Slavery in the Quaker World
Katharine Gerbner, September 1, 2019, Friends Journal
Quakers have long been hailed as heroes of the abolitionist movement. Friends like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman worked tirelessly to convince other Whites to abolish slavery and embrace liberty for all. Fourteen years ago, when I began research for my book Christian Slavery, I wanted to understand this abolitionist history better. I started with the “beginning”: the first antislavery protest in North America, written by German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania. But as I quickly learned, this was only part of the story when it comes to Quakers and slavery.
The 1688 Germantown Protest, as it is often called, was the first document in North America to denounce slavery. It is an extraordinary document. It declares, among other things, that the authors are “against the traffick of men‐body.” It goes on to explain that slavery cannot be a Christian practice and that it is against the Golden Rule. It is worth lingering on the following passage:
There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience, w[hi]ch is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body.
For the seventeenth century, this is a very unusual statement. It is a document that Quakers—and all Americans—can be proud of. I was excited to write about it. I also felt a personal connection to the Germantown Protest: I grew up in Philadelphia and attended Germantown Friends School, which is just a few blocks from where the 1688 Protest was written. As it turns out, I had passed the site of its creation hundreds of times as I traveled to school down Germantown Avenue.