Should the Church apologise for Slavery?

Should the Church apologise for Slavery?   Latest article in Christian Today

“Apologise and make reparations for slavery”. So went the demand from Sir Hilary Beckles to David Cameron as he prepared to visit Jamaica. In an open letter in the Jamaica Observer, the academic wrote: “You are a grandson of the Jamaican soil who has been privileged and enriched by your forebears’ sins of the enslavement of our ancestors…You are, Sir, a prized product of this land and the bonanza benefits reaped by your family and inherited by you continue to bind us together like birds of a feather.

“We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal. The continuing suffering of our people, Sir, is as much your nation’s duty to alleviate as it is ours to resolve in steadfast acts of self-responsibility.”

Should the UK pay compensation for something that is centuries old? It is an interesting question that’s not as straightforward as it sometimes might appear. Thinking about this, I was reminded of a young black man in Brighton library who interrupted my talk on the existence of God by demanding that I apologise for slavery. “Why? I don’t have any slaves…I’ve never had any slaves, and my ancestors were farm labourers who never owned any slaves either, and didn’t have the vote when slavery was legal in this country,” was my response. But my friend was adamant – he was playing the racist card. He was black and therefore a victim (despite the fact that he and his parents were from London). I was white and therefore an oppressor. It is a simple and dangerous equation; it was just as likely that his ancestors from Nigeria were slave traders. Slave trading between African peoples was common, and the Arabs were the primary slave traders for many centuries. It is estimated that in the Middle Ages more than one million white Europeans were traded as slaves across the Mediterranean.

The subject came up again a few weeks ago when I went to record a BBC Radio 4 programme on the ex-slave Frederick Douglass and his visits to Scotland. You can listen to it here – A Mans a Man for a That

Opera singer Andrea Baker, herself a descendent of African American slaves, was presenting a programme about her hero, the aforementioned Frederick Douglass. I was expecting a short interview and interesting discussion on this fascinating man and his impact on Scotland. Instead, we had what politicians call a ‘full and frank’ discussion for over an hour as Andrea tried to get me to apologise for my Church’s actions, 170 years ago.

When almost a third of the ministers, elders and people left the Church of Scotland in 1843 to form the Church of Scotland, Free, they lost their buildings, schools and finance. They needed to fundraise for the hundreds of new churches, manses and schools that needed to be built. A small part of that money (£3,000 – equivalent to £300,000 in today’s terms) came from the Southern Presbyterian Church, which included among its members some people who were slave owners. Frederick Douglass came on a campaign to persuade the Free Church to ‘send back the money’. His mission failed, as he got involved in the church politics of the period. My own church, St Peter’s in Dundee, was at the forefront of the send back the money campaign. So was my conscience clear? Andrea wanted to know if I could ‘metaphorically’ send back the money.
And there was my problem. What would ‘metaphorical’ sending back of the money mean? Do I have the responsibility, or even the right, to repent for other people’s sins? Would that not just be gesture politics? I felt that I was being emotionally blackmailed to make a meaningless gesture.

And yet, Andrea did have a point. The fact is that we are not born into this world as blank slates. We are born into a culture and context that has been shaped by the past. I used to be a minister up in Brora, Sutherland; an area of the country infamous for the Highland Clearances, 200 years ago. The Duke of Sutherland forcibly cleared the land of many of its people in order to make way for sheep. It was violent, cruel and capricious, and its memory lingers. Not least because a massive statue of the Duke, on top of Ben Braggie, dominates the landscape in that part of the world. I had an elder who wanted to go and blow the thing up, a view I had some sympathy for! I once wrote a column for the local newspaper critiquing the Duke, and it was not published because “You need to forget the past”. The thought struck me that we seem to be very quick to forget the sins of the past, but very slow to relinquish the fruits of the past. The current Countess of Sutherland owes much of her considerable wealth to this rather dubious past.

