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But did Christianity abolish slavery as a matter of fact? We answer, it did.

Let us look at these acknowledged facts. At the time of the coming of Christ, slavery extended over the whole civilized world. Captives in war were uniformly made slaves, and, as wars were of constant occurrence, the ranks of slavery were continually being reinforced; and, as slavery was hereditary and perpetual, there was every reason to suppose that the number would have gone on increasing indefinitely, had not some influence operated to stop it. This is one fact.

Let us now look at another. At the time of the Reformation, chattel-slavery had entirely ceased throughout all the civilized countries of the world;—by no particular edict, by no special laws of emancipation, but by the steady influence of some gradual, unseen power, this whole vast system had dissolved away, like the snow-banks of winter.

These two facts being conceded, the inquiry arises, What caused this change? If, now, we find that the most powerful organization in the civilized world at that time did pursue a system of measures which had a direct tendency to bring about such a result, we shall very naturally ascribe it to that organization.

The Spanish writer, Balmes, in his work entitled “Protestantism compared with Catholicity,” has one chapter devoted to the anti-slavery course of the church, in which he sets forth the whole system of measures which the church pursued in reference to this subject, and quotes, in their order, all the decrees of councils. The decrees themselves are given in an appendix at length, in the original Latin. We cannot but sympathize deeply in the noble and generous spirit in which these chapters are written, and the enlarged and vigorous ideas which they give of the magnanimous and honorable nature of Christianity. They are evidently conceived by a large and noble soul, capable of understanding such views,—a soul grave, earnest, deeply religious, though evidently penetrated and imbued with the most profound conviction of the truth of his own peculiar faith.

We shall give a short abstract, from M. Balmes, of the early course of the church. In contemplating the course which the church took in this period, certain things are to be borne in mind respecting the character of the times.

238The process was carried on during that stormy and convulsed period of society which succeeded the breaking up of the Roman empire. At this time, all the customs of society were rude and barbarous. Though Christianity, as a system, had been nominally very extensively embraced, yet it had not, as in the case of its first converts, penetrated to the heart, and regenerated the whole nature. Force and violence was the order of the day, and the Christianity of the savage northern tribes, who at this time became masters of Europe, was mingled with the barbarities of their ancient heathenism. To root the institution of slavery out of such a state of society, required, of course, a very different process from what would be necessary under the enlightened organization of modern times.

No power but one of the peculiar kind which the Christian church then possessed could have effected anything in this way. The Christian church at this time, far from being in the outcast and outlawed state in which it existed in the time of the apostles, was now an organization of great power, and of a kind of power peculiarly adapted to that rude and uncultured age. It laid hold of all those elements of fear, and mystery, and superstition, which are strongest in barbarous ages, as with barbarous individuals, and it visited the violations of its commands with penalties the more dreaded that they related to some awful future, dimly perceived and imperfectly comprehended.

In dealing with slavery, the church did not commence by a proclamation of universal emancipation, because, such was the barbarous and unsettled nature of the times, so fierce the grasp of violence, and so many the causes of discord, that she avoided adding to the confusion by infusing into it this element;—nay, a certain council of the church forbade, on pain of ecclesiastical censure, those who preached that slaves ought immediately to leave their masters.

The course was commenced first by restricting the power of the master, and granting protection to the slave. The Council of Orleans, in 549, gave to a slave threatened with punishment the privilege of taking sanctuary in a church, and forbade his master to withdraw him thence, without taking a solemn oath that he would do him no harm; and, if he violated the spirit of this oath, he was to be suspended from the church and the sacraments,—a doom which in those days was viewed with such a degree of superstitious awe, that the most barbarous would scarcely dare to incur it. The custom was afterwards introduced of requiring an oath on such occasions, not only that the slave should be free from corporeal infliction, but that he should not be punished by an extra imposition of labor, or by any badge of disgrace. When this was complained of, as being altogether too great a concession on the side of the slave, the utmost that could be extorted from the church, by way of retraction, was this,—that in cases of very heinous offence the master should not be required to make the two latter promises.

There was a certain punishment among the Goths which was more dreaded than death. It was the shaving of the hair. This was considered as inflicting a lasting disgrace. If a Goth once had his hair shaved, it was all over with him. The fifteenth canon of the Council of Merida, in 666, forbade ecclesiastics to inflict this punishment upon their slaves, as also all other kind of violence, and ordained that if a slave committed an offence, he should not be subject to private vengeance, but be delivered up to the secular tribunal, and that the bishops should use their power only to procure a moderation of the sentence. This was substituting public justice for personal vengeance—a most important step. The church further enacted, by two councils, that the master who, of his own authority, should take the life of his slave, should be cut off for two years from the communion of the church,—a condition, in the view of those times, implying the most awful spiritual risk, separating the man in the eye of society from all that was sacred, and teaching him to regard himself, and others to regard him, as a being loaded with the weight of a must tremendous sin.

Besides the protection given to life and limb, the church threw her shield over the family condition of the slave. By old Roman law, the slave could not contract a legal, inviolable marriage. The church of that age availed itself of the catholic idea of the sacramental nature of marriage to conflict with this heathenish doctrine. Pope Adrian I. said, “According to the words of the apostle, as in Jesus Christ we ought not to deprive either slaves or freemen of the sacraments of the church so it is not allowed in any way to prevent the marriage of slaves; and if their marriages have been contracted in spite of the opposition and repugnance of their masters, nevertheless they ought not to be dissolved.” St. Thomas was of the same opinion, for he openly maintains that, with respect to contracting marriage, “slaves are not obliged to obey their masters.”

239It can easily be seen what an effect was produced when the personal safety and family ties of the slaves were thus proclaimed sacred by an authority which no man living dared dispute. It elevated the slave in the eyes of his master, and awoke hope and self-respect in his own bosom, and powerfully tended to fit him for the reception of that liberty to which the church by many avenues was constantly seeking to conduct him.

Another means which the church used to procure emancipation was a jealous care of the freedom of those already free.

Every one knows how in our Southern States the boundaries of slavery are continually increasing, for want of some power there to perform the same kind office. The liberated slave, travelling without his papers, is continually in danger of being taken up, thrown into jail, and sold to pay his jail-fees. He has no bishop to help him out of his troubles. In no church can he take sanctuary. Hundreds and thousands of helpless men and women are every year engulfed in slavery in this manner.

The church, at this time, took all enfranchised slaves under her particular protection. The act of enfranchisement was made a religious service, and was solemnly performed in the church; and then the church received the newly-made freeman to her protecting arms, and guarded his newly-acquired rights by her spiritual power. The first Council of Orange, held in 441, ordained in its seventh canon that the church should check by ecclesiastical censures whoever desired to reduce to any kind of servitude slaves who had been emancipated within the enclosure of the church. A century later, the same prohibition was repeated in the seventh canon of the fifth Council of Orleans, held in 549. The protection given by the church to freed slaves was so manifest and known to all, that the custom was introduced of especially recommending them to her, either in lifetime or by will. The Council of Agde, in Languedoc, passed a resolution commanding the church, in all cases of necessity, to undertake the defence of those to whom their masters had, in a lawful way, given liberty.

Another anti-slavery measure which the church pursued with distinguished zeal had the same end in view, that is, the prevention of the increase of slavery. It was the ransoming of captives. As at that time it was customary for captives in war to be made slaves of, unless ransomed, and as, owing to th............
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