How Christianity Ended Slavery

"At the beginning of the Dark Ages the great pagan cosmopolitan society now grown Christian was as much a slave state as old South Carolina. By the fourteenth century it was almost as much a state of peasant proprietors as modern France. No laws had been passed against slavery; no dogmas even had condemned it by definition; no war had been waged against it, no new race or ruling caste had repudiated it; but it was gone. This startling and silent transformation is perhaps the best measure of the pressure of popular life in the Middle Ages, of how fast it was making new things in its spiritual factory. Like everything else in the mediƦval revolution, from its cathedrals to its ballads, it was as anonymous as it was enormous. It is admitted that the conscious and active emancipators everywhere were the parish priests and the religious brotherhoods; but no name among them has survived and no man of them has reaped his reward in this world. Countless Clarksons and innumerable Wilberforces, without political machinery or public fame, worked at death-beds and confessionals in all the villages of Europe; and the vast system of slavery vanished. It was probably the widest work ever done which was voluntary on both sides; and the Middle Ages was in this and other things the age of volunteers. It is possible enough to state roughly the stages through which the thing passed; but such a statement does not explain the loosening of the grip of the great slave-owners; and it cannot be explained except psychologically. The Catholic type of Christianity was not merely an element, it was a climate; and in that climate the slave would not grow. I have already suggested, touching that transformation of the Roman Empire which was the background of all these centuries, how a mystical view of man's dignity must have this effect. A table that walked and talked, or a stool that flew with wings out of window, would be about as workable a thing as an immortal chattel."

- from A Short History of England by G.K. Chesterton, page 91.

Few people know this fact about the Middle Ages, that the spread of Christianity brought about an end to slavery without laws, wars, or protests. Simply the proliferation of the gospel did its work and ended oppression. It was after the Renaissance, when all things Roman and Greek became popular again, that slavery returned.

Turning to the American South, the problems that caused the South to hold on to its slaves and ultimately to incur the wrath and judgment of God in the Civil War was not any sort of Christian ideal; it was its damnable modernity, its tight clinging to worldly ideas of profit, the same spirit incidentally that caused Northern factory owners to horribly mistreat and underpay their servile employees. The American South was overwhelmingly Christian, and should be remembered as such. However, on this one point the spirit of the Gospel did not penetrate to all corners of society. A slave could be a Christian man, a saved man in the minds of Southerners. But in some weird paradoxical way he could also be a tool and not a man. Economic necessity would soon have ended this system of slavery even without the Civil War, but the war need not have happened if the people of the South were less concerned about their pocketbooks and more concerned about their Christian heritage.

Comments

Rose said…
this is pretty cool--never really thought about how or why slavery stopped during the Medieval times.
Rose said…
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