George Fox and slavery

by Anthony Wilson

“To fear God, and to love their masters and mistresses: that then their masters and overseers will love them, and deal kindly and gently with them.”

When George Fox visited Barbados in 1671, he could not avoid the issue of chattel slavery. To what extent were his comments and advice a myopic fudge, or were they a critique which went to the heart of a system which could have no place in his vision of the kingdom?

George Fox’s journey to Barbados is well covered in the Journal; the Nickalls edition (1975) gives a real sense of what it was like to cross the Atlantic, and the reception which the Quaker party received in Barbados when they arrived in 1671.
There were about 1000 Friends resident on the island; but whereas male Friends in Great Britain had tended to be tradesmen and small farmers, in Barbados the majority were the owners of plantations – and the plantations depended on slave labour. George Fox’s principal host was his step son-in-law John Rous, who had married Margaret Fell’s eldest daughter when he was trading in London. His father was owner of one of the largest plantations. It is not fanciful to imagine that Margaret Fell, who married Fox in 1669, encouraged him to go and stay with the in-laws and perhaps bring back news of the grandchildren.
However, it was not an easy visit. Fox was seriously unwell on the voyage, to which were added the privations of eight weeks in a leaking ship sailing through storms and calms and evading pirates; he may also have been clinically depressed. Once in Barbados, he would not have found it easy to orientate himself socially. In England, his fellow Friends were mainly artisans with little access to political influence after the Restoration: in Barbados, Friends were amongst the privileged. And although persecution had diminished somewhat in England in the late 1660’s, Friends were subject to heavy ‘sufferings’ in Barbados; maybe they were seen as traitors to their class?
The reason for these ‘sufferings’ are marginal to the slavery issue. The violent constitutional changes in London during the Civil War and Commonwealth left the colonies, like Barbados, in sort of political limbo as the colonists supported, opposed or stood aside from these events; the Cromwellian settlement in Barbados had acknowledged the royalist leanings of the landed classes, and in return for no rebellion had granted them what was effectively home rule. After the Restoration, the Church of England resumed its place as the established church but was only a shadow of its parent body, and enjoyed limited support from a plantocracy which did not rate church attendance high amongst its pastimes.
Barbados Friends were in confrontation with the Anglicans on two counts. As in England they refused to pay tithes; they also disrupted the services, accusing the clergy of personal as well as theological delinquency. Neither of these need have worried the secular authorities unduly: it was Friends’ refusal to serve in or support the militia which brought them before the courts. (This was not a conscription-in- peacetime situation: other European powers were actively engaged in capturing Caribbean islands and Barbados – located as the first landfall for ships following the trade winds from Europe – was the strategic key.) Friends’ personal property was distrained, and meeting houses and their contents were confiscated.
So George Fox found himself amongst Friends who had more economic resources than ‘back home’, but were still at odds with the government. He needed time to recover from the voyage, and was well cared for by his in-laws who had domestic as well as field slaves, and he would not have wanted to cause gratuitous offence – especially if he had witnessed no overt ill-treatment. And the economy of Barbados, easily the most thriving in the New World, had depended on chattel slavery since cane sugar was introduced from Brazil in the 1630s. Friends’ livelihoods were an integral part of this economy.
His visit brought to light a fourth cause for conflict. What was to be the attitude of the authorities towards Friends whose slaves attended meeting for worship? The stance of other churches was clear: slaves were too primitive to comprehend Christian precepts. Most had been transported from Africa, had limited English, and no schooling. Protestant practice insisted that church membership – and the salvation that went with it – depended on formal instruction in Bible texts, and understanding of the catechism, baptism and confirmation. For Friends, however, these were the outward symbols which they denied – what counted was the Inner Light, and this they did not deny to ‘Negroes’ or ‘tawny Indians’. So slaves were able to participate in their owners’ domestic devotions; and, by extrapolation, could attend meetings for worship. It is clear that Fox was present at meetings where slaves took part, though it is not clear how far these were racially mixed occasions.
The Barbados Government, and its white supporters, may have taken their own church membership lightly but they were united in denying this to slaves, realising that to grant this degree of humanity would, sooner rather than later, undermine the institution of slavery itself. Laws were passed which fined slave owners heavily if their slaves were caught attending meeting, and these were strongly enforced until they were repealed after two years: a sequence that demonstrates Friends’ ambiguous situation.
So what attitude was Fox to take to slavery? His considered response is set out in a long epistle ‘To the governor and assembly at Barbados, 1671’; it is not easy reading in the Journal, but the effort brings its rewards, especially as it starts with an error: Codrington, the addressee, was not the governor, while Atkins, who was, was an active persecutor. (Has this mistake been followed up, and did it materially effect subsequent events?) The first half of the document is a detailed defence of Friends’ theological stance, which is most notable for its orthodoxy – it resonates with the Thirty-Nine (Anglican) Articles. Whilst in England, Friends’ were pleased to be seen to be subverting the religious establishment to its very foundations, in Barbados Friends are presented as true and traditional believers.
The next section is more direct.

