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The First Friends and Slavery -- Part Two

Posted on Friday, December 22, 2006 at 09:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , , | Comments4 Comments
The First Friends and Slavery — Part Two

(click here to go back to the beginning of the essay)


II. Slavery Christianized: Discipleship and Service


The Greek word for “slave”, which refers to the variety of “slavery” I’ve been describing so far, is doulos.

Because the status of a doulos-slave was so different from the status of the average eighteenth- or nineteenth-century American Negro slave, modern English-language Bibles often translate doulos as “servant” rather than as “slave”.

In Christ’s Sermon at the Last Supper, he explains to his disciples that they began as his douloi, his slaves, but were now graduating to the status of freedmen: “Now I call you not douloi but philoi.”14 The customary translation of “douloi” as “servants” is consistent with the fact that the disciples were not slaves in the later American-Negro-slavery sense. But in this place it obscures what Christ was saying: that the disciples had formerly been slaves in a very real sense, deprived of freedom to live as they chose by the very strict discipline that Christ had put them under.

And similarly, while “philoi” in this same verse is customarily translated very literally as “friends”, “beloved free citizens of my kingdom” would probably be a more precise reading.

Now, it is from this very passage, John 15:15, that we Friends take our name for ourselves. So our very identity as “Friends” is rooted in the social set-up that defined how slavery worked in ancient times, and particularly in the way in which enslavement could be changed into freedom and full citizenship by a slave’s faithful service and a good master’s responding love.

This, too, is important for understanding the thinking of early Friends.



Paul took Christ’s ideas a step or two further. In Paul’s writings, we find that he expected every new Christian to go through the same process that the apostles had gone through — beginning by being no more than a doulos, as the disciples themselves were at the start; and then taking up and putting on the loving practices Christ had taught as if they were so many items of clothing, and so coming more and more to resemble Christ himself, until finally he graduated to the status of “a child of God and heir to the Kingdom by adoption”.15

Slavery, in this early Christian context, meant, therefore — very simply — a strenuous discipleship with unalterable, taxing and dangerous duties, but with a rich reward waiting at the end.

What we need to realize here is that Paul applied his doctrine, not only to social relations within the Church (“slave and free … are one in Christ”16), but also to social relations in the world outside the church.

Paul was certainly not calling for an end to all slavery, let alone for slaves to rise up in violent rebellion, Spartacus-style: “Slaves,” he wrote, “obey your masters.”17

But in his letter to Philemon, Paul sent Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus, who was newly convinced of sin and converted to the discipleship of Christ, back to him, “that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave, but [as] more than a slave, a beloved brother … in the flesh as well as in the Lord. If then you would count me as a partner, receive him as [if he were] me.18

Paul, in other words, believed that when slaves were righteous, masters owed them worldly freedom and could rightly be pressured to give it to them. And moreover, Paul believed that righteous masters could then be trusted (just as Paul trusted Philemon) to give that freedom to their righteous slaves when asked. Paul genuinely didn’t think he was sending Onesimus back to slavery; after all, Philemon had accepted the yoke of Christ, and could now be trusted to do what goodness required.

Could the rest of the world be brought to righteousness, through Christ, just as Philemon and Onesimus had been brought? That’s a big question, and Paul never really answered it one way or the other. If it could not, then Christianity’s overall logic would require that Christians simply endure its evils, endure slavery in the same way as war and other oppressions, until the Last Judgment set things right.19

But if the whole world could be brought to Christ, then it would seem reasonable to suppose that Paul’s solution to the difficulties between Philemon and Onesimus could be applied to slaves and masters everywhere. By bringing the whole world to Christ, and then simply asking masters to free their slaves, slavery could be ended once and for all.



The early Christian formula — that a disciple starts out as a servant, a slave — went on to color the understanding of medieval Europeans.

It caused a romantic confusion of slavery with discipleship. It made it possible for the upper classes of christendom, the ones who had power, to imagine that slavery could justified as a form of Christian discipleship.

