See something you'd like to change or add, but you've never edited an open encyclopædia before? This overview was written to help absolute beginners get started.


From A Storehouse of Knowledge
Jump to: navigation, search

While there is disagreement about what precisely constitutes human slavery, the term is broadly defined as being when one is required to be in servitude to another without certain basic rights, with slaves being basically a form of property.

Note: This article uses terms such as "race" and "racial". Theologically and biologically, there is no such thing as different "races" of humans (the only race in this regard is the human race), but people have often used the terms in the belief that different races exist, and it is that use that is referred to in this article.

Slavery has not been a monolithic institution, but has had many forms and requirements which have varied throughout history.[1]

  • Slavery is typically thought of as one human being owning another human being as a type of property, with broad rights to do with his slave as he wishes. The slave is without certain basic rights, such as the freedom to leave his employment and similar aspects of personal liberty, or to acquire real property, or gain inheritance. Slaves are more objects of law, in contrast to usually being accountable subjects. Slaves were considered movable property in certain societies, while in others they were immovable property, such as land. [2] This form of slavery is usually base on race, where the cultural group of the slave was considered inferior.
  • In ancient times a slave could include anybody who was subject to the controlling will of another. Thus citizens were considered slaves of their king, and the term included servants working for masters, as well as slaves owned as property.[3] Even in the case of slaves owned as property, this form of slavery was generally not racial.
  • In modern times the term is used of the control of other human beings in ways that are considered unduly restrictive and harsh, such as withholding passports, limiting freedom of movement, and working for very little pay, or even military service by conscription.

Historically, the most prevalent type of service which slavery provided was that of domestic service, working to meet needs of the family, while a second and less predominate basic form was that of production, working to provide saleable goods in such enterprises as plantations or mines.

Slaves could be acquired through war, or through trading, or through the sale of oneself, mainly to work off debt, or in order for a thief to make restitution.

Most if not all major ancient societies practiced slavery.


Modern slavery

International documents define modern slavery as conditions where others effectively own human beings and their work, with the victims unable to leave and compelled to live abused, exploited and humiliating lives. The US State Department has claimed that in 2003 between 700,000 and 4 million men, women and children were held unwillingly in conditions amounting to slavery, and that they were also bought, sold and transported as slaves. Intimidation, threats and actual violence were used to force slaves to do sexual acts or work in other ways while the traffickers got the money for what the victims were doing.

By far the largest number of victims are women and children. According to estimates there are nine million child slaves today. Modern slaves are likely to be sold and forced into the sex trade (this can mean prostitution or sex tourism which is a form of prostitution and other situations where they are forced to engage in sex to provide for their masters) or forced labour in agriculture, construction sites and sweatshops. Kidnapped children are sometimes forced to fight for various government or rebel militaries, and at other times they are forced to work as street beggars or domestic servants.[4][5]

The Bible and slavery

The Hebrew scriptures sanctioned the use of its regulated forms of non-racial slavery in a world in which slavery existed as a long-established socio-economic institution, effectively as a form of employment. This allowance, and the absence of explicit condemnation of all forms of slavery, was used later on to justify racial slavery by its defenders.[6] As a form of required servitude it has been likened to modern soldiers who are required to serve a fixed term before being allowed their "freedom", though for some this could be a perpetual condition. Further amelioration of the condition of slaves is seen in the New Testament, and abolitionists at best saw slavery as a temporary cultural accommodation, and invoked certain texts as well as the Christian ethos of love for others in arguing such worked toward the manumission of slaves.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13]

In addition to providing labor and employment, slavery in the nation of Israel served as a means of keeping enemies in subjection, and of working off short term debt (long term debt was avoided by the seventh-year release). The Old Testament requirements regarding slavery were both similar to other cultures as well as being counter-cultural in making it more humane.[14] The law of Moses overall disallowed the permanent enslavement of Israelites, but permitted the permanent enslavement of immigrants and the occupants of other countries, except in the case of certain violations of laws by owners, as regarding treatment of slaves.

While the permanency of purchased slaves was determined by nationalism, race did not mandate slavery (foreigners could actually own Hebrew slaves), unlike when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.[15] In addition, certain injuries by the owner afforded any slave freedom, as did escape, for returning such was forbidden. These aspects would seem to promote good treatment of slaves. No provision was made for selling or trading slaves after they were purchased.

