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The First Friends and Slavery -- Part Three

Posted on Thursday, December 28, 2006 at 08:00AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , , | Comments2 Comments

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


IV. Friends Moving to the New World
     Confront A Changing Power


I’ve always felt there was a qualitative difference between the first and second generations of Friends.

The first was composed of those who put themselves publicly on the line as Friends during the Puritan interregnum of the 1640s and 1650s.

It was a generation of prophets and revolutionaries. They were discovering their religion in their own experience, and in their discovery of a new way of understanding the Bible. Their religion was profoundly Christ-oriented; it was ruled and limited by the teachings of Christ in the gospels, found its comforts in the Christ experienced in the heart, and did nothing without consulting the Christ who spoke in the conscience.

The second generation was not in all cases the literal children of the first — there were plenty of converts as well — but to a great extent it was composed of people of the age of the children of the first. It rose to leadership among Friends between 1660 and 1685, after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, at a time when Friends endured the worst persecutions of their history, but when Quakerism was no longer a new thing, and had already acquired a clear-cut identity.

Because this was a time when Friends were harshly persecuted, the second generation was composed not of prophets and revolutionaries, but of pragmatists and survivors. And since Quakerism had already acquired a clear-cut identity, the second generation didn’t always feel the need to consult Christ afresh in the conscience at every single step; they often thought they knew what to say and do simply by looking at the example set by the world. (This is important to us here, because it led to some missteps that had profound effects vis-à-vis the problem of slavery.)

George Fox and the elders at Balby — the Friends we heard from in the previous section of this essay — were Friends of the first generation. We’ve seen what happened when they faced the challenge of slavery: the Spirit told them that prophecy would have to be tempered by gentleness and even circumspection in the matter, in order to prevent bloodshed.

Following Paul’s lead, therefore, they advocated the peaceful path upward out of master-slave relationships, the path of love and mutual respect toward a complete egalitarianism. Listening carefully to the pleas in their hearts, they proceeded in ways that would protect the lives of their fellow Friends in the West Indies, and the lives of the slaves those Friends owned.

Robert Barclay, the great systematic theologian of Quakerism, and William Penn the Younger, who founded Pennsylvania, were Friends of the second generation.

Barclay did not address the issue of slavery. In his major writings — “A Catechism and Confession of Faith”, The Anarchy of the Ranters, and An Apology for the True Christian Divinity — he was entirely concerned with defining what Quakerism is, so as to uphold it, on the one hand, against those who championed mere individual freethinking, and on the other hand, against those who would impose a rigid traditionalist orthodoxy on everyone.

In other words, Barclay’s writings were not prophetic, seeking to reform society, but defensive, seeking to protect the jewel that the first generation of Friends had found.

Penn, for his part, was especially attracted to pragmatic utopianism: the creation of an idealized society in the real world, as a place where people could be directly obedient to Christ without interference from human authorities, and where the peace would be kept, not by arbitrary human power, but according to some system of fair written law.35

Penn’s interest in concrete utopias led, among other things, to his becoming the proprietor and constitution-giver of two colonies in North America: first, in the mid-1670s (just a few years after George Fox’s visit to Barbados), the colony of West Jersey, which is now merged into the state of New Jersey; and then, in 1684, Pennsylvania, the colony (now state) that bears his name.



Some say that Penn established his colonies as places where Friends could escape the persecutions they were suffering in England.

In fact, though, this isn’t true. Friends felt that enduring persecution for their faith was one of the noblest parts of their calling. Those who wanted to remove to America in order to escape such persecution were gently, lovingly discouraged; and as the noted Quaker historian William Braithwaite has observed, “The cases of actual fleeing from persecution are few.”36

The Friends that our Society encouraged — even assisted — to move to the New World, were those who felt led to help build a new society along more truly Christian lines. But these were not the only sorts of people who wound up moving to Penn’s colonies.

Map of Philadelphia 1687 (detail)Reproduction of a small portion of A Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pennsylvania in America, Divided into Countyes, Townships and Lotts. Surveyed by Thomas Holme. Sold by George Willdey at the Great Toy, Spectacle, and Print Shop, at the corner of Ludgate Street, near St. Paul’s, London. 1687. Note how many lots are shown here! And this tiny bit of the map actually shows only a very small fraction of the total number of lots that Penn had already sold to various settlers at the time the map was made, just three years after the settlement of Philadelphia.

Penn was trying to make his colonies money-makers, in part because he was underwriting a great many of the expenses of the Society of Friends, and these expenses otherwised threatened to bankrupt him. He expected the bulk of his income from the colonies to come in the form of “rents” which colonists would pay him as proprietor.

