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. And there’s no denying that the facts don’t all look good.
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. Among the Quaker slavers were Thomas Richardson, clerk of New England Yearly Meeting from 1728 to 1760, and James Logan, Jonathan Dickinson, and Isaac Norris, leaders in Quaker Pennsylvania.1
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.2
Jim McNeill, chairperson of “Living Easton”, points out on his web site that “slave labour … was … a vital and planned prerequisite for the [Pennsylvania] Quaker colony’s existence.” He declares, “We hope to explode any myths and erroneous beliefs that the Quakers of the 17th and early 18th Centuries were great and fearless champions for equality for all humanity.”3
In my own life, this issue came up yet again just recently, in the course of a conversation with Pam of the Quaker blog reaching for the light. Our conversation happened, not on her blog, and not here either, but on Zach Alexander’s blog The Seed Lifting Up.
Pam expressed concern about modern Friends who seem to want to compel other modern Friends to “do things [merely] because early Friends did them”, even when the things in question seem senseless.
And she brought up, as an extreme example, the case of slavery.
Well, should we emulate what the early Friends did regarding the matter of slavery, merely because early Friends did it? Should some of us hold slaves, while the rest sit tolerantly on their hands?
Of course, no one is actually advocating such a thing! Pam’s question was rhetorical, for the sake of getting at deeper issues.
But this subject is indeed linked to deeper issues in many liberal Friends’ minds.
A number of such Friends — maybe six or eight, from as many different meetings around the world — have said to me, over the past few years, that since some early Friends held slaves, and other Friends allowed them to do it, it is clear that Quaker thinking began in a primitive state, and has since progressed and changed for the better. They draw the conclusion that we should not feel modern Friends need to come to terms with the Christian religion of the early Friends, for “we now know a lot better than the early Friends did”.
Thus, for such Friends as these, the issue of early Quaker slaveholding has turned into a test of whether early Quaker religion had any real integrity, and whether there is any good reason for following that early Quaker religion in our own time.
These are worthwhile matters for modern Friends to be discussing, and I’m grateful to Pam for bringing them up and forcing me to think them through at greater depth.
But the answer to Pam’s basic question — should we do as early Friends did? — is going to depend on what we think early Friends were doing. And what, exactly, they were doing isn’t as obvious as it may seem to the liberal contingent.
There is no evidence, for instance, 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 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?”
The Germantown Friends, even then, were clearly focused on the very point that, for us today, totally discredits slavery as an institution. And they did their best to bring their concern before the Society of Friends as a whole.
So why did the overall community of Friends — the Society of Friends as a whole — not listen to these Germantown Friends? Why did the Society continue to allow individual Friends to have slaves? What possessed it to close its ears to the Germantown Friends’ reasoning? And is there anything at all about its behavior in this regard that we should emulate?
The question here, as I see it, concerns the process of struggle over the matter of slavery, which the first five generations of Friends were engaged in, from the time when Quakerism made its first converts among the slaveholding population of the British West Indies, to the time when the last Quaker slaveholders were compelled to either free their slaves or give up their membership in our Society.
Was this process of struggle rightly conducted? Was it, to adopt Pam’s way of talking about it, a good example of “living into the light”?
And what lesson can we take, from early Friends’ experience, that might help us with our situation today?
I. Slavery in the Ancient Western World
Early Friends’ tolerance for slavery looks inexcusable to us because, when we think of slavery, we think of it as it existed in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
We think of the slavery that treated men and women like machines to be worked to death, the slavery that tore a wife from her husband and a child from its mother, and sold them to separate owners many miles apart — the slavery that was, for most slaves, a lifelong sentence to abject servitude.
In fact, this has always been a one-sided picture. As the historian David Brion Davis has observed, “a few privileged American slaves were allowed to own guns and hunt game; to acquire literacy; to assume trusted positions of management, occasionally even over hired white laborers; to purchase their own freedom; and most important, since this practice was far more widespread, to establish a meaningful, if vulnerable, control over their familial, religious, and cultural lives.”4
Note, though, Davis’s opening words: it was a few slaves who enjoyed such liberties. And the fact that there were a few exceptions can hardly excuse the treatment of the rest!
