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The Bishop of Salisbury falied to mention that popes were condemning slavery long before Wilberforce

The Bishop of Salisbury is wrong to say that until William Wilberforce’s abolition campaign, Christians saw slavery as Biblical

By on Thursday, 30 May 2013

Bishop of Salisbury Photo: PA

Bishop of Salisbury Photo: PA

The Anglican Bishop of Salisbury has written a letter in the Daily Telegraph about gay marriage, which can be read here if you feel you really want to. Embedded in the letter the Bishop has this to say:

“For example, before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of Creation.”

Interesting, eh? Wilberforce, one assumes he means William Wilberforce, was born in 1759 and died in 1833. So, for seventeen centuries all was darkness until Wilberforce came along and put us all right on the matter.

This will come as major news to Pope Pius II who condemned slavery as a great crime and who died in 1464. The same is true of Popes Paul III, Urban VIII, and Benedict XIV, all of whom long predated the English reformer, not to mention the founders and members of the Mercedarian and Trinitarian Orders, which were dedicated to the redemption of slaves. In fact the history of Christian anti-slavery is a long one, as this useful article makes clear.

Perhaps we should not expect the Bishop of Salisbury to know much about any of the people above; after all, they were all Roman Catholics and foreigners, and thus, one assumes, beneath his notice. But when someone makes such an ignorant remark, whoever he may be, it is worth protesting, simply because if such ignorant remarks go unchallenged, then they may well pass into the mainstream and poison the minds of future generations.

Slavery is a great evil, but it is simplistic, misleading and dangerous to see it as something that flourished because of the Bible or because Christians approved it.

  • Ghengis

    What part of Anglicanism being founded on property theft and royal corruption do we not understand? when things start badly they end badly. The Anglican church is a fiction of the government and serves to make shallow and superficial the tenets of Christianity, putting status and politeness above tradition and truth. Abolish the Anglican sham altogether and stop this dishonest relativism where they’re ok, we’re ok and there is no right and wrong.

  • Marie Elena

    I am delighted that a Roman Catholic priest has got all his facts right and dismayed by the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury’s letter to the Daily Telegraph regarding Gay Marriage. Gay marriage will never be marriage in the moral sense. To quote from Mark’s Gospel Ch 10; 6-9… from the beginning of Creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body. They are no longer two therefore but one body. So then what God has united man must not divide. We just can’t compare Slavery with the Institution of Marriage.

  • Michael Petek

    I am fully certain that William Wilberforce would concur with me that this so-called Christian is not only a heretic on the definition of marriage, he is also a shameless adulterer, as he is “married” to a divorced woman. He spits in the face of Christ and has the temerity to draw a Bishop’s salary.

  • teigitur

    One cannot really expect a lot from Anglican “Bishops”. He does not disappoint.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    Father, I have not read the documents but I suspect that Pius II was referring solely to the enslavement of Christians only and not to the enslavement of non-Christians. And more than century after Pius II, slavery was a theme in the life of St Martin de Porres, though he was not actually a slave himself. But the Bishop ought to know that were plenty of people who objected to slavery before Wilberforce.. I wonder how he establishes which of the Ten Commandments can be dropped at the bidding of current fashions and which are eternally binding.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    And while you are on about it, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales can restore us our Holy Days. Today is Corpus Christi, celebrated magnificently in the streets of Rome. In the Anglo-Saxon world, according to my electronic breviary, it is just “Thursday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time.” Was it for this that the English martyrs died and the Faithful continue to struggle?

  • Marco Luxe

    Oh, puleeze. Any more historical revisionism is impossible. With all the power of the popes, in what place were they effective in their belief in manumission? Nowhere of consequence. These popes of the past had actual legal dominion over vast areas, yet with all this real power and influence, they accomplished nothing of substance regarding slavery. It was determined abolitionists at every level, Christian and not, who lead the vast enterprise of convincing those in power to act.

