Slavery in the Quaker World

Christian Slavery and White Supremacy

Engelse Quakers en tabak planters in Barbados (English Quakers and tobacco planters in Barbados). Print, 1726. Image courtesy of New York Public Library.


Quakers have long been hailed as heroes of the abolitionist movement. Friends like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman worked tirelessly to convince other Whites to abolish slavery and embrace liberty for all. Fourteen years ago, when I began research for my book Christian Slavery, I wanted to understand this abolitionist history better. I started with the “beginning”: the first antislavery protest in North America, written by German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania. But as I quickly learned, this was only part of the story when it comes to Quakers and slavery.

The 1688 Germantown Protest, as it is often called, was the first document in North America to denounce slavery. It is an extraordinary document. It declares, among other things, that the authors are “against the traffick of men-body.” It goes on to explain that slavery cannot be a Christian practice and that it is against the Golden Rule. It is worth lingering on the following passage:

There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience, w[hi]ch is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body.

For the seventeenth century, this is a very unusual statement. It is a document that Quakers⁠—and all Americans⁠—can be proud of. I was excited to write about it. I also felt a personal connection to the Germantown Protest: I grew up in Philadelphia and attended Germantown Friends School, which is just a few blocks from where the 1688 Protest was written. As it turns out, I had passed the site of its creation hundreds of times as I traveled to school down Germantown Avenue.

Examining the origins of Quaker abolition, I thought, would serve multiple purposes. I wanted to show how something as important as abolition had a history, and how we could learn about social justice by studying the past. As I looked closer at the 1688 Protest, however, I became less interested in the petition itself than in the last line⁠—a line that was added not by the authors of the Germantown protest, but by the Quakers who represented Abington (Dublin) Meeting and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The first line reads:

Detail of the Germantown Protest against slavery. The original is held in the Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.


We having inspected ye matter, above mentioned, and considered of it, we find it so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here.

Below that follows:

A Paper being here presented by some German Friends Concerning the Lawfullness and Unlawfulness of Buying and keeping Negroes, It was adjudged not to be so proper for this Meeting to give a Positive Judgment in the Case, It have so General a Relation to many other P[a]rts, and therefore at present they forbear It.

While the language is opaque, the conclusion is clear: The Philadelphia Quakers rejected the antislavery 1688 Protest.

I had intended to study Quaker antislavery, but I felt that this was more important. What it revealed is that while a very small minority of Quakers rejected slavery in the seventeenth century, most did not. I had more questions: What did it mean that slavery had “so General a Relation to many other P[a]rts?” What “other parts” were they talking about?

The author, Katharine Gerbner, giving a lecture on slavery and Quakerism in seventeenth-century Barbados, CSpan3, April 10, 2019.

I decided to ask different questions. Instead of reading Quaker abolition back in time, I thought it was important to understand how these slaveholding Quakers fit into their own time.

Slavery in the Quaker World

I began to dig deeper into the seventeenth-century Quaker world. At the time—I was surprised to learn—slavery was accepted and common among the English Quakers who were in political control of Pennsylvania. And that was not all: Quakers were also involved in the slave trade. As it turns out, many of the Quakers in Philadelphia immigrated not from England, but from the Caribbean island of Barbados.

Pennsylvania may have been the first “official” Quaker colony, but it was not the first Quaker community in the Americas. There was a large Quaker presence on Barbados, where thousands of Friends lived. In the 1670s, it was called the “Nursery of Truth” because it was so filled with Quakers.

When Pennsylvania was founded in 1682, William Penn and others used their Quaker connections in Barbados to purchase enslaved Africans. As Pennsylvania’s social and economic structure developed, ties with the West Indies and other trade outlets flourished. The trade with Barbados was a source of pride and a symbol of prosperity for many English Quakers who considered slavery to be necessary for economic development.

I realized that I needed to tell this story. Like other stories that are shameful or embarrassing, this one had been largely suppressed in the Quaker histories that I read. Much of the scholarship about Quakers and slavery in the seventeenth century acknowledged that Quakers owned slaves, but they focused on finding the “seed” of abolition in these early Quaker records.

