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Germantown Friends’ Antislavery Petition, 1688

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • The Origins of the Slave Trade Narrative in Chapter 1 and The Stono Rebellion Narrative in Chapter 2 will provide context on the origins of slavery in the colonies and should be consulted before or alongside this Primary Source.


One of William Penn’s motives in establishing Pennsylvania was to provide a refuge for persecuted groups such as the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, as they were commonly known. Many Quakers became opponents of slavery because they believed in the equality of all men and women. A young German Quaker of the Germantown Friends drafted an antislavery petition, which was signed by three others living in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia) seven years after Pennsylvania’s founding. The document was intended to raise the issue of slavery as a matter of concern at an upcoming Quaker meeting in the nearby town of Dublin. In his argument against the evils of slavery, the author referenced the Bible to support the natural liberty of all humans and argued that slave owning in Pennsylvania hurt the colony’s reputation in Europe, thereby discouraging additional settlement to the colony.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was the intended audience for this document?
  2. Based on their beliefs, why might Quakers have been opposed to slavery?
  3. What two main arguments did the author use to advance their case?
  4. Which do you think would be more effective and why?

Vocabulary Text
Richard Worrell: host of the upcoming Quaker meeting in Dublin (now Arbington), Pennsylvania This is to the Monthly Meeting held at Richard Worrell’s.
conscience (n): in this context, a synonym for religion or religious beliefs These are the reasons why we are against the traffick of men-body, as followethIs there any that would be done or handled at this manner? Viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? . . . There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience, which is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of the body, except of evil-doers, which is another case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed which are of a black colour. And we who know that men must not commit adultery,—some do commit adultery, in others, separating wives from their husbands and giving them to others; and some sell the children of these poor creatures to other men. Ah! Doe consider well this thing, you who doe it, if you would be done at this manner? And if it is done according to Christianity? You surpass Holland and Germany in this thing. This makes an ill report in all those countries of Europe, where they hear off, that Quakers doe here handle men as they handle their cattle. And for that reason some have no mind or inclination to come hither. . . . Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries; separating housbands from their wives and children. Being now this is not done in the manner we would be done at therefore we contradict and are against this traffic of men-body. And we who profess that it is not lawful to steal, must, likewise, avoid to purchase such things as are stolen, but rather help to stop this robbing and stealing if possible. And such men ought to be delivered out of the hands of the robbers, and set free as well as in Europe. Then is Pennsylvania to have a good report, instead it hath now a bad one for this sake in other countries. Especially whereas the Europeans are desirous to know in what manner the Quakers doe rule in their province;—and most of them doe look upon us with an envious eye. But if this is done well, what shall we say is done evil? . . .
This is from our meeting at Germantown, held the 18 of the 2 month, 1688, to be delivered to the Monthly Meeting at Richard Worrel’s. . . .
At our Monthly Meeting at Dublin, the 30—2 mo., 1688, we having inspected the matter, above mentioned, and considered of it, we find it so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here, but do rather commit it to the consideration of the Quarterly Meeting; the tenor of it being nearly related to the Truth.
On behalf of the Monthly Meeting,
Jo. Hart.
This, above mentioned, was read in our Quarterly Meeting at Philadelphia, the 4 of the 4th mo. ‘88, and was from thence recommended to the Yearly Meeting, and the above said Derick, and the other two mentioned therein, to present the same to the above said meeting, it being a thing of too great a weight for this meeting to determine.
Signed by order of the meeting, Anthony Morris.
Yearly Meeting Minute on the above Protest.
At a Yearly Meeting held at Burlington the 5th day of the 7th month, 1688.
forbear (v): to refrain from acting A Paper being here presented by some German Friends Concerning the Lawfulness and Unlawfulness of Buying and keeping Negroes, It was adjudged not to be so proper for this Meeting to give a Positive Judgment in the Case, It having so General a Relation to many other Parts, and therefore at present they forbear It.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the “traffick of men-body”?
  2. How did the author present the first argument against slavery?
  3. This document argues that all humans have what liberties?
  4. Why does the author compare oppression in Europe with oppression in the colony?
  5. What does the author mean by “some do commit adultery, in others”?
  6. According to the author, why do some Quakers not want to emigrate to Pennsylvania?
  7. According to the author, what needs to be done to restore Pennsylvania’s reputation?
  8. What did the members of the monthly meeting decide to do with this document?
  9. What did the members of the quarterly meeting decide to do with this document?
  10. The yearly meeting discussed this document nearly five months after it was written. What was their ultimate decision?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. William Penn attracted European settlers to his colony by hiring agents to publish notices about Pennsylvania’s political and religious freedom across Europe. What do you think the author of this document would say to one of these agents?
  2. Each of the successive Quaker meetings decided not to issue a decision either supporting or renouncing this document. Why might they have been reluctant to issue a clear ruling on slavery?

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