In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Church and Slavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Slavery in Christian Europe
  • Native American Slavery and the Church
  • Abolition and Emancipation

Atlantic History Church and Slavery
Katharine Gerbner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0361


For most of the past two millennia, Christian churches have not only accepted slavery, but have also participated in the slave trade and owned human property. The ethics of Christian slaveholding, however, have changed significantly. While Christians owned other Christians without controversy during the late ancient period, Christian churches began to forbid that practice over time. By the early modern period, it was considered taboo for Christians to own other Christians, although the practice sometimes continued illegally. While some individual Christians, including ministers and members of the clergy, questioned the legitimacy of slavery during the early modern period, it was not until the 18th century that a small minority of Christian churches began to assert an abolitionist stance. Even then, it was deeply contested. For the majority of the early modern period, most Christian churches—both Catholic and Protestant—supported slavery and benefited from the institution. Even the Quakers (Society of Friends), who were leaders in the abolitionist movement, took a century to disown enslavers from their congregations. In the United States, many Christian denominations split on the issue of slavery in the 19th century, and Christian ministers and missionaries developed robust defenses of slavery based on Christian scripture and proslavery theology. Enslaved and free Black Christians were the most ardent abolitionists, and they drew on scripture to support antislavery and abolition. While a significant amount of scholarship has debated whether Christian churches were pro- or anti-slavery, some of the most exciting research about the church and slavery has focused on why enslaved people became Christian and how they used the bureaucracy of the church to advocate for their rights and to protect their communities. Much of this scholarship has emerged from a Latin American context, where archival records are more robust, but there are also important studies focusing on Black churches in the North America, especially the role of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and other African American–led churches. Within this area, scholars debate the meaning of conversion as well as the relationship between African religions and Black Christianity. Recent scholarship has emphasized that Africans and their descendants were not passive recipients of Christianity. Rather, many enslaved men and women actively sought out baptism and used church institutions not only as a place of worship, but also as a way to protect themselves and their families. Another significant area of research has examined the relationship between the church, slavery, and race. Scholars have demonstrated how European Christians drew on categories of religious difference as they developed new racial categories. They have shown how categories like “Whiteness” and “purity of blood” were transformed within the context of slavery, as enslavers sought to reconcile slaveholding with Christian practice.

General Overviews

As Christian nations began to build empires across the Atlantic, the pope condoned the enslavement of Africans as long as certain conditions were met. A century later, Protestant nations followed Catholic lead in creating colonial slave societies in the Americas, although they developed different laws and practices related to slavery and Christianity. Blackburn 1997 provides an overview of the shifting relationship between slavery and Christian churches in European empires, while Davis 1966 is a classic study of slavery from Antiquity to the early modern period. Over the past decades, scholars have sought to understand the history of the church and slavery from the perspectives of non-Europeans, especially Africans and Native Americans. Sanneh 2006 and Gray 2012 examine the history of Christianity in Africa, focusing on the role of African Christians. Johnson 2015 is a wide-ranging study of the relationship between African American religions (including Christianity), slavery, and colonialism, while Frey and Wood 1998 is an important survey of African American Protestantism in the British Atlantic world. Gin Lum and Harvey 2018 contains several essays relevant to the study of religion, race, and slavery. Reséndez 2016 explores the under-examined history of Native American enslavement.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London and New York: Verso, 1997.

    Blackburn examines the Old World foundations for American slavery. While not the focus of his study, Christian churches play a central role in creating a precedent and a legal justification for slavery in the New World.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

    The first in David Brion Davis’s classic trilogy about slavery and abolition. Davis examines the ancient history of slavery and traces the relationship between slavery and the church in Europe and the Atlantic world.

  • Frey, Sylvia, and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

    An important survey of Afro-Protestantism in British America and the early United States. Early chapters cover the history of Catholicism in Africa and the persistence of African religious traditions under slavery in the Americas. Later chapters cover Protestant missionary efforts, and the expansion of Afro-Protestantism after the Great Awakening.

  • Gin Lum, Kathryn, and Paul Harvey, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    An excellent edited volume with over thirty essays, covering race and religion from the colonial period until the 2020s. Several essays are relevant for discussions of the church and slavery.

  • Gray, Richard. Christianity, the Papacy, and Mission in Africa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2012.

    A posthumously published set of essays. Gray’s overarching argument is that African Christians played a central role in initiating papal interest and involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. Several essays touch on the history of slavery and the slave trade.

  • Johnson, Sylvester. African American Religions, 1500–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139027038

    While not focusing exclusively on the church or Christianity, Johnson’s synthesis of five hundred years of African American religions is an indispensable study that traces the relationship between Black religion, slavery, racism, and colonialism within a transatlantic frame.

  • Lampe, Armando, ed. Christianity in the Caribbean: Essays on Church History. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001.

    A helpful overview of the relationship between the church and slavery in the Caribbean, with essays on Catholic and Protestant churches in different imperial and national settings.

  • Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

    The history of Native American enslavement has long been under-examined, largely because indigenous slavery was illegal for most of colonial American history. This study does not focus on the church explicitly, but the relationship between Catholicism and Indian slavery is an important theme.

  • Sanneh, Lamin. “Christianity in Africa.” In The Cambridge History of Christianity. Edited by Stewart Brown and Timothy Tackett, 411–432. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Sanneh’s survey traces the changing role of Christianity—both Catholic and Protestant—in West and East Africa, focusing on the role of Christian missions and the impact of slavery and colonialism.

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