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“And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him . . . ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off.”

Martin Luther King, “Loving Your Enemies

The truth that humans are made in God’s image is set forth in the very first chapter of Genesis (vv. 26–27). Unfortunately, recognizing the implications of this doctrine for human personhood and dignity has been a painfully slow process for humanity. Throughout history, we have been incredibly adept at finding ways to dehumanize others based on their tribe, race, ethnicity, sex, mental abilities, health, age, gender, political beliefs, religious beliefs, and more. Indeed, the bulk of our history provides examples of this dehumanization that now fill entire libraries.

But there is another story—one that has unfortunately been only a minor strand of humanity’s story. It recognizes the social and political implications of everyone being made in God’s image. Since all humanity shares this quality we cannot reduce others according to specifics parts of their human identity. Instead, understanding everyone as made in God’s image establishes and enriches the dignity of every human being. This recognition changes how we think about everyone’s worth and value.  On this day, I want to recognize how this recognition transformed our understanding of slavery, Native Americans, and African-Africans.

The Earliest Known Argument against Slavery

As the stories of Joseph in Genesis and the Israelites in Egypt illustrate, slavery has existed since the earliest history of humanity. The emergence of Greek and Roman philosophy and government did nothing to change that reality. As one scholar has noted, “Few societies have been so squarely constructed on the institution of slavery as were ancient Greece and Rome.”1 The institution had strong philosophical backing. As is well-known, Aristotle claimed in his Politics, “It is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain people who are slaves [by nature], and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves,” a lie that David Brion Davis noted, “would help shape virtually all subsequent proslavery thought.”2

In fact, we know of no pronouncements against the institution of slavery until an ancient Christian bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, made this ground-breaking argument against slavery in 381 A.D.,

If a man makes that which truly belongs to God into his own private property, by allotting himself sovereignty over his own race, and thinks himself the master of men and women, what could follow but an arrogance exceeding all nature from the one who sees himself as something other than the ones who are ruled? . . .  How many obols for the image of God? How many staters did you get for selling the God-formed man?3

Gregory insisted one could not put a price on humans made in the image of God. He would go on to say that everything about humanity “manifests royal dignity” due to its “exact likeness to the beauty of the archetype.”4 Unfortunately, it would take another 1,500 years for this argument to finally gain prominence over Aristotle in Western countries.

Unleashing the Image of God

The truth that we are all made in the image of God was unleashed when courageous Christians argued for Native Americans and Africans to be considered humans made in God’s image. Bartolomé de las Casas 1484–1566) provides an important early example. He immigrated to the island of Hispaniola (now present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) when he was a layperson but later became a Dominican friar due to the courageous stand of other Dominican priests against abuses of Native Americans. His most well-known writing, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, outlined the cruelties of Spanish colonialists. He argued:

We read of old, of the Ten Persecutions wherein the Primitive Christians were destroyed by the Cruelties of the Heathen Emperours: but now read of Christians, the Professors of a Religion grounded upon Love and Charity, massacring, where there was no cause of Antipathy, but their own obstinate Barbarism; as if because their Wickedness had so far transform’d them into Devils, they were resolved to deface the image of God, so innocently conversing among them.5

As can be seen, he specifically built his case against the cruel treatment of Native Americans upon the fact that they are made in God’s image.

Later in this work, he tells of this horrible story, once again noting that the Native Americans are formed after the image of God,

Spaniard Hunting and intent on his game, phancyed that his Beagles wanted food; and to supply their hunger snatcht a young little Babe from the Mothers breast, cutting off his Arms and Legs, cast a part of them to every Dog, which they having devour’d, he threw the remainder of the Body to them. Thus it is plainly manifest how they value these poor Creatures, created after the image of God….6

Bartolomé de las Casas would go on to defend the humanity of Native Americans in front of the Spanish Crown in 1550. In that debate with other Catholic leaders, he explicitly rejected a 1519 claim from Bishop Juan de Quevedo who considered the Native Americans natural servants. The Bishop had derived that view from Aristotle who Catholic leaders described as “the Philosopher.” De las Casas responded that Aristotle’s beliefs “should be accepted insofar as they conform to our Christian religion.”7

Instead, de las Casas declared, “If we want to be sons of Christ and followers of the truth of the gospel, we should consider that, even though these peoples may be completely barbaric, they are nevertheless created in God’s image. They are not forsaken by divine providence that they are incapable of attaining Christ’s kingdom. They are our brothers, redeemed by Christ’s most precious blood, no less than the wisest and most learned men in the whole world.”8 He courageously concluded, “Good-­bye, Aristotle! From Christ, the eternal truth, we have the command ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself’ [Matthew 22:40].”9

Increasingly after this time, we find other well-known Christian leaders taking up this argument. Morgan Godwyn, an English priest from the seventeenth century, who was once the personal priest to King Charles I, wrote in his first book, Negro’s and Indian’s Advocate (1680) that we should view Blacks and Native Americans as image bearers of God who deserve a right to religion since we can see “our Blessed Savior in the Negro’s complexion” (p. 21). In contrast, he noted that those who want to deny the humanity of Blacks and Native Americans resort to silly arguments to deny Genesis 1:27, such as claiming that other races were created outside of Adam or that their bestial behavior undermines their humanity. Through such arguments they “throw off all respect for the work of God’s hand” (p. 21). As a result of this bold book, he lost his position as Rector of Woldham, Kent.

