I Wish I'd Been There: Protesting Slavery
by Elaine Sommers Rich
I wish I'd been present in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on April
18, 1688, when the first anti-slavery protest in the New World
was signed. Who signed the document? What did it say? For whom
was it written? How was it received?
The four signators were Gerrit Hendricks, Derick op den Graeff,
Francis Daniel Pastorius, and Abraham op den Graeff. All had
come to Penns Woods a mere five years earlier, three of them
on the Concord and Pastorius on the America. As
a grade school child, I learned at least some of the names of
signers of the Declaration of Independence, written a century
later than this document (John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas
Jefferson). Why did I not learn about these four signers of the
document against slavery?
All four remembered well the persecution they had recently
experienced in Europe. Gerrit's father had had two cows confiscated
"because he persisted in attending Quaker meetings."
The men were Quakers, but their immediate forebears, e.g., Grandmother
Grietjen, were Dutch Mennonites. Indeed Grandfather Herman had
been a delegate to the meeting at Dordrecht in 1632 when the
famous Dordrecht Confession of Faith was adopted.
Francis Daniel Pastorius held a doctorate in law. He had attended
several German universities. He spoke and wrote Dutch, German,
English, Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. Later, in 1691, he
became the first mayor of Germantown, and in 1701, the first
schoolteacher. Why in my American history classes did I never
learn about this remarkable man?
Probably the anti-slavery document was formulated and signed
in the home of another immigrant, Tunes Kunders, a dyer of blue
cloth, in whose home the first meetings for worship were probably
I have read the anti-slavery declaration. It is simply an
application of Jesus' counsel to "Do unto others as you
would have them do to you". Following are some of the statements
in modernized spelling: "There is a saying that we should
do to all men like as we will be done ourselves, making no difference
of what generation, descent, or color they are. And those who
steal or rob men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they
not all alike? . . . But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell
them against their will, we stand against."
They were writing to their brothers and sisters in the faith
who owned slaves. "This is to the monthly meeting held at
Continuing, "We know that men must not commit adultery,
but some do commit adultery in others, separating wives from
their husbands and giving them to others; and some sell the children
of those poor creatures to other men. Oh! Do consider well these
things, you who do it. Would you wish to be done in this manner?
Is this done according to Christianity?" I find their words
eloquent and powerful!
What happened to this protest? Two months later the quarterly
meeting at Philadelphia said it was "so weighty that we
think it not expedient to meddle with it here." They passed
it on to yearly meeting, which also refused to adopt it, saying
they (again, spelling modernized) "adjudged it not to be
so proper for this meeting to give a positive judgment in the
case , it having a general relation to other parts, and therefore,
at present, they forbear it."
In other words, contemporaries of the signators rejected and
ignored their heartfelt protest against slavery. It took another
two centuries, after John Woolman, after the Abolitionists, after
a terrible and unnecessary civil war, for slavery to be abolished
on this continent.
Sometimes, when I am tempted to grow weary working with small
minorities of people on peace and justice issues, I remember
the 1688 Germantown Declaration against Slavery and am encouraged
to continue. I wish I'd been there when it was signed.
[I acknowledge the following sources: William Penn and
the Dutch Quaker Migration to Pennsylvania by William I.
Hull, Pastorius by Marion Dextor Learned, and Maintaining
the Right Fellowship by John L. Ruth.]
Elaine Sommers Rich, is a member of First Mennonite Church,
Bluffton, Ohio, and writes a regular column for the Mennonite
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July 2000