I decided to ask different questions. Instead of reading Quaker abolition back in time, I thought it was important to understand how these slaveholding Quakers fit into their own time. None of them would have predicted the demise of the slave trade or slavery. So if I really wanted to understand them and the relationship between Quakers and slavery, then I needed to take a different approach.

Why did Quakers accept slavery in this period? How did they justify slavery within their theological worldview? How did their views compare to other European Christians who encountered slavery? I also wanted to think about what Christianity might have meant to enslaved and free Black men and women who joined the ranks of the Quakers as well as other denominations. When and why did they convert? These became the questions that fueled my research.

I started by taking a closer look at Barbados. Barbados was the most important English colony in the seventeenth century. It was settled in 1627, and colonists soon began to plant tobacco and then sugar. While English colonists initially relied on a joint labor force of European indentured servants and African slaves, by the 1650s enslaved Africans had become the majority of the labor force.

Quakerism started to flourish around the same time. Two Quaker missionaries, named Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, landed on the island in 1655 and successfully converted—or “convinced” in Quaker parlance—several island residents. Two decades later, there were thousands of Quakers living on Barbados, all but four of whom were slave owners.

By the 1670s, Quaker founder George Fox decided to visit the Quaker communities in the colonies. Barbados was his first stop. There, he became deeply concerned about the practice of slavery but not for the reasons we might hope. While he did urge Quakers to consider manumission, he did not call for an end to slavery as a practice. Instead, he did something else: He urged Friends to worship with the enslaved people in their households and to introduce them to Quakerism. In many ways, this is disappointing. And in fact, much of scholarship about Fox’s visit to Barbados debates whether his remarks were “proto-antislavery” or not. But again, when we focus on antislavery, we miss an important distinction.

The crucial point has to do with the reaction of other colonists on Barbados. In 1675, a few years after Fox’s visit, English colonists discovered that a group of enslaved men was planning a rebellion. In response, the English colonists took drastic measures: They executed the enslaved rebels, tortured others, and rewarded the informants. They also did something rather unusual. They passed an act that forbid Quakers from worshiping alongside enslaved men and women. This act asserted that enslaved people had “been suffered to remain at the Meeting of Quakers as hearers of their Doctrine, and taught in their Principles, whereby the safety of this Island may be hazared [sic].” If, the act continued, any enslaved person was “found with the said People called Quakers, at any time of their Meeting, and as hearers of their Preaching,” the Quakers would have to pay a fine. Within a year, a Friend named Ralph Fretwell was “prosecuted for 80 [enslaved people] being present at a Meeting in his House,” and Richard Sutton was taken to court “for 30 [enslaved people] being present at a Meeting.”

This sequence of events is puzzling. Why would Quakers be blamed for slave rebellion when they had a peace testimony? I have learned, in doing historical research, that when something doesn’t seem to make sense, you need to dig in. It is often these incongruencies that reveal something fundamentally important about a particular place and time.

Rethinking the History of Slavery, Race, and Abolition

Seventeenth-century Quakers, I came to understand, were radical but not because they were abolitionists. Instead, Quakers like George Fox were radical because they suggested that Blacks and Whites should meet together for worship.

Quakers were not the only Christians persecuted for meeting with enslaved people. As I began to investigate this issue further, I looked beyond the Quaker records to the archives of Protestant denominations⁠: members of the Church of England (Anglicans) as well as other smaller denominations, like the Moravian Church. As I did so, I realized there were some intriguing similarities in their experiences.

In each case, English slave owners attacked Protestant missionaries and enslaved Christians for meeting together. On the island of Saint Thomas, for example, Moravian missionaries and Black converts were beaten and attacked by White colonists. Slave owners stole Bibles from enslaved Christians, and they burned Moravian books.

“Marotta to the Queen of Denmark” (1739). Image Courtesy of the Unitätsarchiv der Evangelischen Brüder-Unität, Herrnhut, Germany.


