Protests and revolts are not uncommon with the many centuries through which slavery existed. Many of these protests were known to be largely led by either slaves or Black people in general.
However, in 1688, the Quakers, also known as “The Society of Friends”, wrote the first slave protest petition of the 17th century in what has now become known as one of the earliest recorded protests against slavery.
Made up of four friends from Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia), these men gathered and wrote a petition based upon the Bible’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” calling for the abolishment of slavery.
The petition was led by Francis Daniel Pastorius, a young lawyer among the men. The petition was written on behalf of the Germantown Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends to raise the issue of slavery with the Quaker Meeting which they attended.
The men saw the slave trade as a grave injustice against their fellow man and used the Golden Rule to argue against such inhumane treatment. They stated that regardless of skin colour, they should all live equally.
But long before that, specifically in 1657, the Quakers began the opposition to slavery after their founder, George Fox, wrote “To Friends beyond Sea, that have Blacks and Indian slaves” to remind them of the Quaker belief in equality.
The Quakers believed that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. They asked that if that is the case, how then can one person own another? Fox later visited Barbados from where his preaching began.
This preaching called for better treatment of enslaved people and was published in London in 1676 under the title Gospel Family-Order. As part of his sermon, he said:
‘… now I say, if this should be the condition of you and yours, you would think it hard measure, yea, and very great Bondage and Cruelty. And therefore consider seriously of this, and do you for and to them, as you would willingly have them or any other to do unto you…were you in the like slavish condition.’
It must be noted that by 1727, the Quakers had expanded their official disapproval of the trade and promoted reforms. By the 1750s, a number of Quakers in the American colonies began to oppose enslavement even more.
The 1688 petition was the first American document of its kind that made a plea for equal human rights for everyone.
According to the National Park Service, the document “compelled a higher standard of reasoning about fairness and equality that continued to grow in Pennsylvania and the other colonies with the Declaration of Independence and the abolitionist and suffrage movements, eventually giving rise to Lincoln’s reference to human rights in the Gettysburg Address.”
It has been reported that over the centuries, this rare document has been considered lost twice. It was, however, recently rediscovered in 2005 and is now at Haverford College Special Collections.