The Slaves of the Churches

A History

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Mary E. Sommar
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mary Sommar’s The Slaves of the Churches masterfully walks readers through a millennium-long history of churches owning enslaved people. Through this book, she explores not only how the relationship between the institutions of enslavement and Christian churches have shifted over time, but also how enslavement remained a little critiqued part of how churches conceptualized their own assets. Given her home field in medieval history, most of the book is dedicated to European ecclesiastical institutions and canon law, leaving room for further exploration of church ownership of enslaved people in other parts of the premodern world by others.

After a brief introduction that sets the boundaries of the book and the ever difficult definition of “slavery,” Sommar turns to the New Testament in chapter 2 in order to demonstrate that the earliest Christ followers did little to condemn slavery, but rather treated the realities of enslaved people as a norm within ancient Mediterranean society. Chapter 3 turns to a range of early Christian literature—the Didache, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Athenagoras’s Embassy, and more—to expose the presence of enslaved people within the Christian familia and how an enslaved person should interact with a Christian or non-Christian enslaver. Sommar notes that, at least in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there is little evidence of the type of ecclesiastical corporate ownership of enslaved people that we find in later centuries.

After Constantine, Sommar turns to many of the so-called Church Fathers to argue that none spoke out against slavery, but rather that slavery was conceptualized as a necessary evil that befell a fallen humanity and that enslaved people could be church property (res ecclesiae). Even Gregory of Nyssa’s Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes—often heralded as a step toward a Christian abolitionist paradigm—is read by Sommar as more ambivalent and actually focused on combatting excess (65–66; 99–102). This chapter also establishes a prominent practice relevant to later centuries: manumissio in ecclesia, through which manumission within a church was made legally equal to other forms of manumission. Like other forms of manumission in the ancient Mediterranean, Sommar underscores that manumission is not total freedom; rather, the ecclesial freedperson holds new obligations to the church at which they were freed (80–81).

Chapters 5 to 7 stretch across the medieval period, from 6th-century kingdoms in Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula to Master Gratian of Bologna’s 12th-century Decretum. Through an expansive survey of a range of regional political and ecclesial structures, Sommar points out continuity with earlier Roman practices of treating people enslaved to churches as res ecclesiae and those freed through manumissio in ecclesia as obliged to the church. However, she also notes regional differences, as well as the blurred lines between those treated as chattel and poor laborers toiling for their landlords. One of the most interesting features of these chapters is the distinction between how some churches treated newly enslaved people compared to those inherited from previous generations of res ecclesiae. In her conclusion, Sommar turns to the modern era and highlights the Catholic Church’s continued practice of enslavement well into the 19th century, as well as the refusal to openly condemn enslavement until the 20th century.

Overall, The Slaves of the Churches brings to the foreground how churches have long functioned as institutional enslavers, as well as how ecclesiastical practice and law made it nearly impossible for res ecclesiae to fully escape the clutches of the church that enslaved them—even if manumitted. This book opens the door to further exploration into the extensive entanglement between Christianity and enslavement, and might provoke more analysis of how biblical texts, ecclesiastical law, and political institutions synergized to enslave people for Christ’s sake.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chance Bonar is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
September 13, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Sommar has taught ancient and medieval history for the past twenty years, most of them at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She also spent two years as a visiting scholar at the Stephan Kuttner Institute for Medieval Canon Law in Munich, Germany and a year as a Visiting Fellow at Yale University.



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