by Terry M. Smith
On Feb. 18, 1688, four leaders in Germantown, Pennsylvania, signed a petition against slavery and sent it to “the Monthly Meeting at Richard Warrels.” Drawing upon the analysis of J. H. Fretz, the petition had at least seven overlapping arguments: 1) slavery violates the Great Commandment; 2) it violates people’s will by forcing them into slavery); 3) it can involve theft; 4) it separates spouses, causing them to commit adultery; 5) it harms the witness of Quakers by offending some people; 6) slaves had the right to freedom (even to fight for it); and 7) Christians do not have the liberty to enslave.
Fretz says “there can be no question that the Germantown Petition of 1688 was a protest against the slavery system, and that it was squarely directed toward those who held slaves” (his emphasis).
What happened with the Petition? It went to the Monthly Meeting at Dublin, who found it too “weighty” to “meddle with it here” and referred it to the Quarterly Meeting; the Quarterly Meeting for the same reason referred it to the Yearly Meeting.
The Yearly Meeting on July 5, 1688, decided it was not “so proper for this Meeting to give a Positive Judgment in the Case….” Frenz said of the end result: “Too many Friends owned slaves. Too many Friends in ‘other parts’ (i.e., other colonies) lived off the labor of slaves.” Since Quakers, or Friends, sought at least “near unanimity” in decision-making, “they justified their silence on these grounds,” he said.
There is a slight Anabaptist aspect to the Petition: three of the signers were of Mennonite background. Although some Mennonites want to claim this document as an early Anabaptist protest against slavery, it appears the signers had become Quakers prior to 1688. “The most Mennonites can claim is that three of the signers had once been Mennonites, and that no English Friend was among the signers,” says historian H. S. Bender. The Petition seems to be largely a discussion among Quakers, though Frenz suggests some were influenced by “Mennonite-like consciences.”
Today women, children, and men are still physically enslaved. What social issues do we pursue today with our “Mennonite-like consciences”? How do we, as the EMC, go about making decisions? And how might some of our results be regarded 331 years from now?
Sources: J. Herbert Frenz, “Germantown Anti-Slavery Protest,” Mennonite Life (October 1958, 183-185) and H. S. Bender, “Society of Friends,” GAMEO (1959).