The Hidden History of the Fight Against Slavery
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we should all respect the Golden Rule.
William Penn had invited them to live in a land of religious tolerance, and they began flocking to the New World. But some Quakers were appalled by a great injustice they found on American shores: slavery.
While many are familiar with the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, fewer know about the white Americans who first took a public stance against slavery. On April 18, 1688, Quakers met at Thones Kunders’ home in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and read aloud a pioneering document that would become known as the Germantown Protest, or Germantown Declaration.
Have [they] not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?
Kunders often hosted the meetings, but it was Francis Daniel Pastorius — founder of the Germantown community in the northwest part of current-day Philadelphia — who proved the most influential in voicing the group’s abolitionist views. “Pastorius had a significant impact on Germantown, both physically and psychologically,” says Alexander Bartlett, librarian of the Germantown Historical Society. The town is physically laid out the way Pastorius envisioned, and psychologically, Bartlett says, the influential Quaker “helped instill [abolitionist] values” in the community — so much so that Germantown “became known as an anti-slavery community, built largely on Quaker values,” he adds.
Born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1651, Pastorius came from a wealthy family, was educated in fine schools and became a lawyer and tutor for German nobility. He was born a Lutheran and became a “Pietistic Lutheran who increasingly frequented Quaker worship services,” according to Henry Warner Bowden’s Dictionary of American Religious Biography. Because Quakers, as well as Pietist Lutherans, were persecuted throughout Europe, Pastorius sought a place where he and other victims of religious persecution could enjoy religious freedom.
He arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 and, acting on behalf of a collection of Quakers, Mennonites and Pietist Lutherans, purchased from Penn — the state’s founder — some 15,000 acres of land. It was here they established Germantown, and Pastorius served as the town’s longtime mayor, raising a family and writing prolifically on subjects ranging from law to medicine to beekeeping.
But Pastorius was particularly dismayed by Black slavery and the fact that Quakers, many of whom had just escaped persecution themselves, were oppressing others this way. The declaration — signed by Pastorius and three others — says slavery violates the Golden Rule, questioning: “Is there any that would be done or handled in this manner?” It adds that slaves were really stolen property, driving home that it’s less than admirable for God-fearing citizens to possess other humans and profit from them. Going a step further, it seems to justify a slave rebellion, noting “have [they] not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?”
The document made its way up the Quaker hierarchy until it reached the Quaker Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where it was considered … and dismissed. Because it was tossed aside at the bigger meeting, some historians consider it an isolated effort. But others like Brycchan Carey, author of From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Antislavery, 1658–1761, argue that it was a “seminal and connected moment in the development of Quaker anti-slavery discourse,” and that it had an “immediate and important afterlife.”
The declaration’s ideas resurfaced at the 1696 Quaker Yearly Meeting, which advised against bringing in more slaves. The 1711 meeting expressed “dissatisfaction with [Quakers] buying and encouraging the bringing in of Negroes,” and the 1715 meeting said Quakers involved with slavery should be “advised to avoid that practice.” The concepts of the Germantown Declaration, in other words, were spreading throughout the community, planting the seed for Quaker abolitionism. Debate among Quakers about slavery persisted until 1776, when they formally banished slave ownership.
They then “moved on to raise the moral issue for everyone, both in Britain and in North America,” according to QuakersInTheWorld.org, which also notes that the community provided leadership, networking and financial backing to American and British abolitionist causes. British Quakers helped effect the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned the trade of slaves 26 years before the Slavery Abolition Act prohibited slavery there altogether. Quakers in America continued leading their own abolitionist campaign, taking an active role in the Underground Railroad and helping fugitive slaves obtain their freedom.
Meanwhile, the 1688 manuscript of the Germantown Declaration had gone missing. Though its ideas had catalyzed the abolitionist cause, the original document wasn’t seen for more than a century. By the time it was rediscovered, in 1844, abolitionism was reverberating across the North, and freedom was only a civil war away.