as slaves as long as they were not Christians. And probably one of the early figures who would have been reacting against the holding of Christians as slaves was Patrick. In one of his works, he condemns the idea of holding Christians as slaves. But the Roman Catholic church by the late Middle Ages was okay with the enslavement of non-Christians.
Can you talk a little bit more about how they were drawing distinctions? How did they say Christians should not hold other Christians as slaves, but they can hold people who are not Christians?
Michael: They probably used some of the Old Testament passages that speak about the enslavement of Jews as opposed to the enslavement of the peoples around them. There are distinctions made in the Old Testament between the enslavement of Jews, which could only last for so long and then they have to be freed, and the enslavement of other individuals who were not part of the Jewish Community.
The Old Testament had become very important for the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages because it provided a structure for how to organize a Christian society. Beginning with worship issues, it soon began to move over into the whole area of politics, state and church relationships, they looked to the Old Testament as a model for how to construct a Christian Society.
Was slavery something that was practiced in Europe prior to the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade?
Michael: No, or at least not on a wide scale. In fact, if you look at the Mediterranean world, probably the one area where people were enslaved the most would be among the Muslim countries in North Africa.
You do have the feudal system in Europe, which in essence might be like a form of slavery, but it really is not the sort of slavery that you have prevailing in the Greco-Roman world or that becomes part of the modern European experience where a slave really is a thing and has no rights. The feudal system is not built along those lines at all.
There may well have been a few slaves, but slavery does not really exist in the European context until the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade in the middle of the 15th century.
The Catholic Church endorses the enslavement of non-Christians at the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, which is really did the initial forays of the Portuguese mariners enslaving Arab people or the enslavement of garrisons in the Middle East during the Crusades. And so this is okay by the church.
1441 is probably the first example of a number of African peoples being enslaved by Portuguese slavers and brought to work on a plantation in Portugal. This would not become the pattern that persisted. The pattern would be the transfer of Africans to the New World.
The feudal system was very well established at that time, and so you just don't have the need for significant numbers that would open up in the New World as colonies are established and huge plantations to harvest the various products of the new world are set up.
It's complex because you do have some figures in the 16th century within the Roman Catholic Church who are against slavery like Bartolomé de las Casas, who is a Dominican in the West Indies in the 1530s and condemns slavery, but the essential line that the Roman Catholic papacy develops is the granting of permission to the Portuguese and the Spanish. They give them a monopoly to take as slaves the indigenous peoples, and then also to transport slaves from Africa over into the New World.
So it's not without opposition, but the Catholic Church to a significant degree is using Aristotelian categories where slavery is viewed as part of the fallen humanity and therefore can be legitimated.
It's not the case that they have slavery and then they need to find scripture text to support this. The whole perspective of the Medieval World is deeply hierarchical, with levels of authority and obedience and subjection, and slavery simply fits into that pattern.
The Reformation does not fit into the pattern, so in what ways did many of the Reformers interact with slavery and the slave trade?
Michael: Because of the fact that there is not significant numbers or presence of slaves in Europe, it's not a major topic on the Reformer's theological horizon. But they do have to deal with it when they're expositing and executing scripture.
A good example here is Calvin. He was very concerned about expositing scripture in its historical context and then making application to the world of his day. He condemned slavery and begins with an anthropology that's based on Genesis 1, which is the whole idea of the image of God in every human being and therefore the necessity of treating men and women with dignity because that is recognizing the Imago Dei, the image of God, in them.
There are passages where he appears to be very critical of slavery because it's a violation of the Imago Dei, but on the other hand there are passages where you'd expect him to be critical of slavery, like in his exegesis of Philemon, and instead he deals with it more along the lines of somebody like Aquinas where this is simply part of the reality of the world in which we live.
So the Reformers do not really make a substantial break with the Catholic Church on this issue, and you really have to wait until the slave trade is in full force before you start to find Protestants realizing what this means and the horror of it.
Can you talk about how missions and missionaries worked alongside the slave trade, or sometimes maybe worked against it?
