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Joseph Mccabe Religious Controversy Chapter 19

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The Story Of Religious Controversy

Chapter XIX

by Joseph McCabe

Christianity and Slavery


Paganism and Slavery

ABOUT the year 100 A.D. two remarkable lectures on slavery were delivered in Rome. The central part of Rome was a very broad open space, the Forum, crowded with statues and works of art, lined with beautiful marble temples and public halls. In these halls lectures were delivered, just as they are in New York and Chicago today; and, as the Romans knew and practiced shorthand as well as we do, many of the lectures have been preserved for us.

The orator to whom I now refer was the eloquent Greek Stoic, Dion Chrysostom, or “Dion of the Golden Mouth.” He was no demagogue. At times you would see him driving about Rome with the great emperor, Trajan, of whom he was an intimate friend. He was the idol of the thoughtful section of the Roman nobility. And for the two days — the subject was too large for one day — Dion had announced as his subject “Slavery”: a delicate topic, one would imagine, if pagan Rome were quite the slave-driving city it is commonly supposed to have been, unless the aristocratic orator intended to justify the institution for his aristocratic audience, every member of which owned many slaves.

But Dion, as we read in the extant lectures, denounced slavery as unjust. About the same time there was in Rome a very democratic poet named Juvenal who was putting in fiery verse, or satire, certain statements about the brutality of the Roman aristocrats to their slaves. Every religious writer in the world knows those “Satires” of Juvenal; although every classical authority in the world will warn you not to take their statements seriously. But no religious writer in the world seems ever to have heard of Dion Chyrsostom and his denunciation of slavery.

It is quite formal, explicit and lengthy. It fills two lectures. Here is an express and honorable condemnation of slavery, by a well-known friend of the emperor, in the most public and effective circumstances, at a time when the Christians were a mere handful of obscure folk, mumbling a Greek liturgy and debating whether the end of the world was not at hand.

It is the reverse of the truth to say that Christianity abolished slavery and gave the world education; and I say this knowing well that H.G. Wells has endorsed the Christian claim. No one admires Wells’ ability and service to this generation more than I do, but here he made, or borrowed, a statement which he had never examined. The undisputed historical facts are that:


  1. The Greek and Roman moralists perceived the injustice of slavery, often denounced it, and rendered great services to the slave.


  2. No Christian leader denounced slavery until the ninth century, when the age of slavery was over.


  3. In the Christian Middle Ages the workers were far worse off, because nearly everyone was a serf, and serfdom was slavery under another name.


  4. The betterment of the condition of the workers has been won quite independently of religion and to an enormous extent in spite of the churches.


Let me underline a truth which is a simple historical fact. There have in history been two great periods of benevolence and social services: one was under the pagan Stoics and the other is under modern paganism. The Christian Era lies between these two paganisms, and it has as poor a record of social service as one can imagine. By the first century the Stoics openly condemned slavery. Other Greek moralists besides the Stoics condemned it. Plutarch condemned it. Epicurus had come near to condemning it three centuries earlier when he had defined the slave as “a friend in an inferior condition”; and the Epicurean Hegesias had maintained that slaves were the equals of free men. Florentinus and Ulpian, the two famous Stoic jurists, declared that the enslavement of a man was against the law of nature, the supreme standard of the Stoic. Seneca insisted that the slaves were our “lowly friends,” and he pleaded repeatedly and nobly for them. Pliny shows us in his letters that by the second century the slaves were very humanely treated even on provincial estates. Juvenal fiercely attacked inhumanity to slaves.

Yet I presume that all that any religious reader is likely to know about Roman slavery is that the rich patricians had large armies of slaves on their estates and treated them like cattle. He is never told that this refers to the early period of Roman expansion, and that before the end of the first century the slaves were protected by law.

He has probably heard how Cato made some callous remark about his slaves; and he is not told that the pagan writer who has preserved it for us gives it expressly as an instance of “a mean and ungenerous spirit.”


The Gospel and the Slave

There can be no doubt that, if the Roman Empire had continued and developed normally, slavery would have been abolished. Abolition would, as every American knows, have been a colossal task. It would have been far more terrible in Rome than in the southern States, because the entire empire rested to a great extent upon slave-labor. The immense privileges even of the Roman working men were based upon the labor of slaves in the provinces.

Yet public feeling was profoundly affected by the Stoic principle, and the “manumission” of slaves — the grant or sale of freedom to them — was a daily occurrence. Even before Christ this liberation proceeded on so large a scale that the Emperor Augustus checked it for a time, on political grounds. The Stoics urged it and facilitated it, and the final term of the movement was certain.

