Am I Not a Man and a Brother

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery

I occasionally hear people linking gay marriage and open borders. Thus, Jose Antonio Vargas (whom I wrote about here and heresays:

We are fighting for more than immigration reform. We are fighting for the dignity of people and liberation. More than anything Define American is trying to change media and culture. Again, LGBT rights would not have happened without culture shifting.

And Charles Kenny, in “Why Immigration is the New Gay Marriage,” writes:

The evolution of public attitudes toward gay marriage—which a majority of Americans now support—demonstrates that cultural shifts can be dramatic and rapid when circumstances are right. Perhaps U.S. citizens will start realizing that more people aspiring to become Americans is no threat to the institutions of America, just as they have come to accept that more people wanting to get married—some to people of the same sex—is no threat to the institution of marriage.

I’ll explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement. First, I want to describe the historical movement that open borders does resemble, and which it should emulate, namely: the movement to abolish slavery.

An excellent short history of the abolition of slavery, in Chapter 5 of his book For the Glory of God by sociologist Rodney Stark, which correctly treats it as part of the history of Christian social justice, begins with a sad history of this deplorable institution, which “has… been a nearly universal feature of ‘civilization’ [and] was also common in a number of ‘aboriginal’ societies that were sufficiently affluent to afford it– for example, slavery was very prevalent among the Northwest Indians,” and which, in fact, before the advent of Christian social justice, essentially occurred wherever “the average person can produce sufficient surplus that it becomes profitable for someone to own him or her” (Stark, p. 292-293). Stark describes slavery among the Northwest Coast Indians; in classical Greece and Rome; in the Muslim world; in black Africa long before the Atlantic slave trade; and in the New World in modern times. Stark pays less attention to China– space is limited, after all– but slavery also existed there.

The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, though the Mosaic law does greatly ameliorate it:

Although Jews were prohibited from enslaving their fellow Jews, and their slaves therefore came from among the “heathen,” there were still severe limits on their treatment. Death was decreed for any Jewish master who killed a slave. The Torah admonished that freedom was to be awarded any slave as compensation for suffering acts of violence: “And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake” (Exodus 21:26-27). Hebrew law held that children of slaves must not be parted from their parents, nor a wife from her husband. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 23:15-16 Jews were admonished not to return escaped slaves: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escape from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you… thou shalt not oppress him.” (Stark, p. 328)

Is it embarrassing that God condones slavery in the Mosaic Law? In such cases, one must be careful not to kick away the ladder by which we ascended. Christians believe that God is trying to redeem fallen mankind. That sometimes means meeting fallen man where he is at a given time, improving him by small steps, and condoning much that is defective with respect to loftier ethical standards that he may attain later. Compared to the brutal exploitation of slaves by so many other civilizations, slavery as prescribed in the Mosaic law is humane. Jesus later told the Pharisees that Moses had permitted men to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8), and I think (and more importantly, Christians have long held) that the same principle applies to much of the Mosaic law. It was a kind of compromise between ethical perfection and human weakness. The subsequent history of the Jews shows how little they were able even to live up to this limited standard. But in the teachings of Jesus the fullness of ethical perfection was revealed, and this rendered obsolete some of the rituals and minor rules, and especially the imperfections and compromises, of the Mosaic law.

Yet even in the New Testament, slaves are told to obey their masters by both St. Peter– see 1 Peter 2:18— and St. Paul– see Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22. I don’t find these passages troubling, because I see them as instances of Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and, in general, to submit to coercion and even give more than what is demanded: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). After all, if we ought to serve our fellow men, then why should it be an unmitigated evil to be legally bound to serve one of our fellow men? More troubling, possibly, is that in advising the Ephesians, St. Paul does not command Christian masters to manumit their slaves, saying only “And masters, do the same things [i.e., render sincere service] to them [i.e., to your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). Certainly for masters to serve their slaves and to stop threatening them is a step in the right direction, but how can any kind of slavery, even an ameliorated form, be compatible with the Gospel of love?

I would offer three defenses of St. Paul here. First, the apostles weren’t trying to make a secular political revolution, for which they didn’t have the strength, but to save souls, to work a moral transformation from within. Had they attempted to launch a revolution against slavery, the Roman Empire would have crushed them. Even semi-public exhortations to manumission in letters to churches might have been dangerous. Second, this is another case of God meeting us where we are, and not giving us moral standards we’re not yet ready to live by. What would masters in the early Ephesian church have done, had St. Paul commanded them to manumit all their slaves? Let’s assume it would have been good for their souls as well as their slaves if they had obeyed. But, perhaps they would not have obeyed, but left the church instead. Would that justify Paul in limiting his exhortations to good treatment rather than manumission? I think so. Third, what happens to a manumitted slave? Don’t think of the ancient Roman Empire as a modern capitalist economy where any random person can find a job and support himself. A typical slave would probably have trouble making it on his or her own. To urge masters to manumit their slaves into isolation and destitution might have been no mercy. The slaveless society was a social model yet to be developed.

