Saints and Slavery (Part II)

Saint Nicholas of Myra (AD 270-343)

“But the Lord who loves humankind, who never wishes his own creation to become hostage to sin, sent him a holy angel — I mean the godlike Nicholas — [… who] became a most ready resource for their defence, and he saved them, though they were already being led away to a death of profligacy” — Michael the Archimandrite, ‘Life of Saint Nicholas’

With Christmas in just a couple of days, it seems befitting to consider the testimony of Saint Nicholas of Myra, who was an inspiration behind the Santa Claus tradition. We know about his life through the fancifully embellished accounts of Michael the Archimandrite (ca. AD 900-950) and Symeon the Metaphrast (ca. AD 950-1000), who wrote some six hundred years after Nicholas' life.

Saint Nicholas, it is said, was uniquely touched by God within the womb — of which some similarities have been drawn to that of John the Baptist. From his very infancy, Nicholas pursued a strict religious life in service to his God. At the death of his wealthy parents, Nicholas begged God that he might be allowed to surrender his inherited wealth, and feeling divinely instructed to do so (through a reading of Psalm 62:11), lived a life in generous service to the vulnerable. 

His most famous act was his compassion to a family who were vulnerable to slavery. An impoverished father decided to sell his three beautiful daughters into the service of a brothel, in order that basic necessities could be provided for them. Although he had hoped to marry them off, he was unable to provide a dowry due to his extreme poverty. Nicholas heard of his neighbour’s intentions and gathered together a bag of gold. That night, he went to the man’s home, and throwing the bag of gold through the window, he ran away so as not to be seen. When the man awoke the next morning he was dumbfounded at the generous gift and the anonymity of his benefactor. With the money as a dowry, the man was able to marry off his eldest daughter so that she would be provided for. Yet he was still unable to provide for the rest of his household, nor provide dowries for his other daughters, so he decided once more to sell them into a brothel. That night, Nicholas went to his neighbour’s house once more and threw another bag of gold through the window. The next morning, the astonished neighbour arranged for the marriage of his second eldest daughter. As the neighbour had one more daughter, he hoped that his benefactor would again provide him with a dowry.  So that night, he remained awake, anticipating that mysterious visitor who had come bearing gifts. If he should come again, the poor man would learn who he was and why he was distributing gold in this way. That night, Nicholas came quietly before the window once more, threw a bag of gold into the house, and swiftly retreated towards his home. Hearing the gift hit the floor, the girls' father ran as fast as he could after his visitor. When he caught up with him and recognised it was Nicholas, he dropped to his feet to thank Nicholas for the generous gifts that had saved his family from ruin. Nicholas committed the man to an oath, to not reveal his good deed so as to maintain his humility — an oath that was obviously broken.

Saint Nicholas reminds us that its also important we act to redeem vulnerable people from slavery, or presently in slavery. In the story of the three daughters, Saint Nicholas used his own resources to undermine their poverty and disempowerment. It’s worth noting what Symeon the Metaphrast makes special mention of:

“Let us scrutinise together the compassion mingled with good sense of this saint. For Nicholas could not bear either to approach him to discuss the matter (however briefly), or show him the hand that should rescue him, as those are wont to do who bare that hand for philanthropy but with a mean and earthbound heart. For he sensed what arrogance it would be to approach one who had fallen from riches and glory into want — how it would cover one with shame and too vividly recall his one-time felicity.” — Symeon the Metaphrast, ‘The Life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker’

Symeon is highlighting that Saint Nicholas of Myra was concerned with maintaining the dignity and pride of those who were vulnerable to slavery. It’s incredibly important that all abolitionism makes it possible for vulnerable people to define and make decisions about the relationships, resources and information they need to manage their emancipation and lives.