The first mention in the Bible of slaves ('servants' in some translations) being used is that of Abraham's army, by which home-born servants he rescued his nephew Lot. (Genesis 14:14-16)

Later, in Israel's preparation for conquering the Canaanite nations, Israel was instructed to take as tributary states neighboring enemy cities which surrendered to them, but which were not part of the Canaanite nations. If they chose war, the women and children were saved alive and became Israel's. (Deuteronomy 20:10-16) These women could be taken to be wives (after a month of mourning), but were to go free if later divorced. (Leviticus 25:44-46; Deuteronomy 21:10-14) Israel did not go to war with distant nations, and though slaves were often obtained through warfare in the Ancient Near East, apparently such means were not a significant source for Israel,[16] especially after the initial conquering of the land. Instead, the main source of slavery was by means of purchase.

Hebrew slaves

While Hebrews were to relieve both their fellow Israelites as well as "a stranger or a sojourner" who fell into poverty, debtors could sell themselves into slavery. (Leviticus 25:35,39; Deuteronomy 15:7-8; 2Kings 4:1) Thieves could also be sold into slavery to pay restitution if they could not otherwise do so. (Exodus 22:3)

It was specified that Israelite slaves were not to be made to serve with rigor, “but as an hired servant, and as a sojourner”, (Leviticus 25:39-43,53; 1 Kings 9:22) and were to given freedom after six years of servitude. (Exodus 21:2-6; Jeremiah 34:14) If they choose to be free, they were to be released with abundant provisions, designed to help economically establish him. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15) However, an allowance was also made for Hebrews who freely chose to remain in servitude. (Exodus 21:5-6; Deuteronomy 15:16-18)

Hebrew servants were also required to be given release in the 50 year Jubilee, when sold or mortgaged land, which had been originally divided by lot to Israelites, (Numbers 26:52-56) also returned back to the original owner. (Leviticus 25:8-13)

Foreigners who dwelt among the Hebrews were not to be oppressed, but loved as one of their own (Leviticus 19:33-34), and could buy and sell Hebrew slaves. However, these slaves could be redeemed out of slavery by close kin, for a price corresponding to the year of the jubilee. If not redeemed then they were to go free at that time. (Leviticus 25:47-55)

An exception to the seventh year release of Hebrew slaves was that of a woman who was sold by her father to be a wife, or concubine (a secondary type of wife[17]), to which special requirements applied. If she was betrothed (contracted to be married) to the owner, he was required to let her be redeemed to freedom if he broke the betrothal. If married to his son, the neglect of equal care for her in food, or in clothing or in sexual relations mandated her release. (Exodus 21:7-11) In Deuteronomy 15:12 both male and female Hebrew servants were to be be given release in the seventh year, evidently except in the case of the betrothal arrangement.

In addition, if a male Israelite slave was given a wife by his owner, then upon his release the wife and any children which they had conceived together would remain the property of the owner. (Exodus 21:1-4) The nationality of the wife is not mentioned, and Baptist theologian John Gill (1697–1771), referencing Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (Jarchi[18]), suggested that this referred to the marriage of a Canaanite concubine, as normally Hebrew slaves went free in the seventh year,[19] with theologian Adam Clarke (1760 or 1762–1832) stating that "It was a law among the Hebrews, that if a Hebrew had children by a Canannitish woman, those children must be considered as Canaanitish only, and might be sold and bought, and serve for ever. The law here refers to such a case only."[20]

Foreign slaves

Israel could also purchase foreign slaves from foreign nations or from strangers living among them, and which servants became the property of the owner's posterity as well. (Leviticus 25:44-46) In contrast to foreigners and hired servants, these purchased slaves were circumcised and became part of the owner's household, and received benefits under the Abrahamic covenant, (Genesis 17:13-19) and as such they took part in such observances as the Passover feast (Exodus 12:44-45; Deuteronomy 2:10-12; 29:10-13; Leviticus 22:10-12)

Status as property

Although slaves were considered the property of their owners, this was not an absolute right to do with them as the owner wished. In more modern forms of slavery, slaves did not have the right to their own property. However, in biblical slavery, they did. This even extended to the right to own their own slaves. Ziba, for example, was a slave of Saul who himself owned 15 slaves (2 Samuel 19:17 KJV).

The ability to earn and retain property was one way that a slave could gain his freedom, by buying it, or paying off the debt that caused him to sell himself as a slave in the first place.