And so he sought to entice as many people as possible, wealthy people in particular, who would hold great estates in his colonies and so pay great rents to him. In this he followed the logic of the world around him, rather than any advice to the contrary from Christ within him. He seems to have been happy to sell to people whether or not they were fully committed to the values and principles and testimonies of the Society of Friends.37

Thus even the first settlers of West Jersey and Pennsylvania were rather a mixed bag. Not all of them had the sort of “convinced” Christian vision that would have held them back from buying slaves. The wealthy immigrants — who became known as “grandees” — bought slaves to work their new estates. Penn himself, seeking additional money, bought slaves for his own estate. And worldly-minded New World Quaker artisans bought slaves to serve as cheap labor in their workshops.

This is the truth behind historian Douglas Harper’s assertion (quoted at the very beginning of this essay) that “slave labour … was … a vital and planned prerequisite for the [Pennsylvania] Quaker colony’s existence.”



Meanwhile, in the colonies south of Pennsylvania, slavery had newly taken its fatal turn for the worse. And at this point it behooves us to ask, why?

One part of the reason, certainly, was that the slaves in the Americas were of a markedly different race and a dramatically different society from their owners, which made it all too easy, in a context of black enslavement, for racism to catch on, and for a majority of their owners to imagine them as something less than fellow human beings.

The barriers to freedom and justice rose far taller, and became in some respects impassable, simply because the black African seemed so different from the white European.

Another part of the reason was that in the Americas, unlike the Old World, slavery was not embedded in a stable rural society. American society was one of uprooted strangers — both the slaveholders and the slaves were immigrants thousands of miles removed from their ancestral homes — and the Old World systems of social and legal sanctions that kept slavery within limits were just too many hundreds of miles away to exert any real control.

Many non-Quaker American slaveholders did try a sort of self-regulation, with local ordinances to punish their fellows who were cruel to their slaves. But this was no more than an attempt to contain slavery’s excesses; it did nothing to address the basic dehumanization and totalitarianism of the black-slavery system in North America. And a heartless but prosperous slaveholder in a society of strangers could easily use his wealth to buy the silencing of local criticism of his practices.

Moreover, many people emigrated from England to America precisely in order to get wealthy. This was true from the beginning: the first English settlers of Virginia, Maryland, and (as we’ve seen) even Pennsylvania, included many who went there with the express intention of getting rich, or of adding substantially to the wealth they already had; they imported slaves from Africa to further that purpose.

The dynamics of emigration thus tended to favor the very people most likely to make slavery an exploitive, dehumanizing and permanent proposition.

Having settled in America, bought slaves, built plantations or other enterprises, and grown rich (or richer), this class of settlers tended to band together and create institutions that would strengthen their grip on their wealth and their pretentions. And that brings us to the third part of the reason why slavery went so very bad in the New World — this collective quest, on the part of the most prosperous slaveholders, for ever-greater strength and security.

The development of slavery laws in Virginia, which was the first colony to develop a systematic set of such laws, shows how this process proceeded.

As slaves had children, Virginia’s plantation owners realized that giving the children freedom would make the parents more difficult to manage, and would undermine the profitability of their plantations. So in 1662, five years after Fox’s letter to Quaker slaveholders, the Virginia legislature passed a statute declaring that the children of slave mothers were slaves themselves.38

Further issues arose with free women marrying slaves, and with children from interracial marriages: such things were subversive to the clear and easy distinctions between slave blacks and free whites by which full exploitation of the former could be “justified”. So further statutes were crafted restricting interracial marriage and limiting the freedom of mulattos.

Far more profoundly, from the Quaker standpoint, an issue arose regarding slaves who became Christian, were baptized, and then laid claim to the same freedom that Paul requested for Onesimus in his letter to Philemon. The Virginia legislature responded in 1667, ten years after Fox’s letter to Quaker slaveholders, decreeing that “baptism of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.”39

Negroes Just Landed from a Slave Ship“Negroes Just Landed from a Slave Ship”: this woodcut, created ca. 1850, conveys something of the uprootedness and consequent helplessness of the newly arrived blacks — and the equal uprootedness, and consequent out-of-control character, of the whites.

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.

A Virginia statute passed in 1669, twelve years after Fox’s letter to Quaker slaveholders, declared that “if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther felony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate.”40



It’s difficult to overstate the significance of that last piece of slavery legislation. But let me try to express my own sense of what it meant.

