• True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism: A Refutation, Part 13

    Chapter 15: Christianity and Slavery, by Glenn Sunshine

    In this chapter Glenn Sunshine wants to set the record straight about “one of the most challenging” of topics: Christianity and slavery. (165) Sunshine begins his discussion writing,

    On the surface, the argument [that the bible sanctions slavery] seems to have some merit: the Old Testament Law has provisions for slavery, and the New Testament includes instructions for how masters and slaves are to interact. This suggests a de facto acceptance of the institution. The details and the history of the church’s dealings with slavery, however, tell a different story. (165)

    Sunshine writes how throughout most of the ancient world “slaves were legally property, not persons, and their status was permanent unless for some reason the master chose to set the slave free. The sole exception to this was Israel.” (166)

    To support this argument he proceeds to cite the bible, which places term limits on the amount of time a slave can be held in bondage. He writes how slaves were to “work for six years and be set free without condition on the seventh year (Ex. 25:2). The ‘slavery’ was thus closer to indentured servitude than to the slavery of the other nations or of the American South.” (166)

    This is a common argument among Christian apologists who seek to downplay, if not completely erase, the advances on the question of slavery in nearby cultures in order to make the bible seem progressive by comparison. The truth is that the bible was actually a regression of the treatment of slaves when we look at surrounding cultures and throughout the history that preceded the bible.

    These claims by Sunshine cannot be substantiated with any facts and it appears he needs to read more widely because a legal code that predates the bible by hundreds of years called the Code of Hammurabi sets term limits, but that’s not all. Law number 117 says,

    If an obligation is outstanding against a man, and he sells or gives into debt service his, wife, his son, or his daughter, they shall perform service in the house of their buyer or of the one who holds them in debt service for three years; their release shall be secured in the fourth year. [1]

    Compare this law to a similar one in the bible.

    “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Exodus 21:2-6)

    It should be obvious which law is more humane. The Code of Hammurabi predates the bible and it has not only placed limits on the amount of time one is held in bondage, it cuts the amount of time in half that one is held in bondage, as compared to the bible.

    The second argument cited by Sunshine for why the bible was a progression of the treatment of slaves is in the ancient world slaves were thought of as “property, not persons, and their status was permanent,” with the one exception being Israel. Once again, it seems Sunshine has neglected to read more widely. As one example, the bible says,

    If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.

    Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. [emphasis mine] (Leviticus 25:39-46)

    The bible’s more lax regulations on slavery only applied to fellow Israelites and did not apply to peoples from the surrounding lands. In that case, their bondage was permanent, unlike the Code of Hammurabi. But does Sunshine tell his readers this? Of course not. He also does not tell you that in the bible slaves were viewed as a form of property, so long as they were not fellow Israelites.

    Next, Sunshine argues that in the bible slaves were “given rights” which were “unknown elsewhere.” (166) Later, he argues that these passages prove how the slaves of “other countries in the Ancient Near East, by contrast, […] were commonly mutilated as legal punishment for disobedience […]” (167) I will quote the passages cited by him in support of this claim, and I will respond after each quote.

    Servants who had been injured by their masters were immediately set free (Ex. 21:26-27) […] (166)

    There is a problem with this since just prior to this very passage Exodus 21:20-21 says, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

    Sunshine highlights the fact that a slave can be beaten and if a tooth falls out or if an eye is injured, they are released, but a slave master is allowed to beat a slave with a rod as much as he wants as long as he doesn’t die. That doesn’t seem very fair to me, especially when compared to one of the laws in Athens, which says that no one is allowed to strike a slave at all. Xenophon wrote in The Athenians that “You can’t hit them there [in Athens].” [2] Which legal code is superior? Once again, it should be obvious.

    Sunshine continues to argue that the “Law of Moses also commanded Israelites to protect runaway slaves from foreign countries (Dt. 23:15-16). This was unheard of elsewhere, where treaties mandated the return of slaves […]” (167)

    It is true that many treaties contained provisions for returning run-away slaves, but not all societies did this. In the “Hellenistic world,” for example, there were temples that were reserved specifically for run-away slaves to gain asylum. “A law passed by the Messenians around 91 BCE stated that ‘slaves are allowed to flee to the Temple for refuge’” if their master was cruel. If the priest allowed the slave to stay, he was not returned to the slave owner and could go free. [3] It should be clear that protecting slaves was not “unheard of” in other countries.