Rome, however, fell upon evil days just at the time when the humanitarian gospel was accepted. The manhood of Italy, then of the provinces, was almost exhausted in war. The empire was so vast, its frontiers so far-flung, that the military burden was terrible; and frontier-wars naturally increased as the military forces weakened. The third century was one of great poverty and confusion. In the fourth century there was a recovery, but the empire was bleeding to death, and new formidable forces were advancing upon it.

Early in the fifth century it fell. The great slave-owners, the imperial estates and the wealthy Romans, were ruined. The whole economic system was shattered. The old slaves were not “freed”: they found themselves free. No one “broke their fetters.” They had no fetters. But the barbarians slew or sent into exile the owners, destroyed the connection of the provinces with Rome, and wrecked the administration of the estates. The slaves dispersed and there were now no Roman troops to prevent them.

Thus we can write the history of ancient slavery without any reference to Christianity. If it were not for this religious controversy which perverts the facts of history, the Christian religion would hardly be noticed in any complete and impartial study of Roman slavery. All that would be noted would be that some of the Christian emperors of the fourth century issued edicts about the condition of slaves; though they are much less important than the great measures of the pagan emperors. It would then be recorded that the new Christian masters of Europe, petty princes, bishops, abbots, and land-owners, continued to use slave-labor. But it was comparatively easy to deal with this new kind of slavery, and Christendom, tardily recognizing a little of the Stoic ethic, turned it into serfdom: which would have horrified the Stoics.

How, then, has this persistent belief that Christianity broke the fetters of the slave originated and been maintained? Naturally, in the same way as the belief that the Church emancipated woman. It is a quite modern belief. Until recent times nobody cared two pins about the social services of religion. Its business was to save souls. When men could no longer be prevented from attaching importance to social interests, however, the cry arose that religion was just the thing to serve us. The history of the past was caricatured. Already everybody believed that the era before Christ was dark and impotent, and the Christian Era brought a wonderful transformation. Part of this transformation, it was now said, was the uplifting of woman, the emancipation of the slave, the opening of schools, the purification of morals, the beginning of charity, and so on. Neither preachers nor their hearers read the facts of ancient history.

What is there in the Bible that even tends to discourage or condemn slavery? Not a word from cover to cover. Apologists manage to find a word or two which they can twist into a desperate defense of woman, but there is not a single phrase, of Jehovah or Jesus or Paul, that they can, with all their ingenuity, represent as a condemnation of slavery or war, the two most colossal evils of the ancient world.

As I have said, one of the ablest of the apologists actually turns this silence of the Bible into a piece of high diplomacy. Jesus did not want to cause the economic ruin of the empire, so he did not condemn slavery! How religious readers permit such stuff to be presented to them one cannot imagine.

Throughout the Bible slavery is as cheerfully and leniently assumed as are war, poverty, and royalty. In the English Bible there is frequent mention, especially in the parables, of “servants.” The Greek word is generally “slaves.” Jesus talks about them as coolly as we talk about our housemaids or nurses. Naturally, he would say that we must love them: we must love all men (unless they reject our ideas). But there is not a syllable of condemnation of the institution of slavery. Fornication is a shuddering thing; but the slavery of fifty or sixty million human beings is not a matter for strong language. Paul approves the institution of slavery in just the same way. — He is, in fact, worse than Jesus. He saw slaves all over the Greco-Roman world and he never said a word of protest.

As to the customary quibble, that these reforms were “implied” in the teaching of Jesus, it reminds me of Disraeli’s famous joke. Asked his religion, he (being a Rationalist, yet a politician) said that he held “the religion of every sensible man.” And to the question what that was, he replied that no sensible man ever tells. It reminds me also of the great achievement of Pope Leo XIII, who at last (in the eighteenth century of Papal power) found the courage to declare that the worker was entitled to “a living wage.” But when the clergy found that working men of the nineteenth century were not so easily duped by phrases, and wanted to know what was a living wage, the Pope refused to answer the questions privately submitted to him.

Here is another historical truth to underline: For eight hundred years no Christian leader condemned slavery. And here is one for the Roman Catholic: No Pope ever condemned slavery. In Rome the Pope saw more slavery than in any other city in the world. The life of Rome was based upon the labor of millions of slaves in the provinces. All the dreadful things quoted about pagan slavery are from Roman writers. And no Pope ever uttered a syllable of condemnation of slavery.