So back to slavery. Can or should we make atonement for the past? Should the great seaports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, which flourished because of slavery, make reparations? How far back do we go? Should the Germans make reparations for the slaughter of the two World Wars? What about the Italians for the Roman invasions? Or the Spanish for the Inquisition?

The truth is that we live in a broken, complex messed up world. We can never make atonement for what we or our ancestors have done. The minute we begin to unravel the complex mess we have inherited and add to, it just gets messier. Who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. He is indeed the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).


  1. A very interesting essay. Let me start by stating that I have recently started a divinity course, and in New Testament Greek one of the first words learnt was “doulos – slave” a stark reminder that at the time of Christ, slaves were very much the norm for that culure at that time. Jesus himself told parables which involved slaves, but, as far as I am aware, did not actually speak out to abolish slavery. You note that at his time, The Holy Land was under Roman occupation, and many slaves were imported to the area from the northern extremities of the empire (and likely other extremities too); thus should the Celtic, Norse and Saxon peoples of Europe seek such apologies from Rome(Italy), Greece and The Holy Land?? – quite frankly I think this would be ridiculous.

    There is somethng else that has grown up over the last twenty years… The “Something For Nothing” culture. Whereas previous generations saw the route to quality of life came from hard work and sensible spending, too many people these days seem to be waiting to either be discovered and be “Famous” for no particular talent, or hope to be involved in some sort of accident in order that they might “win” some massive amount of money in a payout.

    Personally, I see many of these historical claims and “claimants” as being akin to this group, they seek to win some payout and/or special recognition for something that they have not had to toil for. And why the church? Perhaps it represents an easy target in the minds of these people. Surely the places for such a claim should be the sugar companies of the Carribean or the many companies in Bristol who built themselves on the slave trade.

    Several years ago, some people wished to re-name some of the place names in Bristol – such as Black Boy Hill, as they thought that this was “not very nice in this modern day and age”. Remarkably, it was the Black community of Bristol who stood up against this. Their take on it (if I remember correctly) was that these places were their culture and history and however distasteful, it was the only history that they had and as a community they did not wish to see it “whitewashed” out of existance. Besides, nobody ever complained about Whiteladies Road.

    Once an apology has been made then the onus is on the person or group apologized to to forgive and forget. Do such people actually wish to forget their history??

    By today’s standards, slavery is not acceptable, nevertheless as a world, we have moved on from such practices, but we should always remember, else we are apt to make the same errors again.

  2. Largely agree, with the reservation that Israel confessed the sins of her fathers; she saw an organic union with he ancestors. Of course, Ezekiel addresses this issue.

  3. Is not there a precedent for confessing the sons of the previous generation (Nehemiah)? Yes, there is the idea that we should ‘regret’ and ‘acknowledge’ the sins of the past, but we are not responsible for that. If that were the case, every person is responsible for murder, since Cain….

    Should we decry the things that were done by past generations? YES! Should we make sure they are not repeated? YES! IS there a need for reparations from one generation to ex-sponge the previous generations culpability? NO!

  4. “We can never make atonement for what we or our ancestors have done.” Agreed.

    What came to my mind as I read this was a republican who recently expressed disapproval at prince Charles for his ancestors involvement in WWI. Or one could say, a teenage girl or young woman after a break up with a boyfriend blaming all men for every ill treatment that she got from her ex.

    “Once an apology has been made then the onus is on the person or group apologized to to forgive”. Yes, agreed. In Simon Wiesenthal’s book “The Sunflower”, a dying Nazi asks for forgiveness from a Jew for that the wrongs he has done to other Jews. The Jew is faced with the decision as the whether he has the right to forgive for suffering that others have expereinced. He rightly comments,“forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.”

    So as it is true that we can’t make atonement for what our ancestors have done, others cannot forgive for sins that have not been done to them. So with this in mind, Jamaicans today cannot forgive for what has happened to their ancestors.