Michael: The earliest example of cross-cultural missions in the Catholic church during the Reformation period is the Jesuit missions to the Far East. There they encountered very sophisticated cultures from the European point of view, which matched anything that they had in Europe. And this would obviously have reinforced the idea that Europeans are not the acme of human development and also reinforced the very basic idea from scriptures that every human being has the Image of God in them.
But the encounter of the Europeans with indigenous peoples in the Americas had left them feeling that, in their minds, the cultures of the indigenous peoples were substandard, they were not really civilized. This is especially true in North America where the pattern of life that most of the indigenous peoples followed—they didn't establish herb large urban centers like Europe, they were more migratory in terms of their habits and their lifestyle. This reinforced to the Europeans that the North American cultures were really were not up to par in terms of civilization.
It seems that as the Portuguese and Spanish divided up the New World, Latin America would have had plenty of opportunities to use slaves to help further their own economy. But we don't have slavery in those colonies like we have in North American. Do you have any idea what historians think about that?
Michael: Part of it has to do with the way in which people were being brought over, and the way in which the Spanish and Portuguese in those colonies viewed non-European people. The racism that is critical to the development of the slave trade, and the way in which Africans were viewed as subhuman, is very much a northern European and sadly Protestant perspective.
Whereas the Spanish and the Portuguese regularly intermarried with indigenous peoples—you can see this clearly if you trace the genealogical ancestry of people in places like Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, and the only exception being Argentina—the indigenous people really get mixed into the families and lives of the Spanish and the Portuguese. And they do the same with the Africans they eventually bring over, too. So there is slavery there, horrendous slavery, but the openness of the Spanish and the Portuguese to intermarriage with free Africans and indigenous peoples is very different from what happened in North America.
Let's focus in on Bartolomé de las Casas for a second. He begins condemning slavery as early as 1537, making an extremely counter-cultural argument and one not necessarily surfaced at all with his contemporaries in the faith. What is his rationale? What is his theological argument for him to speak out against what he's seeing?
Michael: I indicated our earlier that there had been a strain of Christian authors going all the way back to Gregory of Nyssa, in which you have the emphasis on the Imago Dei, and these are human beings who share with Europeans the image of God, and therefore the whole idea of enslaving other human beings is fundamental violation of that. De Las Casas basically draws upon that tradition
We've been talking about Spain and Portugal, where the Reformation doesn't ever really break out in strong numbers. But by 1619, almost every single colony in the United States is one that's founded by Protestants. Does that make things different in how slavery takes root and develops?
Michael: In terms of the initial colonies in the early 17th century, all of them on the east coast would be Protestant except for Quebec. On the west coast you have Spanish settlement in California, but in the development of what we call the United States, the Protestants are critical.
In the 1570s, when a mariner named Sir John Hawkins intercepted a Spanish slave ship destined for Cuba and took the slaves to sell them, Queen Elizabeth I was horrified by this. This is something that the Spanish and the Portuguese did, but the English did not.
The 1619 event would still have been viewed with some horror by authorities back in Britain. It's not really until the 1650s and 1660s, when the emerging English British Empire begins to occupied lands in the Caribbean places like Jamaica Barbados, that the English start to get drawn into the slave trade.
1619 is very significant because it's the first establishment of slaves in America, but it would not have taken place without significant criticism. There would have been those who have reacted in the same way in which the authorities reacted to Sir John Hawkins only 40 years earlier, with just absolute horror that an English sailor could do this.
While it is significant at the beginning, it needs to be differentiated from the significant endorsement and involvement of the English in the slave trade by the end of the 17th century.
Economics are critical here. The English take over colonies in the Caribbean and find goods like sugar and other commodities that were never known in Europe. Initially, the English who initially tried to interest the Irish to go and work on these plantations, who they also saw as subhuman.
That didn't work and so the British then turn to the model established by the Portuguese and the Spanish and begin using Africans. So while economics was key, the growth of slavery was also attended by the ideological justification via racism.
The amount of opposition to it is minimal, and it's really not until you get into the early 1700s that you get Quakers in the colonies being at the forefront of the argument against slavery.
Can you talk a little bit about the way that the Puritan colonies becomes intertwined with the Transatlantic slave trade?
