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BRIEF STATEMENT, &c.
It having pleased the Great Head of the Church to enlighten the minds of some of our early Friends to see the iniquity of holding their fellow men in bondage, at a time when
of our members were themselves slaveholders ; and the Society of Friends having been, through faithfulness, favoured to clear itself of that opprobrium of the Christian world, we have thought that a narrative of the steps by which this reformation was effected, would be both strengthening to those who, being slaveholders, feel the awfulness of their responsibility; and encouraging to all as an example of patient perseverance in bearing a faithful testimony in the meekness and gentleness of the gospel, against the evils which are in the world.
At the time when the Society of Friends arose, there were great numbers of slaves in the British possessions, more especially in the West Indies, Virginia and the Carolinas. Many of their owners were among the early converts to our Society, and Friends who had emigrated thither from England, fell into the custom and purchased slaves.
We learn this from the earnest exhortations of George Fox and his fellow labourers to Friends to treat their slaves with Christian care and humanity, and to prepare them for freedom.
Such was the counsel given by George Fox to Friends in Barbadoes in 1671. “Respecting their negroes, I desired them,"
says he in his journal, “to endeavour to train them up in the fear of God, as well those that were bought with their money, as them that were born in their families, that all might come to the knowledge of the Lord ; that so with Joshua every master of a family might say, “ As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.' I desired also that they would cause their overseers to deal mildly and gently with their negroes, and not use cruelty towards them as the manner of some hath been and is; and that after certain years of servitude they should make them free."
In a public discourse spoken in that island, he bears the following remarkable testimony: “ let me tell you it will doubtless be very acceptable to the Lord, if so be that masters of families here, would deal so with their servants, the negroes and blacks whom they have bought with their money, (as) to let them go free after they have served faithfully a considerable term of years, be it thirty years after, more or less, and when they go and are made free, let them not go away empty handed."
George Fox visited that island in company with Wm. Edmundson, and their earnest labours with the masters on behalf of the slaves, gave rise to a report that they were exciting the latter to revolt ; a report which George Fox promptly pronounced to be a wicked slander. Four years afterwards, William Edmundson again visited the island; and the same slan
ders being revived, he was taken before the governor, as appears by his journal.
It was probably during this second visit that he addressed an epistle to Friends of Maryland, Virginia, and other parts of America, which contains the following passage : “ And must not negroes feel and partake the liberty of the gospel, that they may be won to the gospel ? Is there no year of jubilee for them? Did not God make us all of one mould ? And did not Jesus Christ shed his blood for us all ? And what if they were of Ham's stock, and were to be servants of servants ? hath not that been fulfilled upon them ? and must that yoke always rest upon their bodies, or rather be laid upon Ham's spirit wherever it is ? and doth not Christ take away that wall of partition between people and people ? and is it not now that God is no respecter of persons, but of every nation, tongue and people, he that fears God and works righteousness shall find mercy? and should not we show forth the mercies and kindness of God to our fellow creatures? And doth not the prophet say the Lord will stretch forth his hand to Ethiopia, and will set up his altar in Egypt which David several times calls the land of Ham ? And Christ's command is to do to others as we would have them to do to us; and which of
all would have the blacks or others to make you their slaves without hope or expectation of freedom or liberty? Would not this be an aggravation upon your minds that would outbalance all other comforts? So make their conditions your own; for a good conscience void of offence, is of more worth than all the world, and Truth must regulate all wrongs and wrong deal. ing."
These extracts prove that the sin of slaveholding was seen in its true light by some of the most eminent of our early Friends. That many bore a faithful testimony from that time forward, will be shown from the official records of the Society.
At the Yearly Meeting of Pennsylvania and New Jersey held in 1688, a paper was “presented by some. German Friends concerning the lawfulness and unlawfulness of buying and keeping of negroes; it was adjudged not to be so proper for this meeting to give a positive judgment in the case, it having so general a relation to many other parts, and therefore at present they forbear it."
Diligent search has been made at various times for the paper spoken of in the above extract, and there is reason to fear that it is no longer extant. The German Friends who presented it are understood to have been emigrants from Kreisheim, who had established themselves in the neighbourhood of Germantown.
The first official step of the Society in regard to trading in negroes, appears to have been taken by the Yearly Meeting of 1696, which issued the following advice to its members. 6 Whereas, several papers have been read relating to the keeping and bringing in of negroes; which being duly considered, it is the advice of this meeting, that Friends be careful not to encourage the bringing in of any more negroes; and that such that have negroes, be careful of them, bring them to meetings, have meetings with them in their families, and restrain them from loose and lewd living as much as in them lies, and from rambling abroad on First-days or other times."
William Penn felt and mourned over the state of
the slaves, but his attempts to improve their condition by legal enactments were defeated in the House of Assembly. The following minute of the monthly meeting of Philadelphia made in 1700, bears witness to his zeal for their welfare. “ Our dear Friend and governor having laid before this meeting a concern that hath laid upon his mind for some time concerning the negroes and Indians, that Friends ought to be very careful in discharging a good conscience towards them in all respects, but more especially for the good of their souls, and that they might as frequent as may be, come to meetings upon First-days, upon consideration whereof this meeting concludes to appoint a meeting for the negroes, to be kept once a month, &c., and that their masters give notice thereof in their own families, and be present with them at the said meetings as frequent as may be."
The quarterly meeting of Chester was at that time the most southern branch of the Yearly Meeting of Pennsylvania, and comprised all the meetings south of Philadelphia quarter, as far as Hopewell in Virginia. The attention of its members was early turned to this subject, and in the Sixth month, 1711," the following minute of that quarter was sent up to the Yearly Meeting.
“ Chester monthly meeting's representatives reminded this meeting that their meeting was dissatisfied with Friends buying and encouraging the bringing in of negroes, and desires the care and notice of the Yearly Meeting ; and the above particulars to be according to order, presented by the representatives of this meeting in writing to the next Yearly Meeting.” The Yearly Meeting of that year notices this minute, and