In the post I wrote here yesterday about Quakers and slavery I was arguing that it is probably just as important– for Quakers and others– to reflect deeply on the fact that for many long decades our forebears owned, traded in, and profited mightily from the labor of enslaved African persons, and to investigate the degree to which those earlier systems of violence and rapine set in place a situation of great and still continuing inequality between the communities descended from the former slave-“owners” and those of the formerly enslaved, as it is to “celebrate” the role any of our forebears may have played in ending one or another aspect of the institution of slavery…
I had found a small quote from George Fox, the 17th century English guy whom Quaker blogger Marshall Massey calls “the principal human co-founder of Quakerism.” The nub of what Fox wrote was this:
do you for and to them [the enslaved Blacks], as you would willingly have them or any other to do unto you…were you in the like slavish condition.
On reflection, this not only does not express any clear opposition to the institution of slavery, but it seems to take the institution– and the then-present power relations within it– as an unchallengeable given, urging only the exercise of a certain degree of empathy for the enslaved “Blacks” caught up in it.
Marshall Massey writes in his blog post that,
George Fox, the principal human co-founder of Quakerism, saw slavery with his own eyes in the English colonies of the New World, but did not condemn it outright.
William Penn, one of the greatest second-generation Quaker leaders, not only saw slavery but practiced it himself, keeping African slaves on his estate in Pennsylvania.
Quaker merchants were involved for several generations in the slave trade…
As historian Douglas Harper has observed, there were African slaves in the Quaker city of Philadelphia within two years after its settlement. The great Quaker body in that area, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, didn’t turn decisively against slavery until 1758, a full three generations later. And in fact, Friends didn’t fully give up slavery until after slavery ceased to be profitable in their area.
But, Massey argues,
There is no evidence… that early Friends as a religious body ever said slavery was a good or desirable thing.
Some individual Friends must have said so. William Penn might have, defending his own personal decision to employ slaves. And a fair number of eighteenth-century North American Quaker slaveholders definitely did say so.
But those were the positions of individual Friends, speaking for themselves. The overall community of Friends never did endorse their views.
And some groups of Friends came out flatly against slavery at a very early date. It was just four years after the first slaves were imported into Pennsylvania, for example, that several members of the Germantown, Pennsylvania, monthly meeting issued a protest [1688 ~HC] against slaveholding that asked, in labored English, “Is there any that would [himself] be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?”
(Actually, the whole of that 1688 text is worth reading, and I don’t find the English in it labored, at all. It’s a magnificent text!)
I find this rather interesting. Germantown Monthly Meeting is one local congregation of Friends (Quakers). That congregation had come out clearly against the institution of slavery as early as 1688; but then it took the larger, more authoritative Quaker body of which they were part– Philadelphia Yearly Meeting–a further 66 years before it came out unequivocally against the institution by going as far as to “disown” (i.e. expel) any member of the Religious Society of Friends who refused to free such slaves as he still held. (See the timeline on p.2 of this PDF document.)
We could and should reflect on the question of “What took them so long?”
… Anyway, I have also– since I have a copy of George Fox’s Journal conveniently to hand– checked out a few of the things he included there on the subject of slavery. Basically, what he seems to be expressing in the Journal is an essentially very ‘paternalistic’, i.e. denigrating, view of the enslaved persons and their capacities.
In August 1671, George Fox set out from London with an accompanying group of twelve other Quaker “ministers”, on a visit to Barbados, Jamaica, and mainland North America. The voyage over the Atlantic was a little exciting, since off the coast of the Azores they saw what they described as a “Turkish pirate” ship standing by– the Quaker chronicler at that point, John Hull, described it as coming from “Sallee”, presumably today’s Salé, near Rabat, Morocco. (In reference to which, look at the vividness of the description at the head of the Germantown Friends’ minute regarding slavery, on the fears of “white” settlers in North America regarding the possibility of enslavement by the “Turks.”)
Fox and his companions also had at least one other, even more hair-raising adventure of being chased by a “Sallee” man-of-war as they got near to Barbados. (Domination of the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic was always central to the success of the north American settlement venture; and at that point it was still not wholly assured.)
Anyway, Fox and the companions made it to Barbados, where they proceeded to travel about a bit holding Meetings for Worship, and smaller meetings with various local notables. The Quakers in those early days– which were ones of great religious ferment in the whole English-speaking world– were eager to spread (their version of) the Word and to undertake large-scale evangelizing. Also, as much “strategic” evangelizing as they could… Why, one courageous Quaker woman minister had even set out to convert the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps with the hope that– as with Saint Helena’s conversion of her son the Roman Emperor– with that one conversion a whole empire-full of souls could be gained for the faith. She failed…
So in Barbados, the Quaker evangelizing team (which included two women ministers, and the rest men), not only held as many large meetings for worship as they could, they also wanted to make sure they had continued permission to hold such meetings– which meant they had to have some serious, strategic meetings with the representatives of the settler administration there and persuade those men that their activities were not subversive. (And maybe they tried to convert some of those officials, too.)
