Anti-Slavery in the British American Colonies

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Anti-Slavery in the British American Colonies


Anti-Slavery sentiments in North America


Anti-Slave Sentiments in the Early American Colonies

     In 1619, the first African slave was brought to the British North American colonies, but African slavery was not very common in the colonies until the end of the century.  Prior to that, English indentured servants made up the most common form of servitude.  But during the second half of the seventeenth century circumstances in England that were favorable to the working poor coupled with a growing perception that the kind of labor required to produce tobacco and sugar was not appropriate for Christians.[1]  As indentured servitude decreased and Native Americans proved unsuitable for slavery, the use of African slaves skyrocketed.  Meanwhile, anti-slavery sentiments were developing in the religious colonies of Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, Massachusetts. The earliest know anti-slavery sentiments were recorded in Pennsylvania’s Quaker community and were based on interpretations of the Bible.  Most, but not all, of the early anti-slavery documents were written by Quakers.  This essay will show when, why and how the Quakers spread anti-slavery sentiments, and describe how the structure of their business meetings was essential to keeping the anti-slavery conversations alive.             

      Slavery in the English colonies was codified into law, long before it became the primary source of bound labor.  Surprisingly, the legal status of slavery did not begin in the South or the Caribbean, but in New England.  The Puritans, who settled in New England in 1620 created the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, which stated that “there shall never be any bond-slavery, villenage or captivitie among us unless it be lawful captives…or are sold to us.”  These facts compelled historian Wendy Warren to declare that “they encoded the institution of slavery almost as soon as there was time to do so (and) their slave code predated and formed the basis of other slave codes in the colonies.”[2]  

     The Puritans’ colony codified slavery, while the first known anti-slavery sentiments came from the Quaker colony.  At first, it was primarily an internal discussion, because many Quakers owned slaves.  In fact, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and a Quaker, owned slaves.  Even so, Quaker ideology rejected all violence and Quakers refused to perform various social graces that symbolized subservience and authority, and they did not have a paid clergy.[3]   Naturally, they observed violence and subservience in American slavery, but unlike the Puritans and Anglicans, the Quakers had no priest to tell them that God had ordained the institution, as some were inclined to do.  Some Christians found justifications for slavery in the Bible,[4] while Quakers used scripture to oppose slavery.

     George Fox, the founder of English Quakerism, stated concerns about the treatment of slaves in 1657.  In a letter addressed to Friends beyond the sea that owned slaves, he proposed limited terms of service, payment at the end of service, and evangelization during service.[5]  He and William Edmundson, visited Barbados in 1671, and preached to the slaves and encouraged their masters to educate them. “Edmundson was probably the first Quaker to denounce slavery outright when he issued a statement in Newport Rhode Island in 1676.”[6]  Meanwhile, the Quakers of Barbados were fined 7000 pounds, had their meeting house nailed shut, and one Quaker was executed for radical views on slavery.   

     Not surprisingly, religion was at the forefront of anti-slavery thought. Christianity and/or biblical interpretations fueled the argument.  Withrop D. Gordon, Professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Mississippi, attempted to define the attitude of white men toward blacks in the colonial era.[7]  Gordon believed that the essential conflict was rooted in the Western philosophy of Christianity.  He states that “internal stress bubbled quickly because Christian tradition held that the souls of men (should) be given spiritual care…and the first hurdle to the path of conversion was the vague notion that no Christian might legally hold another Christian in slavery.”  Gordon explains that such compulsion was at odds with the necessity to keep the slave in labor, and further, that baptizing the slave would make the slave more similar to the master (180-183).  Given the political structures of the day, it is not surprising that the Anglican ministers who lived closest to the planters were disinclined to push the issue. In fact, according to Gordon:

It is no accident that early anti-slavery pronouncements came largely from a religious group which had originated at a time of social upheaval.  The Society of Friends arose out of social and religious turmoil during the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century and underwent years of persecution…partly for their stubborn persistence in pushing the principle of equality into area into which nearly everyone else regarded as purely temporal.[8]

     As if to prove Gordon’s theory, in 1688 four Quakers presented The Germantown Petition, which was approved at the February 18th weekly Germantown Pennsylvania meeting and later at the yearly Quaker meeting in Burlington, New Jersey, where it was found to be “not so proper as to give a positive judgment…it having so general a relation to many other parts.”[9]  In the resolution, the petitioners stated, “These are reasons we are against the traffic of men’s bodies.”  They likened African bondage to the capture of Europeans by the Ottomans, a threat the colonists knew well.  Then, quoting scripture, “There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men licke as will be done ourselves.”  The petition also argued that slave owners caused adultery because slaves’ marriages were not recognized. [10]  

