GERMANTOWN, Pa. (WHTM) — Francis Daniel Pastorius was one of the early movers and shakers of Pennsylvania. A German convert to Quakerism, he arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683, a year after William Penn arrived and laid out the city of Philadelphia. Pastorius arranged the purchase of land to the west of the new city, and founded a community for German and Dutch-speaking settlers. Germantown, as it was called, still exists, as part of Philadelphia.
They were prospering in the New Word, making good livings, and free from the religious persecution they had faced in Europe. But Pastorius, as well as many others in their community, were troubled by slavery. In the regions of Germany and Holland where they’d lived, servitude was a punishment for being convicted of a crime. Yet all around them, people were keeping slaves. Worse yet, the slaveholders included about half the Quakers in the Philadelphia area, including William Penn. How, the Germantown Quakers asked themselves, could people who fled Europe because they were persecuted for their religion turn around and persecute others for the color of their skin?
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In 1688, five members of the Germantown Quakers gathered together to compose “A Minute Against Slavery.” At the heart of their argument against the practice was The Golden Rule. In the very first sentence, they declare “is there any that would be done or handled at this matter? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?” The document is not only a condemnation of slavery, it was also a plea for universal rights, regardless of race or religion.
The members of the Germantown Meeting presented their petition to the local Monthly Meeting at Dublin, Pennsylvania (now Abington), held at the house of Richard Worrell. The monthly meeting decided the matter was “fundamental and just”, but needed to be considered by more than one local monthly meeting. So, they sent it on to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, which in turn forwarded it for consideration to the Philadelphia Annual Meeting. The Philadelphia Annual Meeting decided it should be considered by the London Annual Meeting. And there the trail goes cold — there seems to be no evidence the London Meeting ever considered it. The petition then disappeared from sight — literally. It wouldn’t be seen again until 1844.
But the Germantown Petition had asked some important questions, which made some Quakers uncomfortable with the status quo. For the next eight decades, the abolition movement in Pennsylvania Quakers grew, culminating with a proclamation issued by the Philadelphia Annual Meeting in 1776, banning Quakers from keeping slaves. In 1780, with strong Quaker backing, Pennsylvania passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which allowed for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the Commonwealth. As slavery grew in other states, and Pennsylvania became one of the main conduits of the Underground Railroad, many of the “conductors” were Quakers.
And when the Germantown Petition was rediscovered in 1844, its importance as the first written protest against slavery in the United States was recognized and became one of the most important documents in the abolition movement. Then almost a hundred years after it was re-discovered, it got misplaced again, to be re-re-discovered in 2005 in the vault at Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia. It now resides at Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.
Text of the Petition in full:
This is to the monthly meeting held at Richard Worrell’s:
“These are the reasons why we are against the traffic of mens-body, as followeth: Is there any that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? How fearful and faint-hearted are many at sea, when they see a strange vessel, being afraid it should be a Turk, and they should be taken, and sold for slaves into Turkey. Now, what is this better done, than Turks do? Yea, rather it is worse for them, which say they are Christians; for we hear that the most part of such negroes are brought hither against their will and consent, and that many of them are stolen. Now, though they are black, we cannot conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones.
“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 color they are. And those who steal or rob men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience, which is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of the body, except of evil-doers, which is another case. But to bring men hither, 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 color.
“And we, who know that men must not commit adultery, some do commit adultery in others, separating wives from their husbands, and giving them to others: and some sell the children of these poor creatures to other men. Ah! do consider well this thing, you who do it, if you would be done at this manner and if it is done according to Christianity! You surpass Holland and Germany in this thing. This makes an ill report in all those countries of Europe, where they hear of [it], that the Quakers do here handle men as they handle there the cattle. And for that reason some have no mind or inclination to come hither.
“And who shall maintain this your cause, or plead for it? Truly, we cannot do so, except you shall inform us better hereof, viz.: that Christians have liberty to practice these things. 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.
“Being now this is not done in the manner we would be done at; therefore, we contradict, and are against this traffic of men-body. And we who profess that it is not lawful to steal, must, likewise, avoid to purchase such things as are stolen, but rather help to stop this robbing and stealing, if possible. And such men ought to be delivered out of the hands of the robbers, and set free as in Europe. Then is Pennsylvania to have a good report, instead, it hath now a bad one, for this sake, in other countries; Especially whereas the Europeans are desirous to know in what manner the Quakers do rule in their province; and most of them do look upon us with an envious eye. But if this is done well, what shall we say is done evil?
“If once these slaves (which they say are so wicked and stubborn men,) should join themselves, fight for their freedom, and handle their masters and mistresses, as they did handle them before; will these masters and mistresses take the sword at hand and war against these poor slaves, like, as we are able to believe, some will not refuse to do? Or, have these poor negroes not as much right to fight for their freedom, as you have to keep them slaves?
“Now consider well this thing, if it is good or bad. And in case you find it to be good to handle these blacks in that manner, we desire and require you hereby lovingly, that you may inform us herein, which at this time never was done, viz., that Christians have such a liberty to do so. To the end we shall be satisfied on this point, and satisfy likewise our good friends and acquaintances in our native country, to whom it is a terror, or fearful thing, that men should be handled so in Pennsylvania.
“This is from our meeting at Germantown, held the 18th of the 2d month, 1688, to be delivered to the monthly meeting at Richard Worrell’s.
Derick op de Graeff,
Francis Daniel Pastorius,
Abram op de Graeff.”
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Pa Historical and Museum Commission