    Cameron however could apologise (for example) to Libya for the bombing he decided there, creating instability and leading to civil war and likewise his involvement in bombing in the middle east. For him to “acknowledge responsibility for [his] share of this situation” would be a step in the right direction.

      1. But he did involve himself with politics on several occasions. Must I list chapter and verse for you?
        And exactly how do you believe he set slaves free – there is still slavery today – and the church was a full-on supporter of slavery for centuries.
        Need a link for that too?

      2. Yes – please do provide chapter and verse!

        He set slaves free by changing peoples hearts.

        Slavery today in the West has been reintroduced as Christianity has been rejected and we have secularised.

      3. Nonsense! The church fully supported slavery for centuries.
        Surely you are not that naive or indoctrinated to believe otherwise?

        Matthew 10:34

        The military perspective.

        “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

        On Taxes…

        ”…Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things….”

        And he intervened regarding the interpolated text of the adulteress.

        How does he change peoples hearts?

      4. Some parts of the church did – but you will need to provide evidence. The reason Europe rejected slavery was because of Christianity – the Greco/Roman/Pagan world did not. Neither did Islam…neither by the way did secular France!

        Your misquotation of Scripture is amusing.

        Matthew 10:34 is not about the military.

        Render unto Caesar is simply stating that there are some things that are the states perogative and some that are not. Slavery by the way was one of those.

        The woman caught in adultery had nothing to do with politics.

        As for how he changes peoples hearts. That is essential because as Solzhenitsynn pointed out ‘the dividing line between good and evil goes through mens hearts’. We need to be forgiven for our sin, renewed, healed and reborn – read John 3….When we come to confess our sin, give our lives to Christ, trust in his atoning death, we are given a new heart. It is this that changed the slave trader John Newton and it is only this that changes society. When we reject Christ we revert to violence and slavery – witness the modern world!

      5. Some parts of the church did – but you will need to provide evidence

        If you accept the fact that ”some parts…” did why must I provide evidence? You already know the evidence exists.

        Are you by chance a christian fundamentalist or simply blind to history?
        Did you actually read the link to the Twain piece or merely skim it to cherry pick your response?
        In modern times it still goes on.
        The NGK in South Africa, for example endorsed Apartheid and used the bible as justification.
        As did many Christian churches in he US regarding slavery.

        The modern world is rife with heinous religious-based crimes, and christianity is not exempted in any way. Do you seriously require evidence for this too?
        Where , in fact would you like to start?
        How about the Catholic Church and its versions of slavery?
        Your entire world view is built upon a foundation of violence and lies.

        As for confessing….
        To what?
        Original sin is a fallacy as well you ought to know.

      6. Oh dear – the atheist fundamentalist asks me if I am blind to history. I tend not to rely on Wiki or Google..as I have a degree in history and read it all the time.

        I had read the Twain piece before….

        Yes there are a lot of religious based crimes…as there are a lot of atheist based crimes.

        Its wonderful and weird that you think my ‘entire world view is built upon a foundation of violence and lies’…

        You will note how much you make assertions based on your faith – and don’t provide evidence.

        And original sin is the truth – as is evidenced by the behaviour of humanity all around.

        Try again…and this time try to avoid the school boy atheist assertions..!

    1. No – not really..read it before. One piece from a 19th century American atheist doesn’t really constitute evidence that the Christian church as a whole promoted and supported slavery…away back to Google and try again….or you could do some proper reading and thinking and try to avoid the confirmation bias because your mind is made up and you wouldn’t want it to be confused with facts?!

      1. *Smile*. Your entire worldview is based upon unevidenced confirmation bias.

        Shall we we start with Genesis?
        Or let’s skip and go straight the the mythical nonsense of the ”Exodus” perhaps?

        I wonder just how far down the rabbit hole you are prepared to honestly go before you realise that everything you base your worldview on is simply a faith claim and little else?

        Well, are you up to it …..?

      2. Am I up to it? I have been doing it for the past 20 years…but the trouble is that atheist fundamentalists cannot conceive of anything outwith their own wee world..

