Questioning the Narrative of William Penn
It was better they was blacks for then a man has them while they live.
—William Penn, letter of 1687, on writing of his preference for chattel slavery over indentured labor
A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it. . . . Let us then try what Love will do.
—William Penn, 1693
Many Quakers asked: How could anyone do it? The mere suggestion that the William Penn Room in London’s Friends House might be renamed brought up a wealth of objections. These only intensified when, in April 2021, William Penn’s name was deleted. Quakers had, it seemed, “canceled” William Penn—to use a term from popular culture today. They had erased him from history. The letters in The Friend, for and against, week after week, poured in for months until at last the editor declared the correspondence closed.
Roughly speaking, the objections to the un-naming of the William Penn Room took three main lines. Some argued that the name of the room was well-established and that changing it denied the truth of Quaker history. Some took the popular line that Penn may have been an owner of enslaved people, but slavery wasn’t controversial in the seventeenth century, and we shouldn’t look at the past through the lens of our more enlightened times. Others called out Penn’s critics for their lack of loving and human sympathy, in addition to their (our) failure to understand the pressures under which he acted.
The first objection is easily dealt with. Friends House is less than 100 years old. The rooms were originally mostly known by numbers. The recent decision to name rooms after famous Quakers (a process that started about ten years ago) has been described as a form of outreach, presumably so that non-Quakers using the rooms, which are frequently let to outside bodies, could learn or be reminded of Quaker history and feel more comfortable should they ever wish to venture into a Quaker meeting. At some point, it became evident that some visitors felt discomfort on realizing that a room they were using was named for a prominent Quaker slave owner. The continued recognition of a slave owner in this way—however thoughtful and lucid his writings—would either suggest that Friends think the history of slave owning irrelevant to people today or that they think celebrating one individual prominent dead Quaker more important than causing pain to people who are currently living and whose ancestors may have been enslaved.
The second common objection to removing Penn’s name from the room stems from a belief that no one opposed slavery in the seventeenth century. This claim presents one obvious question: what about the people who were enslaved? They didn’t all tamely submit. Throughout the whole era in which White westerners enslaved people who looked different from themselves, there is plentiful evidence of escapes and rebellions. What enslaved people said among themselves and how they acted isn’t so easy to establish today, but laws such as the one passed in 1700 by the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania (where Penn was living at the time) that forbade more than four Black people meeting together on penalty of 39 lashes suggests considerable fear among Quaker enslavers about what their “property” might say or do during such meetings.
There were also Quaker opponents of slavery. The names of Garret Hendericks, Derick op den Graeff, Francis Daniel Pastorius, and Abraham op den Graeff are not as well-known as William Penn’s, but these four men were the first colonial settlers in North America to express their opposition to slavery in a formal written document. They were German and Dutch Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of present-day Philadelphia), and their document, often called the 1688 Germantown Petition or Protest, was specifically addressed to their larger Quaker community. It spoke of the moral evil of slavery and the damage Quakers did to their reputation by buying, selling, and claiming ownership of their fellow human beings. It saw that slavery was rooted in violence: the violence of kidnapping people and selling them, and the violence used to keep them in subjection. The protest asks Quakers whether enslaved people have “not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?”
The Germantown Protest made its way to the monthly and yearly meetings in the Philadelphia area. Given the way ideas grow, this was probably not the first time Quakers or other settlers questioned the practice of buying and selling kidnapped people. It seems unlikely that William Penn could have been unaware of such arguments, especially since Francis Pastorius was a personal friend. But Penn had grown up in a slave-owning family and was also a good friend of James II of England, who before becoming king in 1685 had been, since its inception in 1660, the leader of the Royal African Company, which went on to ship more African slaves to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade.
The sympathy we might feel for [Penn] should not be allowed to outweigh the sympathy we might feel for Yaffe, Sam, Sue, Jack, Chevalier, and Peter or any of the other enslaved people who lived at and were sometimes sold from Penn’s estate in Pennsylvania.
Moving on to the third objection from Friends to the possibility of calling a room in Friends House something other than “William Penn.” The calls for sympathy with Penn speak directly to a human concern for others. It is true that at times he was in debt, on the run, and ill. But the sympathy we might feel for him should not be allowed to outweigh the sympathy we might feel for Yaffe, Sam, Sue, Jack, Chevalier, and Peter or any of the other enslaved people who lived at and were sometimes sold from Penn’s estate in Pennsylvania. We don’t even know their original names or the languages they first learned to speak. We do know that they were almost certainly kidnapped from their home, separated from their families, stuffed into ships as cargo, and sold as pieces of property in a strange land. There they were forced to learn a new language and abide by unfamiliar rules and customs according to the wishes of the Quaker who owned them. Meanwhile, Penn’s words were published and re-published. His well-turned phrases instruct and comfort us today. The words of the people he enslaved may have been just as thoughtful and finely expressed but have not been handed down to us. It is the lives of the people Penn enslaved that have been mostly erased from Quaker history. Much of their planned future, and much of their potential, was stolen by the people who kidnapped, sold, bought, and imprisoned them. We can, at present, only guess at the heroism or courage they may have shown in their daily lives.
In present-day teachings on the topic, by White Friends and others, there’s much sentimental mythmaking around early Quaker opposition to slavery, which wasn’t as unanimous as we might like to believe. Even after Quaker meetings declared their opposition to slave owners, some individual Friends continued to own enslaved people. It can be very comforting for White people to think of Quakers as representative good people who stood against bad things (like slavery) and, by benevolence and without violence, brought them to an end. Quakers themselves are often tempted to believe this myth.