    The structure of the Friends’ (Quakers) meetings made a suitable vehicle for the ongoing discussion of slavery.  Local Friends had weekly meetings and those who felt moved by the spirit would rise and speak.  Representatives of the weekly meetings would attend monthly meeting, and there would be quarterly and yearly meetings also, each one representing a larger district.  The conduct of members was an issue that might be passed from the weekly to the monthly meeting, and onward.[11]  Thus, the things presented at the lower level often became business at the higher levels, so discussions about slavery spread throughout the association.  By discussing slave ownership, the members were actually talking about the behavior of fellow Friends.  Consequently, discussions of the evils of slavery persisted.  Whereas Quakers quickly became a minority in their own colony, this was an internal debate, but occasionally, as Quakers distributed pamphlets to the non-Quaker community,the public had knowledge of their debates. [12]

        Five years after the Germantown petition, George Keith presented An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying and Keeping of Negros (1693), at the yearly meeting in Philadelphia.  Keith was close friends with William Penn and George Fox, and a Presbyterian turned Quaker.  Keith’s Exhortation followed the format that the petitioners had made in the Germantown meeting.  He repeated their reference to the Turks who had enslaved Europeans, and stated that American slavery was harsher than Turkish slavery, deducing that the American Christians were worse than the Turks.  Keith also repeated the Germantown argument about the Golden Rule, and added that slavery amounted to stealing.  In so many words, the slave was stolen from himself.  Consequently, he identified the biblical law against theft and quoted Deuteronomy, which forbid the buying of men and the returning of runaway slaves to their masters.[13]  His petition failed.  Keith soon left the colonies and the Quakers by returning to England and joining the Church of England.  He returned to America as an Anglican Bishop and continued to condemn slavery.  Thus, anti-slavery was not solely a Quaker philosophy.

     Another Quaker, Benjamin Lay wrote a 199 page pamphlet All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, in 1737.  He addressed slave holders, saying, “you Preach and Exhort others to Equity, and to do justice and love mercy…and you yourself act quite contrary…and live in and encourage the grossest Iniquity in the whole world…beyond the sins of Cain, for he murdered only one.”  Furthermore, Lay suggested that the slave holders should become slaves themselves, since as they say, their slaves live so well.[14] 

     By arguing that slave owners are thousands of times worse than Cain based on body counts, Lay entered into a common issue that Christians had with slavery:  The significance of death and the judgment of God.  Vincent Brown, professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, proposed that death is “the significant issue of social change”.  Beginning with a quote from anthropologist Katherine Verdery, that, “Death is the quintessential issue, one that brings us face to face with the ultimate question--what it means to be and to stop being human,” Brown tied the life, death and resurrection (thus conversion) of humans and the inhumane life and death of slaves, to argue that these religious and social considerations helped spur legislation to abolish the slave trade and eventually slavery.[15]

     While the Germantown petitioners and the writings of George Keith and Benjamin Lay substantiates the trail of anti-slavery sentiments among Quakers, some anti-slavery expressions came from non-Quakers.  In 1700 Samuel Sewall, a Puritan living in Massachusetts Bay, wrote and published an anti-slavery essay, which, along with the others documents named here, became classics of early abolitionist writings.   Sewall’s argument was like the others in that it recognized the humanity of the Africans, and thus their right to liberty.  He also asked his reader to imagine themselves as the slave.  His pamphlet even referred to “stealing men,” and declared that “naturally, there is no such thing as slavery,” as he recounted the circumstance of mankind in Adam’s time.  Yet Sewall brought a new element that the others did not.  He played the role of adversary against pro-slavery arguments, including those based on interpretations of the Bible.[16]  From Sewall’s counter arguments, it is evident that some Christians were defending slavery, with reasoning such as “Abraham owned slaves,” and  that slavery enabled slaves to hear the gospel (although baptism of slaves was sometimes forbidden); and that slavery was proper because black skin was evidence of God’s curse.      

     The history of anti-slavery sentiments in English America began with statements made by the founders of the Society of Friends, George Fox, and William Edmundson.  Then, two Quaker business documents from 1688 and 1693 expressed similar sentiments.  In 1700, a Puritan created an essay that argued the same case.  In 1737 another Quaker argued against slavery but was removed from the Philadelphia Society of Friends, and returned to America as an Anglican Bishop, preaching against slavery.  Thus it is apparent that Christian/religious ideologies drove the early anti-slavery sentiments especially in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.  Finally, in 1758 the Quakers passed a resolution at their yearly meeting, making it misconduct for a Quaker to own slaves.  The Quakers, who had freed themselves to think for themselves, were the first known torch bearers of the anti-slavery movement in English America.