‘ Another slander and lie they have cast upon us is that we should teach the negroes to rebel, a thing that we do utterly abhor and detest in and from our hearts… this is a most egregious and abominable untruth. For that which we have declared to them is to exhort and admonish them to be sober and to fear God, and to love their masters and mistresses and to be faithful and diligent in their masters’ service, and then their masters and overseers will love them and deal kindly and gently with them: and that they should not beat their wives or husbands, nor multiply wives; nor steal nor be drunk, nor commit adultery, nor curse, nor swear, nor lie… for there is something in them which tells them that they should not practice these evils.’

(Tactfully, Fox did not cite the decade-old Peace Testimony as a reason why Friends would not be fomenting rebellion.)
The master of the family also has obligations, and Abraham’s diligence to all of his household including ‘servants’ (i.e. slaves) is held up as an example.

‘It is a duty incumbent upon us to pray, and to teach, instruct and admonish those in and belonging to our families, it being the Command of the Lord… Now negroes and tawny Indians make up a very great part of families here in this island for whom an account will be required by him who comes to judge both quick and dead…’.

The paragraph ends with a series of textual justifications, but leaves readers to draw their own conclusions – which can only be that Friends are right to present the gospel to their slaves.
The remainder of the letter is a loud complaint about the iniquities of other churches in their dealings with Friends, but does imply that Friends gave as good as they got.
So was Fox temporising or subverting on the question of slavery? His follow-up to the public statement was a series of epistles to Friends edited and published as Gospel Family Order, which again promotes good behaviour by both parties and avoids any reference to the inherent evil of the institution. (There has been a suggestion that Fox did not appreciate the difference between chattel slavery, which was for life and children ever after, and indentured slavery which was used for prisoners who were transported for fixed terms; but given his acute awareness of social justice issues, this exculpation is not credible.)
There is no evidence that his reflections and advice on slavery made any Friends free their slaves; and London Yearly Meeting did not take up the issue, though William Edmundson, an Irish Friend who accompanied Fox and stayed on, did challenge slavery itself. The planters then passed a law forbidding visiting Quakers from addressing meetings.
When questions about Friends owning slaves did come up, it was 20 years later in Philadelphia: and George Fox’s writings were quoted in support of holding slaves. Meetings could not reach unity, so debate was between individuals; members weighty in the Society who held public office in Pennsylvania defended ownership (as did William Penn himself), whilst others shifted from personally eschewing slavery to advocating its abolition. The most telling testimony was the simplest: in the event of a slave rebellion, asked a group in their Preparative Meeting in 1688, would Friends break with the Peace Testimony or free their slaves? And if they stood by the Peace testimony then, why not free the slaves now? The Monthly Meeting had no answer, and forwarded the minute to Quarterly Meeting in Philadelphia, which determined that this was for Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey Yearly Meeting to decide, which it didn’t.
A similar concern surfaced in 1711, and wended its indeterminate way to London Yearly Meeting; five years later the matter was passed back to Philadelphia; and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting kept off the subject until 1754. Quaker involvement in the anti-slavery movement did not begin with John Woolman, the gentle Quaker prophet from New Jersey whose persistent witness changed the mind of the Society in the New World and the Old from the 1750s.

And the conclusions of this historical excursion? Pick your own. I offer two. First, distance may lend enchantment to our assumptions about the clarity of early Friends’ insights; they did not necessarily see all things plain and leave us unequivocal testimonies.
Second, George Fox did not see his way to denouncing slavery for the total evil which it was; what are we not seeing as we enter the twenty-first century?
Anthony Wilson is a member of Staffordshire Area Meeting
October 2000

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