      3. So you start with a dismisive hand wave comment. What on earth for.

        I am quite prepared to look at any evidence you are prepared to present – andI will tell you straight away if I have read what you offer.

        So rather than attempting to give me the brush of why not have a discussion on the topic?

        What can you tell me from an archaeological perspective about the Exodus and the Settlement pattern of Canaan?

      4. What topic? You are shooting off all over the place….what do you want to discuss? Mark Twain? Atheist fundamentalism? The archaeological evidence for the Exodus? Original sin? To be honest I don’t think that you are remotely interested in discussing anything. You want to come on here and accuse, show off your ‘superior’ knowledge and mock….if I’m wrong and you want a serious discussion – preferably on something to do with this thread…feel free to choose one of the many accusations you have already made. And lets try not to have an exchange of confirmation bias Wiki articles. Could you write about something that you actually know or that you want to know…?

      5. Excellent! So let’s start with the Exodus.
        As the Pentateuch is now considered Historical Fiction, a Jewish, geopolitical foundation myth how do you square away Christianity in light of this?

      6. No the Pentateuch is not now considered historical fiction…you are quite amusing. It has always been considered historical fiction by those who don’t want the Bible to be true. Try again…

      7. Why are you being sarcastic?I

        You seem very reluctant to directly engage any question I raise for some reason.
        I will ask again:
        Question 1: As the Pentateuch is nothing but geopolitical myth, how do you square away your belief in the basic tenets of the Christian faith which has it’s basis in the Pentateuch, including such doctrine as Original Sin?

        In particular, I am interested on how you harmonize belief in the character Jesus of Nazareth in light his frequent reference to the fictional Patriarchs as if they were real, historical characters?

        Question 2. As the biblical tale of the captivity, exodus and conquest is fiction how do you come to terms with such stories as the Moses’s fictional encounter with your god , Yahweh on Mount Sinai?

      8. Because they were real historical characters…..and the Pentateuch is true….I don’t you don’t want to believe that, but you have no evidence otherwise and are just guided by your prejudice and any confirmation bias you can get through Google and Wiki!

      9. I would add; my understanding is that there really is no longer any debate concerning the fictional nature of the biblical tale of the Exodus etc and the overwhelming consensus among archaeologists and biblical scholars ( including most Rabbis).
        However, if you would like to cite an archaeologist/s who will back your assertions with evidence that the Captivity, Exodus and Conquest as described then I am more than willing to read him/her/them.
        And just to be on the safe side, subjects such as the Merneptah Stele have been dealt with by experts so there is no need to raise this.

      10. Your understanding is wrong. It’s what you want to believe, so you believe it. it is actually a highly disputed area – see for examplehttp://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/september7/8ta044.html

        What is your particular expertise in this field?

  5. Firstly, the article is only a preview, requires me to register, and gives no archaeological details, let alone hard evidence for the biblical claims.
    Second, the preview mentions two Egyptologists but fails to mention their names. You obviously know who these people are as you have read the article. can you tell me their names?
    Personally, I can not think of a single Egyptologist aside from Kitchen ( who is a biblical innerantist and, to my knowledge, has never supervised an actual dig that is relevant to the Exodus story),who is not held in any sort of regard in this particular field by fellow professionals.

    From my research It is not highly disputed at all and hasn’t been for several generations. I can offer you links to back this if you are interested?

    While the minimalist position my be contested, there is not a single archaeologist, biblical scholar or Rabbi I am aware of who believes in the literal veracity of the biblical tale.

    As someone who has stated he has qualifications in history I am surprised you are toting the innerantist line in this regard.

    If you examine the work of someone like William Dever, who was a former Christian and whose father was a minister you will see how after so many years in the field he was unable to reconcile the biblical tales with the reality of the evidence.
    Even Albright came unstuck, didn’t he? You must be aware of these people, surely?

