Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A mode of labor articulation wherein one human being (the slave ) is "owned" by another (the master , although in some cases the owner may be an institution; the term mistress is sometimes used for the wife of a master, but many cultures, including the U.S. slave South, prohibit ownership of property, hence slaves, by women).

Actual slave systems vary significantly in the ways in which the two parties stand in relationship to each other, but in general the condition is characterized by the inability of the slave "freely" to cease his or her relationship with the owner. Slave systems have existed throughout most of history around the world. Among the best known today are those of ancient Rome and of the colonial and early U.S. South. The latter was relatively unique for its racism and the increasing inability for a slave to be manumitted ("freed") under any conditions.

The phrase wage slavery was applied by Karl Marx to capitalist industrial enterprise, particularly in Great Britain, to mean that the worker had to work in the factories or die of starvation. The argument has been made by Orlando Patterson (1982, 1991), the preeminent contemporary social scientist of slavery, that New Testament Christianity cannot be understood apart from Roman slave codes. Max Weber has argued that slavery was responsible for the fall of Rome, although that argument now is generally discredited.

Slavery in colonial North America began when a Dutch ship intended for the Caribbean ran adrift at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 and had only a small number of African slaves left to trade for badly needed supplies. The slaves could be adopted into southern agriculture and culture because Tudor poor laws in England already provided for slavery as a method for dealing with the British poor themselves. It was not until the 1690s that the racist system of slavery that came to characterize the U.S. South developed that form.

William H. Swatos, Jr .


O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

O. Patterson, Freedom (New York: Basic Books, 1991)

W. H. Swatos, Jr., Mediating Capitalism and Slavery (Tampa, Fla.: USF Monographs in Religion and Public Policy, 1987).

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