Entries in Quaker History (4)
The entrenched core of wealthy and privileged slaveholders, and their allies in the slaveholding artisan class, were still resisting the call to face the facts of slavery.
Eloquence and stridency had failed to reach them. Some other method of reaching out was needed.
And so it was that John Woolman, the best of the next generation of abolitionists — and his allies Anthony Benezet, John Churchman, and others — were led to reach back into history, and to reclaim the methods of Fox, the Balby elders, William Dewsbury, John Roberts, and Joseph Pike.
Ultimately, the need to draw ever-clearer-and-more-rigid distinctions between slaves and free, in order to keep the black slaves in subjection, impelled the Virginia assembly not only to close off virtually all avenues to black freedom, but also to deny the blacks their essential humanity. And this was, from a Quaker standpoint, the most disturbing development of all.
The first reaction that Friends had, on learning that slaveholders in the British West Indies were converting to Quakerism, was a reaction informed by Christ’s Gospel idea of discipleship as a “slavery” that graduated into free “friendship”, and by Paul’s idea that worldly slavery can be justified and ended by convincement and discipleship.
And it was a reaction that, gestalt-fashion, played against the background of the English experience of serfdom (“villeinage”) and servanthood, and was infused with the popular conviction that “servanthood” could be ennobling.
Should early Friends be condemned for the way they handled the challenge of slavery?
Liberal critics say that they should. Early Friends, they say, embraced, participated in, sponsored and strengthened an evil institution.
That’s a serious charge. But how justified is it?