The Latin word for “slave”, servus, referred to the same institution that doulos did. As christianity spread through the Roman Empire, and then as the Empire gave way to the feudal era, servus came to carry some of the connotations of Christian discipleship while keeping its original meaning of doulos-slavery as well.

The serfs in the feudal system — the peasants at the bottom of the social ladder — were not known as serfs (servi) but as coloni, a word whose Anglo-Norman translation was “villeins” — people inhabiting the local settlement, the colonia or ville (village). They were not known as servi because they were not the only kind of servi — they were merely the lowest kind.

The peasants were coloni because they were required to stay where they were, in a particular agricultural village under the thumb of a particular manorial lord. And the reason for this requirement was that, if they weren’t forced to stay, the best and brightest would leave.

Indeed, in the first years, the so-called “establishment of the colonate”, virtually all of them would leave if not compelled to stay. The soils had been so ruined by poor agricultural practices in the Roman imperial era that it was a challenge for a farmer even to feed his own self by farming in those first years.20 No one wanted to be farming in such a situation.

But while only the peasants were coloni, everyone but the king was a servus. Things had to be this way, because, in the period of the barbarian incursions, and the period when most of Europe was divided into quarreling small kingdoms, this was the only way that social order could be maintained. Even the nobility were servi in relationship to their kings, bound as servi by feudal vows of obedience.



As a result of this situation, combined with the influence of Christian thinking about servanthood, service (from the Latin servitia: “the activity of a slave”) became exalted as an ideal — an ideal applicable to virtually everyone. Service became something that not just slaves, but everyone short of kings and emperors had to learn to practice concretely. A young man of the nobility, coming of age, “entered the king’s service” (servitia regi) and was trained (more or less) to serve well, and this was something expected of him if he wished to rise in the world.

Even kings had to learn to do service to others at the times that mattered, as Kings John and Charles I of England learned the hard way in their struggles with their subjects.

We refer to our modern society as a “service economy”. But feudal society was in fact a “service society”. Everyone, by the rules of custom and the network of mutual obligations, was a sort of slave to those above and around him. And in that context, the idea of everyone-serving-everyone became an increasingly popular ideal, for all that it was poorly realized in everyday life.

In England, in the late thirteenth century, a custom arose of celebrating Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) by having the ruling monarch wash the feet of selected poor persons, in a reënactment of Christ’s own performance of the rôle of a slave at the Last Supper.21

The monarch in this ritual also give alms, “Maundy money”, to one poor aged man and one poor aged woman for each year of his age. This custom was understood to be a public acknowledgement of the English monarch’s Christian duty of service to even the least of his brethren.22



In this transition era, the distinction between slave and free was quite blurry.

The coloni did eventually (around the time of the first Friends) come to be called “serfs”, slaves, because they were bound to the land — but these “serfs” were people who could in principle own their land, and who had many legal rights, including a strong common-law claim on justice from their masters. And if one of them served exceptionally well, he had a reasonable hope of being rewarded with possession of land in “fee simple” (absolute ownership), and/or a promotion to a higher social station. This possibility of being promoted validated the idea that slavery could be a literally ennobling institution.

Meanwhile, the Latin servus evolved into not just one but two English words. One of these was our modern word “serf”, which was applied to the peasant class as we have seen. The other — well, long before Quakerism arose, servus evolved into our English word “servant”. As “servant”, it signified a rôle which was not necessarily menial like a slave’s, but which was recognizable by the fact that it centered on servitia, “service”.

At the bottom of the social hierarchy, many “servants” were barely more free than the household slaves of ancient times — the servants of Margaret Fell’s household, for example, really had nowhere else to go in their desolate northwestern homeland, and so, not surprisingly, followed her into Quakerism. But like the household slaves of ancient times, they had at least a theoretical ability to win their freedom, if they could save up enough money to make their way elsewhere and gain their master’s permission to depart.

