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This Far by Faith

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1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA
Next Journey
Quakers: From Slave Traders to Early Abolitionists



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Timeline: 1526-1775 View Detailed Timeline
1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues



1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA
Quakers: From Slave Traders to Early Abolitionists



"What greater Oppression can there be inflicted upon our Fellow Creature, than is inflicted on the poor Negroes...cruel Whippings, and other cruel Punishments, and by short allowance of Food." --George Keith, "An Exhortation and Caution to Friends concerning buying or keeping of Negroes" (1693)

The Quakers were among the most prominent slave traders during the early days of the country; paradoxically, they were also among the first denominations to protest slavery. The denomination's internal battle to do so, however, took over a century. Their fight began in Pennsylvania. There, in April 1688, four Dutch members of "The Society of Friends," as it was then known, sent a short petition "against the traffick of men-body" to their meeting in Germantown.


Wood engraving of Quaker meeting. Their insistence on equality for women was repugnant to other denominations.

Wood engraving of Quaker meeting. Their insistence on equality for women was repugnant to other denominations.


Pennsylvania had existed for four years; slaveholding had been present for at least three of those. These Dutch Christians, alluding to Matthew 7:12, believed that Jesus' morality demanded a higher standard: "Is there any that would be . . . sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? …There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men as we will be done ourselves."

The 1688 Quaker Meeting, however, ducked the petition of its Dutch members, as they found the matter "so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here." The petition was filed away, to be discovered again and published in 1844, 156 years later. While previously, English Christians such as George Fox and William Edmondson, both Quakers, and Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian, had criticized slavery and called for reforms, the Germantown petition may well have been the first direct protest against the system of slavery itself.


Quaker Benjamin Lay's 1737 address to fellow Quakers.

Quaker Benjamin Lay's 1737 address to fellow Quakers.


For the next half-century, similar scattered protests against the slavery system were offered to an indifferent or actively hostile North American public. Before the Revolution, Quakers like George Keith and Samuel Sewall criticized the common practice of purchasing Africans who had been made captive in wars. Since "every War is upon one side Unjust," Sewall observed, "an Unlawful War can't make lawful Captives. And by receiving, we are in danger to promote, and partake in their Barbarous Cruelties." Early opponents of slavery often paid a high price for their outspokenness. They were disowned by family and fellow congregants, and faced public ostracization. Despite their efforts, the moral question of slavery would not be joined nationally until a decade before the Civil War.

- Contributed by Stephen Angell, Earlham School of Religion



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