Slavery and Religion


Anthony E Gallo

In God We Trust or God Will Determine the Victor?  Did the Union or the Confederacy have God and the Bible on its Side? Does Religion Condemn Slavery?

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!  It ain’t so.

Julia Ward Howe’s majestic and inspiring Battle Hymn of the Republic leads us to believe that God is against slavery.


The Battle Hymn of the Republic

By Julia Ward Howe

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of

Wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible

Swift sword;

His truth is marching on.


Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling


They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and


I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring


His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel;

“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall


Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call


He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement


Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant,

My feet!

Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the


With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

Julia Ward Howe explicitly infers that the Bible and Jesus of Nazareth were on the side of abolition.   Nothing could be further from the truth.    Neither Christianity nor Judaism nor the Moslem religion opposed slavery.  The entirety of the Judeo-Christian tradition is biblically based.      There was one difference to the slavery we had in the United States?     Slavery was not tinged with racism in either the Bible or the Koran as it was in the institution of American slavery.

The Civil War was a religious war.  Each side claimed God.  The motto of the North was In God We Trust.    The motto of the South was God is the Vindicator.   Each side claimed God.   Both assertions were based on the Bible.   The major issue was slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was the most religious president in American History.   he was also the most biblically knowledgeable.  And he hated and eventually abolished slavery.   But the Bible was no friend.  He had to fight the battle alone.    There are 300 references to slavery in the bible, and few, if any are outright negative.   Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as most other major world religions not only approved but encouraged slavery.   This is in sharp contrast to today’s world where except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do.

Slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible clearly approves of slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves. During the most abominable period of the slave trade (1600-1900), slavery was fueled by the idea that Africans, even children, were better off Christianized under a system of European slavery than left in Africa amid tribal wars, famines and paganism

From Genesis to Hebrews to the Epistles the message is clear that Slavery is condoned as an institution and an undesirable situation for the slaves.  In Geneses Hagar is the Slave Woman who serves as a surrogate mother for Abrahams heir.    We will then visit Exodus, Genesis, Deuteronomy, a Numbers   We then examine the new testament. In this paper we only examine the Judeo Christian tradition.  The Muslim religion is actually not much better.  The harsh treatment of slaves is condemned, but the institution is not condemned.  In fact, Mohamed owned slaves, but treated them kindly which the Koran also encourages.

Some Jewish and Christian apologists will try to ignore the moral problems of slavery by saying that these slaves were actually servants or indentured servants.   Many translations of the Bible use the word “servant”, “bondservant”, or “manservant” instead of “slave” to make the Bible seem less immoral than it really is.  While many slaves may have worked as household servants, that doesn’t mean that they were not slaves who were bought, sold, and in some instances treated like livestock.

Augustine opposed slavery as did some other church fathers.  But by and large popes for a thousand years supported it.  The illegitimate children of priests were made slaves.  Thomas Aquinas said it was natural. Other popes deemed that Christians could not be slaves, but non- Christians were fair game.   Several popes were involved in the purchase of slaves The prevailing attitude was that men could take care of their own.   Mirroring what Jesus of Nazareth   said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars’ and unto God that which is God!  Translate   that means fend for yourself –  The separation of church and state.   Slavery was presented as part of the human condition.      Slavery was the same as peasant or only of a lower statio

New Testament 

Here are some of the major new testament references to slavery/


Jesus of Nazareth took on the entirety of the religious establishment, drove the money changers out of the Temple, and boldly paid with his life for his claim that he was the Son of God. But he did not condemn slavery.    Here are some examples.

He knowingly accepted the beating of slaves: “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely;t48and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Luke 12:47.

Jesus recognized the class system of master and slave. He believed in the class system “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.” (Matthew 10:24) Jesus clearly approves of beating slaves even if they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong   Luke 12:47-48 In the following parable, the servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it.  “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly.  Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.”

Jesus even cites situations where families can be sold into slavery    Matthew: 18 23-  4 “When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.  Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.