Theologian David Bentley Hart describes (in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, pp. 176ff.) the attitudes of the early Church fathers towards slavery…

The attitudes of many of the fathers of the church toward slavery ranged from (at best) resigned acceptance to (at worst) a kind of prudential approval. All of them regarded slavery as a mark of sin, of course, and all could take some comfort in the knowledge that, at the restoration of creation in the Kingdom of God, it would vanish altogether. They even understood that this expectation necessarily involved certain moral implications for the present. But, for most of them, the best that could be hoped for within a fallen world (apart from certain legal reforms) was a spirit of charity, gentleness, and familial regard on the part of masters and a spirit of longsuffering on the part of servants. Basil of Caesarea found it necessary to defend the subjection of some men to others, on the grounds that not all are capable of governing themselves wisely and virtuously. John Chrysostom dreamed of a perfect (probably eschatological) society in which none would rule over another, celebrated the extension of legal rights and protections to slaves, and fulminated against Christian masters who would dare to humiliate or beat their slaves. Augustine, with his darker, colder, more brutal vision of the fallen world, disliked slavery but did not think it wise always to spare the rod, at least not when the welfare of the soul should take precedence over the welfare of the flesh. Each of them knew that slavery was essentially a damnable thing– which in itself was a considerable advance in moral intelligence over the ethos of pagan antiquity– but damnation, after all, is reserved for the end of time; none of them found it possible to convert that eschatological certainty into a program for the present… Given the inherently restive quality of the human moral imagination, it is only natural that certain of the moral values of the pagan past should have lingered on so long into the Christian era, just as any number of Christian moral values continue today to enjoy a tacit and largely unexamined authority in minds and cultures that no longer believe the Christian story.

It is in this context that a certain stunning insight occurred to a certain 4th-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, to whom, as far as I can tell, the abolition of slavery may be traced.

And yet– confusingly enough for any conventional calculation of history probability– there is Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger and more brilliant brother, who sounded a very different note, one that almost seems to have issued from some altogether different frame of reality. At least, one searches in vain through the literary remains of antiquity– pagan, Jewish, or Christian– for any other document remotely comparable in tone or content to Gregory’s fourth sermon on the book of Ecclesiastes, which he preached during Lent in 379, and which comprises a long passage unequivocally and indignantly condemning slavery as an institution. That is to say, in this sermon Gregory does not simply treat slavery as an extravagance in which Christians ought not to indulge beyond the dictates of necessity, nor does he confine himself to denouncing the injustices and cruelties of which slaveholders are frequently guilty. These things one would naturally expect, since moral admonitions and exhortations to repentance are part of the standard Lenten repertoire of any competent homilist. Moreover, ever since 321, when Constantine had granted the churches the power of legally certifying manumissions (the power of manumissio in ecclesia), propertied Christians had often taken Easter as an occasion for emancipating slaves, and Gregory was no doubt hoping to encourage his parishioners to follow the custom. But if all he had wanted to do was recommend manumission as a spiritual hygiene or as a gesture of benevolence, he could have done so quite (and perhaps more) effectively by using a considerably more temperate tone than one actually finds in his sermon. For there he directs his anger not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners not for mistreating their slaves but for daring to imagine that they have the right to own other human beings in the first place.

One cannot overemphasize this distinction. On occasion, scholars who have attempted to make this sermon conform to their expectations of fourth century rhetoric have tried to read it as belonging to some standard type of penitential oration, perhaps rather more hyperbolic in some of its language but ultimately intended to do no more than impress the consciences of its hearers with the need for humility… [But] Gregory’s language in the sermon is simply too unambiguous to be read as anything other than what it is. He leaves no room for Christian slaveholders to console themselves with the thought that they, at any rate, are merciful masters, generous enough to liberate the occasional worthy servant but wise enough to know when they must continue to exercise stewardship over less responsible souls. He certainly could have done just this; he begins his diatribe (which is not too strong a word) with a brief exegetical excursus on a single, rather unexpectional verse, Eccesiastes 2:7 (“I got me male and female slaves, and had my home-born slaves as well”); a text that would seem to invite only a few bracing imprecations against luxuriance and sloth, and nothing more. As he warms to his theme, however, Gregory goes well beyond this…

I simply stand in awe of a historical moment like this. It’s easy, now, after it has become the moral custom for many generations, to be against slavery. We know that a world without slavery works. We know that many other enlightened people have been against it. I doubt whether many of us fully understand the reasons for it, and the explanations we might give if pressed are either rather dogmatic and inscrutable– slavery is unjust, people have a right to be free– or else unfair and factually false– slavery is cruel, to which it suffices to answer that many masters are not cruel; slavery is exploitative, to which it suffices to say that some masters probably did try to rule their slaves for their slaves’ own benefit. Perhaps we might fall back on the cynical and negative (though at least somewhat valid) answer that slavery gives masters too much power, that slaveholders can’t be trusted to wield it for slaves’ benefit. But if we can’t trust masters with that much power, why do we trust governments with even more power? And if we empower governments, despite the dangers involved, because society needs to be organized and governed somehow, and we need authoritative structures to maintain order, we might empower masters for the same reason. That argument isn’t convincing now, because we understand how the spontaneous order of the free market achieves efficient outcomes, though that begs some questions. (How are property rights defined and enforced? What about public goods and externalities?) But no one in Gregory of Nyssa’s day understood the logic of free-market general equilibrium, or the First Welfare Theorem of Economics. So how did Gregory of Nyssa see that slavery ought to be dispensed with? What arguments got him there?

