The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Boston: Jewett, 1854


  BUT did Christianity abolish slavery as a matter of fact? We answer, it did.

  Let us look at these acknowledged facts. At the time of the coming of Christ, slavery extended over the whole civilised world. Captives in war were uniformly made slaves, and, as wars were of constant occurrence, the ranks of slavery were continually being reinforced; and, as slavery was hereditary and perpetual, there was every reason to suppose that the number would have gone on increasing indefinitely had not some influence operated to stop it. This is one fact.

  Let us now look at another. At the time of the Reformation, chattel-slavery had entirely ceased throughout all the civilised countries of the world; by no particular edict—by no special law of emancipation—but by the steady influence of some gradual, unseen power, this whole vast system had dissolved away, like the snow-banks of winter.

  These two facts being conceded, the inquiry arises, What caused this change? If, now, we find that the most powerful organisation in the civilised world at that time did pursue a system of measures which had a direct tendency to bring about such a result, we shall very naturally ascribe it to that organisation.

  The Spanish writer, Balmes, in his work entitled “Protestantism compared with Catholicity,” has one chapter devoted to the anti-slavery course of the Church, in which he sets forth the whole system of measures which the Church pursued in reference to this subject, and quotes, in their order, all the decrees of councils. The decrees themselves are given in an Appendix at length, in the original Latin. We cannot but sympathise deeply in the noble and generous spirit in which these chapters are written, and the enlarged and vigorous ideas which they give of the magnanimous and honourable nature of Christianity. They are evidently conceived by a large and noble soul, capable of understanding such views—a soul, grave, earnest, deeply religious, though evidently penetrated and imbued with the most profound conviction of the truth of his own peculiar faith.


  We shall give a short abstract from M. Balmes of the early course of the Church. In contemplating the course which the Church took in this period, certain things are to be borne in mind respecting the character of the times.

  The process was carried on during that stormy and convulsed period of society which succeeded the breaking up of the Roman empire. At this time all the customs of society were rude and barbarous. Though Christianity, as a system, had been nominally very extensively embraced, yet it had not, as in the case of its first converts, penetrated to the heart, and regenerated the whole nature. Force and violence was the order of the day, and the Christianity of the savage Northern tribes, who at this time became masters of Europe, was mingled with the barbarities of their ancient heathenism. To root the institution of slavery out of such a state of society required, of course, a very different process from what would be necessary under the enlightened organisation of modern times.

  No power but one of the peculiar kind which the Christian Church then possessed could have effected anything in this way. The Christian Church at this time, far from being in the outcast and outlawed state in which it existed in the time of the apostles, was now an organisation of great power, and of a kind of power peculiarly adapted to that rude and uncultured age. It laid hold of all those elements of fear, and mystery, and superstition, which are strongest in barbarous ages, as with barbarous individuals, and it visited the violations of its commands with penalties the more dreaded that they related to some awful future, dimly perceived and imperfectly comprehended.

  In dealing with slavery, the Church did not commence with a proclamation of universal emancipation, because, such was the barbarous and unsettled nature of the times, so fierce the grasp of violence, and so many the causes of discord, that she avoided adding to the confusion by infusing into it this element; nay, a certain council of the Church forbade, on pain of ecclesiastical censure, those who preached that slaves ought immediately to leave their masters.

  The course was commenced first by restricting the power of the master, and granting protection to the slave. The Council of Orleans, in 549, gave to a slave threatened with a broad leathern strap; he was punishment the privilege of taking sanctuary in a church, and forbade his master to withdraw him thence without taking a solemn oath that he would do him no harm; and if he violated the spirit of this oath, he was to be suspended from the Church and the sacraments—a doom which in those days was viewed with such


a degree of superstitious awe that the most barbarous would scarcely dare to incur it. The custom was afterwards introduced of requiring an oath on such occasions, not only that the slave should be free from corporeal infliction, but that he should not be punished by an extra imposition of labour, or by any badge of disgrace. When this was complained of, as being altogether too great a concession on the side of the slave, the utmost that could be extorted from the Church, by way of retraction, was this—that in cases of very heinous offence the master should not be required to make the two latter promises.

  There was a certain punishment among the Goths which was more dreaded than death. It was the shaving of the hair. This was considered as inflicting a lasting disgrace. If a Goth once had his hair shaved, it was all over with him. The fifteenth canon of the Council of Merida, in 666, forbade ecclesiastics to inflict this punishment upon their slaves, as also all other kind of violence; and ordained that, if a slave committed an offence, he should not be subject to private vengeance, but be delivered up to the secular tribunal, and that the bishops should use their power only to procure a moderation of the sentence. This was substituting public justice for personal vengeance—a most important step. The Church further enacted, by two councils, that the master who, of his own authority, should take the life of his slave, should be cut off for two years from the communion of the Church—a condition, in the view of those times, implying the most awful spiritual risk, separating the man in the eye of society from all that was sacred, and teaching him to regard himself, and others to regard him, as a being loaded with the weight of a most tremendous sin.

