On slavery

Rowan Williams offers a condensed but rich history of Christian disruption of the status quo.



Rowan Williams offers a condensed but rich history of Christian disruption of the status quo.


Christianity began in a world that took slavery completely for granted. We do find it quite hard to imagine a world in which that’s as much taken for granted as, I don’t know, supermarkets are taken for granted as part of our economic background. They’re there, and that’s part of the furniture.

At the same time, even in the New Testament, St Paul writing about slavery does say, “Slaves, obey your masters”, and then says, “Masters, treat your slaves as fellow members of the community”. Famously, in his shortest letter, his letter to Philemon, he very skilfully begins to shift the terms of the argument. Yes, Onesimus is a slave to Philemon but Philemon must realise that he has exactly the same agenda, the same issues, the same problems, as his slave. They stand together. And it would make sense, really, to set the slave free.

So it’s one of those slow fuse things. The attitudes that the Christian community requires, in terms of mutual relationships, are attitudes that are not going to sit very comfortably with slavery.

A century or two later you have the wonderful picture from North Africa of the two martyrs, Perpetua and Felicity, walking into the arena to meet their deaths at the hands of the wild animals, hand in hand. Hand in hand – but they’re mistress and slave. Yet there they are, visibly, in front of the Roman public, affirming that they are sisters. And we learn from Perpetua’s diary that that was the language they used, and it was quite shocking.

Again and again, that basic requirement of Christian mutuality upsets the convention. One of the typical bits of stories of the saints and the great figures of the fourth and fifth centuries, when they have a religious conversion or when they decide they need to be more serious as Christians, they free their slaves. It’s as if that’s one of the things you do if you want to show you’re serious. You set your slaves free. 

And thinkers of the period, Greek and Latin, well, at one point or another say: slavery is not natural. There are reasons for it; perhaps it’s a punishment for human sin, perhaps it’s a temporary arrangement. But it doesn’t actually sit very well with the world we inhabit. Bit by bit, that moves on, until in the Middle Ages you have in St Thomas Aquinas the clear recognition that the rights, certain rights to decide your own future cannot be taken away, even by the institution of slavery. And by the 18th century, of course, you have the great antislavery movement, which is almost entirely the church’s business. If the abolition of slavery had been left to enlightened secularists in the 18th century, we’d still be waiting.