The above photo shows a letter either written—or more likely dictated—by a free Black Moravian woman named Marotta, who wrote to the Queen of Denmark to ask her to support Black Christians. In it, she asks the Queen to support the Black women “of Saint Thomas,” because the slave owners would not allow them to “serve the Lord Jesus.” The petition was first written in Marotta’s native West African language (on the left) and then translated into Dutch Creole (on the right). Marotta’s appeal was accompanied by another letter written in Dutch Creole and also signed by several other Black Moravians on Saint Thomas. This letter went into more detail about the problems facing enslaved Christians: The White planters “beat and injure us when [we learn] about the Savior,” they wrote. “[They] burn our books, call our baptism the baptism of dogs, and call the Brethren beasts.”

As I looked closer at these and other sources, I began to understand why English slave owners found the prospect of slave conversion so threatening:

  1. When enslaved people became Christian, it challenged the justification for slavery, which was religious difference, i.e., it was considered legal to enslave “heathens” but not to enslave Christians.
  2. In some cases, missionaries taught enslaved people to read the Bible and to write. This was very unpopular among slave owners.
  3. When enslaved Christians met for worship, White colonists feared they were plotting slave rebellion.

This helps to explain what happened in Barbados: When Quakers started to include enslaved people in their worship meetings, English slave owners reacted aggressively. When the Quaker William Edmundson visited Barbados in 1675, for example, he was attacked by the governor for “making the Negroes Christians, and [making] them rebel and cut their Throats.”

In the seventeenth century, the concept of race, as we know it, did not exist; the concept of “Whiteness” had not yet been created. So slave owners created the ideology of Protestant supremacy, which used religion to justify slavery.

Protestant Supremacy

These documents reveal some misunderstood aspects of colonial slavery. English slave owners thought of Christianity⁠—and especially Protestantism⁠—as a religion for free people, and they worried that a baptized slave would demand freedom and possibly rebel. As a result, they excluded most enslaved people from Protestant churches.

I felt that this was an extremely important aspect of early colonial slavery and that it had not been fully recognized. So in my book, I gave it a name: Protestant supremacy. Protestant supremacy, I came to understand, was the forerunner of White supremacy. White supremacy uses racial designation to create inequality. But in the seventeenth century, the concept of race, as we know it, did not exist. And most significantly, the concept of “Whiteness” had not yet been created. So slave owners created the ideology of Protestant supremacy, which used religion to justify slavery.

I turned to the legal archives to understand this better. I read through all of the laws passed on the island of Barbados in the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. In the earliest slave laws, I found, colonists didn’t call themselves “White”; they called themselves “Christians.” Protestant slave owners constructed a caste system based on Christian status, in which “heathen” slaves were afforded no rights or privileges while Catholics, Jews, and nonconforming Protestants were viewed with suspicion and distrust but granted more protections.

This is why it was so controversial for Quakers and other missionaries to introduce enslaved people to Christianity: because it threatened to undermine Protestant supremacy. So the next question is, how did this change? How did Protestant supremacy become White supremacy?

From Protestant Supremacy to White Supremacy

We’ve already seen how Protestant supremacy was challenged. It was challenged by missionaries, including the Quakers, and by enslaved and free Blacks, who wanted to become Christian: people like Marotta.

But in each case, it was challenged differently. I’ll start with the missionaries. Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries responded to Protestant supremacy by trying to argue that Christianity and slavery were perfectly compatible. Protestant missionaries drew on biblical descriptions of slavery as well as the ideal of the “godly” household to encourage slave owners to allow enslaved people to convert. They noted that Christian slavery had a long and well-established history in Europe and the Catholic American colonies. Missionaries also tried to defend slave conversion by arguing that enslaved Christians would be more docile and harder working than their “heathen” counterparts.

For an example of this, we can return to the Quaker William Edmundson, who is often thought of as one of the first “antislavery” Quakers. But when he was attacked by the Governor of Barbados for worshiping alongside enslaved people, he responded by saying: “[i]t was a good Work to bring them to the Knowledge of God and Christ Jesus, and . . . that would keep them from rebelling or cutting any Man’s Throat.” The implications here are clear: Conversion would make slavery safer; it would make enslaved people less rebellious.

Enslaved Christians fought Protestant supremacy in a different way. As we saw in Marotta’s letter, they tended to argue that they had a right to practice Christianity, to read the Bible, and to worship together. Over time, more and more enslaved and free people of color fought their way into Christian churches, influenced by theological, practical, and social motivations.

