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Consider this: In the ancient world, murder and theft were prohibited. However, slavery was ubiquitous and considered normal. AFAIK, nobody thought of it as immoral, though probably some called for kind treatment of slaves.

So when did people start talking of the very institution of slavery as immoral and demanding its abolition? And how did they justify that? Obviously, since they had to convince others of their point of view, they couldn't just say "We hold this truth to be self-evident".

I know that the Church prohibited slavery in the early centuries of its existence (but then allowed owning non-Christian slaves).

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Abolitionism didn't gain a large foothold until the 19th century. Antebellum slavery was quite different from older forms of slavery. –  American Luke Nov 1 '12 at 19:37
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This actually is a really good question. The holy books of most world religons acknowledge slavery's existance without saying a thing bad about it. I've even heard it argued that, in a world where the alternative was often genocide, slavery was actually a more moral option (thankfully we mostly don't live in such a world anymore). –  T.E.D. Nov 1 '12 at 21:05
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Yes, and holy books also say that slaves have certain rights. –  Lev Nov 2 '12 at 15:09
    
Some holy books (e.g. Bible) have supported slavery. –  Rory Nov 5 '12 at 11:14
    
It agreed to slavery with limitations. For example, slaves had to be released after a certain amount of time. Slavery during the times in which the Books of the Law were written was quite different from antebellum slavery. –  American Luke Nov 5 '12 at 12:51
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

As @Luke states, there seems to have been a tipping point in the 19th century; I'd have dated it a few years earlier, and I'd have located it in England; Britain started out as a major participant in the slave trade (more slaves went to British possessions in the Caribbean than to the US colonies). Sometime between 1780's and 1830's there was a major shift in perception and values. I would point to the Quaker AntiSlavery committees and William Wilberforce as representatives of that shift.

The British campaign to abolish the slave trade is generally considered to have begun in the 1780s with the establishment of the Quakers' antislavery committees, and their presentation to Parliament of the first slave trade petition in 1783.[53][54] The same year, Wilberforce, while dining with his old Cambridge friend Gerard Edwards,[55] met Rev. James Ramsay, a ship's surgeon who had become a clergyman on the island of St Christopher (later St Kitts) in the Leeward Islands, and a medical supervisor of the plantations there. What Ramsay had witnessed of the conditions endured by the slaves, both at sea and on the plantations, horrified him. Returning to England after fifteen years, he accepted the living of Teston, Kent in 1781, and there met Sir Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and others, a group that later became known as the Testonites.[56] Interested in promoting Christianity and moral improvement in Britain and overseas, they were appalled by Ramsay's reports of the depraved lifestyles of slave owners, the cruel treatment meted out to the enslaved, and the lack of Christian instruction provided to the slaves.[57] With their encouragement and help, Ramsay spent three years writing An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar colonies, which was highly critical of slavery in the West Indies. The book, published in 1784, was to have an important impact in raising public awareness and interest, and it excited the ire of West Indian planters who in the coming years attacked both Ramsay and his ideas in a series of pro-slavery tracts. Wikipedia summary of William Wilberforce

The question is far larger; books could and have been written on the subject, but I hope this pointer is useful in setting up further research.

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As I understand it, in 1793 Ontario was the first place in the British Empire to ban slavery (albeit grandfathered). See Lt Gov John Simcoe's 1793 "Act to prevent the further introduction of slaves and to limit the term of contract for servitude within this province". –  Joseph Quinsey Nov 8 '12 at 6:07
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Wikipedia states:

Essenes
Slave ownership was widely accepted by the majority of early Jewish societies, but the Essenes were a small, ascetic sect that reportedly renounced slavery,[16] although some scholars question whether the Essenes actually renounced slavery.[17][18]

The sources for those references is Hezser, Catherine, "Jewish slavery in antiquity", Oxford University Press, 2005

Please note that due to economic considerations, non-slavery society was not a very viable proposition in ancient times.

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It is incorrect to perceive that there was a single concept of slavery in ancient world. The Latin word for slave, "servus" at the same time meant a servant.

The concept of slavery differed very much between ancient societies and also differed in time. Sometimes a slave would be considered a member of the family to the extent that a formal kinly relationship such as formal adoption would be required for having a slave while in other societies the concept of slavery rose from the captured enemies or even possibly, rebels. Still in others one could become a slave for failing to pay a debt and could earn freedom back upon paying the sum or serving a certain term.

The societies differed much in the social status of "slaves" and their rights and the very word for slave could only barely be translated from one language to another without loosing a part of the meaning.

We currently apply the same term "slave" to penal farm convicts, prisoners of war, debtors forced to work to repay debts, dependent peasants, minor clan members and so on, who all had different legal status.

The situation is quite similar to how we apply the term "king" to various ancient titles that had little in common (rex, basilios, vanax, archon, archagestes, despotes, hegemon, tyrannos etc). There was little in common between elected and not heriditary Roman rex responsive to the senate and a Egyptian pharaon yet we call the both "kings". If a Roman of the time appeared in modern day he would possibly call the president "rex" and the penal farm prisoners "public slaves".

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+1. I tried to research this question in British and European medieval history, and kept stumbling over issues of terminology. (eg: Were serfs "slaves"?) –  T.E.D. Nov 5 '12 at 16:26
    
Good point. The Church prohibited slavery, yet serfs existed. Probably the reason they were not considered "slaves" is that their rights changed over time from land leasers to slaves, or vice versa. E.g., in Russia, there was St. Yuri's day, when a serf could leave his master for another one, but later it was abolished, and thus the serfs were deprived of their last right. –  Lev Nov 5 '12 at 20:02
    
@Lev classically by Marx the difference is in that the slaves unlike the serfs cannot possess property. But when referring to the ancient world there are numerous examples of "slaves" possessing property and even becoming richer than their masters. –  Anixx Nov 5 '12 at 22:47
    
Caveat reader: The Roman hereditary rex is a highly original concept that is supported by most scholars, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, valid points. +1 –  Felix Goldberg Dec 26 '12 at 0:31
    
@Felix Goldberg rex was not hereditary, there were rules on how to choose him: election by the senate, then popular voting, then again senatorial law, enabling the powers. Also auspicies should be in favour of the candidature. –  Anixx Dec 26 '12 at 2:59
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As Mark C. Wallace very correctly points out, the British antislavery movement of the 18th and 19th centuries was the first serious anti-slavery movement that managed to roll back slavery. However, no discussion of anti-slavery can be complete without a mention of the good friar Las Casas.

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I wonder why the downvote... –  Felix Goldberg Dec 26 '12 at 2:28
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