For anyone at all, [Gregory] says, to presume mastery over another person is the grossest imaginable arrogance, a challenge to and a robbery of God, to whom alone all persons belong. Moreover, he continues, for one person to deprive another of the freedom granted to all human beings by God is to violate and indeed to overturn the law of God, which explicitly gives us no such power over one another. At what price, Gregory goes on to ask his congregation, could one ever be said to have purchased the image of God– which is what each person is– as God alone possesses resources equal to such a treasure? In fact, says Gregory, directly linking his argument to the approaching Easter feast, since God’s greatest gift to us is the perfect liberty vouchsafed us by Christ’s saving action in time, and since God’s gifts are entirely irrevocable, it lies not even in God’s power to enslave men and women. Anyway, he reasons, it it known that, when a slave is bought, so are all of his or her worldly possessions; but God has given dominion over all of creation to each and every person, and there is simply no sum sufficient for the purchase of so vast an estate. So, he tells his congregation, you may imagine that the exchange of coin and receipt of deed really endows you with superiority over another, but you are deceived: all of us are equal, prey to the same frailties, capable of the same joys, beneficiaries of the same redemption, and subject to the same judgment. We are therefore equal in every respect, but– says Gregory– “you have divided our nature between slavery and mastery, and have made it at once slave to itself and master over itself.” (my emphasis)

I would add that this somewhat communist-sounding idea that “God has given dominion over all of creation to each and every person” was also the starting-point for John Locke’s theory of property– he went on to say that since God gave it to us for use, we must have the right to appropriate it, hence “mixing one’s labor with” the free gifts of nature becomes the origin of private property– and therefore for his theory of social contract, which laid the theoretical groundwork for the liberal and democratic polities of Britain and the United States. What curious hidden pathways and connections there are in intellectual history! The principle that “God has given dominion over all of creation to each and every person,” if we dare to invoke such an audacious doctrine, also points very clearly to open borders.

Hart shares my amazement at Gregory’s boldness and vision, and struggles to explain it, but one thing at least is clear, that Christian theology is the impetus for Gregory’s miraculous moral insight:

Where does this language come from? We can try to identify certain of the immediate influences on Gregory’s thought. His sister Macrina, for example, was a theologian and contemplative of considerable accomplishment who had persuaded her (and Gregory’s and Basil’s mother) to live a common life of service, prayer, and devotion with her servants; and Gregory revered Macrina. But even his sister’s example cannot account for the sheer uncompromising vehemence of Gregory’s sermon, or for the logic that inform it– which, taken at face value, seems to press inexorably toward abolition. And there are other mysteries in Gregory’s language as well. What, for instance, does it mean to complain that slaveholders have divided our common nature as human beings by their deeds? To answer this question fully would require a long investigation of Gregory’s metaphysics (and he was, as it happens, a philosopher of considerable originality), but that is not necessary here. Suffice it to say that Gregory obviously cannot understand human nature as, for instance, Aristotle did: as merely an invariable, abstract set of properties, of which any given man or woman constitutes either a more excellent or a more degenerate expression. For Aristotle, it is precisely knowledge of what human nature is that allows us to judge that some human beings are deficient specimens of the kind and therefore suited only to serve as the “living tools” of other men (which is how he defines slaves in both the Nichomachean and the Eudemian Ethics). Human nature, understood in this sense, is simply the ideal index of the species, one which allows us to arrange our understanding of human existence into exact and obvious divisions of authority: the superiority of reason over appetite, of course, but also of city over nature, man over woman, Greek over barbarian, and master over slave. For Gregory, by contrast, the entire idea of human nature has been thoroughly infused with the light of Easter, “contaminated” by the Christian inversion of social order; our nature is, for him, first and foremost our community in the humanity of Christ, who by descending into the most abject of conditions, even dying the death of a criminal, only to be raised up as Lord of history, in the very glory of God, has become forever the face of the faceless, the persona by which each of us has been raised to the dignity of a “co-heir of the Kingdom.”


Of course, slavery wasn’t abolished instantly after Gregory’s speech. But Rodney Stark carries the story forward.

Even some Catholic writers parrot the claim that it was not until 1890 that the Roman Catholic Church repudiated slavery, and a British priest has charged that this did not occur until 1965. Nonsense! As early as the seventh century, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Clovis II) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all slaves; in 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. That the Church willingly baptized slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops– including William the Conqueror (1027-1087) and Saints Wulfstan (1009-1095) and Anselm (1033-1109)– forbade the enslavement of Christians. Since, except for small settlements of Jews, and the Vikings in the north, everyone was at least nominally a Christian, that effectively abolished slavery in medieval Europe, except at the southern and eastern interfaces with Islam where both sides enslaved one another’s prisoners. But even this was sometimes condemned: in the tenth century, bishops in Venice did public penance for past involvement in the Moorish slave trade and sought to prevent all Venetians from involvement in slavery. Then, in the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas deduced that slavery was a sin, and a series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537.

It is significant that in Aquinas’s day, slavery was a thing of the past or of distant lands. Consequently, he gave very little attention to the subject per se, paying more attention to serfdom, which he held to be repugnant. However, in his overall analysis of morality in human relationships, Aquinas placed slavery in opposition to natural law, deducing that all “rational creatures” are entitled to justice. Hence he found no natural basis for the enslavement of one person rather than another… Right reason, not coercion, is the moral basis of authority, for “one man is not by nature ordained to another as an end.” Here Aquinas distinguished two forms of “subjection” or authority, just and unjust. The former exists when leaders work for the advantage and benefit of their subjects. The unjust form of subjection “is that of slavery, in which the ruler manages the subject for his own [the ruler’s] advantage.” Based on the immense authority vested in Aquinas by the Church, the official view came to be that slavery is sinful. (Stark, For the Glory of God, pp. 329-330)

The disappearance of slavery in medieval Europe was commented upon by Adam Smith, along with puzzlement about what had caused it.