He readily accepts the class system.   Mat13-16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.  “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them


Christianity’s leading architect after Jesus, did not oppose slavery.  Essentially, he agreed with Jesus.  St Paul’s epistles called for slaves to “obey their masters,”

The Epistle to Philemon has become an important text in regards to slavery; it was used by pro-slavery advocates as well as by abolitionists.  In the Epistle, Paul writes that he is returning Onesimus, a fugitive slave, back to his master Philemon.  However, Paul also entreats Philemon to regard Onesimus, who he says he views as a son, not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Christ. Philemon is requested to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul.  Jesus of Nazareth took on the entirety of Israel’s establishment, but did not condemn slavery.

(Ephesians 6:5) Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.  Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.

Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed.  If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.  (1 Timothy 6:1-2)


In several Pauline epistles, and the First Epistle of Peter, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, “as to the Lord, and not to men However, masters were told to serve their slaves “in the same way” and “even better” as “brothers”, [ to not threaten them as God is their Master as well



St Peter’s letters appear to suggest it was wholly commendable for Christian slaves to suffer at the hands of cruel masters.

The First Epistle of Peter, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, as to the Lord, and not to men;  however masters were told to serve their slaves “in the same way”  and “even better” as “brothers  to not threaten them as God is their Master as well




The Old Testament has nearly 240 references to slavery.  Nearly all are positive toward that institution    Slaves were definitely looked down upon.   We begin with Genesis.    Abraham was a wealthy man and a major slave owner.    Because Sarah was childless, one of his slaves, Hagar was forced to have a child by him.  But that offspring was Ishmael\ the son of the slave woman.  So from the very beginning slavery was considered a lower state and the institution was approved.   Hagar had no alternative but to bear Abraham a child an heir to the Abrahamic fortune.

Here are a few of the other positive references to Abraham and slavery:

  • Abraham, the chosen servant of God, had his bond servants, whose condition was similar to, or worse than, that of our slaves.
  • He considered them as his property, to be bought and sold as any other property which he owned.
  • In Genesis, we are told that God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his bond-servants, “bought with his money,” and that Abraham obeyed God’s commandment on this same day.
  • In Genesis 20, we are told that Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men servants and women servants, and gave them to Abraham.
  •  In chapter 7, we are told that Abraham possessed sheep and oxen, and he asses, and men servants and maid servants, and she asses, and camels.
  •  Also, in Genesis 26, 14, Isaac is said to have had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great store of servants.
  • In other places in Genesis, they are spoken   as property.
  • Not only was the bond-servant of Abraham considered his property, but the condition of the bond-servant was hereditary.
  • God not only commanded Abraham to circumcise his servants, bought with his money, but also, those born in his house, and those which, at any future time, should be born in his house, or in that of any of his descendants; and in the twenty-third and twenty-seventh verses of the same chapter, we are told that Abraham did circumcise all his male servants, born in his house, on the same day.
  • In chapter of Genesis we are told, that Abraham took three hundred and eighteen trained servants,
  • When Sara, Abraham’s wife, complained to him of the conduct of Hagar, her maid servant, he answered, “thy maid is in thy hand, do to her as it pleases thee showing that she wanted only her husband’s consent to punish Hagar as she pleased. We are then told, that, when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face into the wilderness—there the angel of the Lord found her; but, instead of relieving her distress, and sending her to some free country, he told her to return and submit herself to her mistress.
  •  When Abraham pursued Chederlaomer, the king of Elam, he took his three hundred and eighteen servants, and his three friends, Aner, Eschol and Mamre, and recaptured a large amount of property which had been carried away from Sodom.
  • But when the king of Sodom offered him all the property which he had taken, he refused everything, except what his servants had eaten and the portion of his three friends—answering immediately for himself and his servants, and refusing everything, but reserving the right to his friends to answer for themselves.


  • Abraham was a worshiper of God; he had direct and immediate communication with him. He showed his willingness to obey God’s commands, even in offering his only son a sacrifice to God. He is spoken of by all the sacred writers, as one who was selected, from the whole human race, as the father of the faithful.


  •  God would not have so highly honored him, had he been living in constant and habitual violation of his laws: nor would he have required from him the performance of immaterial ceremonies, or of painful things not required by the moral law, and left him ignorantly to continue to violate his duties to his fellow men. Had our abolition friends been in God’s stead, they would have certainly acted in a very different manner. Is there one of them who will dare to say, he would have done better than God did?


