Arguments against slavery 335 years ago
Arguments against slavery 335 years ago
Samuel Sewell (c. 1850–1880: Historical and Biographical Sketches of Newbury) British Museum.

In 1700, a Puritan judge named Samuel Sewell published the first anti-slavery pamphlet in North America. It was called The Sale of Joseph, and the pamphlet presented several arguments against slavery based on biblical interpretations. Sewell knew his audience: the Puritans justified or condemned political decisions on theological grounds, and Sewell hoped to show his New England brethren that much of Scripture condemned the holding of one’s neighbor in bondage. In one of his most compelling arguments, Sewall cited God’s strict prohibition against stealing people—in other words, kidnapping people to enslave them. In the Old Testament, stealing a person was punishable by death: “Whoever steals a person and sells him, and whoever is found in his possession, let him be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).

Sewell’s argument did not convince the Puritans enough to change the laws of New England. He was opposed, in particular, by those who profited from the slave trade. Pro-slave puritans pointed to Old Testament verses that allowed the ancient Israelites to enslave Gentiles from other nations (eg, Leviticus 25:44–46). The pro-slave Puritans argued that the Africans were pagans and should therefore be treated in the same way that the ancient Israelites treated their pagan neighbors. Moreover, it has been argued that enslaved Africans probably deserved slavery because they were only enslaved after they were captured. And even if slavery itself was far from an ideal status, pro-slavery Puritans pointed to the (presumably) harsh living conditions in Africa to promote enslavement as a means of civilizing and caring for the unfortunate dark people.

Arguments against slavery 335 years ago |
Cotton Mather

One of the reasons why Samuel Sewell’s attempt to change Puritan attitudes towards slavery failed may be his own compromise with prejudice. Sewell acknowledged that, due to racial differences, New Englanders were reluctant to free enslaved Africans, as freedom would mean having to live in the same area with people of a different race. Therefore, he focused on stopping the importation of new African residents by banning the slave trade, rather than completely abolishing slavery. But instead of joining Sewell in his opposition to the slave trade, puritan leaders like Reverend Cotton Mather clear alternative New Englanders’ position on their human property: as long as enslaved people were treated well and taught the precepts of Christianity, there could be no real biblical objection to slavery. By adopting Mather’s approach to the slavery controversy, the Puritans sought to reconcile their faith and their belief in the community of all people before God with the profitable business of buying and selling people.

William Penn, Portrait, head and shoulders, facing left. (date unknown). Library of Congress, /

Puritans were not the only Christians who struggled with the issue of slavery in the New World. William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1681 in part to serve as a refuge for Quakers, members of a Christian sect facing severe religious persecution in Europe. Founded in the early 1650s by Englishman George Fox, the Quaker denomination was known for its adherence to several radical ideas. Among them was the notion that all people, including women, are capable of following God’s “inner light” within themselves. But while Quakers in today’s popular imagination are quite sedate, known for being pacifists or wearing black hats to advertise oats, in the 1600s Quakers were attracted controversy because they firmly believed that they were acting in the name of God, and that the judgment of their enemies was inevitable. Because they felt the apocalypse was near, a significant number of early Quakers even welcomed their own martyrdom. defiantly and publicly continuingtheir controversial preaching of fire and brimstone.

By the 1660s, however, the radicalism of the first generation of Quakers began to wane. Realizing that the apocalypse was not really close, Quaker leaders began to emphasize their commitment to pacifism and create systematic teachings for Quaker congregations, known as “meetings”, to which they were to follow. In contrast to the more hierarchical structure of Puritan churches, Quaker meetings consisted of the equal participation of all. The silent contemplation was interrupted when the individual felt that he or she had received divine guidance, which could then be shared with the group.

Like the Puritans, the Quakers fought the problem of slavery in the British-American colonies. In 1688, the first sign of unrest was the “Minute” or petition, mostly written by a recent immigrant to the Pennsylvania colony named Francis Daniel Pastor. Pastorius was a young German lawyer who helped found the village of Germantown, which is now part of Philadelphia. Along with three other recent German immigrants, Pastorius put forward a religious argument against slavery. It was read first at the local Quaker monthly meeting, then sent to the Quarterly and Annual Meetings in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Burlington, New Jersey. Yearly meeting records show that the petition was then sent to London to be discussed there by a larger group of Quakers, but no evidence has been found that any action was taken on this particular petition.

Nevertheless, “An Anti-Slavery Minute Addressed to the Germantown Monthly Meeting, 1688” is an important document in the history of the anti-slavery movement in North America. Within a few decades of its inception, the Quaker sect would become the first religious organization in the world to ban slavery among its members. When The Minute is compared to Sewell’s anti-slavery pamphlet, the reasons why the Quakers beat the Puritans to the finish line of abolition become clearer.

While Sewell relied heavily on specific biblical stories (such as the tale of Joseph’s enslavement by his brothers) and Old Testament law to support his case for ending the slave trade, the Quaker petition went to the heart of the matter: “There is a saying that we will do with all people as they will do themselves. This saying, now commonly known as the “Golden Rule”, was first given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus told his followers that this ethical standard summed up all other moral teachings in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). “Do unto others as you wish others to do unto you” was the essence of the Quaker petition – after all, “is there anything that could be done or circumvented in this way? (for example) sell or make a slave for life? The Quaker petitioners acknowledged that Africans were racially different, but promptly dropped this excuse: “although they are black, we cannot imagine having more freedom to have slaves than other whites.”

Having established the Golden Rule as the main reason why slavery was wrong, Quakers quickly considered a list of other objections. Like Sewall, the Quakers pointed to the biblical prohibition against stealing people, and also used a similar argument that slavery required the cruel separation of husbands from wives, which encouraged adultery. Moreover, since their central thesis was Jesus’ command to “do unto others,” Quakers asked their listeners to imagine how terrible it would be if They were stolen and sold into slavery: “Pray that the world may be worse for us than if people rob or steal us, and sell us into slavery in foreign countries, separating husbands from their wives and children.”

Quaker meeting houses in London and Amsterdam
Quaker meetings in London and Amsterdam (c. 1600-1700)

As Quakers emigrated due to religious persecution in Europe, they immediately sympathized with others who were being oppressed. “In Europe,” the petition says, “there are many who are oppressed for their conscience; and here the oppressed (because they are) black… Ah! would you think about it, those who do it, if you acted (thus)? A powerful return to personal responsibility for the suffering of others formed the basis of the Quaker petition, and although Germantown abolitionists failed to persuade their fellow Quakers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and London to take immediate action on the matter, many other Quakers soon concluded that slavery is incompatible with Christianity.

The Quakers banned slavery from their ranks by the time of American independence, and the group soon became one of the leading opponents of slavery in the new Republic. The descendants of the Puritans in New England soon followed suit: by 1804, slavery was abolished in all northern states. And by 1854, Abraham Lincoln adopted an argument very similar to that of the Germantown Quakers: “Though volume after volume is written to prove that slavery is very good, we never hear of a person who would like to benefit from it, myself being a slave“.

Professor Kara Rogers

Kara Rogers is an assistant professor at Ashland University. She teaches classes on the Enlightenment and the American colonial era. Her research focuses on race and slavery during the Jefferson era.