On the other hand, in the feudal arrangement, many servants were powerful indeed. All the king’s advisors were his servants, and though they would be pursued and quite likely killed if they attempted to desert his service, they had tremendous power in their place. Many of them, indeed, were nobles, with numerous servants of their own.



One final thing we need to take into account, before we move on to the question of what Friends themselves did, is that the first Friends were born into a world where these service-oriented, slavery-evocative, chivalric, romantic notions were everywhere, embedded in all sorts of things and mutually reinforcing.

It was very different, in that respect, from the way the world is today.

St ChristopherThe world of christendom teemed with myths of ennobling service: Saint Christopher, carrying Christ across the water as a service (see the image at right), and being sainted for it;23 Thomas de Ercildoun (“Thomas the Rhymer”), doing faithful service to the Queen of Elfland, and rewarded with the gift of perfect truthfulness, even when speaking prophetically of the future.24

There were numerous folktales of kindly people rendering service to animals or seeming poor old people, who then revealed themselves as Powers and rewarded the givers richly.

Such myths and tales were told, retold, and honored, because they resonated with a certain intuitive truth.



As the medieval world aged into the early modern era, the idea that slavery could be practiced in a way that ennobled both master and slave, gradually evolved into feelings of entitlement. Masters’ expectations of good and loyal service from their slaves were written into laws, often abusive laws, such as those addressing the problem of wandering beggars.

But serfs’ expectations of being rewarded for their good service, evolved into demands for universal emancipation of all serfs — demands which were eventually yielded to by every government of Europe, beginning with England in George Fox’s own time, and finishing with Russia in 1861.

These were signs that, even in Europe, the old social order was beginning to fall apart.



III. The Early Quaker Struggle to
     Implement Philemon


Nevertheless, the idea that slavery could be capital-C Christian — that it could be uplifting out of barbarism, redeeming out of sin, could indeed be something that a true Christian might want to choose for himself in imitation of Christ, still seemed reasonable in the middle seventeenth century, as it cannot seem reasonable today.

And so 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.

It was a reaction that — furthermore — 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.

The early Quaker leaders did not have a clear understanding of slavery in the American colonies. This was partly because the American colonies were a wide ocean away. But it was also partly because black slavery in the New World seems to have begun as a copy of the more kindly and liberal institution of servanthood that prevailed in England. (Historian Eric Foner, in his recent book Forever Free, states flatly that “Slavery and ideas about innate racial difference developed slowly in seventeenth-century America.”)25

As late as 1651, according to census records, many Negro “slaves” in Virginia were still regarded as enslaved only for fixed periods of time, much like the “indentured servants” of the Old World, and those blacks who had finished their assigned terms of servitude were regarded as free persons and given lands of their own. In colonial New York, where there were also slave plantations, the treatment of slaves remained humane throughout the seventeenth century and the freeing of slaves was quite common. But even in Virginia and Maryland there were no slave laws before the 1660s.26

Meanwhile, it was only the 1640s when the Quaker movement began, and the 1650s when Friends began grappling with issues involving slavery. The old sort of doulos-slavery was dying, but the signs that the new New World version of slavery was going to become something different and far nastier were still, really, not very clear.



Because the first Friends were passionately committed to “Gospel order” — the social order taught in the New Testament — they did their best to model their own practices of servant-keeping and slave-keeping on the teachings of Christ and Paul.

When the Epistle from the Elders at Balby — the first Quaker “book of discipline”, written in 1656 — we find this advice to English Quaker servants and their masters:

10. That servants be obedient to them that are their masters in the flesh, in things that are good, in singleness of heart as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as the servants of Christ; doing the will of God from the heart; with good-will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men; knowing whatsoever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.

And that masters give to their servants that which is just and equal; forbearing threatening, knowing that their Master is also in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.27

The bulk of this passage is a direct, word-for-word quotation of Paul’s advice to doulos-slaves and their masters in Ephesians 6:5-9. And what is significant about it, both in the original context of Paul’s time, and in the newer context of early Quaker times, is the business about “giv[ing] to their servants that which is just and equal” and “forbearing threatening”.

