On the first abolitionist sermon

David Bentley Hart sketches the story of Christians opposing slavery – as well as their failure to.



David Bentley Hart sketches the story of Christians opposing slavery – as well as their failure to.


Obviously, the most conspicuous example of the failure of Christian values to alter the thinking of its society rapidly is the case of slavery. I mean slavery persisted throughout Late Antiquity. It did die out as a chattel system in the Christianised world – principally, I think, at first, because the notion of one baptised Christian owning another was considered irregular more and more, but also just because of changes in economic conditions. 

But slavery persisted; and many of the church fathers lamenting it as part of just the sad state of fallen humanity, but we’re not able to imagine a social or an economic reality which it didn’t exist, it was just an immemorial practice. But my favourite figure from the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa, comes to mind – is an example of just, of how disruptive the Christian moral imagination could still become. Because in 379 he preached what looks like the first abolitionist sermon. Certainly it’s a theological attack on slavery that’s so uncompromising that it has absolutely no parallel anywhere in ancient literature. And we read it now and wonder, where did it come from? And it came from basically Gregory taking the gospel seriously, and forgetting that he was a bishop and just remembering that he was a Christian. 

But on the whole, you know, slavery, the persistence of slavery, is the best evidence of all of what happened to the church in being assumed into secular … becoming a stable support of the state and of secular society. Even that, however, being said, again and again we have instances throughout Christian history of people really realising that bonded servitude was contrary to their teachings.

And the great rebirth of chattel slavery in the West, in the 15th century and after, curiously enough, really, it goes hand in hand with the rise of a national sovereignty that’s more and more purely mercantile. It’s a mark of the early rise of modern capitalism. And at that point, the movement towards abolition that took shape in light of that was Christian, I mean it was a Christian protest primarily, against the injustice. And so, rather late in the day, what had just originally been the reality of long historical consequence, the gradual dying away of this institution, became a serious moral issue for the Christians of the time, as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

But as I say, I mean it would be nice if Gregory’s sermon had spawned imitators. It didn’t. And the institution … Christian church elders were always arguing for its amelioration, for regarding slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ, for living like a family rather than like masters and servants. But you know, the reality never reflected the ideal.