To the slave cultivators of ancient times, gradually succeeded a species of farmers known at present in France by the name of metayers [basically sharecroppers]… Land occupied by such tenants is properly cultivated at the expense of the proprietor, as much as that occupied by slaves. There is, however, one very essential difference between them. Such tenants [i.e., the metayers/sharecroppers], being freemen, are capable of acquiring property, and having a certain proportion of the produce of the land, they have a plain interest that the whole produce should be as great as possible… A slave, on the contrary, who can acquire nothing but his maintenance, consults his own ease by making the land produce as little as possible… It is probable that it was partly upon account of this advantage, and partly upon account of the encroachments which the sovereign, always jealous of the great lords, gradually encouraged their [the lords’] villains [i.e., enserfed peasants] to make upon their [the lords’] authority, and which seem at last to have been such as rendered this species of servitude altogether inconvenient, that tenure in villanage gradually wore out throughout the greater part of Europe. The time and manner, however, in which so important a revolution was brought about, is one of the most obscure points in modern history. The church of Rome claims great merit in it; and it is certain that so early as the twelfth century, Alexander III, published a bull for the general emancipation of slaves. It seems, however, to have been a rather pious exhortation, than a law to which exact obedience was required from the faithful. Slavery continued to take place almost universally for several centuries afterwards, till it was gradually abolished by the joint operation of the two interests above mentioned, that of the proprietor on the one hand, and that of the sovereign on the other. (The Wealth of Nations, Book III, Chapter II) (my emphasis)

This passage needs a bit of correction. First, it was not slavery, but serfdom, which persisted for centuries after the 11th century. Adam Smith knows the difference: “their [serfs’] slavery was of a milder kind than that known among the ancient Greeks and Romans… They were supposed to belong more directly to the land than to their masters. They could, therefore, be sold with it, but not separately. They could marry, provided it was with the consent of their master; and he could not afterwards dissolve the marriage by selling the man and wife to different persons… This species of slavery still subsists [at the time of writing, i.e., the late 18th century] in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of Germany. It is only in the western and south-western provinces of Europe, that it has gradually been abolished altogether.” But a better word for that institution is not “slavery” but “serfdom,” though in the 18th and 19th centuries Russian serfdom was exacerbated to the point where it approached being slavery. What I would stress here is merely that Adam Smith recognized the important mystery of the disappearance of slavery in Europe as “one of the most obscure points of modern history.”

Smith’s suggestion that the self-interest of proprietors should motivate the abolition of slavery is not very credible, except perhaps in the sense that if masters follow the New Testament advice to be servants to their servants, and to give up threatening them, then slaveholding is no longer worth it. People do need incentives to be productive, as Smith saw; but he didn’t adequately appreciate that whips as well as wages can serve as that incentive. Southern slavery remained highly profitable right down to the end. If proprietors gave up the whip in favor of the wage out of self-interest, it’s only in the sense that “self-interest” can include the satisfaction of one’s moral preferences, as well as one’s hopes of salvation.

What is striking here is, on the one hand, that in the bosom of the Church was first conceived, and by it was first promulgated, a vision of a slaveless world, but on the other hand, the great slowness with which that vision permeated and transformed society. It took three centuries after the Gospel was first preached for slavery to be unequivocally condemned by a prominent Christian teacher, and centuries more before this became the official position of the Church. It was a thousand years from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Aquinas. It was centuries more before serfdom disappeared in western Europe. One might suppose the Church was just following gradual secular social evolutions, but no: not only was it in advance of the age rather than lagging it, but no other impetus for the social evolution away from slavery is really on the scene.

Again, one might suppose that the Church wasn’t all that serious, that it was dealing in mere “pious exhortation.” But what else does the Church have? To be sure, the Catholic Church in the High Middle Ages had more coercive power than it has, or desires, today. But it never had large armies under its sovereign authority. For brief moments, such as the papacy of Innocent III,  it managed to become the leading political actor in Europe through astute diplomacy and the use of multiple channels of influence (e.g., Pope Innocent III authorized the new Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders). But it was never a match for the kings in military terms; it had, rather, moral and what we might call sacramental influence– it could excommunicate: is that “coercion?”– and sometimes a lot of financial power. It was never in a position to enact “a law to which exact obedience was required from the faithful.” Slavery could never have been abolished by papal fiat. It had to change hearts and minds. That’s a slow process. Today, open borders advocates face the same issue: the Catholic Church’s official position is as supportive of open borders, almost, as one could wish; yet the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion worldwide membership translates into very little practical support for freedom of migration. But why should this surprise us, when 54% of Catholics support gay marriage? With slavery, immigration restrictions, and gay marriage alike, the Catholic Church makes its views plain, but most of its nominal members, most of the time, don’t listen. Yet it has nonetheless, sometimes, moved the world in its direction in the long run. Late medieval Europe was almost free of slavery. And then disaster struck.

In 1441, a small Portuguese ship carrying twelve black slaves landed in Lisbon. Africans were a novelty, and their arrival was greeted with great interest, but with no disapproval because, although slavery had long since disappeared in most of Europe, it had not done so in some areas along the Mediterranean. Slavery continued in those parts of Spain and Italy under Moorish (Muslim) rule, and it continued in some Christian areas, especially in Spain, where chronic warfare existed between Christians and Muslims. Christians taken in battle with the Moors were enslaved. Christians reciprocated by enslaving Moorish captives. In Italy, too, contact between Christians and Muslims sustained slavery– merchants in Venice actually sold Europeans (mainly Slavs) to the Moors.