Asking that masters “give to their servants that which is just and equal” is a direct attempt to eliminate the inequities and injustices of worldly slavery or servanthood. Asking that they “forbear threatening” reduces their power over their slaves or servants to whatever power love, mutual respect, and knowledge of righteousness may exert.

Much like Paul addressing Philemon, the elders at Balby were addressing an audience that they were sure had been brought to righteousness through the process of convincement of sin. In this context, they genuinely believed that a non-oppressive master-servant relationship, such as Paul had described in Ephesians 6:5-9, was readily achievable — just as they genuinely believed that true nonresistance to evil was readily achievable, and that the restored equality of the two sexes was readily achievable. The Gospel told them it was achievable; the Spirit in their hearts told them it was achievable. The history of slavery in the ancient world gave many instances of it happening, and looking at servitude as it was practiced amongst themselves in England, they saw the possibility of perfection there.

They believed they were called to perfection by Christ; and this response to the problems of servanthood was a response grounded in that calling.

Just one year after the elders at Balby wrote that epistle, George Fox composed his famous letter to Quaker slaveholders in the West Indies:

To Friends beyond sea, that have Blacks and Indian Slaves.

Dear friends, — I was moved to write these things to you in all those plantations. … God, that made the world, and all things therein, giveth life and breath to all, and they all have their life and moving, and their being in him, he … is no respecter of persons; but “whosoever feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.”

And he hath made all nations of one blood to dwell upon the face of the earth, and his eyes are over all the works of his hands, and seeth every thing that is done under the whole heavens, and the “earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” …And he commands to “love all men,” for Christ loved all, so that he “died for sinners.” And this is God’s love to the world….

And the gospel is preached to every creature under heaven, which is the power that giveth liberty and freedom, and is glad tidings to every captivated creature under heaven. … And so ye are to have the mind of Christ, and to be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful.28

That last sentence is clearly the point that the whole letter is building toward. To be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful, holds the same summary position here as it holds in the counsels of perfection in the Sermon on the Mount.29 It not only draws into itself all the counsels that preceded it, but it implies much more besides.

No genuine injustice of any sort can be practiced while still fulfilling this commandment — which, of course, was precisely what Fox had in mind.

Without reciting all the possible injustices a slaveholder could inflict upon his slaves, Fox was was simply telling his readers to refrain from them all, meanwhile “proclaiming liberty to the captive” as Christ did in Luke 4.

Like Paul’s words to Philemon, this was a declaration that did not resist the institution of slavery (in keeping with Christ’s instruction, “resist not evil”), but that forbade any injustice whatsoever in the way the institution was realized — thus pretty much compelling its Christian hearers to find ways of letting all slaves who could be trusted with citizenship, go free.



In 1671, fourteen years after Fox wrote that letter to slaveholding Friends, he finally had a chance to travel to the West Indies, to meet the West Indian Quaker slaveholders on their own home grounds, to see their situation, and to witness West Indian slavery first-hand.

It must have been a sobering experience for him.

The English planters on the islands where Friends lived were apt to violence — both because they kept their slaves subjugated by force, and were on perpetual guard against slave uprisings, and also because they were threatened from without by Spaniards (and other European forces) and by pirates. They were resentful of Quaker refusals to help finance the military defense of their homes, and frightened of the possibility that Quaker egalitarianism might somehow provoke a slave uprising.

They were the type who would not have hesitated to stamp out all Quakerism on their islands by bloody force, if it seemed a good way to prevent difficulties.

Fox got to see all this with his own two eyes. He got to deal with this jumpy, violent, unconverted white population as the lone, unarmed leader of the very movement they were thinking about maybe exterminating. He not only had to tiptoe through this situation; he had to address it on behalf of his followers.

Fox also had to ponder the fact that his 1657 letter to these Friends regarding slavery had not had any great impact in fourteen long years.

