Digital History


The Rise of Antislavery Thoughts Previous Next
Digital History ID 4569



The original opponents of slavery were deeply religious women and men who believed that slavery was sinful. Most of the earliest critics of slavery were Quakers. The Society of Friends, as the group was formally known, was a religious denomination that had arisen during England's civil war of the mid-1600s. They wanted to live free of sin, and condemned war, and refused to bear arms, take oaths, or bow or take off their hats to social superiors. Rejecting an ordained ministry, the Quakers believed that the Holy Spirit was present in every human heart.

Compared to other religious sects of the time, the Quakers were extraordinarily egalitarian. Quaker women assumed ministerial role and Quakers rejected the notion that infants were born sinful.

Widespread Quaker opposition to slavery arose during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), when many Friends were persecuted for refusing to fight or pay taxes. Many members of the group responded to persecution by asserting the duty of individual Quakers to confront evil. As a result, a growing number of Quakers began to take active steps against poverty, the drinking of hard liquor, unjust Indian policies, and, above all, slavery. During the 1750s, 1760s, and 1770s, the Quakers became the first organization in history to prohibit slaveholding.

The very first antislavery petition in the New World was drafted in 1688 by Dutch-speaking Quakers who lived in Germantown, Penn. Their ancestors had been tortured and persecuted for their religious beliefs, and they saw a striking similarity between their ancestors' sufferings and the sufferings of slaves. They charged that Africans had been seized illegally from their homelands, shipped across the Atlantic against their will, and sold away from their families.

In 1688, the Germantown Quakers stood alone in their protests against slavery. They passed their petition on to other Quakers in Pennsylvania, only to see their protest against slavery ignored.

Read the following excerpt from the Germantown Quaker Petition of 1688 and identify the reasons why they opposed slavery:

"There is a saying, that we should do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour they are.... To bring men hither [to America], or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience-sake; and here there are those oppressed which are of a black colour....Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries; separating husbands from their wives and children."

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