Besides the seventh year release regulations, the main distinction between Hebrew slaves and non-nationals was that the Hebrew was to be treated as a hired servant. (Leviticus 25:43,53)

All slaves, Hebrew and foreign, were to rest on the seventh day and other Sabbaths, and from planting and sowing during the seventh year and the fiftieth year Jubilee. (Leviticus 25:1-13)

Capital punishment was evidently required for killing any servant (Exodus 21:18-21), with the master being slain with the sword, as the Targum and Jarchi understand it.[21] (Exodus 21:20,23; cf. Leviticus 24:21-22) Philo opined, "And if any one kills a slave who has done no wrong, because he is afraid that he may inform of some base and evil deeds of his own, or for any similar reason, in such a case let him pay the penalty of murder, as he would have done if he had slain a citizen."[22] If fatality was not evidenced for a day or two, then no punishment was prescribed regarding a foreign servant. For freemen a monetary compensation was mandated in the latter case. (Exodus 21:18-21)

Freedom was mandated for any slave which suffered a loss of eyesight or a tooth due to his master striking him. (Exodus 21:26-27)

Stealing a man and selling him into slavery was an additional capital crime, (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7)

Escaped slaves were not to be returned to their master. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

Leviticus 19:20 teaches that "whosoever" engaged in adultery with a female slave - a distinction between Hebrew or foreign not being made here, nor is rape inferred - who was betrothed to a husband and not given freedom, was to be scourged[23] rather than put to death as per Dt. 22:23-24, in deference to the women's condition as a bondmaid. [24]. The man had to also bring a trespass-offering for the priest to make atonement for the forgiveness of his sins, (Lv. 19:21,22) which was not only having sinned with the woman, but because in so doing he also sinned again the man to whom she was betrothed, and the man under whose ownership and care the bondmaid was.

New Testament

Under the New Testament, the primitive church, as an organic community had no slavery (Acts 2:41-47), but the church initially grew within Greece and Rome, both slave states. In ameliorating the cultural system of slavery, Christian slaves were admonished to obey their masters, "as to the Lord, and not to men", (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18) with the like attitude being required of masters toward their servants, as they also had a Master in Heaven. Masters were to act without threatening, (Ephesians 6:9) rendering just and equal recompense to their servants, (Colossians 4:1) with freedom being the ideal for slaves if it could be lawfully obtained. (1 Corinthians 7:21-23)

In his letter to Philemon, the Apostle Paul returned a slave to his master, though he made it clear he was not returning a slave, but one whom was to be received back no longer "as a slave, but as a brother beloved" (he had been converted by Paul while both were imprisoned), even as Paul's own son or Paul himself. Paul further offered to pay for any debt owed by Philemon. (Philemon 1:1-25).

This letter was an important text in regard to slavery, and was used by both those who defended slavery as well as those who contended for its abolition.[25][26] The former invoked Paul's return of Onesimus, an escaped slave back to his master, Philemon seemingly in contrast to Old Testament law. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)) However, as Roman law required the return of escaped slaves, not returning Onesimus would have left him a servus fugitivus,[27] with a bounty on his head and perhaps a brand on his back.[28][29]

Christian doctrine and abolition

While the overall Christian ethos of love was used in support of abolition, as well as the direction that the regulation of slavery in the New Testament seemed to point, the continued regulation of slavery in the New Testament, and lack of an outright condemnation of was used to support slavery. In response, it is argued[30] while civil rights extend to non-moral aspects. that opposition to slavery at that time likely would have made it worse for the slaves, which made up perhaps half of the often persecuted Christian church. Rather than an explicit repudiation of slavery, the totality of commands regarding slavery reformed it, with the requirements of equal pay and fair and merciful Christian treatment, along with the ideal of freedom for slaves, enabling a tolerance of the entrenched system of slavery at that time. Meanwhile, the primitive church focused on freeing souls from spiritual bondage, and of being victorious and useful in whatever situation they were found, and being a "holy nation", in which there are no racial distinctions in regards to essential equality. (Galatians 3:28). Later, a revived church and the outworking of Christian love would enable national abolishment of slavery, in an age in which social/political opportunity enabled it.

While for much of her history the Roman Catholic Church opposed slavery,[31], the modern influence of Christians in influencing the abolition of slavery was much a result of the outworking of the Reformation and the evangelical Second Great Awakening and the freedom to effect political change, and statesmen who were likeminded toward abolition and even racial equality (which was seldom initially the same).