The first shipload of black slaves was soon followed by others, and as black slaves began to appear farther north in Europe, a debate erupted as to the morality and legality of slavery. A consensus quickly developed that slavery was both sinful and illegal– Jean Bodin, that mortal enemy of witches, thundered that slavery was “a thing most pernicious and dangerous,” and that having been cast off, it should not be revived. Bodin’s views were reasserted by Germain Fromageau, professor at the Sorbonne, who noted that “one can neither, in surety of conscience, buy nor sell Negroes, because in such commerce there is injustice.” The principle of “free soil” spread: that slaves who entered a free country were automatically free. That principle was firmly in place in France, Holland, and Belgium by the end of the seventeenth century. Nearly a century later, in 1761, the Portuguese enacted a similar law, and an English judge applied the principle to Britain in 1772… There were very few true slaves left in Western Europe by the end of the sixteenth century.

Meanwhile, Columbus had sailed to the New World. Suddenly, Portugal and Spain were involved in extensive efforts to control, exploit, and develop their interests in this enormous new region. Doing so required a labor force. Attempts to exploit the indigenous peoples were quite unsuccessful… It wasn’t long before European colonizers recognized that a suitable labor force, having substantial immunity to tropical diseases, could be purchased, cheaply, on the west coast of Africa… Given an almost inexhaustible demand for slaves in the New World, it is little wonder that slave ships crowded the Atlantic. From the beginning in about 1510, until the very end when Cuba abolished the slave trade in 1868, approximately 10 million African slaves reached the New York slave markets, meaning that at least 15 million… began the journey. (Stark, pp. 306-307)

What caused this moral and humanitarian catastrophe? Shouldn’t Europeans have known better by that time? Well, yes, and in a way, they did. That’s evident from the successful moral resistance to slavery that occurred in Europe itself. So why did they practice it in the New World? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t because the Church condoned it:

During the 1430s, the Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and began to enslave the native population. This was not serfdom but true slavery of the sort that Christians and Moors had long practiced upon one another in Spain. When word of these actions reached Pope Eugene IV (1431 to 1447), he issued a bull, Sicut dudum. The pope did not mince words. Under threat of excommunication he gave everyone involved fifteen days from receipt of the bull “to restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands… These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.” Pope Pius II (1458 to 1464) and Pope Sixtus IV (1471 to 1484) followed with additional bulls condemning enslavement of the Canary Islanders, which, obvious, had continued. What this episode displays is the weakness of papal authority at this time, not the indifference of the Church to the sin of slavery.

With the successful Spanish and Portuguese invasions of the New World, enslavement of the native peoples and the importation of Africans ensued, and some slavers offered the rationale that this was not in violation of Christian morality, as these were not “rational creatures” entitled to liberty but were a species of animals and therefore legitimately subject to human exploitation… [But] Rome repeatedly denounced New World slavery as grounds for excommunication…

Pope Paul III (1534 to 1549)… although a member of a Roman ecclesiastical family, and something of a libertine in his early years… turned out to be a very effective and pious pope who fully recognized the moral significance of Protestantism and initiated the Counter-Reformation. His magnificent bull against New World slavery (as well as similar bulls by other popes) was somehow “lost” from the historical record until very recently…

[The bull says: “Satan,] the enemy of the human race, who always opposes all good men so that the race may perish, has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving word of God from being preached to the nations. He has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians of the West and the South who have come to our notice in these times be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking in the Catholic faith. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals.

“Therefore, We… noting that the Indians themselves indeed are true men… by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples– even though they are outside the faith– … should not be deprived of their liberty or their other possessions… and are not to be reduced to slavery, and that whatever happens to the contrary is to be considered null and void.”

In a second bull on slavery, Paul imposed the penalty of excommunication on anyone, regardless of their “dignity, state, condition, or grade… who in any way may presume to reduce said Indians to slavery or despoil them of their goods.”

Stark goes on to explain how “the pope had little influence in Spain or Portugal,” and “next to none in their New World colonies, except indirectly through the work of the religious orders,” such as the Jesuits. It was illegal to read papal decrees in the Spanish colonial possessions without royal consent, and when “nevertheless, Urban VIII’s bull was read in public by the Jesuits in Rio de Janeiro… rioters attacked the local Jesuit college and injured a number of priests. In Santos a mob trampled the Jesuit vicar-general when he tried to publish the bull, and the Jesuits were expelled from Sao Paulo when word spread of their involvement in obtaining the bull.” Though the Catholic Church was powerless to stop New World slavery, it did mitigate it substantially through slave codes that, in various times and places, encouraged manumission, limited exploitation by giving slaves holy days off work and forbidding violence against slaves, and/or protected slaves’ marriage and family rights.

What I’m struck by here is how the state shielded slaveholders from the Church, and more generally, I suspect that the sudden and horrible re-emergence of slavery by early modern Europeans abroad is a function of the rise of the modern state. In general, as a very rough approximation, I think CHURCH–GOOD, STATE–BAD is the key to understanding history. This applies in Protestant lands as well, where a major effect of the Reformation was to empower the state: cuius regio, eius religio, as the despicable slogan of the emerging Westphalian world order ran. Thus, the British, whose kings had seized control of the church, were among the most diabolically exploitative slavers, at their worst in the 18th-century Caribbean. The British colonies in America were stained by slavery from the beginning. Protestantism and absolutism blocked the helping hand which the popes would have lent to millions of miserable captives, as well as to their masters, as they imperiled their own souls by their injustices. Yet among the Protestants, too, Christian conscience began to stir.

