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The First Christian Abolitionist

May 7, 2008

It is unfortunate that Christians during the nineteenth century in America used supposedly biblical arguments for the existence of slavery. Indeed, critics of Christianity are all too happy to point out this fact as an argument against the validity of the faith. In the face of such criticism, it is important for Christians to realize that arguments for the abolition of slavery arose in the West from within the Christian theological tradition. The figure most known for his battle for abolition is William Wilberforce. There is, however, another Christian opponent of slavery, one who wrote far earlier than Wilberforce. During the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa, one of the three Cappadocian theologians, addressed the issue in the course of his homilies on the book of Ecclesiastes. His explicit argument against slavery would have been inconceivable apart from the Christian doctrine of God and man. In other words, robust theological reflection led Gregory to the conclusion that slavery is an offense against God and man. When he encountered Ecclesiastes 2:7-11, this is what Gregory had to say:

So when someone turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates? . . .

You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree. . . .

Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? . . .

“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” [quoting Ecclesiastes] For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our image and likeness (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s? . . .

I see no superiority over the subordinate accruing to you from the title other than the mere title. What does this power contribute to you as a person? – not longevity, nor beauty, nor good health, nor superiority in virtue. Your origin is from the same ancestors, your life is of the same kind, sufferings of soul and body prevail alike over you who own him and over the one who is subject to your ownership – pains and pleasures, merriment and distress, sorrows and delights, rages and terrors, sickness and death. Is there any difference in these things between the slave and the owner? Do they not draw in the same air as they breathe? Do they not see the sun in the same way? Do they not alike sustain their being by consuming food? Is not the arrangement of their guts the same? Are not the two one dust after death? Is there not one judgment for them? – a common Kingdom, and a common Gehenna?

(Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on Ecclesiastes: An English Version with Supporting Studies, ed. Stuart George Hall, trans. Stuart George Hall and Rachel Moriarty [New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1993], 73-75)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2008 1:19 pm

    Knew much of Wilberforce, never have heard of Gregory! Thanks for the info –

    -cs
    http://chrisschellenberg.com/

  2. May 7, 2008 2:59 pm

    Well done and very helpful.
    Thanks Matt!
    Jordan Thomas

  3. December 15, 2012 3:38 pm

    I am not sure where you are getting your inmoifatron, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this inmoifatron for my mission.My website is .

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