  Besides the protection given to life and limb, the Church threw her shield over the family condition of the slave. By old Roman law, the slave could not contract a legal, inviolable marriage. The Church of that age availed itself of the Catholic idea of the sacramental nature of marriage to conflict with this heathenish doctrine. Pope Adrian I. said, “According to the words of the Apostle, as in Jesus Christ we ought not to deprive either slaves or freemen of the sacraments of the Church, so it is not allowed in any way to prevent the marriage of slaves; and if their marriages have been contracted in spite of the opposition and repugnance of their masters, nevertheless they ought not to be dissolved.” St. Thomas was of the same opinion, for he openly maintains that, with respect to contracting marriage, “slaves are not obliged to obey their masters.”

  It can easily be seen what an effect was produced when the


personal safety and family ties of the slaves were thus proclaimed sacred by an authority which no man living dared dispute. It elevated the slave in the eyes of his master, and awoke hope and self-respect in his own bosom, and powerfully tended to fit him for the reception of that liberty to which the Church by many avenues was constantly seeking to conduct him.

  Another means which the Church used to procure emancipation was a jealous care of the freedom of those already free.

  Everyone knows how in our Southern States the boundaries of slavery are continually increasing, for want of some power there to perform the same kind office. The liberated slave, travelling without his papers, is continually in danger of being taken up, thrown into jail, and sold to pay his jail-fees. He has no bishop to help him out of his troubles. In no church can he take sanctuary. Hundreds and thousands of helpless men and women are every year engulfed in slavery in this manner.

  The Church, at this time, took all enfranchised slaves under her particular protection. The act of enfranchisement was made a religious service, and was solemnly performed in the Church; and then the Church received the newly-made freeman to her protecting arms, and guarded his newly-acquired rights by her spiritual power. The first Council of Orange, held in 441, ordained in its seventh canon that the Church should check by ecclesiastical censures whoever desired to reduce to any kind of servitude slaves who had been emancipated within the inclosure of the Church. A century later, the same prohibition was repeated in the seventh canon of the fifth Council of Orleans, held in 549. The protection given by the Church to freed slaves was so manifest and known to all that the custom was introduced of especially recommending them to her, either in lifetime or by will. The Council of Agde, in Languedoc, passed a resolution commanding the Church, in all cases of necessity, to undertake the defence of those to whom their masters had, in a lawful way, given liberty.

  Another anti-slavery measure which the Church pursued with distinguished zeal had the same end in view, that is, the prevention of the increase of slavery. It was the ransoming of captives. As at that time it was customary for captives in war to be made slaves of, unless ransomed, and as, owing to the unsettled state of society, wars were frequent, slavery might have been indefinitely prolonged, had not the Church made the greatest efforts in this way. The ransoming of slaves in those days held the same place in the affections of pious and devoted


members of the Church that the enterprise of converting the heathen now does. Many of the most eminent Christians, in their excess of zeal, even sold themselves into captivity that they might redeem distressed families. Chateaubriand describes a Christian priest in France who voluntarily devoted himself to slavery for the ransom of a Christian soldier, and thus restored a husband to his desolate wife, and a father to three unfortunate children. Such were the deeds which secured to men in those days the honour of saintship. Such was the history of St. Zachary, whose story drew tears from many eyes, and excited many hearts to imitate so sublime a charity. In this they did but imitate the spirit of the early Christians; for the apostolic Clement says, “We know how many among ourselves have given up themselves unto bonds, that thereby they might free others from them.” (1st Letter to the Corinthians, sect. 55; or chap. xxi., verse 20.) One of the most distinguished of the Frankish bishops was St. Eloy. He was originally a goldsmith of remarkable skill in his art, and by his integrity and trustworthiness won the particular esteem and confidence of King Clotaire I., and stood high in his court. Of him Neander speaks as follows:—“The cause of the gospel was to him the dearest interest, to which everything else was made subservient. While working at his art, he always had a Bible open before him. The abundant income of his labours he devoted to religious objects and deeds of charity. Whenever he heard of captives, who in these days were often dragged off in troops as slaves that were to be sold at auction, he hastened to the spot and paid down their price.” Alas for our slave-coffles! there are no such bishops now! “Sometimes, by his means, a hundred at once, men and women, thus obtained their liberty. He then left it to their choice, either to return home, or to remain with him as free Christian brethren, or to become monks. In the first case, he gave them money for their journey; in the last, which pleased him most, he took pains to procure them a handsome reception into some monastery.”

  So great was the zeal of the Church for the ransom of unhappy captives that even the ornaments and sacred vessels of the Church were sold for their ransom. By the fifth canon of the Council of Macon, held in 585, it appears that the priests devoted Church property to this purpose. The Council of Rheims, held in 625, orders the punishment of suspension on the bishop who shall destroy the sacred vessels FOR ANY OTHER MOTIVE THAN THE RANSOM OF CAPTIVES; and in the twelfth canon of the Council of Verneuil, held in 844, we find that the


property of the Church was still used for this benevolent purpose.