The American abolition movement began [in 1754] at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Quakers, prompted by [an] abolitionist tract… by John Woolman (1720-1772), a very pious young man whose moral concerns about slavery surfaced when he was asked by his employer to draw up a bill of sale for a female slave. He did so but experienced unrelieved guilt as a result. Woolman’s concerns about slavery grew critical when, while traveling through Virginia, he observed the misery of slaves. Upon his return, he wrote his first tract against the “sin of slavery.” However, rather than merely reflecting the opinion of its author, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was officially approved by the Meeting’s Overseers of the Press and circulated to everyone in attendance. Woolman’s pamphlet was a model of gentle Quaker persuasion. He began by quoting Matt. 25:40: “For as much as ye did it to the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me,” with the direct implication that to enslave a “Negro” was to enslave Christ. Although clearly aimed at slaveholding Quakers, it did not single them out but reminded all Quakers that “Negroes are our fellow creatures, and their present condition amongst us requires our serious consideration,” and that Friends are committed to justice, love, and the betterment of all humankind, not to self-interest. In his final paragraph he expressed his belief that while God has so far not intervened, he sees that “[Negroes] are trodden down and despised, yet he remembers them: he seeth their affliction,” and soon God is apt to “humble the most haughty people” who prefer “gain… to equity.” Subsequently, Woolman devoted his life to spreading the message of abolition, which he based exclusively on religious objections.

It is significant that Woolman had actually written his tract in 1746 but knew better than to bring it forward then because the Overseers of the Press included a majority of slave-owners. By 1754, membership had changed such that only a third of the Overseers were slaveholders. Moreover, the proportion of slave-owners among those sent as representatives to the Yearly Meeting had recently dropped from more than half to only 10 percent. Hence Woolman’s message did not confront invincible self-interest but gained considerable acceptance, and by the next year the Meeting agreed to publish a tract of its own, constituting a far more direct attack on slavery: An Epistle of Caution and Advice, Concerning the Buying and Keeping of Slaves.

Written by a committee, this statement began by asking whether it was consistent with the Golden Rule to deprive “our fellow creatures of that valuable blessing liberty,” or to “grow rich by their bondage.” It further proclaimed, “To live in ease and plenty by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power, is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice, and we have good reason to believe draws down the displeasure of Heaven… How can we be said to love our brethren and… for selfish ends keep them in bondage?”

Then, having pursued some similar lines of concern, the committee got to the clincher: “Finally, brethren, we entreat you in… Gospel love, seriously to weigh the cause of detaining them in bondage. If it be for your own private gain, or any motive other than their good, it is much to be feared that the love of God, and the influence of the Holy Spirit is not the prevailing principle in you.”

Imagine if this were routinely said today in sermons, or in parish bulletins, or in the confessional. “Brethren, we entreat you in Gospel love, seriously to weigh the cause of your deporting foreigners, or imprisoning them in countries where they are destined to be poor, or even in danger for their lives. If it be for your own private gain, for higher wages, or for the security of your worldly goods, or for any motive other than their good, it is much to be feared that the love of God, and the influence of the Holy Spirit is not the prevailing principle in you.”

The anti-slavery cause quickly spread to other denominations, e.g., a Puritan majority in Massachusetts outlawed the importation of slaves in 1771; but the Quakers set the change in motion. How? This is the crucial point:

A number of non-Quaker voices were also being raised against slavery at this same time… But… “voices” are not movements. The Quakers were not just a bunch of like-minded people who read and agreed with antislavery tracts. Their approach to abolition was potent because from the start they committed their well-organized and influential religious body to the cause. Their initial aim was to purge themselves of slave-ownership, and in this they were mainly successful. While some Quaker slave-owners abandoned their church rather than comply, most went along, including owners of some extremely large plantations. But just as the Friends hoped eventually to achieve the salvation of all humankind, so, too, did they aim to end slavery everywhere…

What about Open Borders: The Case? Are we “voices” or a “movement?” I think we’re just “voices.” We don’t have a “well-organized and influential… body” that we can “commit… to the cause,” and we never will, at least not in the way the Quakers did. I don’t think we’ll accomplish anything… unless Christian churches get behind us with all their strength. And I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. But in my lifetime, maybe. And that it will happen sometime, I can hardly doubt. I have written before about the Old Testament teachings on immigration, but the New Testament teachings, though not directly relevant, are in their way even more powerful. Consider again Matthew 25:40. “Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” Who are “the least of these?” Who but the desperate refugee from Syria, the Mexican migrant worker, the subsistence farmer in Malawi who, could he but move to some more fortunate place, might be able to feed his family properly, and teach his daughters to read? When we exclude them, we exclude Christ. When we deport them, we deport Christ. Again and again, Christians’ power to be blind to the moral implications of their faith beggars belief, and I am sure that I am no exception to that rule. But on immigration at least, I think I’ve thought hard enough to see clearly. And one day my fellow Christians must see it, too.