He had reminded them in the letter that God “is no respecter of persons” — i.e., that God treats all His children in the same way. This Biblical teaching carries a corollary, well known to all Friends because it was clearly spelled out in James’s epistle, that Christians must not be “respecters of persons”, either, and Fox had gently reminded them of that, as well.

Fox had also gently reminded these Friends that the gospel “is the power that giveth liberty and freedom, and is glad tidings to every captivated creature under heaven.”

Now Fox saw with his own eyes that West Indian Friends did allow their slaves to attend their religious meetings, but did little to uplift them otherwise, and certainly did not emulate the Power by giving liberty to the captives. Was this, treating all God’s children in the same way? No, certainly not!

Most of Fox’s work in the West Indies wound up being focused on allaying white fears of Quakerism, and thus defusing the tinderbox as much as he was able. He worked hard at reaching out to the rulers and rich planters, winning their respect and their confidence. It was while he was on this journey that he and his comrades wrote their notorious address To the Governor and Assembly at Barbados, which not only affirmed Friends’ Christian orthodoxy point by careful point, but also expressly disavowed any intention of “teach[ing] the negroes to rebel, a thing we do utterly abhor and detest in and from our hearts.”30

But Fox also did his best to address the other side of the problem. As historian Larry Ingle tells us in his biography of George Fox, he gave a sermon to Barbadian Friends just two and a half weeks after his arrival on the island; and in it,

Fox admitted having been troubled by slavery and race since his arrival … and noted that he had wondered how to bring righteousness out of an institution that could easily produce mischief. … He ventured, though he carefully did not endorse outright, the idea that after a term of thirty years owners might free slaves “who served them faithfully” and “whom they bought with their money.” Until then, let Friends preach Christ to their Ethiopians….31

This suggestion that Friends might free their slaves after Christianizing them, along the lines of Paul’s teaching to Philemon, was patently subversive to the Barbadian power structure, and a dangerous one to make on that tinderbox island. It comes as no surprise that Fox expressed it so carefully. He had to consider that there might be an informer in his audience, someone who would repeat a twisted version of his words to the non-Quaker white planters and thereby inflame them against him.

As it turned out, there were no informers and no backlash. But carefully expressed though it was, Fox’s position must eventually have become known to the authorities. Five years later, Quaker efforts to Christianize slaves in the Barbadoes were formally outlawed.32 The authorities were not willing that the slaves be taught Friends’ values, or be made qualified, as Onesimus was made qualified, for “liberty and freedom”.

And ultimately, Quakerism did die out in the West Indies. As in the southern United States a century or so later, Friends on the islands eventually decided that a repressive slaveholding society is just not a good place to practice their faith, and so they pulled up stakes and went elsewhere. Many Quaker families from Barbados ultimately moved to Pennsylvania.



The early Quaker idea that the institution of serfdom/slavery/servanthood can be perfected, purged of all injustice, turned into a form of genuine “liberty for the captive”, and ultimately lived out as a mutually ennobling and mutually rewarding relationship between loving servants and loving masters, made sense in the old system of the doulos-slave — the serf or household servant whose rights were protected by custom, kinship, and tradition, and by social pressure on the master.

Thus, in England, where the old system prevailed, it led Friends by steps from the thinking of the elders at Balby, to such innovations as the institution of Quaker primary schooling even for their very poorest members, to the Quaker system of oversight that protected their economically challenged members from bankruptcy and starvation, and ultimately to such things as the benevolent paternalism of Friend George Cadbury’s candy company.

In North America, where the old system was never strong, it nonetheless led to egalitarianism, as we can see in this passage from the writings of the early nineteenth-century observer Thomas Clarkson:

It is a remarkable circumstance … that [Quaker servants] are not found to be sufficiently numerous for those who want them. ….It is in the essence of the Quaker-discipline, as I observed upon that subject, that every member should watch over another for his good. There are no exceptions as to persons. The servant has as much right to watch over his master with respect to his religious conduct and conversation, as the master over his servant; and he has also a right, if the master violates the discipline, to speak to him, in a respectful manner, for so doing.