Michael: They had a few slaves, but not tons. So Jonathan Edwards, who was alive in the 18th century, had five or six slaves in his home. But you don't have the plantations that you have developing in the South because you don't have the products from the South. The economic initial interest in the North would have been the beaver trade, which was vital to the British economy because beaver trade had dried up from Russia. That was a key reason for opening up New England.
The ships that brought the pilgrims over in the early 1620s were expected to go back filled with beaver pelts. So you didn't have the economic call for large numbers of slaves.
But there were slaves. Probably the most critical thing for New England was the maritime vessels that sailed out of ports like Boston and Rhode Island and were involved in the transportation of slaves from Africa to the southern colonies and then returning to resupply in New England.
It seems like it's hard to find people that are opposing slavery, that it was so entrenched in the world view, but the Quakers seemed to somehow have found a conscience on this. Is there something in their tradition or some experience that happened to one of their leaders that led them to take a different stance than the rest of the Christian world?
Michael: Early Quakerism in the 1640s and 50s is driven by an anti-hierarchicalism. The Quakers were accused of being disrespectful to their elders, they refuse to use the ways in which you would acknowledge somebody as superior to you. British Society is deeply class driven, and the Quakers are against all of it. They're part of that world that emerges in the 1640s and emphasizes the equality of all men.
The Quakers believed that every human being has opportunity to look within to The Light Within, which they sometimes identify as the spirit of Christ. There is from the very beginning of Quakerism an egalitarian impulse. I think that that probably is driving them to some degree. The Baptist have the same impulse, but all too easily Baptists in the Americas start to fit in with the kind of societal structures. Quakers don't.
They were on the frays of Christian society, which shows such irony. That in church history, such people were in the forefront of abolitionism in the early 18th century.
Many people know that there were a number of British abolitionists and I would love to talk about them for a little bit. I'd also like to know if there was ever that level of abolitionism that existed in Spain or Portugal or any of their colonies.
Michael: British abolitionism obviously gets it rise through its Quaker tracks. The correspondence between the American colonies and Britain was very extensive, and so we can actually talk about a kind of an Anglophone transatlantic world, and America was part of the British Empire. The Quakers really take the lead, and then after Wesley endorses the Quaker abolitionism, you could not be a Methodist in England in good standing and be involved in the slave trade by the end of the 18th century. Or even hold slaves.
That does not prevail in America. Francis Asbury is initially convinced of Wesley's view, but as he begins to preach it in the South, he finds significant opposition by Southern Methodist and makes a pragmatic decision to hone back his empathies. In his mind, he would have he would have lost the Methodist movement in the South if he did not tone down his attacks on slavery.
But what if? It would have been interesting if he hadn't done that. He probably would not have carried with him as many Methodists, but there would have been a key force at the heart of earlier evangelicalism in America that would have been abolitionists.
By the time you get to the late 18th century, you have a number of key Anglicans like William Wilberforce. And then also you have a significant opposition among British Baptist like William Carey.
I mean I could easily track for the next 15 to 20 minutes example after example of Baptist leaders in Britain during the 1780s and 90s who are absolutely opposed to the slave trade. The great fight against slavery itself is led by key Baptist like William Nip, known as Nip the Notorious, who was in Jamaica and was horrified by what he saw in a context where there were three quarters of a million African slaves and 18,000 Europeans.
This also provides the foundation for a man like Spurgeon, who would say something in the 1850s like, "I'll sit down with anybody with theological differences than mine, who loves the Lord Jesus, at the supper of the Lord's table, but I will not sit down with a slave trader," which led to his sermons being burned in the South during the 1860s. American Baptist develop quite differently.
What would you say are maybe one or two of the lesser-known or more surprising impacts that Christianity's involvement with the Transatlantic slave trade ends up happening on church life, church theology, and the current impact of the church?
Michael: I think obviously the major impact is just the heritage of racism that is insignificant quarters of Western culture, and particularly American culture, today. But you can't have a society that its economic basis is tied to a policy that is deeply racist for so long without that infiltrating every nook and cranny of a culture.
I'm not saying that every white American is there by a racist. But it infiltrates enormous areas of life that you would never think that it would impact. And changing this is not a work of a few years. There needs to be significant time spent rethinking, looking at the past and how that has shaped us, and making changes.