Letters - 25 June 2021

From William Penn and slavery to Language

William Penn and slavery

I’ve been getting more and more annoyed at the historical inaccuracy of those that have been defending the crimes of the slave owner William Penn. He knew very well the arguments against the horrors of slavery, as shown in the great 1688 Germantown petition against slavery written by a number of Quakers living in Philadelphia. 

The petition was only six years after Penn drafted the frame of government of Pennsylvania. This was no fringe group, as this led to the moral status of slavery being discerned at the 1688 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, as seen in the minutes. Penn knew about the evils of slavery: those within the relatively small community of Quakers in the Americas had told him.

I urge all Friends to look at digital scans of the actual documents of the petition and the minutes mentioned above at the tri-college online digital collections: Quakers and Slavery | TriCollege Libraries Digital Collections (brynmawr.edu). Equally worth viewing is the brilliant recent video from educational YouTube channel Crash Course on this very issue: The Germantown Petition Against Slavery: Crash Course Black American History #5 – YouTube.

More strongly, I urge those Friends who have defended Penn to do some research before they attempt to put forward such a weak argument supporting him.

Laurence Hall
Young Friends General Meeting

The teaching ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’ is one of the most important messages in the Bible. It certainly speaks to me. Some of those who have written on this matter have rightly pointed out that we should concern ourselves with the planks in our own eye and not hold ourselves up as ‘holier than thou’.

So I have no right to judge William Penn, and I don’t; like most human beings he was a mixture of wonderful and awful. He needs to be thought of in a a rounded, nuanced way, as a unique individual. Nor do I think he should be airbrushed out of Quaker records. But equally, we can’t ignore the uncomfortable bits. Slavery is an institution based on the premise that certain groups of human beings are less than human, and can therefore be owned as chattels and used as work-animals. It was not a mere fashionable peccadillo of Penn’s era, like wearing a sword or an ostentatious wig. It flies in the face of our testimony and I don’t see how we as Quakers can defend it, no matter how common and acceptable the practice might have been at the time. George Fox – a contemporary of Penn – was very clear that the Inward Light made no such distinctions between groups of people. But perhaps that was because he wasn’t blinkered by wealth and position.

The issue for me isn’t about being judgmental; it’s about being aware of the sensitivities of others. There are people living in Britain today who are descended from enslaved people. I wince at how some visitors to Friends House might have felt hurt and belittled, walking into a space which had been (even if inadvertently) labelled to honour a person who owned and traded slaves. And how does it reflect on Quakers if we knowingly turn a blind eye to it? Doesn’t it make us look like hypocrites?

In William Penn’s day, women too were legally non-persons, and regarded by the church as less than fully human. Wives were effectively the property of their husbands, who could maltreat them if they saw fit. This was accepted and even encouraged in the society of the time. What if a room in Friends House were named in honour of a prominent and well-regarded Quaker who turned out to have raped or beaten his wife, or others in his household? What about a predatory paedophile? Or someone who collaborated in the Holocaust?

From our movement’s very beginnings, Quakers have been ready to put themselves in harm’s way to stand up against social norms that we have seen to be contrary to our understanding of what Love requires of us all. If we must single out any Friend for special public commemoration (and I’m not entirely convinced that’s a ‘Quakerly’ proceeding!) surely it is those ‘Daniels’ who most truly represent what we aspire to.   

Stevie Krayer

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.