The anti-slavery movement was spearheaded by people who would today be called “the religious right” and its organization was created by conservative businessmen. Moreover, what destroyed slavery in the non-Western world was Western imperialism.[32]

Some abolitionists supported abolition for more philosophical reasons, while notable evangelicals opposed to slavery included Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, the famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon, who called slavery "the foulest blot" and which "may have to be washed out in blood";[33] Methodist founder John Wesley, who condemned this human bondage as "the sum of all villainies",[34] and Presbyterian Charles Finney and Theodore Weld. Finney preached that slavery was a moral sin, and thus supported its abolition. "I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it.[35] Repentance from slavery was required of souls, once they were enlightened of the subject, while those who continued to support the system incurred "the greatest guilt".[36] Women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (daughter of abolitionist preacher Lyman Beecher) and Sojourner Truth were also notable voices against slavery.

Among churches, Quakers in England and America were the most evident early supporters of abolition in their countries.[37][38] In America, primitive Methodists in Georgia joined other brethren elsewhere in opposing slavery.

Despite opposition (including by the United States Post Office[39]) writings by abolitionists, such as George Bourne's, "A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument" (1845)[40] and "God Against Slavery" (1857) by George B. Cheever, extensively contended against the institution of slavery, and in particular as practiced in the American South.

The issue of slavery also resulted in divisions among Christian denominations, with some working with slave owners in order to evangelize slaves.

The abolition movement is sometimes invoked in support of the negation of laws regarding sexual behavior. In response, it is evidenced that purely moral laws of the Old Testament, versus judicial and civil legislation, are affirmed and even made stricter in the New Testament. [41]

Other religious positions on slavery


Islamic scriptures sanction slavery and it was thus a common practice until recent centuries, and has yet to be fully abolished. During the time of Mohammed it was usual for enemy prisoners to be enslaved and treated as spoils of war. It appears that Mohammed himself took slaves after the move to Medina when he had power.[42][43]

External links


  1. "Does God condone slavery in the Bible?", by Glenn M. Miller
  2., Slavery
  6. Stringfellow, A Scriptural defense of slavery, 1856
  9. Abraham Booth, Commerce in the Human Species, and the Enslaving of Innocent Persons, inimical to the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ, 1792, p.17
  10. Thomas Bradshaw, The Slave Trade inconsistent with Reason and Religion, 1788, p.13
  11. William Cowper, The Task, 1784, book 2
  12. John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay, Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery
  13. George B. Cheever, D.DGod Against Slavery, p. 140
  14. anthropologist Dexter Callender
  15. Slavery and the Torah -
  16. Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman (main ed.), DoubleDay:1992
  17. Genesis 25:1; cf. 1 Chronicles 1:32; Genesis 30:4; 31:17; cf. Genesis 35:22; 2 Samuel 12:11; cf. 2 Samuel 20:3; Genesis 25:1; cf. 1 Chronicles 1:32; Genesis 30:4; cf. 35:22
  21. Dr. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
  22. Plato, Laws, book 9, p. 48
  23. Dr. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
  24. In Hebrew the "she" is not present as some translations have it before "scourged/punished," and might read, "And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman that is a bondmaid betrothed to an husband, not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her, is to be scourged, not put to death, because she was not free." Also, the Hebrew word "hâyâh" is used elsewhere, if not always, in referring to more than one: Ex. 30:29; 36:7, etc.
  25. Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, by John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay
  26. God Against Slavery, p. 140, by Rev. George B. Cheever, D.D
  27. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law, by Adolf Berger
  28. Rome Exposed - Roman Life
  29. [1] Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome By Professor Keith Bradle
  30. Sex Laws versus Slavery
  31. How Christianity abolished slavery
  32. Sowell, Thomas, Ending slavery, a review of "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild, 8 February 2005.
  33. The Christian Cabinet, Dec. 14 1859
  34. Thoughts Upon Slavery, John Wesley, Published in the year 1774, John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, 1996 Ruth A. Daugherty
  35. Charles G. Finney, Memoirs (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1876), 324
  36. Guilt modified by ignorance--anti-slavery duties, by President Finney 1852
  37. London Yearly Meeting minutes, Vol. 6, 457 - 458; Vol. 17, 298 - 307
  39. American Mobbing, 1828-1861 By David Grimsted
  42. Anon., Behind the Veil, chapter 5: Slavery in Islam
  43. Silas, Slavery in Islam
Personal tools

visitor navigation
contributor navigation