Drawing upon the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, this series by Scholar in Residence, Peter Johnston, documents the constructive contributions Christ and Christians have made to economic, political, and social liberty throughout the centuries.
God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed their only sure basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that those liberties are the gift of God. -Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson also penned the words of our Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.”
And in an initial draft of the Declaration, he laid blame at the feet of the British king for the introduction and maintenance of slavery in the American colonies. And yet Jefferson himself owned slaves and never freed them.
In spite of his apparent double-standard, his words did ultimately contribute to the abolition of slavery in the United States.
The topic today, as you may have guessed it, is the contribution of The Gift of Bethlehem to liberty for the oppressed, specifically slaves. Is there evidence that Christianity has made a difference culturally with regard to slavery.
Admittedly, there are a number of sides to this issue, but allow me to provide a little historical backdrop.
Slavery has been rampant throughout the history of mankind. In On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at America’s Founding, Michael Novak asserts, “Until modern times, and still today in large sectors of the globe, broad-scale slavery has been so frequent a condition of human beings as to have often been mistaken as natural.” He continues, “The struggle for freedom and equality has been relatively rare; suffering passivity is common. One enterprising journalist pointed out in 1776 that of the 750 million persons alive on earth at that time, barely 39 million were living as free men.”
Reflecting on Western civilization as a whole, in Why You Think the Way You Do, Glenn Sunshine, professor of history, applauds some of the successes of the Roman Empire in advancing western civilization but explains that its “economy and engineering feats were products of slave labor.” He goes on to explain there are a number of misunderstandings regarding the issues of slavery and Christianity. He maintains, “Christians were the first people in history to oppose slavery systematically. Early Christians purchased slaves in the markets simply to let them go free.”
Another page was turned in the longstanding history of world-wide slavery with the introduction of imported slaves to the New World. As referenced above, it included the time period of the founding of our nation.
Across the Atlantic, about the same time in the 1780s, England began to experience challenges to its massive slave trade and acceptance of slavery throughout its empire. The driving force? A young man who entered Parliament in 1780. Following his “Great Change” or conversion to Christ in 1785 he began a life-long attack on slavery. In 1787 he introduced his first bill to abolish slavery. In February of 1791 he receives a letter from John Wesley:
Unless the Divine Power has raised you up to be an Athanasius contra mundum I see not how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils but if God is with you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it. . . . That he who has guided you from your youth up, may continue to strengthen you in this and in all things, is the prayer of Dear Sir, your affectionate servant, John Wesley.
Wilberforce did experience resistance. Some say that if he had not fought slavery he could have become prime minister.
Biblical worldview was the driving force behind Wilberforce throughout his efforts. Reflecting the Judeo-Christian perspective on all of mankind having been made in the image of God, strategy to win over the British population included the use of a medallion including a slave and the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?”
In 1807, twenty years after he introduced his first bill against slavery, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British empire. With the Gift of Bethlehem alive inside him and energizing his drive, Wilberforce kept pushing and ultimately in 1833 shortly before his death, he learned of the emancipation of slaves themselves! Another milestone in Western liberty.