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Christianity and slavery

Movement towards abolition

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This is a continuation of an essay dealing with the
Christian acceptance of slavery from the 5th to 17th century CE

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Anglican, Mennonite and Quaker opposition to slavery; late 17th century

bullet1665: Richard Baxter, an ordained priest of the Church of England, criticized those who: "catch up poor Negroes...and...make them slaves and sell them...[This is] one of the worst kinds of thefts in the world...such persons are to be taken as the common enemies of mankind." He, and a very few others who spoke out, had essentially no influence and were ignored by governments and the public alike.
bullet1683: The first religious group in the U.S. to raise objections to slavery were Mennonites, a Christian group which descended from the Anabaptists.

Anabaptists had broken away from Luther and Calvin's Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Their name comes from the Latin word "anabaptista" which means "one who is rebaptized." i.e. a person who was baptized first as an infant and later as an adult. It is a misnomer, because Anabaptists did not baptize infants and did not recognize the validity of such a baptism. Baptisms were only performed later in life after the individual is sufficiently mature and has trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. "Anabaptist" was originally a term of derision; but the name stuck.

One notable feature of the Anabaptists was their love of freedom from state and religious oppression. They opposed war. They opposed the taking of oaths in court, believing that a person's word is sufficient. They observed a life of simplicity, with minimal entanglement with the state.

One of the sects to emerge from the Anabaptist movement were the Mennonites. Their first permanent settlement in North America was at Germantown PA (near Philadelphia) in 1683. "This growing Mennonite element is credited with American history's first public protest against slavery and was very influential in the later Quaker antislavery position." 1

bullet 1688: A "Germantown Protest" pamphlet was printed by Mennonites in Pennsylvania. (Some sources say Quakers; others say Mennonite Quakers). It said, in part: "Now, tho' they are black, we cannot conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones...And those who steal or rob men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike?" The document was not well received by the rich slave owners in the region. The Mennonites found themselves rejected and isolated by the rest of Christian society for their radical views. "They got little help from outsiders. Their deprivation was such that Germantown was nicknamed 'Armentown' or Poortown." 2
bullet1694: A group of Christian clergy petitioned the Massachusetts government to pass a bill which would allow slave owners to retain their slaves after the latter were baptized.
bullet1696: The Society of Friends (the Quakers) is another faith group with Anabaptist roots. They threatened any of their members who imported slaves with expulsion from the denomination. 3

During the late 17th century and early 18th century, slavery became a growing concern among  the Quakers. In protest against slavery, they relocated from their settlements in the southern U.S. states into Indiana and Ohio.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christian denominations (those which were not Anabaptist) were not troubled by slavery; they continued to view and teach it as a spiritually and morally acceptable institution fully supported by the Bible.

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Abolition gains momentum: 18th century

British Quakers were the first organized religious group to both repudiate slavery and to forbid slave owning among their membership. They provided much of the leadership of the abolitionist movement, both in Britain and North America. However, their influence was limited by their small numerical strength. It was John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement, who was able to convert the small Quaker protest into a mass movement.

By the end of the 18th century, slavery appeared to be a dying institution. In Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, farmers had largely switched from tobacco to grains. This required less manpower. Many slave owners freed their slaves to avoid the costs of having to care for them. But the invention of Eli Witney's cotton gin reversed this trend. Short-staple cotton became very profitable in the south. Production of cotton in the South increased from 3,135 bales in 1790 to 4.8 million bales at the outbreak of the Civil War. With the increased production of cotton, the demand for slaves increased. 

bullet1706: Cotton Mather, a Puritain leader, writes "The Negro Christianized." It argues that blacks are human beings and should be given full rights.
bullet1723: The German Baptist Brethren arrived in Pennsylvania. They were known as the Dunkers and later as the Church of the Brethren. Like their fellow Anabaptists, they actively opposed slavery.
bullet1734: The Great Awakening starts in MA. This is a Christian revival that promoted religious fervor among whites and blacks. Blacks were encouraged to join the Methodist and Baptist churches.
bullet1752: George Washington acquired his sister-in-law's share in the Mount Vernon estate in 1752. The purchase included 18 slaves. He added to his collection; at one time he owned over 300 humans. In his will, he stipulated that at the death of his wife, his slaves would be freed. He also required that a fund be set up to support aged and infirmed slaves; it appears that the fund was never established. 5 During the 1780s and 1790s, he expressed the wish in his private writings that state governments would legislate "a gradual Abolition of Slavery." 
bullet1758: The Philadelphia yearly meeting of Quakers decided that slavery was inconsistent with Christianity. 
bullet1761: Slave traders were excluded from membership in the Society of Friends (the Quakers). Some individual Quakers still owned slaves at this time.
bullet1774: Thomas Jefferson owned 187 slaves on his various farms.
bullet17??: The Roman Catholic church's Sacred Congregation of the Index placed many anti-slavery tracts on their Index of Forbidden Books to prevent them from being read by the public.
bullet 1775: Quakers were mainly responsible for the founding of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. This was the first antislavery society in the U.S.
bullet1776: David Hartley makes a motion to outlaw slavery in Britain and in British colonies. He calls slavery "contrary to the laws of God and the rights of man." The motion fails. 5
bullet1777: Slavery is abolished in Vermont.
bullet1784: The Christmas Conference of the Methodist Church passes an anti-slavery resolution.
bullet1786: The Society of Friends (Quakers) mounts legal lawsuits to free slaves who are visiting Philadelphia with their owners. George Washington recommends that visiting slave owners avoid problems by bypassing the city. 3
bullet1786: About 10% of the 18,791 Methodists were black. 3
bullet1787: Richard Allen, a former slave, organizes the Free African Society in Philadelphia, PA.
bullet1789: There is considerable abolitionist feeling the Southern Christian churches. Some southern plantation owners felt uneasy about slavery. They institute educational programs and freed many slaves.
bullet1791: In Canada, the legislature of Upper Canada (now called Ontario) passed a law to gradually abolish slavery. No more slaves could be imported; existing slaves would remain enslaved for life; children of female slaves would receive their freedom at age 25. 
bullet1793: Blacks totaled 18,500 (25%) out of a total of 73,417 Baptists.
bullet1799: The second Great Awakening began in Kentucky. Many slaves become Christians. The religious revival lasts until 1830.
bullet1800: Virginia passed a law forbidding African-Americans from gathering after sunset for religious worship.

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Continue with 19th century events concerning the final abolition of slavery in Christian countries

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Related essays on this site:

bulletPassages condoning and regulating slavery in the Bible

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  1. J.G. Melton, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume I, Triumph Books, (1991), Page 53.
  2. "Mennonites of Macon County" at: http://www.macontel.com/special/menn97
  3. Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.html

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Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-AUG-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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