“I was about eight years old, and it seemed kind of bizarre,” remembered Kathy Nicholson Paulmier, a Quaker and teacher at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.
She recalled how her father, Chris Nicholson, took her and her two brothers once a year in spring to stand in front of the Thones Kunders home, a townhouse put up in 1684 by Dutch immigrants. In her girlhood, it stood rickety but whole along this cobblestoned street corner down the block from her family’s house.
Her dad had them read aloud from a document written in the Kunders house long ago, words that young Paulmier thought sounded like gibberish. “People would walk by and kind of stare at us reading this really strange stuff,” she explained.
On a bright Saturday morning, she shared this on the same street corner with a visitor. Joining her were several students in her seventh grade history class.
“They’re probably the only kids in the world who study what happened at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Wister Street in 1688,” Paulmier laughed.
“These are the reasons why we are against the traffick of men Body,” begins what is called the Protest of 1688, scrawled on both sides of a single sheet of paper using English language and spelling forms only recently acquired by its German and Dutch-born authors.
“For we hear that ye most part of such Negers are brought heither against their will and consent; and that many of them are stollen,” the newcomers complained. “Now, tho’ they are black, we cannot conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones.”
The document charged that Philadelphia Quakers treated black “men licke they handel there ye cattel,” and declared that among these few new immigrants, “we can not do so.”
Paulmier said the four Protest signers led a community of about 25 immigrant households on either side of the street when this was raw wilderness and the road was a winding trail of the Lenape Indians. William Penn, the Quaker aristocrat who founded Pennsylvania in 1681, recruited the Mennonite families to immigrate to what he called his “peaceable kingdom” in the New World. The widely persecuted Mennonites converted to Quakerism to ship out for a new life among the Englishspeaking Pennsylvanians.
But Penn didn’t tell them he also owned slaves and benefitted from the slave trade. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the Protest was not acted upon immediately, but moved through successive lines of Quaker authority after being drafted at the Kunders family house and signed on April 18, 1688.
Finally, on Sept. 5, 1688, the Protest was considered by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where it was determined that slavery was too big an issue to address at that time. The paper was tucked into a file. It remained out of sight until abolitionists in 1844 “rediscovered” it in the vault of Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia and used it to promote their cause. But soon it was lost again.
When asked what remains of the Kunders house, which was flattened in the 1980s to make way for the shopping center behind us, Paulmier said the table on which the Protest was written was saved, and was at the old Mennonite meetinghouse just up Germantown Avenue. A walk up the avenue revealed the stone Mennonite meetinghouse sitting on a low hill. Squat, rectangular, and utterly unadorned, the 1790 meetinghouse is the oldest Mennonite building in the United States, replacing the log house put up in 1694.
“I never heard of the Protest until I started working here two years ago,” said Christopher Friesen, director of programming at the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust. Opening the door to his only visitor of the day, he led me to the back room, where the Protest table stood glowing in afternoon sunlight.
According to Friesen, who keeps copies of the Protest for occasional visitors, within three years of the Protest most of the immigrants returned to being Mennonites. They ventured uphill from Kunders’ house to build their first log meetinghouse here, and the table came, too.
“That was because they needed a table, not because it held much meaning otherwise,” said Friesen, a Mennonite seminarian studying religion at nearby Villanova University. “Mennonites never had slaves and would not even buy something if they thought it came through the labor of a slave. They viewed slavery as a ‘Quaker thing,’ and just walked away to live apart.” Over the next century, Quakers, too, labored with the injustice of holding slaves, with the result that by mid-century, slavery was no longer a “Quaker thing”: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting members were required—or at least encouraged—to relilnquish their slaves.
Friesen said he has never had a visitor ask to see the table, and expressed surprise that neither Quakers, nor Germantown schools, nor any of the large African American community in the area come by to see it. That might be understandable, he observed, because “in the end, it was four guys who wrote this protest, and as long as they lived, everybody kept their slaves.”
Katharine Gerbner, a teaching assistant at Harvard University who has written about the Kunders document, argues differently. She believes the significance of the Protest was not its immediate failure, but that it is the first explicit public declaration condemning slavery of Africans argued on the secular concept that all humans had inalienable rights.
“While individuals had complained about slavery before this time,” according to Gerbner, “the Protest reveals a completely different understanding of human nature. What you find is the foundation of our current society, the people we are today, what the world aspires to. It is the first time these notions surface in history.”