Slavery in medieval Europe had not been an institution that reduced a human being to mere property. Thanks in large part to the infusion of Pauline values, the relationship of a slave to her or his master was of the same kind as the relationship of a peasant to the lord of the manor, or the relationship of a knight to his king. The slave, like the peasant or knight, owed his lord allegiance even to the point of death; the lord, in return, owed the slave a measure of protection and a livelihood under his power.

The relationship in every case was one of ownership: the peasant was the lord of the manor’s property, and the knight the king’s property, as truly as the slave was his master’s. A knight would say, quite proudly, that he was “the king’s own man” — claiming status by pointing out the higher status of his owner! But that measure of protection and that livelihood which an owner owed to the person he owned, be the latter a knight, a peasant, or even a slave, contained within it a recognition of the owned person’s humanity.

The slave’s lot was indeed abysmal, and the knight’s lot vastly better; the slave was the one to whom the least amount of protection, and the least material support, was owed. But in medieval Europe, the differences between the duties and privileges of the slave vis-à-vis his master and those of the knight vis-à-vis his king were still differences of degree rather than differences in kind. And this too preserved an awareness of the slave’s humanity.

The shift to regarding slaves as mere objects of property, formalized by the Virginia statute of 1669, changed all of that. The slave’s humanity was entirely set aside. Now the master owed the slave nothing — not even recognition of his feelings. Or to put it differently: now the slave had no claim on his master.

It was at this point, I humbly submit, that slavery ceased to be simply the extreme end of the evil of class inequality, as it had been in the Middle Ages, and became a different and deeper evil all its own. And notice, again, that this happened twelve years after Fox’s letter to slaveholders, and only two years before his visit to Barbados.

What we see arising here is what one school of modern theology refers to as a “power” or “principality”: a disembodied spiritual entity influencing human actions, and controlling the actions of the unreflective.41

The particular power we are looking at here changed character as it matured. Possibly we might best refer to this power, in its early phases in the first half of the seventeenth century, as “New World plantation thinking” — even though, in the modern era, it is far better described as “racism”.

But as “New World plantation thinking” in the first half of the seventeenth century, this new power entered into, subverted, and transformed the old institution of doulos-slavery, and converted it step by step into what that great (and dreadful) U.S. Vice President and Senator, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, called the South’s “peculiar institution” — racist slavery.42

We’ve entered the field of demonology at this point. I don’t plan to spend much time on it, because I think there is something deeply corrosive to the human mind and soul in any prolonged study of demons. But it’s worth saying a little bit more, simply to make it clear what we are dealing with.

As William Stringfellow, one of the seminal thinkers in the development of this school of theology, has written,

Pretending autonomy from God, these creatures [principalities and powers] … dominate human beings. …

Dehumanization is one term of current jargon for the reversal of dominion between persons and principalities [i.e., for the situation in which people are compelled to serve the interests of principalities rather than the other way around]. Specific illustrations of it from contemporary American experience abound — in the precedence, for example, of bureaucratic routine over human need in the administration of welfare or of Medicaid; in the brutalization of [prison] inmates…; in the separation of citizens in apartheid…; in the social priorities determined by the momentum of technological proliferation, regardless of either environmental or human interests thereby neglected, damaged, or lost; in genocide … against Indian Americans; in … male chauvinism; in the fraud and fakery … sponsored by American merchandising….

War or famine or pestilence; persecution or repression or slavery … issue from the parasitical posture of the principalities toward human life. Corporations and nations and other demonic powers restrict, control, and consume human life in order to sustain and extend and prosper their own survival.43

This, then, is the sort of nastiness that was taking form in the colonies just to the south of Pennsylvania and West Jersey, even as the Friends of the second generation — the survivors and practical organizers — were laying plans to settle there, and in some cases, laying plans to own slaves. And this is what those Friends who did buy slaves, bought into, wittingly or otherwise.

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Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for this close and thoughtful look into the history of slavery and how Quakers became complicit in it. I am struggling with this intellectually and emotionally. As a look into our history as a people it is important. I am especially concerned with the parallels to Friends' current involvement in an economy that dehumanizes and destroys people, perhaps less visibly and directly than slavery, and the question of tempering the excesses of this system (more humane slavekeeping?) vs. stepping outside it altogether. But perhaps you are planning to address these parallels in a future installment?

Joanna Hoyt
Jan 1, 2007 at 01:48PM | Unregistered CommenterJoanna Hoyt
Hi, Joanna! Thank you for reading through the first three installments of this essay, and thank you again for your comments!

The question of what sort of social system we should be advocating today is way beyond the scope of this essay. The question of how we grapple with the evils of the system we are presently confronted with, though, is quite germane, and I am sure I will have something to say about it. I will look forward to your comments on what I write!
Jan 3, 2007 at 07:22AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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