Quakers and the Fight against Slavery
Members of the Society of Friends, known as the Quakers, were instrumental in early antislavery efforts in colonial North America.
George Fox, the group's founder, argued in a 1671 sermon against poor treatment of slaves and against the legitimacy of slavery, though he did not argue for their immediate freedom: "Consider with yourselves, if you were in the same condition as the Blacks are, who came strangers to you, and were sold to you as slaves. I say if this should be the condition of you or yours, you would think it hard measure. Yea and very great bondage and cruelty. And therefore consider seriously of this, and do you for them, as you would have them, or any other, to do unto you, were you in the like slavish condition."
Quakers organized the first antislavery efforts in colonial North America, offering a petition in 1688 that argued that slavery contradicted the "Golden Rule," that slavery was opposed to core beliefs of the Quaker tradition, and that the cruelty of slavery may result in violent revolt.
Over the next century, Quakers, including Anthony Benezet, continued to play a leadership role in efforts to promote the gradual freedom of enslaved people. By the mid-eighteenth century, there was ongoing conversation against slavery, as evident in a document from John Woolman, who asked "Who then can we who have been concerned to publish the Gospel of universal Love and peace among mankind, be so inconsistent with ourselves, as to purchase such who are Prisoners of War; and thereby encourage this anti Christian practice? And more especially, as many of these poor Creatures are stolen away . . . . Let us make their Case our own, and consider what we should think, and how we should feel, were we in their circumstances." Their antislavery stance was founded in empathy and concern for enslaved people, putting themselves in the shoes of another.
By 1774, Quakers in Philadelphia banned slaveholding among the members of the church, though full compliance with the ban took a number of years.
Born in 1713, Anthony Benezet spent most of his life in Philadelphia, serving as a key figure tying together the antislavery movements in colonial North America, Britain, and France. Benezet began educating African American children in his home and eventually set up a school, the African Free School, to educate young people, more than half a century before Abdul Rahman's visit to Philadelphia.
Unlike other thinkers of the time, Benezet argued for the full equality of black people, connecting the religious arguments that Quakers had been using to Enlightenment ideas. He had an enormous influence on other thinkers of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, who was elected president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in 1787.
In addition to his work as an educator, Benezet wrote prolifically, arguing that enslaved Africans were taken from developed societies, not from a "primitive state." He developed philosophical arguments that drew from several strands of antislavery thought, tying together the arguments in new ways and connecting thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. His arguments often appealed to white self-interest, noting fear of slave uprisings and appealing to sensibilities of white morality as 'superior'.
In reference to Benezet, Carter G. Woodson noted, "Let no casual reader of this story conclude that Benezet was a mere theorist or pamphleteer. He ever translated into action what he professed to believe. Knowing that the enlightenment of the black would not only benefit them directly but would also disprove the mad theories as to the impossibility of their mental improvement, Benezet became one of the most aggressive and successful workers who ever toiled among these unfortunates."
To learn more about Anthony Benezet, read Maurice Jackson's Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., April 19, 1866
© Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-33937
Wood carving of Anthony Benezet (Source: Historical poetical and pictorial American scenes / by J.W. Barber, 1850)
© Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.