Philemon P 18C
v. 16 “No longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother . . .”
When I was a boy in Maryland we lived up the road from Rosewood State Hospital, the Maryland state institution for people we now call “developmentally disabled” but then Mentally Retarded. My father was the Protestant chaplain there. The Roman Catholics were members of the Trinitarian Order which had been founded in the late 12th century to redeem Christians from slavery to the North African muslims. In the succeeding 800 years their ministry has expanded to include other kinds of liberation.
Slavery predates written history. Commonly slaves were prisoners of war or debtors in an age before bankruptcy. Philemon is a personal letter from St. Paul in prison on behalf of a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had been serving Paul. From this letter came the common belief that baptism freed a slave. Baptism does free from spiritual slavery to the power of evil and sin, and until the early 18th century it was commonly held that baptism freed from legal slavery as well.
The first generation of African slaves brought to Virginia were treated as indentured servants. They could earn and hold wages and after a period of 5 to 7 years were freed and could claim 50 acres of public land. Only in 1654 did Anthony Johnson, a freed slave, sue his white neighbor Robert Parker for the services of John Casor, an African. Casor had worked for Johnson for 7 or 8 years, and claimed his time of indenture was finished and he was free to begin to work for Parker.
The Northampton County court decided that “. . . Insofar as Negroes were heathens, they could never become Englishmen; insofar as they were not Englishmen, they could not be entitled to the protections of the common law", which at the time was limited to English subjects.” (William J. Wood, "The Illegal Beginning of American Slavery" American Bar Association Journal, 1970)
Baptism frees one from being a heathen. American colonial slave owners strongly resisted the efforts of Anglican missionaries to evangelize slaves until 1730 when the January 14 opinion of English Attorney General Sir Philip Yorke and Solicitor General Charles Talbot was published that, “. . . Baptism does not bestow Freedom on (a slave) nor make any alteration in his temporal condition in these Kingdoms. . .”
News of that opinion spread when it appeared in a sermon to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel by Dean George Berkeley that was printed and widely distributed by the missionaries who argued that conversion and baptism would help slaves be more reconciled to their lot in life.
Today’s gospel reading ends with Jesus’ teaching “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
I wonder how different our society would be had the Virginia court decided that the same rule applied to white and black, or if the example of the Trinitarians had been followed, or even if the desire to follow Jesus had been greater than the desire to seek to own people.