Stark carries the story forward:

Not to be outdone, many Christian groups and luminaries took up the cause of abolition, and soon abolitionist societies sprang up that were not associated with a specific denomination. But, through it all, the movement (as distinct from those it made sympathetic to the cause) was staff by devout Christian activists, the majority of them clergy. Indeed, the most prominent clergy of the nineteenth century took leading roles in the abolitionist movement, including the liberal Congregationalist Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), whose daughter wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the most potent evangelist of the era, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1885), who turned Oberlin College into a key station along the “underground railroad” conveying runaway slaves to Canada…

In 1833, leading abolitionists formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. Led by the fiery agitator and editor of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), the group adopted and published a ringing Declaration of Sentiments, filled with religious justifications. Noting that to hold a human being “in involuntary bondage” is “according to Scripture” stealing, the document proclaimed it a certainty that “the slaves ought instantly to be set free, and brought under the protection of law.” Furthermore, all current laws “admitting the right of slavery, are therefore, before God, utterly null and void… an audacious usurpation of the Divine prerogative” and “a presumptuous transgression of all the holy commandments”…

The American Anti-Slavery Society grew rapidly. Within two years there were 400 local chapters, and by 1838 there were more than 1,000… As abolitionist sentiment spread, it was primarily the churches (often local congregations), not secular clubs and organizations, that issued formal statements on behalf of ending slavery. The outspoken abolitionism expressed by Northern congregations and denominational gatherings caused major schisms within leading Protestant denominations, eventuating in their separation into Northern and Southern organizations… The American Roman Catholic Church faced no serious internal conflict over slavery because it had few Southern parishes, and, at least by the start of the nineteenth century, the clergy followed the pope in opposing slavery…

The larger point is that the abolitionists, whether popes or evangelists, spoke almost exclusively in the language of the Christian faith. And although many Southern clergy proposed theological defenses of slavery, pro-slavery rhetoric was overwhelmingly secular– references were made to “liberty” and “states’ rights,” not to “sin” or “salvation”…

I would note here that in debates about open borders with Christians, theological defense of immigration restrictions are rare and very easily defeasible. Like Southern apologists for slavery, restrictionist Christians usually rely on prudential and secular arguments. Almost, they say “yes, opening the borders would be a very Christian thing to do, but…”

It was from their American cousins that British Quakers gained enthusiasm for abolition, and they, too, provided the initial religious backbone of the antislavery movement… In 1783, the London Meeting for the Sufferings was established by British Quakers. Thus, as in America, the Quakers provided a solid organizational basis for British opposition to slavery: volunteers, meeting places, and money. These efforts were greatly amplified in 1787 with the formation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, in which other Protestant Nonconformists joined with the Quakers…

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), [Britain’s most potent abolitionist]… belonged to a very strict and influential evangelical group within the Church of England known as the Clapham Sect… Upon embracing the abolitionists, Wilberforce assumed responsibility for guiding antislavery efforts in the House of Commons, where he enjoyed a close relationship with Prime Minister William Pitt. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)… prepared to enter the clergy [then decided instead] to his life entirely to the cause of abolition… [He] assumed responsibility for mobilizing public opinion. To this end he built a network of local organizations and activists on the preexisting framework of Quaker congregations… The most visible fruit of this effort was a petition campaign, calling on Parliament to end the slave trade. During 1786-1787 Clarkson’s efforts produced petitions signed by at least sixty thousand English men…

These petitions gave Wilberforce powerful ammunition to use in Parliament, and during 1792 it looked as if legislation prohibiting the slave trade would pass the Commons. [The French Revolution intervened but] in 1807 a bill abolishing the slave trade throughout the British colonies was approved by overwhelming majorities in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Not content with being out of the slave trade themselves, the British used diplomacy and even bribery to cause other nations to sign treaties prohibiting the transportation of slaves from Africa to the New World. More than that, the British formed and financed a special naval squadron to patrol the African coast and enforce these treaties… [Abolitionists also pressed for abolition of slavery in British overseas colonies, and in return for] provisions in the Emancipation Act to compensate the planters by an enormous sum– equal to half the annual British budget… on August 1, 1934, slavery ceased in all British colonies. The direct cost to individual British citizens was substantial, both in terms of taxes to buy off the planters (and continuing support of naval operations against slave ships) and in a higher cost of living– the price of sugar did rise sharply, as had been predicted [by opponents of abolition]…

From the beginning to the end, Quakers had played a pivotal role in British abolition organizations, and nearly all of the other leading abolitionists were devout members of nonconformist religious groups– especially the Methodists and Baptists. (Stark, pp. 342-352)

An excellent biography, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, on which the excellent film “Amazing Grace” was based, makes clear how direct was the connection between Wilberforce’s conversion to Christianity and his lifelong devotion to ending the slave trade. After a frivolous youth among Britain’s selfish wealthy elite, Wilberforce was almost ready to abandon his precocious parliamentary career to dedicate his life to Christ– when he was approached by evangelicals who suggested that he could dedicate his life to Christ within Parliament. He proceeded to do so. Note that William Wilberforce also successfully pushed King George III to publish a Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, calling for the suppression of loose and licentious books; and he wrote a defense of the Christian faith. All this must be confusing for some libertarians; was William Wilberforce a hero of liberty, or a forerunner of the Moral Majority? He was both; and there is nothing strange or schizophrenic about that. It was all part of his Christian idealism. If Wilberforce were alive today, he would be campaigning for justice for immigrants, and picketing abortion clinics.