    And your article doesn’t say what you think it does.
    “It is true that some popes did not observe the moral obligation to
    oppose slavery—indeed, in 1488 Pope Innocent VIII accepted a gift of a
    hundred Moorish slaves from King Ferdinand of Aragon, giving some of
    them to his favorite cardinals.”

    That’s some flexible Catholic doctrine!!!

  • Marco Luxe

    Which commandments are in peril? None. How about the summary of the law spoken by Jesus: Love thy neighbor as thyself. How does the Bishop’s opinion fail to uphold that one? It doesn’t. It upholds the summary of all the law, unlike the Pharisaical false legalisms of the commenters here who conflate the rejection by Jesus of easy divorce at the expense of powerless women [a man shall leave his family] with treating those “neighbors” with dignity.

  • Kevin

    I may be wrong but I am inclined to think that what the author of this statement knows of the history of slavery is somewhere between squat and diddly. (Unless he can demonstrate otherwise.)

    A quick look at Wikipedia under the topic of abolitionism, for example, reveals the following sentence:
    “The Spanish government enacted the first European law abolishing colonial slavery in 1542, although this law was not widely enforced.”

    Unless it is made up, this fact alone blows apart the “Before Wilberforce” soundbite.

    The letter writer concludes as follows:
    “there is a greater variety of views within the Church of England than can be expressed in the formal statements of the Church or House of Bishops”.

    How does a man who accepts that no generalisation can be made about the views of contemporary members of a single Protestant denomination presume to know the minds of generations of different peoples who died centuries before he was born and spoke a multiplicity of languages?

  • maxmarley

    Perhaps this chap should show as much concern for the slavery of sin as he does for the other variety

  • An atheist

    truly, we do not need Richard Dawkins when we have Bishops like this.

  • Julian Lord

    I have not read the documents but I suspect that

    Thank you for admitting that these personal opinions of yours are utterly unsubstantiated, then.

    In reality, slavery has been condemned in the West since Antiquity, the first places to abolish it being some Greek City States, and there is NOTHING laudatory of it in Scripture, not even in the Old Terstament (written mostly between 2500 and 3000 years ago), and the NT expects us to have ZERO difference in attitude towards those who are free and those who find themselves in servitude. Furthermore, several Catholic countries abolished slavery throughout the Middle Ages, during which period Catholics viewed it as being more and more unacceptable.

    That was until the English heretics and Protestants came along, all but destroyed the Catholic Faith in Britain, and then proceeded to run off to Africa and start subjecting the natives of that place to the worst EVER form of institutionalised slavery that the World has ever seen.

  • Julian Lord

    “The Spanish government enacted the first European law abolishing
    colonial slavery in 1542, although this law was not widely enforced.”

    Unless it is made up

    It’s inaccurate — though the information in Wikipedia is itself incomplete, even they know that the Doge of Venice abolished the slave trade in 960 — and that the first Englishman to do the same at a national level was Anselm, the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1102.

    Slavery was abolished in France in 1315 (though it was later re-established, then re-abolished, then re-established by the anti-Catholic Napoleon Bonaparte, etc)

    The first recorded partial European abolition of slavery was in Athens, 6th century BC ; and in pre-Christian Judaism, the Essenes are recorded to have completely abolished slavery during Antiquity too.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    @Marco Luxe Sexual relations outside marriage are certainly forbidden in the Ten Commandments and in the teachings of Our Lord, St. Paul, and many Early Christian fathers are quite explicit about this. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ is not a prescription for what the Bishop of Salisbury is advocating. He is jettisoning traditional Christian teaching and two thousand years of Christian history. Perhaps you might read Newman on the development of doctrine.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    @ Jabba. Dear Jabba,

    Need we be quite so fierce? Courtesy is surely a virtue. I have never heard of Greek city states abolishing slavery. You could look at Moses Finley on ancient slavery to see how Classical civilisation depended on it at all periods. Chattel slavery waned during the Middle Ages but agricultural slavery in England continued at least till Elizabeth I when manumission documents for serfs/villeins were still being issues. The slavery potential (or lack of it) of native tribes is often mentioned by European explorers in the age of discovery, And a quick glance at Wikipedia will show you that in the 15th and 16th centuries Popes repeatedly gave permission to the Spanish and Portuguese to enslave non-Christians. But yes, the Christian tradition is undoubtedly one of the main factors in the marginalisation and disappearance of slavery over many centuries— the instant return of slavery in the first major anti-Christian regimes within the Christian world (Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia) seems to confirm this.

