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The Catholic Church Played Major Role in Slavery

In 2016, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. offered a public apology after acknowledging that 188 years prior, Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to save the school from financial ruin.



The universal church taught that slavery enjoyed the sanction of Scripture and natural law. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) has launched a global news feature series on the history, contemporary realities and implications of the transatlantic slave trade.
(Read the entire series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11)

By Stacy M. Brown,NNPA Newswire Contributor

“When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” — Jomo Kenyatta, First President of Kenya, Africa

Washington, D.C.- September 4, 2018 – The Catholic Church played a vital role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, according to historians and several published thesiis on the topic.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was introduced by the coming of the Europeans who came with the Bible in the same manner that Arab raiders and traders from the Middle East and North Africa introduced Islam through the Trans-Saharan slave trade, according to AfricaW.com, a premiere informational website available throughout the continent.

“In fact, the Church was the backbone of the slave trade,” the authors wrote. “In other words, most of the slave traders and slave ship captains were very ‘good’ Christians.”

For example, Sir John Hawkins, the first slave-ship captain to bring African slaves to the Americas, was a religious man who insisted that his crew “serve God daily” and “love one another.”  His ship, ironically called “The Good Ship Jesus,” left the shores of his native England for Africa in October 1562. Some historians argue that if churches had used their power, the Atlantic slave trade might have never occurred.

By the same logic, others argue that the Catholic church and Catholic missionaries could have also helped to prevent the colonization and brutality of colonialism in Africa.  However, according to a 2015 Global Black History report, the Catholic church did not oppose the institution of slavery until the practice had already become infamous in most parts of the world.

In most cases, the churches and church leaders did not condemn slavery until the 17th century.

The five major countries that dominated slavery and the slave trade in the New World were either Catholic, or still retained strong Catholic influences including: Spain, Portugal, France, and England, and the Netherlands.

“Persons who considered themselves to be Christian played a major role in upholding and justifying the enslavement of Africans,” said Dr. Jonathan Chism, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“Many European ‘Christian’ slavers perceived the Africans they encountered as irreligious and uncivilized persons. They justified slavery by rationalizing that they were Christianizing and civilizing their African captors. They were driven by missionary motives and impulses,” Chism said.

Further, many Anglo-Christians defended slavery using the Bible. For example, white Christian apologists for slavery argued that the curse of Ham in Genesis Chapter 9 and verses 20 to 25 provided a biblical rationale for the enslavement of Blacks, Chism said.

In this passage, Noah cursed Canaan and his descendants arguing that Ham would be “the lowest of slaves among his brothers” because he saw the nakedness of his father. A further understanding of the passage also revealed that while some have attempted to justify their prejudice by claiming that God cursed the black race, no such curse is recorded in the Bible.

That oft-cited verse says nothing whatsoever about skin color.

Also, it should be noted that Black race evidently descended from a brother of Canaan named Cush. Canaan’s descendants were evidently light-skinned – not black. “Truly nothing in the biblical account identifies Ham, the descendant of Canaan, with Africans. Yet, Christian apologists determined that Africans were the descents of Ham,” Chism said.

Nevertheless, at the beginning the sixteenth century, the racial interpretation of Noah’s curse became commonplace, he said.

In 2016, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. offered a public apology after acknowledging that 188 years prior, Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to save the school from financial ruin.

This is how The New York Times first reported the story: The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.But on that day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests.  And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

“The Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned,” Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said during a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope.

“We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry.”

During the early republic, Catholics celebrated the new Constitution for its guarantee of religious liberty while simply accepting its guarantee of slaveholding, according to Blackthen.com.

Internal church politics mattered too. When the Jesuit order was suppressed in 1773, the plantation system of the order in Maryland was seen as a protection for their identity and solidarity.

The universal church taught that slavery enjoyed the sanction of Scripture and natural law. Throughout the antebellum period, many churches in the South committed to sharing their version of the Christian faith with Blacks.  They believed that their version of Christianity would help them to be “good slaves” and not challenge the slave system, Chism said.

“Yet, it is important to note that African Americans made Christianity their own, and Black Christians such as Nat Turner employed Christian thought and biblical texts to resist the slave system. Furthermore, Black and white abolitionist Christians played a major role in overturning the system of slavery,” he said.

A Little About Me: I'm the co-author of Blind Faith: The Miraculous Journey of Lula Hardaway and her son, Stevie Wonder (Simon & Schuster) and Michael Jackson: The Man Behind The Mask, An Insider's Account of the King of Pop (Select Books Publishing, Inc.) My work can often be found in the Washington Informer, Baltimore Times, Philadelphia Tribune, Pocono Record, the New York Post, and Black Press USA.

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  1. Stephanie Jones

    September 16, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    This is certainly ill informed. Someone need to do more homework. Many Popes condemned slavery: Eugenius IV (in 1435 the Papal bull Sicut Dudum), Paul III (1537 bull Sublimus Dei), Gregory XIV (1590 bull Cum Sicuti), Urban VIII (1639 bull Commissum Nobis), Innocent XI (in 1676), Benedict XIV (1741 bull Immensa Pastorum), Gregory XVI (1839 bull In Supremo), Leo XIII (in 1888 and 1890).

    It is a fact that individual Christians have sinned. When will you look at the huge and excessively cruel Muslim slave trade going on in Africa for centuries? In Saudi Arabia, it was legal to own slaves as late as 1960.