    However, you seem adamant that this area is still highly in dispute and I am no expert, merely an interested amateur. Therefore,I am perfectly willing to examine the evidence you have that backs the veracity of the biblical tale.

    I have asked before during our discussion and I’ll ask again, as you must have all the evidence at your fingertips,
    to simply list the archaeologists who back the biblical tale and have the evidence to demonstrate it.

    I can do the research myself, no problem. I don’t expect you to provide me with all the books etc, simply the names of the professionals involved. I can do likewise if you are interested? Just say the word..

    Would you do that please?


    1. or that strange because I managed to get on that particular article without registering. And of course former Christians like William Dever are hardly going to pronounce that the Bible is correct! It seems as though you are engaging in a great deal of confirmation bias. And of course Albright was not correcting everything he said or did. If you are really interested in subject then I would suggest you read http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/magazine/

      But I suspect that that is not really your concern. You sound like someone whose mind is made up so you don’t really want to be confused with inconvenient facts.

      1. Thanks for the link. I do on occasion read some of the articles in this magazine. Fascinating stuff.

        But we are primarily discussing the Pentateuch where it relates to the Exodus and conquest of Canaan as per the biblical specs.

        In the previous link you provided, which you have read and which I assure I cannot open as a guest and must login or register, can you simply provide the names of the archaeologists/Egyptologists cited in the article?
        As I mentioned before, I can then do follow up research from there.

        Surely that is not too difficult a request?


      2. Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool, James Hoffmeier author of Israel in Egypt (Oxford University Press)….

  6. Because they were real historical characters…..and the Pentateuch is true….I don’t you don’t want to believe that, but you have no evidence otherwise and are just guided by your prejudice and any confirmation bias you can get through Google and Wiki!

    Actually, I never considered they were not historical for almost all of my life to date, until I became interested in the archaeological side of the biblical claims.
    Only then did I come across the Jewish position and was very surprised t discover that the Pentateuch is regarded s geo-political myth by pretty much every scholar, historian, scientist etc except the Fundamentalist School.

    As mentioned before, there is no evidence for these characters and history, and archaeology in particular, has demonstrated how, when and why these tales were constructed. Would you like to read the history/evidence?

    In fact, the evangelical view is very much a minority view in the scholarly world these days.
    Furthermore, as this is a Jewish foundational story, why should one disregard those whose entire religious and cultural worldview is based on these stories, the vast majority of whom recognise this as myth and have accepted this position?

    What possible motive would anyone have for accepting a contrary view espoused by people who have no genuine cultural motivation invested.
    The Jews entire raison d’etre was forged on these tales and they have had to face the fact they arenothing but myth.And they are dealing with it.

    The real question is: why aren’t you?

    1. I’m still waiting to hear what your actual qualifications are for making these kind of pronouncements and assertions. Do you have a degree in archaeology? Or biblical history? Have you done any peer-reviewed research? and yes I have read many of the articles that you will doubtless refer me to. I have been reading about this for over 30 years. I also know many Jews who do not regard the Pentateuch as myth. I wonder if you even understand how archaeology works? In many degrees it is just simply a matter of interpretation. There is plenty evidence for the main characters of the Bible.

  7. Are you going to release the remaining comments you are holding in moderation?
    At the moment the thread has a blunted unfinished look to it and suggests I have not responded to your questions?
    Or are you one who simply [refers to have the last word where it might seriously contradict your view with scientific/archaeological evidence?

    1. I’m afraid I have a policy of not allowing any one person to dominate on my personal blog. You are free to comment on your own if anyone is interested. As a basic courtesy I’ve allowed you many posts – even though you have abuse that privilege and continue to come up with endless accusations based upon your prejudices and presuppositions. I don’t have the time to respond to every single one of your posts. Nothing you have sent nor any evidence you have presented contradicts the basic view that I hold. Sorry to disappoint you but this is not an atheist rant page! I will check if there are any of your posts I have missed that have any relevance.

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