  When the Church had thus redeemed the captive, she still continued him under her special protection, giving him letters of recommendation which should render his liberty safe in the eyes of all men. The Council of Lyons, held in 583, enacts that bishops shall state, in the letters of recommendation which they give to redeemed slaves, the date and price of their ransom. The zeal for this work was so ardent that some of the clergy even went so far as to induce captives to run away. A council called that of St. Patrick, held in Ireland, condemns this practice, and says that the clergyman who desires to ransom captives must do so with his own money; for to induce them to run away was to expose the clergy to be considered as robbers, which was a dishonour to the Church. The disinterestedness of the Church in this work appears from the fact that, when she had employed her funds for the ransom of captives, she never exacted from them any recompense, even when they had it in their power to discharge the debt. In the letters of St. Gregory, he re-assures some persons who had been freed by the Church, and who feared that they should be called upon to refund the money which had been expended on them. The Pope orders that no one, at any time, shall venture to disturb them or their heirs, because the sacred canons allow the employment of the goods of the Church for the ransom of captives. (L. 7, Ep. 14.) Still further to guard against the increase of the number of slaves, the Council of Lyons, in 566, excommunicated those who unjustly retained free persons in slavery.

  If there were any such laws in the Southern States, and all were excommunicated who are doing this, there would be quite a sensation, as some recent discoveries show.

  In 625, the Council of Rheims decreed excommunication to all those who pursue free persons in order to reduce them to slavery. The twenty-seventh canon of the Council of London, held 1102, forbade the barbarous custom of trading in men, like animals; and the seventh canon of the Council of Coblentz, held 922, declares that he who takes away a Christian to sell him is guilty of homicide. A French council, held in Verneuil in 616, established the law that all persons who had been sold into slavery on account of poverty or debt should receive back their liberty by the restoration of the price which had been paid. It will readily be seen that this opened a wide field for restoration to liberty in an age where so great a Christian zeal had been awakened for the redeeming of slaves, since it afforded opportunity for


Christians to interest themselves in raising the necessary ransom. At this time the Jews occupied a very peculiar place among the nations. The spirit of trade and commerce was almost entirely confined to them, and the great proportion of the wealth was in their hands, and, of course, many slaves. The regulations which the Church passed relative to the slaves of Jews tended still further to strengthen the principles of liberty. They forbade Jews to compel Christian slaves to do things contrary to the religion of Christ. They allowed Christian slaves, who took refuge in the church, to be ransomed, by paying their masters the proper price.

  This produced abundant results in favour of liberty, inasmuch as they gave Christian slaves the opportunity of flying to churches, and there imploring the charity of their brethren. They also enacted that a Jew who should pervert a Christian slave should be condemned to lose all his slaves. This was a new sanction to the slave's conscience, and a new opening for liberty. After that, they proceeded to forbid Jews to have Christian slaves, and it was allowed to ransom those in their possession for twelve sous. As the Jews were among the greatest traders of the time, the forbidding them to keep slaves was a very decided step towards general emancipation.

  Another means of lessening the ranks of slavery was a decree passed in a council at Rome, in 595, presided over by Pope Gregory the Great. This decree offered liberty to all who desired to embrace the monastic life. This decree, it is said, led to great scandal, as slaves fled from the houses of their masters in great numbers, and took refuge in monasteries.

  The Church also ordained that any slave who felt a calling to enter the ministry, and appeared qualified therefore, should be allowed to pursue his vocation; and enjoined it upon his master to liberate him, since the Church could not permit her minister to wear the yoke of slavery. It is to be presumed that the phenomenon, on page 347, of a preacher with both toes cut off and branded on the breast, advertised as a runaway in the public papers, was not one which could have occurred consistently with the Christianity of that period.

  Under the influence of all these regulations, it is not surprising that there are documents cited by M. Balmes which go to show the following things. First, that the number of slaves thus liberated was very great, as there was universal complaint upon this head. Second, that the bishops were complained of as being always in favour of the slaves, as carrying their protection to very great lengths, labouring in all ways to realise the


doctrine of man's equality; and it is affirmed in the documents that complaint is made that there is hardly a bishop who cannot be charged with reprehensible compliances in favour of slaves, and that slaves were aware of this spirit of protection, and were ready to throw off their chains, and cast themselves into the Church.

  It is not necessary longer to extend this history. It is as perfectly plain whither such a course tends, as it is whither the course pursued by the American clergy at the South tends. We are not surprised that under such a course, on the one hand, the number of slaves decreased, till there were none in modern Europe. We are not surprised by such a course, on the other hand, that they have increased until there are three millions in America.

  Alas for the poor slave! What Church befriends him? In what house of prayer can he take sanctuary? What holy men stand forward to rebuke the wicked law that denies him legal marriage? What pious bishops visit slave-coffles to redeem men, women, and children, to liberty? What holy exhortations in churches to buy the freedom of wretched captives? When have church velvets been sold, and communion-cups melted down, to liberate the slave? Where are the pastors, inflamed with the love of Jesus, who have sold themselves into slavery to restore separated families? Where are those honourable complaints of the world that the Church is always on the side of the oppressed?—that the slaves feel the beatings of her generous heart, and long to throw themselves into her arms? Love of brethren, holy charities, love of Jesus—where are ye? Are ye fled for ever?