    Sunshine writes, “Kidnapping someone to sell as a slave was a capital offense in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21:16), again unlike what we find in the law codes of other countries.” (167) And once again, as we saw before, Sunshine is wrong again. In the Code of Hammurabi it says,

    If a man should kidnap the young child of another man, he shall be killed. (Law #14)

    Hector Avalos writes about this passage:

    Kidnapping children can also be related to the slave trade, in which case the Bible fares much worse. Consider what the biblical author allows Hebrews to do to Midianite virgins:

    Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not know man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves […] And Moses gave the tribute, which was the offering for the LORD, to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses (Num. 31:17-18; 41).

    Basically, the biblical author is allowing the killing of the families of these young virgins, who are then taken for what can be described as sexual slavery, as consent cannot be presumed on the part of these girls. Numbers 31:41 specifies that this abduction of virgins is part of God’s plan, and not some rogue human action. [4]

    This concludes Sunshine’s look at the Old Testament. The New Testament is covered next.

    Sunshine argues that “although a number of Pauline apostles and 1 Peter instruct slaves to be obedient to their masters, they also tell masters to treat their slaves with dignity and respect, in essence recognizing their humanity. This was a radical idea in the Roman world, more than we in the 21st century Western world can easily appreciate.” (167)

    I find it ironic how Sunshine says that the bible told slave masters to recognize a slave’s “humanity.” This is an odd thing to say since the status of being a slave meant you were not a real person, you were property, as the bible makes abundantly clear (for non-Israelis). Where is the humanity in that? I would also like to remind readers of the law in Athens which forbade the striking of any slave, which was more humane than anything in the bible by far. It also demonstrates just how incorrect Sunshine is when he says that this was a “radical idea in the Roman world.” No, it wasn’t. There are once again clear precedents to the bible.

    The next verse cited is Paul’s famous passage in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Sunshine argues that this passage represents a “spiritual and moral equality.” (167) On the contrary, this passage is known to mean, even by conservative Christians, that all have an equal opportunity to partake is Jesus’ salvation. This was not meant “to erase differences in gender, ethnicity, or social status […].” [5] Even Paul himself did not seem to view this passage in the manner Sunshine argues since Paul also wrote the following in Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

    The next passage cited is 1 Corinthians 7:21, which it is argued that Paul appears to be against slavery. The passage reads: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” Sunshine writes how Paul is telling slaves that “should an opportunity to become free arise, slaves should take advantage of it.” (176)

    This passage is greatly in dispute by biblical scholars. The passage I quoted above of 1 Cor. 7:21 was taken from the New International Version and it seems to depict Paul telling slaves that if you gain a chance for freedom, take it. However, other translations depict Paul saying the opposite; to remain a slave even if given the opportunity for freedom. The New Revised Standard Version for example translates the verse as follows: “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”

    The contention surrounding this debate revolves around how scholars should translate verse 21. Should it be translated to be read as: 1) “Were you called a slave? Do not worry about it. But even if you can become free, rather make use of your slavery.” Or 2) “You were called as a slave. Do not worry about it. But if you can indeed become free, use instead [freedom].” [6] There is much confusion about whether the Greek should be translated as “use freedom” or “use slavery” and if another Greek phrase should be translated as “if indeed” or “even if.” [7] When biblical scholars are searching the ancient texts for parallels in order to figure out how to best translate these words, Avalos notes a much underused Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas. Avlaos notes that even Bruce Metzger views this translation as being “remarkably faithful to the original, frequently to the point of being literalistic.” This version translates 1 Cor. 7:21 as: “Even if you can become free…use [slavery] instead.” [8]

    In a further attempt to demonstrate the Gothic translation’s accuracy Avalos notes how Paul, in Philippians 2:4-11, “thought being a slave (servant) served a greater good for Christ, then it remains unexplained why Paul could not have thought the same applied to human beings.” [9] This passage reads:

    Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

    The next passage cited by Sunshine in an attempt to demonstrate that Paul was anti-slavery is Philemon 1-21, which reads:

    Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

    To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

    Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

    Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

    I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

    So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. (NIV)

    Sunshine says of this passage: “[A]lthough Paul did return Onesimus, a runaway slave, to Philemon, he also strongly hinted that he expected Philemon to set him free (Philemon 21). Tradition says this happened, and in the early 2nd century there was a bishop named Onesimus in Ephesus, though it is unclear if it was the same person.” (167)

    Paul tells Philemon, “But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.” This does not appear to be anywhere close to a “strongly hinted” statement, as Sunshine would have his readers believe. It is clear that Paul is telling him that it is entirely up to Philemon if he wants to release Onesimus. Avalos looks at the original Greek to come to a tentative conclusion and says, “Paul admits that he could have commanded Philemon ‘to do what is required’, but chose to defer to the master’s consent instead.” In the end, Avalos concludes that “in all fairness” there is not “enough information to settle the question of Philemon’s status [as a slave or the brother of Philemon] or Paul’s request.” [10] Sunshine’s next assertion that “there was a bishop named Onesimus in Ephesus” is pure speculation and is backed with no evidence at all. It can be safely ignored.