One of these individuals was named Charles Cuffee. Cuffee, who was probably born into slavery, was baptized on September 9, 1677, in an Anglican church in Barbados. The minister of the church noted that Cuffee had recently been “freed,” making him the first free Black man to be baptized on the island. In 1689, 12 years after his baptism, Cuffee brought two children to the baptismal font: Thomas, aged ten, and Mary, aged five. The minister noted that they were the “son & dau of Charles Cuffee free Christian negro.” By joining the Anglican Church, Cuffee was making a claim for himself: As a free Christian man, he had acquired most of the markings of a freeholder. According to Barbadian law at the time, he would be eligible to vote in elections and, at least hypothetically, run for office if he could acquire enough property.

It was in response to free Black Christians like Charles Cuffee that English slaveholders began to create White supremacy. Soon after Cuffee brought his children to the baptismal font, Barbadian lawmakers wrote a new law, redefining citizenship to include the word “white” as well as “Christian.” This was one of the first times that the word “white” was used in the legal records. The law declared that “every white Man professing the Christian Religion . . . who hath attained to the full Age of One and Twenty Year, and hath Ten Acres of Freehold . . . shall be deemed a Freeholder.”

Twelve years later, lawmakers refined their definition of Whiteness further. A 1709 law clarified that a “white” person could have “no extract” from “a Negro,” thereby establishing the “one-drop rule” as the definition of Whiteness and laying a new foundation for slavery and social oppression that made race seem like a natural category⁠—something that was innate.

What we see here is the codification of Whiteness as a legal category that was specifically intended to exclude free Black Christians from the full rights of citizenship. We often take “Whiteness” as a given, but it has a very specific history. We assume that race is a biological reality when it is actually a political category. Slaveholding politicians actively created the category of “Whiteness” as part of a political strategy to protect slave ownership and restrict the voting rights of free Blacks.

With the creation of Whiteness, slave conversion became less threatening. Whiteness, rather than religious difference, became the new way to justify and enforce slavery.

A hardcopy edition of Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, by the author, Katharine Gerbner, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Whiteness, rather than religious difference, became the new way to justify and enforce slavery.

Combating White Supremacy

As our society becomes increasingly aware of the lasting effects of White supremacy, it’s important to think about where Whiteness comes from. Most people think that race is biological, but this belief is very destructive. It naturalizes race and allows us to forget that Whiteness was created in order to legalize and justify inequality. In other words, we need to acknowledge that individuals made decisions that led to “Protestant supremacy” and to “White supremacy.” If we don’t recognize this history, we risk repeating the injustices of the past.

It’s also important to think about the many different meanings that religion had in slave societies. We see in Protestant supremacy that religion could be a source of oppression. But that’s certainly not what it meant to the enslaved men and women who fought hard to be baptized. Our histories need to keep those two facts in balance, and especially not allow the oppressive regime of Protestant supremacy to desensitize people to the experiences of enslaved and free Black Christians.

For those of us who identify with the Quaker tradition—as I do—this history invites us to think about what it really means to combat oppression. This also means confronting the uncomfortable aspects of Quaker history. When we relegate the blame for slavery and oppression to people “in the South,” for example, we are actively erasing Quaker complicity in, and support for, slavery not only in Barbados but also in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the North. This is an uncomfortable past, but it’s a past that needs to be brought into the light.

Looking carefully at this Quaker past can teach us a lesson about social justice. It shows us that it’s not enough to be radical; we also have to be vigilantly aware of history and the complexities of inequality. It’s not enough to have good intentions. We must be critically engaged with the past to understand the influence it continues to exert in the present.

Finally, history is never inevitable. Things could have developed differently. As we all know, Quakers⁠—as well as many evangelical Christians, both Black and White⁠—played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity, and Quakerism in particular, could be used to support emancipation. We can and should remember those abolitionist Quakers and learn from them. But we can’t whitewash our own history, or we risk repeating it.

Watch our author chat interview with Katharine Gerbner:

Katharine Gerbner

Katharine Gerbner is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., and graduated from Germantown Friends School. She currently attends Twin Cities Meeting in Saint Paul, Minn.

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