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.
Examining the origins of Quaker abolition, I thought, would serve multiple purposes. I wanted to show how something as important as abolition had a history, and how we could learn about social justice by studying the past. As I looked closer at the 1688 Protest, however, I became less interested in the petition itself than in the last line—a line that was added not by the authors of the Germantown protest, but by the Quakers who represented Abington (Dublin) Meeting and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The first line reads:
We having inspected ye matter, above mentioned, and considered of it, we find it so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here.
Below that follows:
A Paper being here presented by some German Friends Concerning the Lawfullness and Unlawfulness of Buying and keeping Negroes, It was adjudged not to be so proper for this Meeting to give a Positive Judgment in the Case, It have so General a Relation to many other P[a]rts, and therefore at present they forbear It.
While the language is opaque, the conclusion is clear: The Philadelphia Quakers rejected the antislavery 1688 Protest.
I had intended to study Quaker antislavery, but I felt that this was more important. What it revealed is that while a very small minority of Quakers rejected slavery in the seventeenth century, most did not. I had more questions: What did it mean that slavery had “so General a Relation to many other P[a]rts?” What “other parts” were they talking about?