“That’s surprising, when you think of who wrote this,” said Gerbner, a graduate of Germantown Friends School who describes herself as Hungarian Jewish. “All around them were slaveholders who were getting rich, a bedrock aspiration of most people coming to the New World.”
Of course, within a few years individual Quakers and then Quaker meetings took up the issue, she pointed out. Philadelphia Quakers as a group had rejected slavery and orchestrated its abolition in Pennsylvania by 1776, when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other framers of the Declaration of Independence met. The Founders had to be careful that their slave servants were not whisked to freedom by Quakers, according to Gerbner.
Another surprise was that in researching while an undergraduate at Columbia University Gerbner heard of the rediscovery of the Protest document itself in 2005. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I thought it was in a museum somewhere.”
After the Protest was used as a recruitment tool by abolitionists up to the Civil War, it was filed away and forgotten. As it happened, finding it was the passion of Chris Nicholson, the father of schoolteacher Paulmier.
“The elders used to walk us down to the old [Kunders] house, and they’d read the document to each other,” remembered Nicholson, a native of Germantown who believes his ancestors freed their African slaves in the early 1700s.
“I wanted my kids to know the story, too,” explained Nicholson, a member of Germantown Meeting.
After prodding by Nicholson and other Germantown Quakers, archivists at Arch Street Meeting found the document, and had it restored. In 2006, it was deposited at Haverford College, which, together with nearby Swarthmore College, holds the records of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, of which the Protest is an integral part.
“In my mind, the most important thing about [the Germantown Protest] is that it didn’t disappear,” said Geoffrey Plank, associate professor of History at University of Cincinnati, and author of Rebellion and Slavery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire.
Once started, the debate over slavery of Africans kept going among Quakers, and within the larger society, said Plank, a member of Oak Park (Ill.) Meeting near Chicago. Slavery became a deeply contested institution, and the Quaker push for abolition forever changed Quakers. Plank believes that Quaker resistance to slavery contributed to their shrinking as a religious movement and loss of political power.
“It was a slow-born phenomenon,” offered Brycchan Carey, author of British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807. “When Germantown Friends began their complaint, slavery was common in Africa, black-to-black, and also in Asia, the Russian serf system, and throughout Latin America. Different names were used, different conditions applied, and while the racial element was not as defined, it was pure slavery for a great many people on the Earth in 1688.”
“The Protest of 1688 was so clear,” continued Carey, a professor at Kingston University, London, and a non- Quaker. “Reading it, one is struck by the way the language works, in a distant way forming the backbone of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, for example.”
“The spoken word, the life of the mind that frames this thing—the ‘history’ of ending slavery—is important,” Carey said. “It’s a slow burn, a long outcome in terms of time, but if the conversation of the Protest is to be valued, it is because of its long life.”
“When no one else was worrying about slavery, some Quakers were,” he said. “They wanted to get it right.”
Still, African Americans no doubt have a different take, Carey allowed. “History perhaps overplays the abolitionists, who were mostly white middle class, and not enough credit is given to the slaves themselves, who fought tenaciously throughout the ordeal.”
“I know I had problems with this,” offered Vanessa Julye, an African American Quaker and co-author with fellow Quaker Donna McDaniel of the newly released Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, the Myth of Racial Justice.
“Certainly there were individual Quakers throughout history who acted nobly,” said Julye, who, with her husband, Barry Scott, clerk of Central Philadelphia Meeting, remains active in the Religious Society of Friends. “But any critical look at race relations and Quakers, starting with the Protest of 1688, compels further inquiry into why we were so slow as a group in acting, and remain apart to this day in terms of brotherly love.”
As to how African Americans can remain Friends, Scott observed, “We are here, we are Quakers, not because of the tortured racial history of Friends, but because we find in Quakerism the voice of God, something far more powerful than the moment.”
And so I phoned ahead to Haverford before driving some nine miles westward to the college. There in the quiet of the library’s special collections reading room, the Protest document sat raised on a table before me.
“We let anyone who asks see it,” said John F. Anderies, the school’s non- Quaker archivist.
I raised the Protest document—yellowed and ragged, faded and nearly indecipherable, within its plastic archival sleeve—to my face to trace the opening stanza that still pierces the heart:
“These are the reasons why we are against the traffick of men Body.”