Pennsylvania may have been the first “official” Quaker colony, but it was not the first Quaker community in the Americas. There was a large Quaker presence on Barbados, where thousands of Friends lived. In the 1670s, it was called the “Nursery of Truth” because it was so filled with Quakers.
When Pennsylvania was founded in 1682, William Penn and others used their Quaker connections in Barbados to purchase enslaved Africans. As Pennsylvania’s social and economic structure developed, ties with the West Indies and other trade outlets flourished. The trade with Barbados was a source of pride and a symbol of prosperity for many English Quakers who considered slavery to be necessary for economic development.
I realized that I needed to tell this story. Like other stories that are shameful or embarrassing, this one had been largely suppressed in the Quaker histories that I read. Much of the scholarship about Quakers and slavery in the seventeenth century acknowledged that Quakers owned slaves, but they focused on finding the “seed” of abolition in these early Quaker records.
I decided to ask different questions. Instead of reading Quaker abolition back in time, I thought it was important to understand how these slaveholding Quakers fit into their own time. None of them would have predicted the demise of the slave trade or slavery. So if I really wanted to understand them and the relationship between Quakers and slavery, then I needed to take a different approach.
Why did Quakers accept slavery in this period? How did they justify slavery within their theological worldview? How did their views compare to other European Christians who encountered slavery? I also wanted to think about what Christianity might have meant to enslaved and free Black men and women who joined the ranks of the Quakers as well as other denominations. When and why did they convert? These became the questions that fueled my research.
Seventeenth‐century Quakers, I came to understand, were radical but not because they were abolitionists. Instead, Quakers like George Fox were radical because they suggested that Blacks and Whites should meet together for worship.
Quakers were not the only Christians persecuted for meeting with enslaved people. As I began to investigate this issue further, I looked beyond the Quaker records to the archives of Protestant denominations: members of the Church of England (Anglicans) as well as other smaller denominations, like the Moravian Church. As I did so, I realized there were some intriguing similarities in their experiences.
In each case, English slave owners attacked Protestant missionaries and enslaved Christians for meeting together. On the island of Saint Thomas, for example, Moravian missionaries and Black converts were beaten and attacked by White colonists. Slave owners stole Bibles from enslaved Christians, and they burned Moravian books.
... English slave owners thought of Christianity—and especially Protestantism—as a religion for free people, and they worried that a baptized slave would demand freedom and possibly rebel. As a result, they excluded most enslaved people from Protestant churches.
I felt that this was an extremely important aspect of early colonial slavery and that it had not been fully recognized. So in my book, I gave it a name: Protestant supremacy. Protestant supremacy, I came to understand, was the forerunner of White supremacy. White supremacy uses racial designation to create inequality. But in the seventeenth century, the concept of race, as we know it, did not exist. And most significantly, the concept of “Whiteness” had not yet been created. So slave owners created the ideology of Protestant supremacy, which used religion to justify slavery.
It was in response to free Black Christians like Charles Cuffee that English slaveholders began to create White supremacy. Soon after Cuffee brought his children to the baptismal font, Barbadian lawmakers wrote a new law, redefining citizenship to include the word “white” as well as “Christian.” This was one of the first times that the word “white” was used in the legal records. The law declared that “every white Man professing the Christian Religion … who hath attained to the full Age of One and Twenty Year, and hath Ten Acres of Freehold … shall be deemed a Freeholder.”
Twelve years later, lawmakers refined their definition of Whiteness further. A 1709 law clarified that a “white” person could have “no extract” from “a Negro,” thereby establishing the “one‐drop rule” as the definition of Whiteness and laying a new foundation for slavery and social oppression that made race seem like a natural category—something that was innate.
What we see here is the codification of Whiteness as a legal category that was specifically intended to exclude free Black Christians from the full rights of citizenship. We often take “Whiteness” as a given, but it has a very specific history. We assume that race is a biological reality when it is actually a political category. Slaveholding politicians actively created the category of “Whiteness” as part of a political strategy to protect slave ownership and restrict the voting rights of free Blacks.
With the creation of Whiteness, slave conversion became less threatening. Whiteness, rather than religious difference, became the new way to justify and enforce slavery.
This reminds me of something John Gray wrote in Seven Types of Atheism, that when we retrofit earlier epochs with the concept of racism we can make a significant category mistake not so much because there weren't people we could define as racist but because the concept of racism as we know it didn't fully emerge until the Enlightenment.
There's more to the article than what I've quoted and it's moderately long but that's a fairly hefty summation of the core ideas for the TL:DR sort of reader.
Her monograph looks interesting. If I hadn't swamped myself with existing reading projects I might have to add her academic monograph to my reading material.