Nor would a Quaker-servant, if he were well grounded in the principles of the Society, and felt it to be his duty, want the courage to speak his mind upon such occasions. There have been instances where this had happened, and where the master, in the true spirit of his religion, has not felt himself insulted by such interference, but has looked upon his servant afterwards as more worthy of his confidence and esteem.33

Among American slave-holding Friends, it also led to a conscious practice of treating their Negro slaves in the manner of servants and fellow human beings, rather than as chattel.

Many of the more enlightened Quaker slaveowners, both in the West Indies and on the North American continent, allowed their slaves to worship with them, in hopes of elevating them. A smaller number took the next logical step, educated their slaves, and helped the brightest to establish themselves in business ventures, whereby they could earn enough to buy their freedom in the fine old Athenian manner.34

A few Quakers freed all their slaves outright. James Madison’s wife Dolley was the daughter of such a one — a plantation-owning Quaker who, overcome by the Voice in his conscience, freed all his slaves and thereby put himself out of business.

But a larger number of slaveholding Friends declined to free their slaves — at least in part because they cherished an idea that their slaves were not ready for freedom — that some education and Christianizing had to come first, and also that freedom had to be earned, before their slaves could be set free.

And Friends who were not themselves invested in slavery began to feel that this whole Pauline approach might not be enough.

Anti-Slavery Medallion“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” A 1787 Wedgwood medallion copied from the seal of the Quaker-dominated British Anti-Slavery Society. The influence of Paul’s epistle to Philemon still dominates at this late date, for the slave is making a very Pauline appeal. (Trustees of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire, England.)

If the justification for holding a person in slavery was that it ennobled the slave until the slave attained freedom, then there should be evidence of this: owners everywhere (not just in the Quaker world) preparing their slaves for freedom, slaves everywhere converting to Christianity, and more and more slaves being set free in consequence, with fewer and fewer remaining enslaved.

But this wasn’t happening. Quite the contrary: in worldly households throughout North America, Negro slavery was combining with an emerging new racism to produce a slavery that reduced blacks from servants to objects, treated them (in far too many cases) with heartlessness, and kept them and their innocent children in a permanent enslavement no matter what. Friends were seeing this situation with their own eyes.

This was the beginning of that liberal frustration with Pauline methods, which would lead first to a test and then to a rejection of Christian patience, and would culminate in fratricidal war.

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Reader Comments (4)

My dear Brother, Marshall
The troubling aspect of this, is that Fox did not tip toe around matter of his own freedom of faith, as my collateral ancestor found as he chased him about a Westmoreland meetinghouse with a rapier and several "rude fellows" as Fox states in his journal.

As I said to thee in my comments on Zach's blog, Fox seems intent, as thee says, on allaying the fears of non-Quaker slave owners. I would rather he faced with zeal the question of other's freedom, with the courage of our sister Mary Dyer. Mary did not care a wit that her words and actions endangered her life, she witnessed for truth at the end of a rope, and as a result, anti Quaker laws ended. In the same way, we might well have been driven out of Barbados, and well we may should have been had we not witness for the freedom of Africans with the zeal we witnessed for our own freedoms.

I am open to new light on this.

Thine dearly in the light,
Dec 23, 2006 at 09:32PM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway
Lorcan, bless you for visiting, reading, and commenting!

I have, I think, another couple of installments to post on this essay. I believe they will address your concerns to some extent. I would love to hear from you again, and learn what you think, after you've read them.

In the mean time, many thanks for sharing your concerns. They are important to me.
Dec 24, 2006 at 06:54AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
What you say here makes clear our "disagreement" regarding spiritual disciplines. Its interesting how concerns transfer across differing issues and sometimes give light to each.
Dec 31, 2006 at 07:25AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid
Hi, David!

Many thanks for reading. The proper shape of our Christian discipline has been an important concern all through Quaker history. So I'm very glad if this part of my essay shone a little light on that subject!
Jan 1, 2007 at 08:11AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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