    The final two passages cited by Sunshine are 1 Timothy 1:9-10 and Revelation 18:13. (167-168) He argues that in 1 Tim. 9-10 Paul “lists slave traders among those who are ‘lawless and rebellious.’” (167)

    While many bible translations use the word “slave traders” in this passage, the more accurate translation would be “kidnappers.” “The standard lexicon of the New Testament Greek suggests ‘procurer’ as the standard translation of the Greek word [andrapodistes] in Tim. 1-10. […] Since the word occurs only once in the New Testament, we have to appeal to contemporary Greek sources outside of the New Testament to see how it was used. […] [In a Greek story titled “Callirhoe” written by Chariton, there is a character named] “Leonas, a steward who is being lectured by Dionysius about a recent bad slave purchase from a man named Theron. Dionysius tells Leonas the following: ‘This experience will make you more careful in the future…[H]e [Theron] was a kidnapper [Greek word for andrapodistes] and that is why he sold you someone else’s slave in an isolated place.’” [11]

    Avalos also cites Plato’s Laws (12.955a) that also contain this word (andrapodistes), and it is referring to kidnappers, and this practice is also condemned. Avalos concludes, “[I]f apologists are going to applaud the Bible for condemning an andrapodistes then they should applaud the Greek and the Romans for their condemnation, as well.” [12]

    The final passage is Revelation 18:13. Sunshine argues that “trading in ‘the bodies and souls of men’ is included in the list of activities of ‘Babylon the Great’ (a symbol for Rome) and that would lead to its destruction (Rev. 18:13).” (167-168)

    This is a very odd interpretation of Revelations 18:13 since Revelations 18:3 says explicitly why god destroyed Rome (and that this verse is even referring to Rome is in dispute) and it wasn’t because of the selling of slaves: “For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” (NIV) The crime was “fornication,” or adultery, or is commonly translated as idolatry, and has nothing to do with the selling of slaves. The verse Sunshine is referring to is this:

    “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.

    “They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’ The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out:

    “‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!

    In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!’

    “Every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off. When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ […] (Revelations 18:11-18; NIV)

    The verse merely refers to many of the goods Rome (?) sold that produced in it great wealth and describes mens’ grief at watching this luxurious city become destroyed. It is not condemning the selling of these goods. This was a horribly disingenuous interpretation of the bible by Sunshine here.

    It should be clear that the bible was not in any way superior to nearby cultures, nor did it help to improve the conditions of those held in bondage. In fact, the bible created a regression in the treatment of slaves as compared to the Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian societies. And despite Sunshine’s best efforts, the bible not only regulates slavery but entirely condones it.

    In the next section, titled “Slavery in the Early Church,” Sunshine cites only two pieces of evidence. One, a letter from St. Augustine to Alypius (Letter 10), where he expresses dismay about the slave trading he has witnessed. The second, he claims that the name “Onesimus” means “useful.” “At least two bishops of Rome (Pius I and Callistus) had been slaves. […] [T]he fact that slaves could become bishops demonstrates that early Christians saw them as human beings made in the image of God.” (168-169)

    First of all, I am hard pressed to see how a handful of former slaves, turned Bishops, is somehow evidence that Christians were anti-slavery.