Negative statements are a little dangerous. I borrowed this statement, that no Christian writer condemned slavery until the ninth century, from Ingram’s “Slavery and Serfdom,” which is the best authority on the subject. Then I waited for the reply. It came in a shabby booklet or pamphlet from the Christian Evidence Society; and it reminded me of the Irishman’s complaint about his sandwich, that there was “so much mustard for so little mate.” In quite a fury of righteous indignation the clerical writer exposed my “lies” to the contempt of the Christian world. He had found — or he confessed that some industrious theologian had found for him — one Christian condemnation of slavery in those eight hundred years!

Now, I did not profess to have read every page of every Christian work for eight centuries. I know the Migne collection of this literature as well as anybody, and have spent, in all, many weary months over it. But it was fair to assume that theologians would long ago have quoted Christian condemnations of slavery, if there were any; and none had appeared. The great search now yielded a sort of condemnation of slavery in a work ascribed to Gregory of Nyssa, one of the least influential of the Fathers. How I would have treasured that solitary gem; but, alas, it was spurious. The authorship of the work is disputed, and the author, whoever he is, does not so much condemn slavery as an unjust institution, but attacks all holding of property, including slaves.

The true and typical attitude of the churchman is seen in Pope “St. Gregory the Great.” Possibly some Catholic may be surprised at my effrontery in quoting Gregory. Did he not say in one of his letters that all men are “born free,” that slaves are only such by “the law of nations,” and that it is proper to free slaves? Oh, yes. I know the letter well: much better than the Catholic writers (and even Ingram, who, being a Positivist, favors the Church when he can) who quote it. The Pope is writing to two of his slaves. He is giving them their freedom. But this is the little suppressed fact — they have inherited money, and Gregory secures the money for the Church!

Pope Gregory, my Catholic friend, was the greatest slave-owner in the world in the sixth century. Announcing that the end of the world was to come in 600 A.D., he kindly allowed land-owners and slave-owners to hand over their property to the Church — God would not damn the Church for its wealth — and enter monasteries. The Papacy soon had an income from land, of about two million dollars a year; a stupendous sum in those impoverished days. Enormous numbers of slaves tilled the eighteen hundred square miles of the Church’s property. Gregory freed them occasionally: when they got money. He never condemned slavery. He would not allow any slave to become a cleric, and he expressly reaffirmed (Epp. vii, 1) that no slave could marry a free Christian.


The Churches and the Workers

Back of all these quibbles and squabbles about Jesus and Paul, Gregory of Nyssa and Wulstan, William Wilberforce and Lloyd Garrison, is a poignant and immense human tragedy. It is the larger part of the tragedy of human history which Winwood Reade called the “Martyrdom of Man.” It was bad enough in pagan days but humanity, in Europe, was then young and had to learn wisdom. It was worse a thousand years later, when nine-tenths of Europe were serfs. It was still terrible at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In one of my most recent books, “A Century of Stupendous Progress,” I have shown that the workers of England, a hundred years ago worked on the average at least fourteen hours a day, six days a week, for an average wage of certainly less than three dollars a week; that most of the children of England over the age of six (and many under it), of both sexes, worked twelve or thirteen hours a day, six days a week, for about two cents a day; that the conditions of workshop and home were vile beyond description, that holidays were only two days a year besides Sundays, that food was dear and of the poorest description, and that manners were correspondingly brutal and morals rare. I proved this from contemporary documents, and no one doubts it. The British worker was then, it is true, in a slightly worse position than the American worker, but he was better off than any other worker in the world.

I invite the reader to get that point clearly. In the year 1826 nine-tenths of the men of Europe, and a very high proportion of the women, worked ninety hours a week, in filthy conditions, under brutal masters, for a little over two and a half dollars a week. They lived mainly on bread, potatoes and water. Meat, milk, sugar, tea and fruit they rarely tasted. Not five in a hundred of them could read or write. Their amusements were of the coarsest description. Their sex morals were atrocious. Yet they were no worse off than in previous centuries of the Christian Era. Professor Rogers’ “Six Centuries of Work and Wages” shows that for England, and Brissot’s “Histoire du Travail” shows it for Europe generally. And at that time Christianity had dominated Europe for more than a thousand years.

There is the full irony of the Christian claim. It emancipated the slaves, you say. It did not; but in any case it created the new slavery of serfdom and later the martyrdom of the black race. It emancipated the serfs, you protest. It did not; but it witnessed the evolution of the serfs into these “free” workers of a century ago, brutalized by excessive labor, shut out from all knowledge, deprived of the least voice in the control of their own affairs. It is a mockery to talk about the social service of Christianity, to remind us how it taught the brotherhood of man.

But we have to complete our study by finding who did help the workers of the world to reach a higher level.