What is more to the point is that our image of slavery is not what the first two generations of Friends understood slavery to mean.
The first two generations of Friends lived before the eighteenth century. New World slavery was only just taking shape at that time.
The early Friends’ two reference points, in thinking about slavery, were the social system of their own England, where slavery had but recently been abolished, and the social system of the ancient Mediterranean, where the Bible and the other great books they read were originally composed. From these reference points, they made a guess at what slavery might become in the New World.
And slavery in England, and in the ancient Mediterranean, was a rather different thing from what it was becoming in the New World.
Gustave Doré’s portrait of Joseph, risen to power in Egypt, evokes the dizzying heights to which a talented man could rise as a slave. It wasn’t much different from the way a modern yes-man in a great corporation can rise to be CFO.
The huge social, political and economic gap that came to exist, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America, between most free whites and most enslaved blacks, certainly had its parallels in the ancient Mediterranean world. In particular, it existed wherever people of one ethnic stock were enslaved in large numbers by people of a markedly different stock.
But slaves in many ancient Mediterranean households, unlike black slaves in the white American South, were slaves of the same or very similar ethnic stock to their owners, and this, along with the strongly traditional character of the backwaters of the ancient world, seems to have mitigated their sufferings. Social pressures came into play that kept slaveholder abusiveness and exploitiveness within tighter bounds.
In Crete, which was exceptionally agrarian and traditional, slaves could own sheep and cattle, and their rights in such things were protected by law when their owners died. Slaves’ marriages in Crete were likewise protected by law. Cretan laws determining the status of a child born to a free mother and a slave father suggest that this sort of situation was not uncommon — a fact which in its turn suggests that the social boundaries between slave and free were not terribly harsh on that island.5
In more urban parts of the ancient world, many slaves were empowered by their owners to engage in businesses of their own, turning over a share of their income to their owners and keeping the rest for themselves. This was notably true in Athens, where (as historian Antony Andrewes tells us) “‘living apart’ became a technical term for slaves working on those conditions; and some of them prospered conspicuously.”6 Many of these more prosperous slave-businessmen ultimately bought their freedom with money they had saved from their profits.
Some slaves in the ancient Mediterranean world were explicitly slaves only for a limited period of years, and were freed at the end of their term of servitude.
Other slaves were given their freedom and adopted into their owner’s clans as a reward for faithful or exceptional service, thereby rising at a single step from slaves to a status above the common freeman.
And many slaves, of course, gained freedom when the city-state where they lived was overthrown in wartime.
Thus, for slaves in the early Western world who served owners of their own ethnic group, there was always a good hope that they’d find decent treatment and/or a chance of upward mobility. There was in fact always a flow of such people rising upward out of the ranks of slaves, even as there was a similar flow of people slipping downward into slavery.
Of course, even in a very moral, righteous household (such as those most early Christians seem to have kept), a slave still lacked the rights of a citizen in the state at large, did not have freedom to disobey his master, and could not voluntarily terminate his employment.
But these disadvantages were somewhat offset by the fact that the slave also didn’t have the obligations of citizenship — no burden of taxes, no fear of debts, and no requirement to serve and die in wartime — while still enjoying the social security and retirement benefits of his position in his (generally well-heeled) owner’s household.
And — turning the matter about — the free folk in those ancient days did not enjoy all that marked an advantage over slaves. Apart from the time of the Pax Romana (the centuries-long peace that the Mediterranean world enjoyed at the peak of the Roman Empire), the ancient slaveholding world was a poorer, more violent and unstable world than the American South, and even during the Pax the ancient world was far less healthy.
Even a wealthy slaveholder was very nearly as likely as a slave to die young. And there was thus much truth in the king’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Henry V — the one Henry delivered late in the night, just before a battle (Agincourt) that seemed likely to be his death:
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crowd imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farcèd title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world;
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who, with a body filled and vacant mind,
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But like a lackey from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse
And follows so the ever-running year
With profitable labour to his grave.