Yet, this argument would continue to gain traction. David Brion Davis’s work, Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery, observed, “The popular hostility to slavery that emerged almost simultaneously in England and in parts of the United States drew upon the tradition of natural law and a revivified sense of the image of God in man.”10 It took Christian eighteenth and nineteenth-century abolitionists to revive and expand upon the truth that everyone, including African Americans, is made in God’s image (e.g., one book by abolitionist H.G. Adams was titled God’s Image in Ebony). As Frederick Douglas would declare forcefully, “The slave is a man, ‘the image of God,’ but ‘a little lower than the angels’; possessing a soul, eternal and indestructible…”11

Although the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would legally abolish slavery in the United States, it took until the 1960s for the reality that African-Americans are made in God’s image to influence law fully.  One hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. relied upon this theological doctrine so heavily in his advocacy for civil rights for African Americans that a whole book has been written about his use of this key theological doctrine.12 The author, Richard Wayne Wills, argued that King’s understanding of the doctrine had four key elements:

First, all individuals, as children of God, were equally valued inasmuch as they were birthed with an inherent dignity. Second, human beings had an intrinsic worth that in and of itself became the requisite for the bestowal of just and fair treatment. Third, in addition to warranting just treatment by virtue of their having been created in the image of God, humanity thus created possessed the capacity to cooperate with God by living out the mandates of their moral conscience, such that the desire to choose to do that which is socially good can actually be translated into the deed itself. Fourth and finally, the image of God provided the existential common ground for genuine community-building, making beloved community, in its broadest sense, a distinct historical possibility.13

Today, we should celebrate King’s courage and his example of how to translate this key doctrine into the Christian, American, and human communities.

Indeed, all Christians and humans still need to unpack and consider what it means that all humans are made in God’s image and what it means to restore that defaced image. We also need to be on guard against replacing the truth that all humans are made in God’s image for past or present pagan academic thinking that contradicts this point.


  1. Kyle Harper, “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity,” in Christianity and Freedom: Historical Perspectives, ed. Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 1:131.
  2. David Brion Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 128.
  3. Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiasten, 4.1, in Sources chrétiennes no. 416.Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery, 81–82 (emphasis added).
  4. Quoted in Andrew Louth, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis:1–11, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 34.
  5. Bartolomé de las Casas, An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies, ed. Franklin Knight, trans. Andrew Hurley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 16-17.
  6. Bartolomé de las Casas, An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies (1689),
  7. As quoted in Lewis Hanke, All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 11. For the full source see Lawrence A. Clayton and David M. Lantigua, Bartolomé de Las Casas and the Defense of Amerindian Rights: A Brief History with Documents (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2020), 74.
  8. Clayton and Lantigua, Bartolomé de Las Casas, 89.
  9. Clayton and Lantigua, Bartolomé de Las Casas, 89.
  10. Davis, Image of God, 198. See also Dierdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  11. Frederick Douglas, “The Nature of Slavery” in Howard. Brotz, ed. African-American Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920 (New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 1992), 217.
  12. Richard W. Wills, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Image of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). I should note one major weakness with this volume. Wills unfortunately misinterprets how numerous church fathers and reformers understood the image of God in this book, claiming that many of them thought the image of God was completely lost after the fall.
  13. Wills, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Image of God, 113.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • Duane Covrig says:


    You trace well how the “image of God” teaching and belief undergirds a better moral frame of doing ethics in Western Civilization. It connects us better to God and natural law then Greek philosophy. This is a point you make well in your two recent critiques of moral education, Dismantling of Moral Education and Identity Excellence. Thank you for this post and these attempts to help us reposition Christian morality back to the love of God and others as the core of doing the good life together.


  • Mark Witwer says:

    May peacemaking and compassion increase in our day, by God’s grace. Thank you, Perry, for your part in encouraging that right here.

  • Jim Martone says:

    Thanks for a timely reminder on this MLK Jr. day.

    Dr. Carmen Imes presents a thoughtful view of mankind created AS (as opposed to IN) God’s image which is worthy of consideration.

  • John Fry says:

    I appreciate the overall point and content of the essay. Just one nit to pick: slavery in the United States was legally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in early 1865 and ratified by the end of that year ( The Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure and therefore did not apply once the Civil War was over.