In the first place, the Reformation did nothing for them. There had already begun a movement in the life of Europe a movement quite distinct from Christianity and hostile to it — which was the first flush of a new dawn, upon the Dark Ages. The Moors of Spain had given Christendom an object lesson in civilization: the Humanists of the Renaissance conjured up before it the long-buried civilizations of Greece and Rome.

But the Reformation, necessary and important as it was, was a reaction both in culture and social idealism.

Luther and his colleagues primarily sought to concentrate the attention of men on the Bible and on their immortal souls. You are proud of it? Very good; but you cannot have your bread buttered on both sides. The more a man cares for our immortal souls, the less he cares about our mortal bodies.

At first Luther showed a human concern about the exploitation of the mass of the people. A German noble had said contemptuously of the German peasants — then the great majority of the nation: “They will never rise unless you cut a slice off their buttocks” — to put it as politely as possible. They rose, however, and they claimed Luther’s sympathy. After some hesitation he harshly condemned the insurrection. He discovered that the Bible ordered them to be “subject to all higher authorities.” In July, 1624, he wrote to the nobles of Saxony: “They must be crushed, strangled, and spitted, wherever it is possible, because a mad dog has to be killed.” He defended serfdom, saying that to abolish it would be “against the gospels and robbery.” In later years he wrote: “All their blood is on my head, but I leave it to the Lord God, who bade me speak thus.” Melanchthon was no better. He said: “The Germans are always such ill-bred, perverse, blood-thirsty folk that they must be kept down more stringently than ever.” Eccardus, in his “Geschichte des niederen Volkes,” is quite candid about the kind of “brotherhood” which the great Reformers learned from their profound study of the Gospels.

If any change is claimed by any historian of labor, it is that during the three centuries after the Reformation the condition of the workers grew steadily worse. Let not the Catholic rejoice, however. It was just the same in Catholic and Protestant lands, as Brissot shows in his “Histoire du Travail.” There were economic causes of this which we cannot discuss here. As to religion, we have only to say that bishops and priests continued their absolute and universal indifference to the martyrdom of the mass of the race. Strong language? Name, if you can, who acted otherwise.

The first attempt at reforms was made by the French Revolution. This at once conjures up visions of bloodshed and orgies in the minds of religious readers, who read about it only in religious works, hear about it in sermons, and see it on the screen. The horrors were mainly due to the later revolutionaries, and the first half of the French Revolution was a sober and beneficent movement led almost entirely by Rationalists. The way had been prepared for its best work by the great Rationalists, or Encyclopedists, of the eighteenth century. Voltaire had been concerned mainly with superstition, though he has a fine record of humanitarian service, but the later and more radical unbelievers, just before the Revolution, were strong humanitarians; and they were all what we now call Agnostics or Materialists. The early leaders of the Revolution — Mirabeau, Talleyrand, Sieyis, Lafayette, Desmoulins, Mounier, Danton, Petion and Barnave — merely developed their ideas; and all these men in turn were either Deists or Agnostics. A Christian like the Abbi Gregoire was a very rare bird amongst the revolutionaries; and he was angrily disowned by the Church.

Again let me ask the religious reader to look at this broad and uncontroverted situation frankly. The millions of workers of France were in a lamentable plight. Twenty million people lived on the land, owned only two-fifths of it, and bore an intolerable burden of taxes for Church and State. Two hundred thousand priests, monks, and nuns owned a fifth of the land, and paid no taxes. Yet all these exponents of the Gospel had for ages ignored the condition of the people and the gross injustice of their rulers, and only a few of the common clergy, sons of the people themselves, joined in the sound part of the Revolution. It was a handful of skeptics, of Atheists and Materialists and Voltaireans, who gave the world the creed of the Rights of Man. Remember this the next time you hear an eloquent sermon on the horrible possibilities of Materialism. Remember, too, that the Stoics, the only previous body of idealists who had moved the world, were Materialists.

The work of the Revolution was murdered. Church and Royalty combined to put their white hands round the neck of humanity. America, fortunately, had won independence of Europe, and the reaction did not spread to the United States. But the White Terror, ironically calling itself “the Holy Alliance,” spread over the whole of Europe. The workers sank back into the dark and sullen attitude from which the clarion call of the Revolution had momentarily raised them. Not a priest or minister of the Gospel in the world pleaded for them. Remember that also when next you are invited to compare the fruits of Christianity and Materialism.

