Thursday, May 25, 2006

Church Schisms over Slavery

Throughout the history of slavery, one constant was the impact of religion, in particular Christianity, on the institution of human bondage. Europe’s advance into the new world brought colonialism, slavery, and imperialism under the guise of Christianity, which according to Sipe Mzimela, is nothing more than variations of European cultures, specifically German (Lutheranism), English (Anglicanism & Methodism), Scot’s (Presbyterianism) and the French, Belgium and Portugal (Catholicism).1 European or western religions operated differently from other religions such as Islam, with respect to slavery. One difference between the involvement of Christians and Muslims in African slavery was that Islam mandated that people read the Koran compared to European missionaries that felt teaching Africans to read was problematic. Christian missionaries preached all men were equal under eyes of God but yet ridiculed Africans (forcing them through the use of guns) to accept slavery as explained by the Christian concept of suffering and their failure in racial terms.

From the earliest days of the trade, churches and religious views regarding the capture and enslavement of Africans and other non-white people were dominant. The decree of Pope Alexander VI in 1493, that all most all of the Americas were to be ruled by Spain basically established that it was alright for Europeans to use non-whites in the name of God. During one point in time, the enslavement of human beings was such a way of life for much of the new world that religious institutions wedged a vested interest in converting non-Europeans to Christianity. Bartolome de Las Casas, a Christian notable in history, came to the conclusion that African slaves were needed in Hispaniola after he had killed many of the indigenous people by working them to death.

Missionaries taught Africans that it was the will and desire of God for them to suffer oppression, discrimination, and exploitation. The scope of the evangelic effort was evident by the number of missions remaining on the continent after colonialism. In the Congo, there were 669 Catholic missions alone.2 History is replete with accounts of missionaries from various denominations and country actively implementing national policy objectives under the guise of religion. At one point in time, the Portuguese, built a fortress on the island Arguin, off the cost of Mauritania, to hold slaves that were taken from the mainland (1440) purportedly as part of an effort to gain Christian converts.3 In 1663, Frenchman representing the Lazarist missionary tried to convert one of the Antanosy rulers of Madagascar to Christianity. This eventually resulted in the loss of Fort Dauphin and the death of the missionary. But the policy was continued when in 1664 when the French government encouraged mixed marriages, only to the extent as the wife was baptized and accepted the Christian faith.4

In many ways, the church through its clergy, and as an institution supported and encouraged the very onset of the European slave trade, as well as attitudes about Africa and Africans as being heathens without knowledge of a supreme being and/or a Christian understanding.5 Slavery involved absolute obedience and submission which both the clergy and slave masters tried to instill.6 Some even claimed to be possessed by the Holy Ghost, as was the case with Swiss Father Vernaud. Others like Juan Gines de Sepulveda suggested that some people were inferior and needed protection of slavery under the direction of gentle Christians.7 This position was based on the dialectics of Aristotle. This matched Puritans views of Africans as vehicles to be controlled if they accepted the Christian way.

The religious cloak on slavery in the Colonies was no less overwhelming. Given that many expeditions were set forth by the Dutch, Portuguese, France, and England, it is not unexpected that collectively whites became associated with other philosophical perspectives. Some have advanced that in colonial America, the terms Christian, European, free, and white were synonoymous.8 Laws in many cases supported his and continued to justify slavery since many were based on biblical laws of the Old and New Testament. Puritan slave codes in New England were modifications of old testament version of slavery. In the colonies, acts such as the statute passed in Maryland in 1639, stated all rights of its Christians with the exception of slaves and Virginia, which in 1640 denied Africans the rights to bear arms.9 In 1667, the Virginia House of Burgesses said that “baptism” did not remove the condition of slavery. There was heavy Quaker involvement in the slave trade. William Penn owned slaves which were transported to the United States on a Quaker ship called Society.10 The Puritans were also intimately involved in the institution of slavery for profit. The Puritans’ west Caribbean activities could best be represented with New Providence Island, which was well known for the pirating of illegal cargo in the form of slaves. In Peruana, it is noted that in Corboda , a thousand slaves were sold from two haciendas owned by religious institutions and that the Covent of St. Theresa owned a ranch with more than 30 slaves.11

Some may have expected for the church, as a bastion of religious humility, would speak out against the violence of perpetuating human bondage and degradation. The fact is that they did not because the labor of African slaves resulted in commercial, industrial and financial wealth in which many religions collected proceeds from. This is not to say that over the centuries, churches did not actively speak out against the institution. In the beginning, Pius II, Paul III, Urban VIII, among others condemned the practices between 1462 to 1639.12 Eventually, many religious institutions saw and could no longer ignore how brutal and inhumane slavery was. Many of these institutions began to stand along side the slave in support of abolition and anti-slavery. However, it was a little too late, since many had already become wealthy from the trade and still had the blood of those considered savage and inferior on their hands. European religions on the behalf of missionaries and religious leaders, facilitated Europe’s occupation of Africa. This is a factual occurrence whether it was the Dutch Reform Church of South Africa which overtly sanctioned apartheid or the Catholic enterprises at Goree.

24 comments:

Brownsoul said...

I remember this being a hot topic in my Afr. Am. studies class.

Christianity has been used as a background for plenty of shady things (particularly in the U.S.)...KKK, bans on same sex marriage, and so on and so forth. Christians are generally viewed as extremely intolerant which I think is against what Christ represented, but anyway...

I do think it's interesting how religion, particularly Christianity has been used to control. And it seems that when this happens, the principles of Christ are often misinterpreted, misquoted, and/or generally abused.

I also find the comfort that many slaves found in Christianity to be interesting. Despite them being taught that God is pleased with them being good slaves, they believed (I think) that their Moses would come....I guess she did.

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