    St. Augustine’s letter says how a group of Christians “set free” “about 120 people,” but that he was not personally there to witness it. (169) After reading this letter, it appears that Christians are wrongly inferring that St. Augustine and other Christians were fighting against the slave trade, but it appears that what they were actually fighting was the illegal acts of slave-trading “Galatians” who would abduct free children and adults and force them into slavery. At the time in Rome it was legal for parents to “lease” their “children as indentured servants for a set number of years.” But, rather than get servants through legal channels, these traders sought to kidnap many people, including children, and force them into slavery. St. Augustine writes,

    Almost all of these are free persons. Only a few are found to have been sold by their parents and these people buy them, not as Roman law permits, as indentured servants for a period of twenty-five years, but in fact they buy them as slaves and sell them across the sea as slaves. [13]

    It appears from this quote from St. Augustine’s letter that he was not opposed to slavery per se’, he was opposed to the illegal form of slavery that was not in accordance with Roman law. And this would seem to fit with what we know about St. Augustine. He accepted slavery and believed slaves should just be happy with their place in life. He wrote in The City of God that “the prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the domination of his fellow.” He continues to say how “the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, and to serve them heartily and with good-will, so they, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love […].” [14] Sunshine acknowledges Augustine’s support of slavery, though he tries to downplay it, writing in his footnotes, “Although Augustine is frequently portrayed as a supporter of slavery, he considered it a result of sin and part of the fallen world. Like government, he saw it at best as a necessary evil.” (217) The evidence provided in this section was highly flimsy, bordering on irreverent.

    The next section is titled “Slavery in the Middle Ages.”

    Sunshine argues that “the first laws against slavery in history were promulgated under the Frankish king Clovis II due to the influence of his wife, Bathilda.” (169) He continues to argue how she “prohibited the importation of any new slaves into Frankish territory […] [and she] saw this as a first step toward the abolition of slavery altogether.” (170) Sunshine’s source for this (for almost this entire chapter) is Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003) and he quotes Stark directly about how this law “effectively abolished slavery in medieval Europe.” Sunshine clarifies Stark’s statement and places the reason this was the case in brackets, writing that this occurred because of the “prohibition of enslaving Christians.” (170) However, given this fact, how can Sunshine argue that Queen Bathilda fought for the “abolition of slavery altogether?” This was not an act of abolitionism, let alone an attempt to end slavery “altogether.” “This was simply the act of prohibiting the capture and sale of fellow Christians, just as the bible commanded in Leviticus 25:39-46.

    Hector Avalos writes,

    Enslaving foreigners, and prohibiting the enslavement of people of your own privileged ethnic or religious group, was a routine practice in many cultures. There is no advance here relative to Plato or the Old Testament. [15]

    The next section is titled “Early Modern Slavery and Abolitionism.” Sunshine writes,

    What was the reaction of the Catholic Church to these developments [the increasing use of slave labor by Portuguese explorers in Africa for the production of their large sugar cane and wheat plantations, which the African economy was built upon]? When the Portuguese began enslaving the Canary Islanders, Pope Eugenius IV (1431-37) issued the bull Sicut dudum,

    4. And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. There people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money [….] (171-172)

    Immediately after citing this bull Sunshine writes, “This bull was followed by others by the Popes Pius II (1458-1464), Sixtus IV (1471-1484, and Paul III (1534-1549) condemning the slave trade in no uncertain terms. In fact, Paul III issued three separate bulls condemning the African slave trade, and with it, the enslavement of any people. The church’s opposition to slavery was reaffirmed a century later by Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644).” (172)

    It’s unfortunate that Sunshine did not appear to have checked Stark’s original source since Sunshine quoted only a fraction of the entire bull. Did anyone catch the number “4” before the statement? This should have been a clue that there is more text prior to the cited portion of the statement. This bull was not a denunciation of the slave trade at all, only the “continuation of the policy against enslaving fellow Christians.” [16]

    The beginning of Sicut dudum says,

    1. Not long ago, we learned from our brother Ferdinand, bishop at Rubicon and representative of the faithful who are residents of the Canary Islands, and from messengers sent by them to the Apostolic See, and from other trustworthy informers, the following facts: in the said islands—some called Lanzarote—and other nearby islands, the inhabitants, imitating the natural law alone, and not having known previously any sect of apostates or heretics, have a short time since been led into the Orthodox Catholic Faith with the aid of God’s mercy. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, it has happened that in some of the said islands, because of a lack of suitable governors and defenders to direct those who live there to a proper observance of the Faith in things spiritual and temporal, and to protect valiantly their property and goods, some Christians (we speak of this with sorrow), with fictitious reasoning and seizing and opportunity, have approached said islands by ship, and with armed forces taken captive and even carried off to lands overseas very many persons of both sexes, taking advantage of their simplicity. (emphasis mine) [17]

    This first part of the bull makes clear that the only inhabitants of the island were fellow Catholics, who had no contact with “heretics” of any kind, implying only Christians were on the island.