    • Deborah

      September 16, 2018 at 5:30 pm

      Thank you Stephanie, you know, this makes feel like it wasn’t a coincidence that this author and this “news” media purposely chose this time to bash the Church once again. Just to kick us while we are down.

    • Black star

      September 17, 2018 at 5:20 am

      Yeah after you all got ricc

    • Edward Griffin

      September 18, 2018 at 8:35 am

      The article was not about the Muslim part in the slave trade, which they took part but the Catholics part in the evil practice.

  2. Anthony

    September 16, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    After reading all of this information,one would think that our black brothers and sisters would be able to put aside the entertainment of TV, SPORTS, MUSIC to begin to get back to being leaders. We have got to stop being jealous of each other and pull together. That’s goes to the most affluent Black people to the less fortunate. I’m a black father and I take what Jesus gives me and make sure my family is protected and safe. I never stop dreaming on what I can accomplish or if givin the opportunity to do better. All dreams aren’t full filled, but I never stop trying.
    The Catholic church knew it was wrong to enslave African people. What a lot of preachers are not saying is Cannains offspring the Cannites were destroyed. If the Cannites were destroyed how are Black People the Majority on this Planet?


    September 16, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Compliments on this article. Well done. Thank you.
    Along with the practice of extraction of Africans from their homelands for enslavement on other continents, slavery of Africans IN Africa was brutally manifested under Christian Missionaries who imprisoned and enslaved thousands of Africans during the development of the rubber extraction industry. Christian missionary forces built numerous Stockades to hold and torment Africans forced to harvest rubber trees under direction of Dutch King Leopold with assistance of Christian Missionaries from Great Britian.
    An Irish missionary accompanying the British, named Rodger Casement, was knighted by the king of England for revealing the brutality of imposed slavery of rubber trade within Africa,leading to the cessation of Britain’s involvement in the rubber trade partnership with the Dutch at that time.
    The enslavement of people of color by the rubber trade also continued into South America, with Rodger Casement again exposing the crimes. An excellent historic account of these atrocities is written by prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa in a novel entitled “The Dream of the Celt”. It provides astonishing insights into this era, as lived by spirited Irishman Roger Casement, including exerpts from his personal journals.
    No spoilers here.
    The story is quite an exposé.
    A must-read.

    • Deborah

      September 16, 2018 at 5:41 pm

      Thank you Stephanie, you know, this makes feel like it wasn’t a coincidence that this author and this “news” media purposely chose this time to bash the Church once again. Just to kick us while we are down. I also fail to see why the author left out the fact that it was Africans who sold these slaves to the white men. Looks to me that Black on Black crime runs deep! Once again, no one wants to acknowledge that piece of history. Europeans didn’t just take these people, they were sold to them by their brother Africans who wanted to prosper by the sale of their “people. So you can’t blame EVERYTHING for ever on whites or Christians. Start accepting your own part in slavery and the contribution that blacks have had on their own demise. It’s a proven historical fact that even in this country there were Black slave owners…why? Did the author include this in his history?? And why didn’t the title to this article say “Muslim religion also contributed to the enslavement of Africans” ???

      • Ukumbwa Sauti

        September 18, 2018 at 6:39 am

        Always a dodge and never accountability. Where is the insight of moral rectitude of that? Your rhetoric here is that of victim-blaming and gaslighting, totally dismissive and ignorant of the dynamics of African involvement in the European christian colonial slavery trade and the implications of that in creating the context and fuel for so-called Black on Black crime as if the genocidal system set up by European Christians is some sort of equal element. Please stick to what you know and obviously it’s nothing about what’s in this article. Thank you. No. Strike that.

  4. Luis Manuel Castineiras

    Luis Manuel Castineiras

    September 16, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    ☆Democrats, Catholic have been all ways slave keeper’s. That’s we or the most of us are Protestant, and our President Lincoln besides being killed by a Democrat ,is the one’s that gave them there Freedom. ☆VOTE NOVEMBER 6, 2018 FOR THE RED WAVE AND SAVE OUR NATION FROM BEING DEMOCRATIC /SOCIALIST. ☆ BUILD THAT WALL TO BE SECURE FROM ILLEGALS CRIMINALS ☆

    • Chanel Johnson

      September 17, 2018 at 4:47 am

      Republicans had slaves, too. Lincoln had and raped slaves. Let’s be clear he didn’t end slavery;slavery went on well after the emancipation proclamation. So, Fuck racist democrats, racist republicans, the catholic church, the muslims, christianity, and the fake jewish Zionists…. They all had a hand in the enslavement of black people.

  5. Gary Daniel

    September 16, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    Since when has the Catholic Church been known for altruism? The Spanish Empire was started with the Inquisition in place.


    September 17, 2018 at 9:01 am

    Research The Moor!! This is a very sided depiction and doesn’t present the true history.

  7. Ramon V

    October 12, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Powerful article highlighting the churches true face and identity.
    In 1493 (the year after Columbus discovered the America) Pope Alexander VI made explicit the rights of Catholics in the Americas. He authorized the King of Spain to enslave non-Christians of the Americas at war with Catholic powers – in other words anyone who resisted the invasion and seizure of their land.

    Like other bishops, the popes themselves owned slaves — Pope Innocent VIII accepted the gift of numerous slaves from Malaga, given by the exceptionally devout Queen Isabella of Castile in 1487.

    To clear up any doubt about who was entitled to own slaves, Pope Paul III confirmed in 1548 that all Christian men and all members of the clergy had the right to own slaves.

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