The problem of slavery goes back to the beginning of civilization. Today, modern-day slavery takes many forms, but no matter the name or manner of exploitation—sex trafficking, forced labor, bonded labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, forced child labor, child soldiers, child sex trafficking, organ trafficking—they all describe a terrible abuse of some humans over others.
To understand today’s antislavery movement it is important to look back over the documents, speeches, pamphlets, treaties, laws, and articles spanning almost four hundred years that track a rising consciousness about the terrible harms of slavery and the rising movements against it.
In my book, Modern Slavery: A Documentary and Reference Guide, I used primary source material to show that there was no single antislavery movement. Instead there were advocates who were motivated by beliefs falling into four main categories: religious (Christian), secular abolitionist, feminist, and human rights. Each of the advocates from these traditions relied on foundational documents to make their arguments against slavery, for example, Christians had the Bible; secular abolitionists, the Constitution; feminists, the Women's Declaration at Seneca Falls; and human rights organizations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Examining the early antecedents of today’s antislavery movement and understanding our historical traditions gives us an analytic context and help us make sense of some of today’s debates on policy, program, priorities, and perspectives to abolish modern-day slavery. Fascinatingly, the language developed sometimes centuries ago by religious, abolitionist, feminist, and human rights advocates created frameworks for 21st century anti-slavery advocates. Whether it is God’s word - for example, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives . . . and to set at liberty those who are oppressed;” or a vision of equality - for example, Josephine Butler in 1886 talking about “the double standard of morality” when it came to commercial sexual exploitation—one for men another for women, it is thrilling to trace the arc of the arguments and the progress made to stop slavery. The foundation of today’s antislavery work was laid in the early efforts from these four traditions, each of which had developed antislavery arguments based on the tradition in which they are rooted. They protested, wrote, spoke, and persevered until their cries were heard.
Christian opposition to slavery came first – even before our country was formed in 1776, and certainly before the other three movements. Christians were decrying slavery in the U.S. in the 1600s. The earliest written words against slavery in the US. were published in Christian pamphlets in 1724 in a Quaker Resolution. Christians were also early activists against slavery. Take for example, Benjamin Lay, a Quaker, born in 1682. A lifelong abolitionist, he wore nothing made from slave labor and ate nothing provided by any degree from slave labor. Our current fair-trade efforts seem modeled after his personal protests. He also published over 200 anti-slavery pamphlets in his lifetime and protested against slavery by standing in winter outside a Quaker meeting with no coat and one foot bare in the snow. When people expressed concern for his health, he said slaves were forced to work outdoors in winter like he was.
Looking back over the past four centuries, following the development of antislavery movements through the actual primary source material allows us to understand the modern-day movements against slavery in a deeper and more rooted way. Indeed, we might even say that the past work of the many who battled for so many years to abolish slavery lives and breathes in the work today of the many modern-day abolitionists.