And but for ceremony such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the forehand and vantage of a king.7
But there were many situations in which the lot of slaves was visibly happier than the lot of the bottom class of poor free folk. One such was in Athens, beginning around six centuries before Christ when an agrarian crisis arose. As historian Peter Green describes the situation:
One root cause of the trouble, paradoxically, was a general improvement in living standards. Stability, as always, raised the population level, which in turn affected conditions on the farms. The old law by which all sons had a share in their father’s estate worked well enough so long as even one of them was lucky to survive. But improved actuarial prospects meant that estates were broken up until the individual holdings were no longer economically viable — a fact which owner-farmers obstinately refused to recognize.
They began to plough up more (and more poor or marginal) land, which increased the danger of soil exhaustion. They fell into debt, and mortgaged their land on the security of their person: failure to meet repayments was common, and left the wretched debtor a de facto serf, working the land for his creditor’s benefit, and paying him (probably: the evidence is ambiguous) one-sixth of each year’s crop.8
The result was a situation in which Athenian gentlemen were apt to grumble that slaves in the streets were better dressed than free men.9
The social security that slaves had, poor as it frequently was, was still a real one; and this security, this freedom from some of the very real and very scary challenges of a free person’s life, was attractive enough to people in desperate poverty, that they frequently sold themselves into slavery.
In Hebrew society, self-sale into slavery was codified and regulated, with the standard term for such self-chosen slavery being six years, at the end of which one regained one’s freedom and could try again to make a go of it on one’s own. But alternately, a self-sold slave on the verge of being freed could choose instead to remain a slave for life — and, apparently, some did.10
The Hebrews regulated slavery in other ways as well, which somewhat increased the attractiveness of slavery to the desperately poor. For example, they conceded that a man was free to treat his slave as he pleased, “for the slave is his money”; but they declared that if, as a result, the slave became permanently maimed, the owner had to give the slave his freedom by way of compensation. If the man killed his slave, he was liable to severe punishment.11
Slaves in the ancient Mediterranean world could rise to positions of real power in the government, as Joseph was said to have done under Potiphar in Egypt, and as many slaves did in the Greek and Roman world. Contrast that with the situation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America!
Slaves could even outshine their owners. Here’s a famous case in point:
Diogenes of Sinope — the Cynic philosopher who is best remembered for his lantern and his barrel — was captured by pirates in his middle age and put up for sale as a slave.
As Diogenes stood on the auction block at the slave market, the auctioneer asked him what he was good at. “Ruling men,” he said. Then he saw an intelligent-looking, rich citizen in the crowd. “Sell me to that man,” he roared to the auctioneer; “he needs a master!” The startled citizen bought him, and recognizing Diogenes’ remarkable gifts, made him steward of his household.
Diogenes took complete charge of his new owner’s wealth — and also of his owner’s kids, whom he raised according to his enlightened principles — all the while continuing to teach philosophy to inquirers. No one seems to have thought of Diogenes as having lost status or opportunity by the arrangement. His owner gained in all sorts of ways, and treasured Diogenes not just as a slave but as a companion.12
Diogenes was an extraordinary fellow, and his leap upward from servitude to mastery cannot have been common. But there were certainly many instances of master-slave relationships that melted, in the sunlight of mutual regard, into something more like friendship, partnership, and mutual support. The Roman centurion in the Gospels, who humbled himself to seek Christ’s healing powers on behalf of his beloved slave-companion, appears to have been an example of such.13
I don’t argue that the ancient version of slavery was a good thing for most of its victims. It had horrific forms, such as the slavery that built the Pyramids, the slavery of the Roman latifundia (the great estates) that Spartacus’s followers were fleeing, the slavery of the galleys and the slavery of the mines. Moreover, the very idea of being oneself seized and enslaved is terrifying, which speaks volumes about the fundamental wrongness of the institution.
My point here, rather, is that slavery was — at least in its more benign ancient forms — a much more flexible, humane and personal institution than it became in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, and that rewards such as security, status, and even wealth and power were far more accessible to slaves in ancient times.
These facts had a real influence on the way that the early Christians understood the matter, and also on the way that the first Friends thought about it, when they first considered the problem of slaveholding Quakers.
But I will turn to that part of the matter, and explore it in more depth, in my next installment.
(click here to continue)