Does Christian idealism get all the credit for the abolition of slavery? What about “the Enlightenment?” Stark has the story:

It would please many contemporary scholars if the moral arguments for abolition had been a product of the “Enlightenment.” Indeed, Peter Gay went so far as to claim that to have been the case, albeit he chided the philosophes for having been a bit too vague on the subject. But even Gay’s careful selectivity cannot hide the fact that a virtual Who’s Who of “Enlightenment” figures fully accepted slavery. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) “openly accepted human bondage”– Locke invested in the Atlantic slave trade. Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote a nasty comment concerning Christians profiting from slavery, but he supported the slave trade and believed in the inferiority of Africans. Baron Montesquieu (1689-1755) took pains to dismiss religious reasons in favor of slavery, only to pronounce it as justified by natural law. Comte de Mirabeau (1748-1791) accepted slavery, and so did Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who dismissed abolitionists as religious fanatics and explained that “the cause of humanity would be far more benefited by the continuance of the [slave] trade and servitude… than by the total destruction of both or either.” David Hume (1711-1776) did not favor abolition, although his neighbor and close friend Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a vehement opponent of slavery… Indeed, some others associated with the “Enlightenment” also supported abolition, including Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), and of course, Condorcet (1749-1794). But most accepted slavery as a normal part of the human condition… Not only did the intellectuals of the “Enlightenment” fall far short of matching the extent and passion of abolitionist commitment spread through religious circles at the same time; even had they been unanimously in favor of emancipation, their public support would have counted for far less than that of the Christian abolitionists. The reason is simple: in the course of human events, “voices” count for far less than organizations [such as churches]. (Stark, pp. 359-360)

I would add to this that chronology couldn’t be more unfavorable to the thesis that the Enlightenment deserves credit for the abolition of slavery. If we put the Enlightenment’s dates at 1650-1789, the Enlightenment coincided rather exactly with the peak of the slave trade. Of the two revolutions that have tended to be regarded as the political fruits of the Enlightenment, the American and the French, the first was led by slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. As for the second:

In 1793 Commissioner Leger Felicite Sonthonax of [French colony] Saint Domingue, an appointee of the revolutionary government of France, declare the abolition of slavery in that colony. He did this in response to the successful slave rebellion that had raged since 1791, and the threats of invasion by the British and the Spanish. His hope was that emancipation would enable him to enlist the support of both ex-slaves and the rebels to help defend the colony. When word of this action reached France, the Jacobin-controlled National Convention not only supported it but abolished slavery in all French colonies. In taking this action members of the convention condemned slavery as a relic of the monarchy and inconsistent with their revolutionary values… [But] in 1802 Napoleon reinstituted slavery in the French colonies. (Stark, pp. 353-354)

I take this to be indicative of what a merely secular movement against slavery could accomplish. Note the silliness of the revolutionaries’ argument against slavery. It is obviously not the case that slavery was a “relic of the monarchy”: slavery was not practiced in France under the absolutist Bourbon kings; but it was practiced in the ancient republics of Athens and Rome to which the revolutionaries looked for inspiration; it had disappeared precisely during the medieval centuries which the revolutionaries most despised. French “revolutionary values” were too jejune, arbitrary, and opportunistic to be the basis for anything lasting. The “liberty” of the French revolution, if it ever deserved the name, swiftly gave way to terror, and then to military dictatorship; later the Russian revolution followed the same course, except that the dictatorship it led to was far worse. Such is the inevitable consequence of a wholesale overthrow of tradition. The French revolutionaries deserve a bit of credit for accepting and extending an abolitionist fait accompli, even if there was an element of realpolitik in the move. But after the high comes the hangover, and in the inevitable self-immolation of the revolution, even their worthy acts were lost.

But the Christian abolitionists had a tradition to build on. They were representatives of humanity’s oldest institution, as old at least as Pentecost. Guided by the light of Christ, they could be grateful for what was good in the legacy of the past, while discerning what was intolerable in it. They were no addicts of revolutionary chaos and carnage; they were good, upstanding citizens; yet they were determined, nonetheless, to change the world. And they did.

In the long run, Christian idealism is the only force I have much confidence in to change human society for the better. I think “the Enlightenment’s” record with respect to slavery is indicative of the type and effectiveness of support the open borders cause can expect from secular sources.

I hope secularist open borders advocates won’t mind the last claim. Naturally I’ll be glad to be proven wrong, by a successful opening of the world’s borders by a secularist-led movement. My candid judgment of the probability of that happening doesn’t reduce my admiration for those who try, and shouldn’t be an impediment to our cooperation.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

8 thoughts on “What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery”

  1. A fascinating article; I seldom put aside enough time to read articles as long as that, but this one was worth it. Thank you for writing it.

    To be fair to Paul, he did appear to recommend, in at least one case, that a Christian slave-owner release his Christian slave. See his letter to Philemon, particularly verses 15 and 16: “It may be that he was separated from you for an hour, for this reason, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave, but as something better — a dearly loved friend and follower of the Lord, especially dear to me, and how much more so to you, not only as a person, but as your fellow Christian!”

    Also, you ask whether excommunication is coercion. It depends. If you agree that the believable, conditional threat of violence is a way of coercing people to take (or refrain from) a particular course of action, and if someone believes that sacraments administered by a single institution are the only way of avoiding eternal violent torment, then yes, you might see the threat of exclusion from that institution as coercion. I’m no expert in Roman Catholic history, so this critique might be inaccurate, or exaggerated, or applicable only to some points in time, or even only to some parts of Roman Catholicism at some points in time.

    And regarding your comments about Church and state, I’m reminded of a passage from an interesting book I’m reading at the moment, The Pilgrim Church: “The conflict between the Pope and the King [Henry VIII] was that between Church and State on the one hand and State and Church on the other, between the Papist and the Erastian views.” The book’s main thesis is that, ever since the events recorded in the New Testament, there have always been, in at least one part of the world, Christian congregations that cooperate with each other, but which claim no authority over each other; but the book also covers a fair amount of the sad history of state-controlled Churches and Church-controlled states, at least in as much it affected the independent congregations.

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