Saints and Slavery (Part I)

There are a number of saints who can offer Christians inspiration for abolitionism. Two of these were of the same family and resisted the institution of slavery in different and significant ways.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-395)

"As therefore in the life that we hope for there will be neither disease, nor curse, nor sin, nor death, so slavery also along with these will vanish away." — Saint Gregory of Nyssa, 'Against Eunomius', Book X, §4

Saint Gregory was a very well regarded saint, a capable theologian, a sophisticated Greek rhetorician and a Bishop of Nyssa, Cappodocia. He is still widely esteemed in both western and eastern churches today, and was given special recognition as the “the Father of the Fathers” for his theological contributions to the church, some three hundred years later at the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787). Saint Gregory also has the added prestige of being the first known person in history to have actively and rigorously rebuked the institution of slavery. Most of these rebukes are found in his ‘Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes’.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa founded his argument upon the “image of God” being common to all of humanity, a concept derived from the Book of Genesis. This was a familiar premise in that the universality of the image of God was accepted by his peers, even though the institution of slavery was accepted or tolerated. Gregory powerfully argues that having been made in the image of God, humanity was given authority only over lesser creatures, and therefore there are no humans who have been given authority over other humans. By extending one’s authority over those who share in the same image — necessarily our equals — we are actually defying the government decreed by God. This was a novel argument because many Christians had rationalised that the unjust social order of slavery was ultimately established by God. Gregory suggests that if anyone had the authority to own another person, it would only be God. But he adds to this, that liberty is an irrevocable gift of God, and that when we were enslaved to sin God spontaneously recalled us back to freedom. To Gregory, liberty from slavery necessarily springs from God's good will and character. Unlike his peers who emphasized the fallen state, Gregory directed all of his thinking from and towards a telos (a realised end purpose) of universal human dignity, just like his teacher Origen who had similarly progressive social views.

Unfortunately it took the Church nearly another thousand years after his denouncements of slavery, before she even affirmed nominally the inherent injustice of owning another person. Nevertheless, Saint Gregory of Nyssa can remind Christians that everyone has inalienable rights, just by virtue of being human. Meaningfully acting upon this foundation in all of our relations, can be helpful at undermining, resisting and overcoming those mechanisms that impoverish, disempower, exploit and harm others, and ultimately permit slavery to exist.

Saint Macrina the Younger (AD 330-379)

“Macrina persuaded her mother … to share the life of the maids, treating all her slave girls and menials as if they were sisters and belonged to the same rank as herself.” — Saint Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Life of Macrina’ 

Other than Origen, Gregory was most inspired by two other people: his colleague and possible sister, Saint Theosebia the Deaconess, and most significantly, his older sister, Saint Macrina the Younger. We know the most about this saint from her biography ‘The Life of Saint Macrina', of which Gregory of Nyssa penned. She is revered most fondly as a radically humble and compassionate nun by the eastern church, where she is formally recognised as a saint.

Saint Macrina the Younger was an incredible influence on her family. She persuaded her mother to make all her slave girls and menials as equals and sisters, belonging to the same rank as herself; to share in their life by living on a footing of equality, sharing with them in the same food, the same kind of bed, and in all the necessaries of life. As far as we know, Macrina didn’t make any explicit protests against the institution of slavery, but she did act within her own power and her own circle of influence, for her mother to release the privileges that sustained slavery. In doing so she also inspired and compelled the progressive views of her younger brothers Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea and Peter of Sebaste.

Saint Macrina the Younger reminds us that we can inform and inspire others to powerfully contribute to the abolition of slavery, and that living as equals demands that the costs for cheaper products and services needs to be borne fairly by businesses and consumers, and not at the devastating social cost of slavery.

Next week we'll have a look at the witness of Saint Nicholas of Myra.