Primary Documents:


Hendricks, Gerret, Graeff, Decick Op De, Pastorius, Francis Daniell, and Graef, Abraham Op Den.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Resolution of Germantown Mennonites of 1688.  In American AntiSlavery Writings:  Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, 1-3.  Basker, James G.,editor.  New York:  The Library of America, 2012.


Lay, Benjamin.  All Slave-Keepers that keep Innocents in Bondage, Apostates.  Philadelphia: Benjamin Lay publisher, 1737.  Antislavery Literature. Accessed September 27, 2016.  http://antislavery.


Keith, George.  An Exhortation & Caution of Friends Concerning the Buying or Keeping of Negroes, 1700. In American AntiSlavery Writings:  Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, 1-3.  Basker, James G., editor.  New York:  The Library of America, 2012. 


  Sewall, Samuel.  The Selling of Joseph, 1700: A Memorial.  In American Anti-Slavery Writings:  Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation.  Basker, James G., editor.  New York:  The Library of America, 2012.


 Secondary Sources:                   

 Brown, Vincent.  The Reaper’s GardenDeath and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery.  Cambr idge:  Harvard University Press, 2008. 

 Jordan, Winthrop D.  White over BlackAmerican Attitudes Toward the Negro1550-1812.  Chapel Hill:  North Carolina Press, 1986.

 Stillion Southard, Bjom F.  “The Plain Style in Early Anti-slavery Discourse:  Reassessing the Rhetorical Beginnings of Quaker and Puritan Advocacy.”  Quarterly Journal of Speech 102, no. 3 (Aug. 2016):  286-306.

 Soderlund, Jean R.  Quaker and SlaveryA Divided Spirit.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2014.

 Warren, Wendy.  New England Bound:  Slavery and Colonization in Early America.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016.

     1.  It should be noted that slavery was not limited to the cash crops, nor was it exclusively a southern institution, but it eventually prevailed in the South where cash crops dominated the landscape and the economy.

     2.  Wendy Warren, New England Bound:  Slavery and Colonizarion in Early America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), 34.

     3.  Jean R. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery:  A Divided Spirit, (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1985), 6.

     4.  Many Christians persisted in the belief that the Bible condoned slavery.  Thornton Stringfellow, Scripitual and Statistical Views in Favor on Slavery, J W Randolph, ed., Richmond, 1856, provided an excellent argument., accessed 11-01-2016.

     5.  Bjorn F. Stillion Southard, “The Plain Style in Early Anti-Slavery Discourse:  Reassessing the Rhetorical Beginnings of Quaker and Puritan Advocacy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, no.3 (Aug. 2016): 291.

     6.  Soderlund,  Divided Spirit, 3.

     7.  Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over BlackAmerican Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, (Williamsburg, VA):  University of North Carolina Press,  1968), vii. 

     8.  Ibid., 194.

     9.  James G. Basker, ed., American Anti-Slavery Writings (New York:  Penguin Group, 2012), 1.

   10.  Gerret Hendricks, Decick Op De Graeff,  Daniell Franciss, and Abraham Op Den Graef, “The Resolution of the Germantown Mennonites,” in Basker, American Anti-Slavery Writings, 1-3.

   11.  Sodurlund, Divided Spirit, 189-193.

    12.   Southard, Plain Style, 291.

    13.  George Keith, “An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying and Keeping of Negroes,” in Basker, American Anti-Slavery Writings, 4-6.

     14.  Benjamin Lay, “All Slave Keepers that keep Innocents in Bondage,”  in Basker, Anti-Slave Writing, 23-24.

     15.   Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s GardenDeath and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (CambridgeHarvard University Press, 2008),  6-7.

     16.   Samuel Sewall, “The Selling of Joseph, 1700,” in Basker, Anti-Slave Writing, 9-13. 


Gary E. Nalley


[no text]


University of Memphis


November 30, 2016


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Collection Items

Photograph of the Germantown Petition of 1688.

Photograph of title page of All Slaves Keepers that keep Innocents in Bondage, Apostates.  Book by Benjamin Lay.

Painting of Benjamin Lay.
Painting of well known anti-slavery writer of 18th century.
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