    Hector Avalos provides a brief background history about the Sicut dudum that helps to place it in context:

    The potential loss to the Church of these natives, who might resent such treatment by these Christians [the Portuguese explorers who were also Christians], and their potential return to their non-Christian religion, is the main concern of the bull. This context is better understood by reading Sicut dudum in light of a slew of papal and royal correspondence before and after that document was issued. […] In particular, a document, dated between 1474 and 1481 by [Dominik Josef] Wolfel, was sent by Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Spain, to the mayors of various towns concerning a petition by men named Pedro and Alonso, both Canary Islanders who had converted to Christianity. These men had petitioned the crown concerning the danger of being re-enslaved, and the royal couple responded as follows to those town officials:

    Please understand that the Canary Islanders, Pedro and Alonso, related to us that, at a time when they were non-Christian slaves, they went to the city of Malaga and were there for some time, and learning later how to they can be saved by being Christians, they came to the aforementioned city of Malaga and they were baptized and became Christians. Therefore, they are enfranchised and free according to the rights and laws of our kingdom by having come from Moorish lands and converted to our faith…

    In other words, the situation of Pedro and Alonzo continued for decades after Sicut dudum insofar as it was difficult to tell Christian from non-Christians, and because unscrupulous slave traders would kidnap Christian Canary Islanders. In any case, Sicut dudum and related correspondence clearly recognize that non-Christians, especially Moors, can be enslaved. It is enslaving Christians that is the major problem. [18]

    Sunshine referenced Popes Pius II, Sixtus IV, Paul III, and Pope Urban VIII, but he cites not a single word they supposedly wrote about condemning the slave trade. However, Hector Avalos discusses Pope Paul III and the bull he issued, Sublimis Deus (1537). It read in part,

    […] [B]y our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples – even though they are outside the faith – who shall hereafter come to the knowledge of Christians have not been deprived or should not be deprived of their liberty or of their possessions […] Rather they are to be able to use and enjoy this liberty and this ownership of property freely and licitly and are not be [sic] reduced to slavery and whatever happens to the contrary is to be considered null and void and as having no force of law. [19]

    This sounds like a slam dunk for Sunshine’s argument. Unfortunately, Pope Pius III a year later annulled Sublimis Deus because he believed it had been “extorted from him.” In Non indecens videtur he wrote,

    It does not seem to us improper if the Roman Pontiff…revoke, correct, or change those [dispositions] in preference to one from whom they were extorted by stealth at a time when he was engaged in other matters…just recently he [Charles V] informed us that a certain letter in the form of a Brief was extorted from us and that it caused disruption to the peaceful state of the islands of the Indies to the west and south…Accordingly, by virtue of Apostolic authority, we revoke, invalidate, and annul the previous letter(s) and whatever is contained in it (or them) (whose tenor, content, and form should be expressed as though they were inserted word for word in the present [letter]) [20]

    It should be clear that none of the bulls cited by Sunshine declare an end to slavery.

    Sunshine continues at the end of this section to briefly mention the beginnings of the British abolitionist movement with the Quakers and notable abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and William Wilberforce. (172-173) Sunshine writes, “The Quakers and the Evangelicals fought slavery for the same reasons the Catholic Church did: they were committed to the biblical ideas that humanity was made in the image of God, that we are all descended from the same parent and so are equal, and that we all have equal rights given by God that no one can arbitrarily take away.” (173)

    As I’ve demonstrated throughout this chapter, there was not a single biblical principle that truly argued for the abolitionism of those held in bondage. Once again, Sunshine did not manage to cite any facts in support of his assertions about these British Abolitionists that they utilized any biblical principle in their fight against slavery. This topic is complex, so I can understand that Sunshine cannot be expected to address every issue, but I wish he would have provided a quote for each Christian abolitionist named, or at least cited sources for his information in his footnotes, which appear to be lacking in this case.

    Since it bares on this issue, and because Sunshine mentions him, I will quote William Wilberforce’s thoughts about using the bible in anti-slavery debates. In an unpublished letter from Wilberforce to an “unknown addressee” dated June 17, 1806, he recommends that the bible not be used in anti-slavery debates:

    […] there certainly cannot be a doubt as to the principle of the Holy Scriptures especially of the New Testament on the subject of the Slave Trade or even that of slavery; tho’ on the latter point Explanations would be required. But I believe it was better not to enter into any such discussion in the House of Commons for many reasons. [21]

    Hector Avalos sums up the overall strategy of the British abolitionists:

    Contrary to those who think that the greatest British abolitionists were basing themselves on biblical ethics, the actual works written by these abolitionists show otherwise. We concur with John Barclay, whose study of British abolitionist exegesis concluded, “when it came to detailed exegesis and a commitment to take the Bible at face value, the pro-slavery arguments often had the better case.” [22]

    I would highly recommend Hector Avalos’ book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, as it includes the writings of a number of abolitionists and he demonstrates that the bible was barely, if ever, mentioned by any of them – even Wilberforce.

