As we mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade Simon Hearts wants us to see the institution of slavery and the motivation for its abolition as something far broader than is commonly understood

Since the Enlightenment, the Christian Scriptures have constantly been subjected to historical investigation by believers and sceptics alike. The Bishop of Durham, for example, never tires of telling us that he is an ancient historian and so wishes the conclusions he reaches to be judged according to the canons of historical inquiry. But there has recently been an interesting twist in the tale of two disciplines: historians have started deferring to theology.

It is modern historians who evince a new respect for theology. Michael Burleigh, whose two-volume study of European history from the French Revolution to Al Qaeda has been enthusiastically reviewed in these pages, is one of the leading figures in the movement to subject the post-Enlightenment period to theological investigation. The assumption of the historical critics of the Bible who emerged in the eighteenth century (and whose intellectual heirs still dominate its academic study) was that their methodology was scientific. This was the premise of the ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’ which continues yet. But Burleigh and other modern historians who think like him have turned the tables on the Enlightenment and offer an analysis of the culture it has created in terms drawn from theology.

They argue that religious ideas which biblical scholars tell them they are required by the profession of history itself to place in an ancient historical context, are on the contrary very relevant to the study of modern history. My proposal in this article is that this anti-Enlightenment theological history also illuminates a historical subject that is not exclusively modern (despite the impression given by most of the literature produced for the bicentenary commemoration this month) but is ancient as well. I refer of course to slavery.

The text for my historical sermon is taken from the third chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans beginning to read at the twenty-third verse: ‘Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.’ But what direction to the study of the history of slavery is given by this passage?

The first verse concerning sin directs the historian to look for slavery in all societies, including of course those officially Christian. Because of the revelation of original sin, the working hypothesis of the theological historian will be that slaves will be found everywhere and in all times. She will recognize it as the default setting of human society. The second steer that this text gives to historical research will be towards seeing Christian doctrine as the solvent of the bonds of slavery.

These principles are applied to slavery’s history by Rodney Stark in his book, called, I’m sure coinci-dentally, For the Glory of God. In ch. 4 of that book, using a wealth of examples, he demonstrates that the

dynamic in the history of slavery has been the Pauline dialectic of sin and salvation, and also that historians of a liberal persuasion who have organized their histories around the more obvious political antithesis of freedom and domination, have been guilty of significant distortions of fact and interpretation.

Take as an example of the former the liberal myth that some societies have eschewed slavery. The idea goes back at least to Rousseau, who postulated a ‘state of nature’ in which men (and it was only men) gambolled innocently, until corrupted by the arrival of civilization. ‘Man was born free,’ he famously wrote, ‘but is everywhere in chains.’ His imagination was fired by the discovery of the New World and its peoples. Surprisingly, some of Rousseau’s delusions have passed into scholarly work on these tribal societies. However, they may be considered to have been finally laid to rest by the definitive study of the social conditions among what we cannot now call Red Indian tribes, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of America by Leland Donald. Stark summarizes its conclusions as follows:

As for being few in numbers, slaves made up a third of the population in some villages and ranged from 15% to 25% in many others… Rather than being limited to merely a few captives, slave status was hereditary… They were often traded or given away… ‘Masters exercised complete control over their slaves, and could even kill them if they chose.’ And they often did choose to kill the old and sick as well as the rebellious. Finally, slaves were often killed as ritual sacrifices, especially during their master’s funeral to provide him with slaves in the next world and to exhibit his wealth to those remaining behind.

An error in the liberal Enlightenment interpretation of slavery was exposed twenty or more years ago by that great ancient historian, Moses Finley He pointed out that, in his huge work on the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon devoted ‘only a few decorous pages to the subject of slavery’ Finley’s life work was aimed at bringing about an interpretive shift from Gibbon’s liberal perspective to one in which slavery took centre stage in the study of ancient economy and society. He was swimming against the tide. As Stark comments: ‘most famous Humanists regarded [slavery] as the price that had to be paid for the splendour of Greco-Roman culture, a judgement with which Friedrich Engels concurred, writing in 1878 that “without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science.'” Here we witness nothing less than the collapse of the liberal interpretive scheme. That slavery is the condition of liberty is at the very least a paradoxical idea.

There is no need to rehearse the lamentable details of ancient slavery; this quotation from Mary Gordon gives the general picture: ‘the growth of the empire had a background of human suffering which is unimaginable in its degree and extent… If such labour killed [slaves] prematurely, the Roman master of Republican times might say, with the concise brutality of Tacitus, uile damnum, there were plenty more.’ At least there were until the Roman legionaries ceased to be conquerors and were forced on the defensive. Thus the supply of slaves was cut off and, in Finley s words, ‘the world of late antiquity was no longer a slave society.’ But this does not mean there were no slaves; it means only that they were not ubiquitous as they once had been. So when did slavery die out in Europe and why?