Remember, as well, that Fox and many of his companions had already had several long experiences of having been imprisoned under very harsh conditions back in England, on charges related to the radicalism of their views…
So at some point during their time in Barbados (still in 1671), Fox and his companions drew up a letter to “the Governor and Assembly of Barbados”, which is reprinted in the Journal, pp. 602-606. Most of the letter is comprised of a vigorous defense of the orthodoxy and general acceptability of the content of the Friends’ preachings… And indeed, the following portion of the Journal– which includes the texts of letters written from Barbados by both Fox and others, as well as journal entries– mentions quite a lot of large meetings for worship that were held, of both “whites” and “blacks”, during the three months the Quaker mission team stayed in Barbados, from October 1671 through January 1672…
So this is a key little portion of the letter Fox and his companions sent to the Governor and Assembly of Barbados:
Another slander and lie they have cast upon us is, namely, that we should teach the negroes to rebel, a thing we do utterly abhor and detest in and from our hearts, the Lord knows it, who is the searcher of all hearts and knows all things… For that which we have spoken and declared to them is to exhort and admonish them to be sober and to fear God, and to love their masters and mistresses, and to be faithful and diligent in their masters’ service and business, and that then their masters and overseers will love them and deal kindly and gently with them…
Now consider , Friends, that it’s no transgression for a master of a family to instruct his family himself or else some others in his behalf, but rather that it is a very great duty incumbent upon them, as Abraham did and Joshua did… And further consider this, that it is a duty incumbent upon us to pray, and to teach, instruct, and admonish those in and belonging to our families…
Now negroes and tawny Indians make up a very great part of families here in this island for whom an account will be required by him who comes to judge both quick and dead at the great day of judgement… (pp. 604-606)
In his own short journal account of what the group had achieved in Barbados, Fox wrote:
We came from London on the thirteenth day of the sixth month [Aug.] and we came to Barbados the third day of the eighth month [Oct.], where we had many and great meetings among the whites and blacks. And there was some opposition by the priests and Papists but the power of the Lord and his glorious Truth was over all and reached most in the island. And we stayed above a quarter of a year there and I went to visit the governor and he was loving to me… And I was at several men’s meetings and several women’s meetings which was of great service for the island. And we set up meetings in families in every Freind’s house, among the blacks, some 200, some 300, in their houses that the masters and dames of families might admonish their families of blacks and whites, as Abraham did, which is a great service.(pp. 609-610)
I have to say I find these words extremely disturbing to read. The idea that Fox and his companions could so easily consider that the “masters and dames” (i.e. the slave-owners) stood at the head of some “family” that comprised their hundreds of slaves, and that this somehow gave them the right to instruct and “admonish” those enslaved persons, almost beggars belief.
“Admonish” being far too dainty a word, I think, for the kinds of punishments that were routinely administered against enslaved persons, in those times as afterwards.
I know that elsewhere Fox wrote that, while he was troubled by some aspects the institution of slavery, still, he saw the enslaved Africans as so un-“instructed” and so ill-equipped to fend for themselves that keeping the institution of slavery in place for a generation or two in order to give the “masters and dames” a chance to “instruct” the slaves up to the level required for self-sufficiency was probably the best way forward.
(Does this kind of argument have any present-day echoes in the pleadings of those who say the US occupation of Iraq may have some bad aspects… but the Iraqis are somehow not really “ready” for full self-rule, so in the meantime the occupation forces should stay??)
Anyway, Fox gives no evidence at all of having talked at any length to any of the enslaved persons in Barbados, to find out what they might have thought about his argument. Nor does he show any signs of the deep reflectiveness with which, 80 years later, John Woolman set out to try to investigate all the moral dimensions of the institution of slavery. One clear example: Woolman was deeply troubled by the idea of receiving hospitality from a plantation owner who might, in offering that hospitality, be exploiting the uncompensated labor of “his” slaves… So he proceeded, during all his visits to those slaveholders, to give some coins of due compensation for the labor involved in hosting him– either directly to the enslaved persons who had served him or to their masters, with instruction that they be “paid” to the servants concerned… In Barbados, by contrast, George Fox left us no record of having entertained any such qualms, but seemed happily to have taken at face value the claim that all the black slaves (and “tawny Indians”– I guess that was before they were wiped out completely by the colonizers) were just part of the “one big happy family” that by a most amazing coincidence just happened in every single case to be headed by the white slave-owners.
… By writing in this way, do I intend to “condemn” George Fox? No. He was a creature of his evangelizing times, perhaps blinded to some degree by the burning strength of his goal of evangelizing. (Even the Conquistadors thought they were doing a service to the people they conquered in nearby Central America– some of them argued that even if they were flailing the bodies of their captives, at least they were saving their souls!)
So I can certainly point out what I see as the terrible effects of George Fox’s extremely permissive (and also, I would say, distinctly supportive) attitudes toward and actions regarding the institution of slavery, without condemning all of George Fox as a person.
But given that I have such great admiration for many other aspects of his life and ministry, recalling that some of his actions caused real harm (in my view) to others of God’s children can indeed challenge us today to reflect on what actions we might be taking that– though we think we taking them with excellent intent– might actually be having a very harmful effect on other humans.
… Well, I didn’t mean this post to be so long. But I was interested in going back into GF’s Journal to check on what I had read there some ten or more years ago, and to be able to insert it into the present discussion on slavery, the Quakers, and the values of the “Enlightenment”.
(H’mm, maybe we should rename it “the Darkening”?)