  • Julian Lord

    I have never heard of Greek city states abolishing slavery

    Solon abolished it in Athens, in the 6th century BC

    — My point wasn’t that slavery was being abolished right, left, and centre in the Ancient world, but rather that opposition to slavery in the West, as well as among the Jews and the Christians, has existed for Millennia, and sometimes been implemented as public policy.

    Though clearly, the extreme paucity of documentary evidence prior to about 10th century of local practices will make it hard to substantiate opinions either way.

    agricultural slavery in England continued at least till Elizabeth I when manumission documents for serfs/villeins were still being issues

    The artificial characterisation of this sort of serfdom as “slavery” is an invention of Marxist anti-religion and anti-monarchist propaganda.

    the 15th and 16th centuries Popes

    … are probably the most politically corrupt that we have ever seen.

  • kentgeordie

    Lots of Anglicans are very nice and good people but institutionally they are a dead loss. Can anybody explain to me why at the highest levels they are shown such regard, such as during BXVI’s visit to the UK?

    While I’m all in favour of friendliness, the only topic of conversation should be, What are you doing about a return to unity?

  • Julian Lord

    Hear, hear !!!

  • Nathan Oxley

    You got him on Wilberforce – fair enough, and worth pointing out. As far as I can see though, Bishop Holtam’s main point is that Christians have changed their minds on how they interpret scripture in the past, and could do so again. Putting the two examples he chooses aside, do you disagree with that?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    No one can possibly disagree that Scripture is to be interpreted and that this interpretation develops. That is what we call the living tradition, no?

  • kentgeordie

    Point of order: as all my A Level Classical Civilisation students know, what Solon abolished was people selling themselves into slavery to pay their debts. The good democratic citizens of Athens would never have managed without plenty to slaves to do the graft.


    Surely all the Pope has to say is that if any Anglican does not convert to Catholicism they will burn in hell….

  • Julian Lord

    Such a statement would be contrary to the doctrine that some individuals outside the Church, and in a state of invincible ignorance or other such impediments and obstacles to Full Communion, may be given salvation despite their imperfect state in life.

  • $24570317

    Your articles are always good and interesting.
    However your above two sentences are among your very best.
    Perhaps commentators on this website could keep them in mind.

  • Julian Lord

    So, no agenda there, and no twisting of Fr Lucie-Smith’s words to suit your own heterodox purposes, eh ?

  • Alban

    The topic of this article is about slavery and Wilberforce. It was Wilberforce who raised the injustice of slavery and got something done about it.

  • Randal Oulton

    Point of order here: Pope Pius II did NOT issue a blanket condemnation of slavery. “Pius did not condemn the concept of trading in slaves, ONLY the
    enslavement of the recently baptised, who represented a very small
    minority of those captured and taken to Portugal.” (The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440–1870″, Hugh Thomas, p. 72, Picador, 1997)

  • LondonVicar

    The See of Salisbury is now vacant.
    That is the only conclusion from someone who is so widely propagating such error.
    I do hope that all Catholic clergy refuse to have fellowship with him.
    One cannot have any fellowship with darkness.
    He needs to repent of his false teaching.
    Only then can fellowship be restored.

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    Even in the first millenium Christians were condemning slavery. For instance, in the letter of Pliny on Christians, he notices Christian deaconnesses who were slaves, which shows that Christians didn’t care about social class. Gregory of Nyssa also condemned slavery, as did Theodore the Studdite.