The facts are far more complicated. In Britain, one of the significant antislavery groups of the late eighteenth century was the Sons of Africa, whose best known members today are Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano. Equiano was permitted to purchase his own freedom—something that required an enslaved person to undertake work in addition to the toil required of him by his “owner,” so that the enslaver would be recompensed for the “market value” of that body and would not suffer a financial loss. Equiano purchased his freedom—effectively buying himself—from an American Quaker owner in the Caribbean in 1766. Eventually he settled in England and became an active abolitionist and author. He embraced Christianity but did not become a Quaker. When the focus is on White benevolence, Black history and activism fades into obscurity.
As Quakers, we have testimonies of truth and equality.Adhering to these values would seem to suggest that we have a responsibility to examine and face up to the uncomfortable truths of the past, with all their awkward and painful implications.
This raises the question of how a focus on individual Quaker “heroes” and even Quaker “good works” might erase other stories from which we have much to learn. Given that Quakers do not have a creed, many western Friends have instead enthusiastically passed on myths and anecdotes that tell Quaker history in a way that suits current preconceptions about how liberally minded, comfortably off White people think the world is. These stories often take the place of spiritual insight or questioning. They have a greater focus on Quaker successes and Quakers as privileged enablers than the real history deserves. When history runs counter to a familiar myth or anecdote, we often begin to feel acute discomfort. It can feel as though the stories that reassured us about our inheritance of virtue are being taken away. If we can’t rely on a history of exceptional virtues, what exactly have we inherited? Are we not as good as we thought we were? And are we expected to put past wrongs right?
As Quakers, we have testimonies of truth and equality. Adhering to these values would seem to suggest that we have a responsibility to examine and face up to the uncomfortable truths of the past, with all their awkward and painful implications. They may require us to change—in fact, they almost certainly do. The focus Quakers often give to stories of comfortably off and wealthy figures tends to simplify the complex and full humanity of the oppressed. It treats the exploited and the poor as passive recipients of benevolence and generosity whose only proper role is to be humble and display gratitude. This is not equality. It takes no account of what those who were born with less might offer through teaching and example. Like Equiano before them, poor people and working-class people, including poor and working-class Quakers, are often treated as though the Quaker testimony to equality deserves lip service only.
When we celebrate Quaker heroes—or perhaps “role-models” is a better term—the focus is largely on those whose advantages were gained at the expense of the disadvantage of others. Quaker businesses tended to succeed through a family’s slow accumulation of wealth. Many Quaker business owners took advantage of the huge wealth gap between rich and poor; it enabled them to display their benevolence and also to control many aspects of their workers’ lives.
In Quaker publications any historical stories of poor Quakers, working-class Quakers, and Quakers of Color stand out because these stories are little known and rarely told. Perhaps there is also a reluctance to imagine—really imagine, with vividness, understanding, and research—how life was experienced by Quakers who didn’t fit the mold of the comfortably off White savior performing acts of benevolence to help the wretched of the earth.
When the focus is on White benevolence, Black history and activism fades into obscurity.
If we are wanting to lift up exemplary lives from the past, say for the purpose of naming rooms in a public-facing building operated by Quakers, perhaps we should look at those who had to endure the most—enslavement, grinding poverty, oppression—and yet somehow their spirits live on today in spite of it. If we’re looking for these kinds of stories among people alive today, perhaps we’ll have better luck finding them by listening to Friends and others who have been less fortunate. Don’t look to the well-connected speakers at yearly meeting or the committee members who know everyone with an important role in Quaker circles. Look instead at the people who earn a living by cleaning streets and houses, the people who care for others on meager wages or state benefits, the homeless people who show fellowship with one another. We have a lot to learn from them, and if these people or people like them aren’t in our meetings, we should start to wonder why. We might ask what we are doing wrong today and how we need to change to be more welcoming to them.
In the past, there have been Quakers who weren’t comfortably off, who relied on their bodies to earn a living, and who sometimes fell into poverty. This is evident from the records of membership, bequests to help poor Quakers, the history of some Quaker schools, and meeting accounts that list donations from meeting funds for members in need of assistance. Occasionally stories are told of British Quakers who didn’t belong to the small minority of the population who were comfortably off. Mary Fisher, for example, a member of the Valiant Sixty, was permitted by her employers to leave her work as a servant and was taught to read and write as she traveled in the ministry. Life was far easier for those Quakers who were already literate and could expect to be treated with respect by magistrates than it was for someone who was without means and could more easily be labeled a vagabond. When we publicly lift up the wealthy, benevolent Quakers from our history, we’re also sending the message that the people who were oppressed by them mattered less. We are, by implication, telling today’s disadvantaged and oppressed people that their insights and their experiences don’t matter as much as the benevolence of those who are secure in their comforts.
A member of my own meeting used to say that the besetting sin of Quakers is smugness, and that is something that can easily come from a belief in the essential virtue of our Quaker identity and its history. The first advice of Britain Yearly Meeting asks us to heed “the promptings of love and truth” and to “[t]rust them as the leadings of God whose light shows us our darkness and brings us to new light.” If we are reluctant to be shown our own flaws, it will be even harder to acknowledge when past Quakers got it wrong. After all, if they made mistakes, that lays us open to the possibility that we are perpetuating errors and making new mistakes today. How limited is our love, and whose truth do we dare to tell?