The First Abolitionist: Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

By Dustin Bruce

Though it rubs against our modern sensibilities, Christians in the ancient world generally accepted slavery as a normal, albeit unfortunate, aspect of human reality. One expert has summarized, “In antiquity, only the rare Christian perceived the gospel to be incompatible with the institution of slavery.”[1] Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 330–395), the youngest of the Cappadocian Fathers, was just such a rare Christian.

Gregory, in what is considered “the most scathing critique of slaveholding in all of antiquity,” attacked the institution as incompatible with humanity’s creation in the image of God.[2] Gregory’s remarkable diatribe against the practice of slavery may be found in his fourth homily on Ecclesiastes, specifically addressing 2:7, “I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem” (ESV).

Of all the Preacher’s boasting, this statement stands as the worst affront to Gregory and in his mind, God.[3] He asks, “Do any of the things listed here…suggest as much arrogance as the man’s idea that he as a man can be master over his fellows?”[4] Such a declaration of slaveholding reveals the “vast extent of his boastfulness.”[5] Gregory states sharply, “Such a voice as his is raised in open defiance against God.”[6]

For Gregory, slavery violates the characteristics of man as created in the image of God. The following portions are a mere sampling of his powerful argument:

‘I acquired slaves and slave girls.’ What is that you say? You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and in doing so you lay down a law in opposition to God, overturning the natural law established by him. For you subject to the yoke of slavery one who was created precisely to be a master of the earth, and who was ordained to rule by the creator, as if you were deliberately attacking and fighting against the divine command.[7]

What price did you put on reason? How many obols did you pay as a fair price for the image of God? For how many staters have you sold the nature specially formed by God? ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image and likeness.”’[8]

Gregory of Nyssa holds a unique place among the Fathers as the singular opponent of the existence of slavery in any form. With comments reminiscent of a William Wilberforce speech or a Frederick Douglass discourse, Gregory sharply denounces the practice of enslaving a person who bears the image of God as immoral and contrary to God’s intentions for humanity. Not only is Gregory’s condemnation of slavery unique, it is also instructive. With millions of modern day slaves, all bearing the image of God, existing in a state of tortuous bondage throughout the globe, may all God’s people be as bold as Gregory in asking, “who can buy a man, who can sell him, when he is made in the likeness of God.”[9]

[1]Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 78.

[2]Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem, 97.

[3]It is interesting to note that Gregory understands the Preacher to be offering a public confession for his sins in this portion of Ecclesiastes. Daniel F. Stramara Jr., “Gregory of Nyssa: An Ardent Abolitionist,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 41, no. 1 (1997): 43.

[4]Translation taken from Trevor Dennis, “Man Beyond Price: Gregory of Nyssa and Slavery,” in Heaven and Earth : Essex Essays in Theology and Ethics (Worthington, West Sussex: Churchman, 1986), 130. Also, an English translation may be found in Stuart George Hall and Rachel Moriarty, eds., Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 74–75.

[5]Dennis, “Man Beyond Price,” 135.

[6]Dennis, “Man Beyond Price,” 135.

[7]Dennis, “Man Beyond Price,” 135.

[8]Dennis, “Man Beyond Price,” 136.

[9]Dennis, “Man Beyond Price,” 136.


Dustin Bruce lives in Louisville, KY where he is pursuing a PhD in Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary. He is a graduate of Auburn University and Southwestern Seminary. Dustin and his wife, Whitney, originally hail from Alabama.