  • But God, instead of teaching Abraham, his chosen servant, that it was immoral to use and buy his slaves, demanded from him the performance of certain things, which required that the relation of master and slave should be kept up, not only during Abraham’s time, but in all future ages.


  • And when the angel of the Lord interfered between Sarai and Hagar, it was to cause the slave to submit to punishment inflicted by her mistress


  • Jacob’s sons sold Joseph, their brother, to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. They agreed with each other that they would sell him, when the Ishmaelites were afar off, and before they could have known that the Ishmaelites would buy him; only they knew, that such sales were common in the country at the time


  • The narrative of Joseph’s life in Egypt, shows that the sale of slaves was common there.


Deuteronomy and Numbers also have many references to slavery.

  • Jewish slaves were to be freed after six years according to both Deuteronomy and Exodus.


  • There are also laws regarding punishment for the one who kills the slave as well as injunctions to avoid injuring their eyes and teeth.


  • The betrothal clause seems to have provided an exception to the law of release in Deuteronomy 15:12 (cf. Jeremiah 34:14), in which both male and female Israelite servants were to be given release in the seventh year


  • The penalty if an Israelite engaged in sexual activity with an unredeemed female slave who was betrothed was that of scourging, with Jewish tradition seeing this as only referring to the slave (versus Deuteronomy 22:22, where both parties were stoned, being free persons), as well as the man confessing his guilt and the priest making atonement for his sin.


  • Women captured by Israelite armies could be adopted forcibly as wives, but first they had to have their heads shaved and undergo a period of mourning. However, “If you are not pleased with her, then you must let her go where she pleases. You cannot in any case sell her; you must not take advantage of her, since you have already humiliated her.”


 Leviticus and Exodus

In Leviticus   we are told, that the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them”—after various provisions of the law, the 39th verse reads as follows, in regard to servitude: “If thy brother that dwells by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee, then shalt not compel him to serve as a bond-servant, but as a hired servant,” &c.—clearly showing that there was a distinction between bond-servant and hired-servant. After providing for the case of a Hebrew servant, verses 44, 45, and 46, of the same law, read as follows: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land; and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever.”


Exodus states:    And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continues a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”    The same chapter provide, that if the servant has lost an eye or a tooth, by a blow from the master, the servant should go free.  Also, that if an ox was known to be vicious and killed a freeman, the ox and his owner were both put to death; but if he gored a bond-servant, the ox should be killed and the master should pay thirty shekels of silver: showing the distinction between bond and freemen.


And about beating slaves.  It says you can beat both male and Exodus female slaves with a rod so hard that as long as they don’t die right away you are cleared of any wrong doing.    When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.


Notice how they can get a male Hebrew slave to become a permanent slave by keeping his wife and children hostage until he says he wants to become a permanent slave.  What kind of family values are these?

Debt slavery.    Sometimes humans were enslaved because they could not pay debts.


  • Like that of the Ancient Near East, the legal systems of the Israelites divided “slaves” into different categories:
  • “In determining who should benefit from their intervention, the legal systems drew two important distinctions: between debt and chattel slaves, and between native and foreign slaves.
  • The authorities intervened first and foremost to protect the former category of each–citizens who had fallen on hard times and had been forced into slavery by debt or famine.


  • Poverty, and more general lack of economic security, compelled some people to enter debt bondage.


  • Furthermore, in the ancient Near East, wives and (non-adult) children were often viewed as property, and were sometimes sold into slavery by the husband/father for financial reasons.Sexual and conjugal slavery

Sexual slavery, or being sold to be a wife, was common in the ancient world. It’s commonly debated whether or not the Old Testament ever condones this

  •  However, throughout the Old Testament, the taking of multiple wives was recorded many times
  •   An Israelite father could sell his unmarried daughters into servitude, with the expectation or understanding that the master or his son would eventually marry her. [
  • It is understood by Jewish and Christian commentators that this referred to the sale of a daughter, who “is not arrived to the age of twelve years and a day, and this through poverty.”




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