In the recent work of mine to which I have referred, “A Century of Stupendous Progress,” I have proved that the world has made more progress in the last hundred years economically, socially, morally and intellectually — than in the previous fourteen hundred years of Christian power. One of the most distinguished living British economists, Sir Josiah Stamp, says that the British worker of today is four times as well off as the worker of a century ago. I have proved that this is true, in every respect; and it is true of civilization generally. Who did it?

If we were to argue in the manner of religious writers, the answer would be prompt and simple. Skepticism, of course. The new force in the world was Rationalism. Christianity had been tried for fourteen centuries and had failed dismally. The only thing that I can imagine any sincere and informed person saying for it is that it saved the souls of a large number of men. He could not even say that it improved the morals of Europe. Well, we have much doubt today even about the saving of souls, but assuredly it did not save bodies. Then Rationalism appeared, and — the world leaped onward and made far more progress in a century than it had done in fourteen centuries.

But we do not follow the clerical standard of argumentation. We must analyze patiently. And it becomes at once apparent that science did most of the work. I should scarcely have the patience to discuss here the opinion of any man who claimed that the Church gave the world science, so we will leave it that the extraordinary increase of wealth and comfort was due to secular science. We have, however, to inquire how it was that the workers and the small middle class secured so much from this new wealth, as I have shown in my book. Science has nothing to say to the distribution of wealth.

Next, education was the great redeeming force. Education was won for the mass of the people mainly by Rationalism, in spite of the Churches.

In short, the real question from our present point of view is: In what proportion were the social idealists who got these new forces applied to the uplifting of the workers Christians, and in what proportion were they non-Christian or anti-Christian? And please remember the perspective of the question. At the end of the eighteenth century perhaps five percent of the world was Rationalist and ninety-five percent religious. In the hard period from 1820 to 1840, when the work entailed heavy sacrifices, perhaps ten percent of Europe was Rationalist and ninety percent Christian. From 1840 to 1880, still a desperate period for idealists, the Christians were at least in a majority of seventy or eighty percent. In our time they are, taking one advanced country with another, in a minority of thirty to forty percent.

And the historical facts show that of those social idealists with whom I am here concerned — not mere philanthropists like Howard or Elizabeth Fry, or workers in very narrow field like Shaftesbury, but men and women who fought for the betterment of the workers as a mass — the overwhelming majority were Rationalists at a time when Rationalists were only five or ten percent of the whole community; that the great majority were still Rationalists in the second half of the nineteenth century; and that it is only in recent times, when reform movements were successful and the Churches were losing members very heavily, that we have discovered such a thing as social idealism and “social experts” in the Christian bodies,

For England, in the first period, the men and women of most influence were Paine, Byron, Shelley, Priestley, Horne, Tooke, Erasmus, Darwin, Godwin, Hardy, Holcroft, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Hardy’s opinion about religion is not recorded. Priestley was a Unitarian: which was not then regarded as Christian. Not one of the others was a Christian.

The reaction against the French Revolution hardened the Churches in their attitude toward reform. The bishops of the English Church opposed all reform. Lord Brougham, noticing that they avoided supporting even a temperance bill, said fierily that “only two out of six-and-twenty Right Reverend Prelates will sacrifice their dinner and their regard for their belly — to attend and vote.” Lord Shaftesbury angrily described the clergy — and he was a bigoted Christian — as “timid, time-serving, and great worshipers of wealth and power.” “I can,” he said, “scarcely remember an instance in which a clergyman has been found to maintain the cause of laborers in the face of pew-holders.” I take the quotation from “The Bishops as Legislators,” by Joseph Clayton, a devout member of the Church of England; and his book is a scorching indictment of his Church. He praises Shaftesbury at least; but Shaftesbury opposed every reform movement except his own, in favor of children, and he was so hated by the workers of London that he had to barricade his house against them. In short, one Wesleyan clergyman, Stephens, and late in the nineteenth century one Anglican clergyman, Kingsley, worked for reform; and their Churches persecuted them. That is the record for more than half a century.

I have in my “Church and the People” given the full evidence for my statements. When reform was arduous, very few Christian laymen figured in it. They and their clergy swarmed into it when it became successful, and the workers were deserting the churches in millions. All over Europe — there was not the same battle to fight in the United States — the great fighters were anti-Christian in the overwhelming majority. As to the Papacy, which now says flattering things to the workers of America, the kind of thing a young man says to a young lady who has inherited a fortune, it has the blackest record of any section of Christendom. It murdered, as long as the world would allow it, those who fought for the rights of man. So had Christianity done from the first. The present-day claims of its apologists are like a row of haggard women whom you place, unpainted and unpowdered, under the blaze of our modern arc lamps.


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