This is a difficult question to answer. Stark quotes Adam Smith: ‘The time and manner…in which so important a revolution was brought about, is one of the most obscure points in modern history.’ The modern authority on medieval feudalism, Marc Bloch, believed he knew what happened to the slaves of Europe: they became serfs. And a serf was far from being a slave by another name. The life of medieval serfs, he insisted, ‘had nothing in common with slavery’ Serfs were not chattels; they had rights and a substantial degree of control over their lives. They married whom they wished and their families were not subject to sale or dispersal. They paid rent and therefore could determine the hours and the pace of their work. But why this transformation from slavery to serfdom?

Here is G.K. Chesterton explaining the evidential problem associated with this question: ‘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.’ He calls this ‘the medieval revolution,’ but it was not like modern revolutions which have always featured the things Chesterton mentions. It was, as he puts it, anonymous. But it was also enormous.

Here is his explanation of why the slave became a serf: ‘the conscious and active emancipators everywhere were the parish priests and religious brotherhoods… 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.’

Those numerous and anonymous ‘Clarksons’ and ‘Wilberforces’ are essential to understanding the activities of their real life modern counterparts. Medieval abolitionism is the missing context in the liberal writing about the campaign to end the slave trade. Stark points out ‘the fact that a virtual Who’s Who of “Enlightenment” figures fully accepted slavery’ John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke and David Hume had nothing to say against slavery and one or two things to say in its favour. Nevertheless Adam Smith was an abolitionist on the grounds that free labour was preferable, both economically and morally, to slave labour. Paradoxically his position was the inspiration for the Marxist Eric Williams’ argument that abolition was caused by the uncom-petitiveness of slavery.

This reason for abolition is cited with great respect on the Churches Together website even though the massive statistical researches of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engermann demonstrated more than thirty years ago that slavery was far from being a loss-making concern. One of their pupils, Seymour Drescher, has called the decision to abolish the whole slave system, both trade and production, as ‘econocide’.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that abolitionists were not uninterested in the liberal economic case against slavery: Zachary Macaulay wrote a whole book about it. It is also true that abolitionism drew on the liberal political rhetoric of the rights of man and included politicians like the libertine and free thinker, Charles James Fox, who had little time for evangelicals like Wilberforce.

However, the longer Catholic perspective on slavery makes clear that there was nothing especially modern about the anti-slavery campaign. It was as old as the Church itself. ‘Capitalism’ and ‘democracy’ really did not have anything to do with it – except to give the kind of people who were opposed to slavery for religious reasons, the non-conformist middle and working classes, money and power to do the job. But they had to want to do it. Their motivation was spiritual and had its roots in the ideas of sin and salvation – just like medieval Catholic abolitionists. Of course they did not express their spiritual perceptions in the same way. For the Catholic, the issue was whether the slave was capable of baptism. To the Protestant it was whether he could hear the Word of God. Nevertheless, mutatis mutandis, Christians both medieval and modern answered with St Paul ‘that all men have sinned’ but have been saved ‘through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.’

Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that Aquinas expanded the definition of spiritual capacity from the sacramental and evangelical by placing slavery in opposition to natural law and deducing that all ‘rational creatures’ are entitled to justice. Right reason, not coercion, is the moral basis of authority, he argued, for ‘one man is not by nature ordained to another as an end.’ Thus possession of reason rather than the inheritance of sin became the differentia specifica of the human. Although forming the basis of the teaching against slavery of the many papal encyclicals thereafter, it was also twisted by the Portuguese and Spanish entrepreneurs who were the first Europeans to engage in the African slave trade (Muslims had of course been trafficking in slaves from Africa for many hundreds of years before the setting up of the slave economy of the New World). They argued that Africans were not rational creatures but a species of animal and therefore legitimately subject to human exploitation. With this reasoning we are close to the discourse of Roman law which called the slave instru-mentum vacate or speaking tool. All of which goes to show the universality of sin as well as of reason.

Rodney Stark quotes David Brion Davis, the influential liberal historian and author of the classic study The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture as follows: ‘For some two thousand years men thought of sin as a kind of slavery. One day they would come to think of slavery as sin.’ Of course Davis is arguing in typical Sixties fashion (the book was published in 1967) for the incompatibility of spirituality (especially a sense of sin) with political action. But as Stark shows, there was no such shift from one to the other in the history of slavery and Christianity. The theological principles of sin and salvation enabled Christians to see that slavery was a sin and that its victims should be saved from it. This is what is we are commemorating this month.