Last week, the U.S. experienced the horiffic tragedy of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. It was a grevious day for for many Americans, but especially for the family, friends, and fellow parishioners of the victims. The media has been helpful in some ways and unhelpful in other ways. One of the most unhelpful ways the media and some policitians have addressed this issue is saying that the shooting was an attack against Christianity. While I cannot definitely know the motivations of the killer, I would argue that his motivation had litle to nothing to do with faith and everything to do with race. Based on his social media history, it seems as though white supremacist ideologies influenced his actions.
As a result of this sobering event, Americans are continuing to talk about the complexities of race in the U.S. While there is much work to be done, one of the most significant steps made this week was to remove the Confederate battle flag from many public and commercial settings. Many have stated that the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage. However, that heritage is steeped in racism and hatred. Following the end of the Civil War, all Confederate-related flags were removed from government use until decades later when the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s army began to be popularized as a symbol of white Southern pride. While slavery had been removed from the South, the emotional prejudice was just as bad, if not worse.
In this post, I want to talk about a Medieval church leader who spent a great deal of time freeing slaves, but I felt like I could’t talk about that subject without first addressing the current situation that the U.S. is facing. I try not to take a political stance in my writing, but I have a hard time not writing about current affairs in this post. The world-wide church has had a poor record of addressing the issue of slavery—from the 1st century even to this day. In the United States, this has led to the problem of racism. While there have been many advocates of liberty and equality for all people, there have been theologians that have embraced or at least tolerated slavery throughout history. These theologians have included early church leaders such as: Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and possibly even the Apostle Paul.
The writings found in the New Testament and of early church leaders, had been used for centuries to endorse slavery. Even prior to the American Civil War, these texts were used to explain the purpose of slavery. Individuals such as Robert E. Lee, while opposed to slavery, believed slavery to be the will of God for that time period. It’s important to note that there is some argument on whether or not the Apostle Paul actually endorsed slavery—some defend that Paul did not embrace slavery, but rather recognized its existence and gave words for instruction assuming that the system would not be abolished in his lifetime. Nonetheless, his words have been misquoted to endorse slavery.
Not all church leaders embraced or remained silent on the issue of slavery. The person that I want to focus on in this post is known as Eligius, who was an active abolitionist in the 7th century in Europe. Eligius was born in Chaptelat (in Modern France) to a well-to-do Roman family around 588 CE. As he became older, Eligius became skilled in metalurgy, particularly with fine metals. He developed a reputation as a skilled crafstman, especially amongst nobility, and was later appointed the chief of the royal mint in Marseilles. It was rumored that Eligius would often have a theological book or Bible open while he was doing metal work—his feet planted in both the religious and secular aspects of culture. Eligius was truly a remarkable man—although not perfect—he was a noble leader.
Eligius used his resources to make a difference. He was bi-vocational, meaning that he used secular employment as a mechanism to fuel his ministry. The money that Eligius made had two purposes: building monasteries and freeing slaves. Most notably, Eligius would save up money and purchase dozens of slaves from the market and free them immediately after his purchase. Throughout his life, he would continuously focus on the manumission of slaves.
Why was Eligius so committed to this goal? While we cannot be certain of his motivation, my theory has to do with his background. Unfortuantely, even as early at the 7th century, the Catholic Church had become fairly intertwined with the poltical aspects of the world. However, Celtic Christians were fairly unaffected by the political workings of Rome. You might be asking: “What does Celtic Christianity have to do with Eligius in France?” That’s a great question. Eligius would have been influenced by Celtic Christianity through the work of Columbanus, who brought Celtic Christianity to continental Europe. During the early Medieval period, continental Europe was suffering a devastating attack from invaders—many believe that Christianity could have been lost. However, the Celtic Christianity of Ireland and Patrick (two centuries earlier) began spreading throughout England and then continental Europe.
Many historians have supposed that Celtic missionaries might have saved Christianity as a whole. Eventually Celtic Christianity would be overwhelmed by Roman Christianity, but it played a significant role in the early 7th century. Eligius was influenced by the religious tradition of the Celtic Christians. You might recall that Patrick was himself a slave and became adamantly opposed to slavery, to the point of working to end the slave-trade in Ireland. I think it’s possible that the abolitionist spirit of Patrick could have influenced other Celtic Christians and thus also could have influenced Eligius.
As time went on, Eligius would be promoted to becoming a bishop and spent a significant amount of his time ministering to the Flemish and Frisian people in modern-day Belgium and Netherlands, respectively. Eligius was also active in working to eliminate simony—the practice of selling official church positions. Eligius was a leader with convictions for social justice: freeing slaves, reaching non-Christians, and opposing church corruption. His leadership was not unique, being grounded in the doctrines of the Gospels. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah in saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
— Luke 4:18–19, NRSV