    The final subject discussed by Sunshine is abolitionism in America in a section titled “Slavery in America.” As with the other sections, this one barely contains any arguments at all. All Sunshine does is cite a brief quote from the appendix of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative explaining how he sees a tremendous difference between “the Christianity of this land [which upholds slavery], and the Christianity of Christ [which does not].” Sunshine cites this appendix in an attempt to refute those who would label Douglass a “freethinker” and “not a Christian.” (174)

    It must be remembered that it is not the religious beliefs of the abolitionists that are in question. It is whether or not the bible played any role in the anti-slavery debates and whether or not “biblical ideas” were central to abolitionism. Douglass’s personal religious beliefs don’t matter much at all when it comes to this particular discussion.

    While it is certainly true that Douglass was a preacher and adopted the religion of Christianity, the bible “formed a very marginal part of his [anti-slavery] argumentation.” [23] Avalos also cites Maria Diedrich’s 1999 book Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass which contains a letter from Assing to Ludwig Feuerbach. Avalos writes “how Douglass’s Christianity initially posed a problem between them. So she and Douglass read Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity together. She reported that Feuerbach’s ideas ‘resulted in a total reversal of his attitudes.’ She adds that ‘[f]or the satisfaction of seeing a superior man won over for atheism…I feel obliged to you.’ Even if Assing is exaggerating (or even if Diedrich’s translation is not the best here), it is clear that toward the end of his life, Douglass spoke more like a deist or secular humanist.” [24]

    Even if this information about Douglass’s “reversal of his attitudes” turns out not to be entirely accurate, or even if it turns out to be completely false, just because Douglass was a Christian means nothing when it comes to the issue of whether Christianity or “biblical ideas” were influential in the abolitionist movement. Douglass rarely cited the bible in his anti-slavery speeches or writings, and when he did, “rarely” did he provide “extensive exegesis of passages.” [25]

    As we’ve seen, Sunshine neglected to consult many of the primary sources cited by Rodney Stark. The bible both sanctioned and defended slavery, as did most of the major religious figures cited by Sunshine. The bible was not a progression of the treatment of slaves, it was a regression of the treatment of slaves. The bible was not the cause of the downfall of the institution of slavery. For that, it took a moving away from the bible, since even anti-slavery advocates such as William Wilberforce believed that the bible was more beneficial to the pro-slavery side and instead relied on legal arguments, recounted the many inhumane abuses that slaves were subjected to, and appealed to the humanity of those who would listen. The bible was largely irrelevant in these debates. [26]

    1. Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, by Hector Avalos, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011; 76

    2. Ibid.; 81

    3. Ibid.; 90

    4. Ibid.; 78

    5. Ibid.; 109

    6. Ibid.; 99

    7. Ibid.; 99-100

    8. Ibid.; 103

    9. Ibid.; 106

    10. Ibid.; 134

    11. Ibid.; 125

    12. Ibid.; 126

    13. The Fathers of the Church: St. Augustine: Letters 1-29, Translated by Robert B. Eno, The Catholic University of America Press, Inc., 1989; 74-80

    14. Saint Augustine, The City of God. Great Books of the Western World. Edited by Mortimer J. Adler et al. Vol.18. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1978. 521

    15. Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, by Hector Avalos; 169

    16. Ibid.; 185

    17. Documenta Catholica Omnia: “1435-01-13- SS Eugenius IV – Sicut Dudum” – accessed 5-16-14

    18. Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, by Hector Avalos; 185-186

    19. Ibid.; 194

    20. Ibid.; 195-196

    21. As cited in Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship; 248

    22. Ibid.; 249

    23. Ibid.; 261

    24. Ibid.; 266

    25. Ibid.; 268

    26. Here is a special treat for my readers. In 2010 Hector Avalos had written a brilliant take-down of David Marshall, one of the co-authors of this book, on the issue of slavery and the bible. Check it out!

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist