David Barton and The Myth of Christianity’s Opposition to Slavery

Apr 11 2011 Published by under Uncategorized


Historical revisionist David Barton

I talked the other day about David Barton’s plan for an American theocracy. The next day, I addressed his plan for biblical slavery for America. Today, because Mike Huckabee is still defending David Barton, I wish to elaborate on a myth that has circulated for centuries: that Christianity meant the death of slavery. The argument is often made that slavery is against the teachings of the Bible, but that simply isn’t true: slavery found support in the Old Testament (as the biblical slavery movement supported by Barton correctly points out) and it would likewise be supported in the New. This is in contradiction of Stephen McDowell’s claim that “As the gospel principles of liberty have spread throughout history in all the nations, man has put aside the institution of overt slavery.”

The “gospel of liberty,” if such can be said to exist, is a humanistic and secular outgrowth of the European Enlightenment. If it is a part of Christianity it took nearly 1800 years to manifest itself and some explanation is due us by McDowell to explain this discrepancy. By then, the secular Enlightenment had condemned slavery as a violation of the natural rights of man. It seems secularism was much quicker to recognize the evils of slavery than the Christian church that had for so many centuries dominated European culture and thought.

The fact is, Christianity did not put an end to slavery. Not when Constantine became emperor nor under any of the following Christian Roman emperors. Nor did the Pope put an end to slavery once the Western Empire had fallen a century-and-a-half later, nor by any subsequent pope.  David Barton says it is secular historians who are guilty of revision, of writing god out of history, but what he means by this is not that these historians fail to mention religion or god, but that they fail to write about what David Barton sees as the underpinnings of all human history: god’s plan. On his program “Why History Matters” (and Barton clearly does not believe this), he said,

“[I]f you do not see the divine hand working behind the scenes with what’s going on in history, history will be an incomprehensible enigma.”

So if everything that has happened is part of god’s plan, then why did his plan of liberation not extend to slaves? Why did it not extend to women? Why does it now not extend to all people rather than functioning as what can only be described as Christofascism? Are you admitting here that God did not want the slaves to be free? If so, McDowell is guilty of a lie: Christianity has not, as I will show here, been overtly hostile to the idea of slavery, nor has it put an end to it even when it held all the cards, with dominion over even powerful secular princes. If this is, as you say, god’s plan, it is an indefensible one and it’s time for people to find a new god.

We hear often that Christianity improved the lot of the slave, though the implication is that it did away with the institution altogether, along with its many other alleged social reforms. Jean-Pierre Devroey asserts that “The triumph of Christianity constituted a major challenge to the ideology of slavery.”[1] But did it? Even the famous apologist W.H.C. Frend is forced to admit that there was no Christian drive to abolish slavery.[2] Ramsay MacMullen challenges the standard model of Christian social egalitarianism: “Christian leaders once they emerged anywhere at or near the top of the social pyramid looked down on those beneath them with just the same hauteur as their non-Christian equivalents”[3]

The early Christians, it may surprise some, showed remarkably little concern for slaves or opposition to the institution of slavery. Paul for instance, while urging slave masters to be just and fair to their slaves (Col. 4.1), Ephesians has him saying (Eph. 6.5-8)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, single-mindedly, as serving Christ. Do not offer merely the outward show of service, to curry favor with men, but as slaves of Christ, do whole-heartedly the will of God. Give the cheerful service of those who serve the Lord, not men. For you know that whatever good each man may do, slave or free, will be repaid by the Lord.

This admonition is repeated in Colossians 3.22-24. 1 Timothy, one of the epistles written later and not by Paul himself says that “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered” and further reminds slaves that those whose masters are like them, Christian are no less deserving of respect because they are brothers. In other words, don’t take advantage or expect special privilege. You’re still a slave. Act like it (1 Tim. 6.1-2). Titus echoes these sentiments:

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive (Titus 2.9-10).

Here it is all about making a good impression on the Pagans. After all, who is likely to convert if they see that slaves behave like rascals and without respect towards their masters who share the same faith? Practical, but hardly the stuff of social egalitarianism! This is the end justifying the means. Rhetoric aside, the bottom line was as important to Christians as to Pagans.

Of course it can be argued that in Paul’s case, slavery, no more than matrimony, mattered, because the End Time was near. The Parousia was at hand. He and his congregations, as we have seen, expected it daily, certainly at the outside in their own lifetimes. So Paul’s advice to the slaves in Corinth, “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor. 7.20-21) should perhaps be seen in this light. We might say the same for his relationship to the slave Onesimus who ran away from his master Philemon to join Paul (Philemon 16).

What we find when we examine the relationship of Christianity to slavery is that Paul’s view is not unique: A reading of Polycarp or Ignatius shows that slavery was not, as Christians would make it, a Pagan vice.  Ignatius goes so far as to say that slaves should not be “puffed up” and not desire their freedom “at the Church’s expense…” (Ign. Pol. 4.3) and Ignatius’ letters to Christian households, such as Tavia’s with slaves. John Chrysostom argued that Christianity did not enter the world to overturn everything and require masters to free their slaves (Argumentum ad Philemon PG 62). Tertullian (Apology 27.5) said “rascal slaves…mingle insolence with fear.” He believed “resisting or rebelling slaves” were to be equated with demons and believed they should be confined to work houses or sent to the mines. Under Christianity slaves were forbidden to be priests “not out of fear of complications with a runaway, but because of such candidates’ sheer vileness, by which ecclesiastical office would be ‘polluted.’ This amounted to a serious devaluation in comparison to paganism’s auspices: “Slaves under paganism had free access to almost all cults and temples, they mixed promiscuously among most cult groups, and commonly formed their own cult groups with their own priests and officials.”[4]

In contrast to those earlier Christian apologists mentioned above, Augustine is often held to have disapproved of slavery, but he did not advocate the abolition of the institution itself. His contribution was to hold slaves to be human (a point already made by Pagan thinkers), and to urge their fair treatment by masters. It is a shame he did not hold women in equally high regard, or Pagans, or Donatists, or other so-called heretics. In any event, Augustine’s views are not in advance of Seneca’s, writing three centuries earlier and between the two, Seneca seems the more vociferous, and he might have benefited by a reading of Seneca’s views on cruelty (95.30). Taking Seneca’s views to heart might have mitigated some of the worse results of Augustine’s own intolerance. Moreover, there had already been progress as early as the last century of the republic towards seeing the slave as a human being. Augustine was doing nothing more than walking on already well trod ground – and by the despised Pagans to boot. An appeal to Augustine then does not much advance the Christian claim of social egalitarianism.[5] In conclusion, MacMullen’s judgment seems sound: “If we ask, in summary, whether life was on the whole easier for slaves in Christian times than in pagan, the answer is probably No.[6]

Barton’s “providential history” sounds suspiciously like Marxism, that all history is the history of class struggle, that each historical event must be understood in this context. But this isn’t true and no competent historian would make this claim. It is factually untrue. Barton says history begins with an act of faith, but let’s not confuse history and religion. They are entirely different species. David Barton, as Jon Stewart points out, isn’t a historian, but a theologian, and worse, a dilettante. He doesn’t know anything about history (if he did, he would realize how fatuous his claims are) and it doesn’t seem he really cares about it either (given how careless he is with his claims). All Barton is interested in is forcing a theological framework around the course of human history.

There is a problem with this: it doesn’t fit (the whole square peg in a round hole thing). To resolve this problem, Barton simply revises history to suit his needs – he fudges, he lies, he invents. And then he packages it neatly and sells it as god’s plan. His hero Rushdoony says it must be one or the other: history belongs either to God or to man, but as usual when they say there are only two options, you should not be buying what they’re selling. Let’s face it: if you pray, you believe your god(s) can act upon this world. If you seriously believe history belongs to god, if you seriously believe “god wills it” then you won’t bother praying, because everything is unfolding as god intended, and a prayer by you is a selfish request for god to change his plans because you, a mere mortal, don’t like them.

No, “god wills it” does not explain anything. There is no divine plan discernible in history and if you have to lie to make it fit, it’s no longer God’s plan but yours. We can call it the “Barton Plan” but what lessons can be learned from an invented history? Don’t drink the Kool-Aid folks. God is in the history books. Nobody has taken him out. History has “happened” and it’s left to us to try to figure it out, but we’re not being good historians if we demand that history, like that square peg, fit into a round hole. To make it fit, we have to turn it (revise it) into a circle and then it’s no longer history is it? It’s fiction.

And that is precisely what David Barton, Stephen McDowell, R.J. Rushdoony – and Mike Huckabee and Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck – are selling. I hope you’re not buying.

[1] Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Men and Women in Early Medieval Serfdom: The Ninth Century North Frankish Evidence,” Past and Present 66 (2000), 7.

[2] W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), 133.

[3] MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 7 cf. MacMullen (1990), 264 f. and n. 29

[4] MacMullen, (1997), 7.

[5]Augustine did not write a tract on slavery so it is no easy task to ascertain what his views on the matter were. For an examination of these attitudes see Margaret Mary, “Slavery in the Writings of St. Augustine,” The Classical Journal 49 (1954), 363-368. For Seneca’s views on slavery see Epistle 47. For earlier Roman attitudes towards slaves as humans see Juvenal, 14.16-17.

[6]Ramsay MacMullen, “What Difference Did Christianity Make?” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 35 (1986), 325.

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