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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
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Theme: Ideas

Benjamin Lay, Apostates essay
Religion III: Slavery
- Is slavery Christian?, a pamphlet debate in Boston, 1700-1706 (PDF)
- What about slavery is unChristian?, Puritan, Anglican, and Quaker views, 1690-1760 (PDF)

"Give Ear, ye pitied Blacks, Give Ear!" intoned the Puritan minister Cotton Mather to the enslaved members of his Boston congregation. "It is allowed in the Scriptures, to the Gentiles, that they may keep Slaves," he told them, yet they could aspire to be "Freemen of the Lord" after death: "It will be but a little, a little, a little while, and all your pains will end in everlasting joys."1 In 1696, Mather's sermon expressed the prevalent opinion among most white colonists. Four years later, also in Boston, appeared the first American anti-slavery tract, Samuel Sewall's well-known and widely opposed The Selling of Joseph. By 1760 numerous essays and sermons had been written to address these two questions: Is slavery Christian? What about slavery is unChristian?
  • Is slavery Christian? From a pamphlet war in Boston in the early 1700s, we glean the major religious arguments for and against slavery at the time.2 When judge Samuel Sewall condemned slavery in his essay The Selling of Joseph in 1700, his incensed colleague John Saffin published "a brief and candid answer," refuting Sewall's arguments one by one. Sewall didn't respond until 1705 when, opposed to an anti-miscegenation bill under consideration in the colonial assembly, he arranged for the printing and distribution of an English antislavery tract. A year later, the Puritan leader Rev. Cotton Mather published his own views in The Negro Christianized. Opposed to the slave trade but a slaveholder himself, Mather aimed his contempt at those who failed to educate their slaves in Christianity, and dispelled their fear that baptized slaves would warrant freedom. Compare these documents with the 1688 anti-slavery petition submitted by white Pennsylvanians (in the toolbox American Beginnings) and, from a century later, the earliest anti-slavery petitions submitted by slaves (in the toolbox The Making of African American Identity, Vol. I).
    • - Samuel Sewall, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, essay, 1700, excerpts.
    • - John Saffin, A Brief and Candid Answer to . . . The Selling of Joseph, essay, 1701, excerpts.
    • - "Question: Whether Trading for Negroes . . . be . . . contrary to the great Law of Christianity," article, The Athenian Oracle, London: 1704; pamphlet reprint ordered by Samuel Sewall, 1705, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, The Negro Christianized, sermon, 1706, excerpts.

  • What about slavery is unChristian? What does the Bible say about slavery? Is it wrong? Is it justifiable as long as slaves are treated humanely and led to Christianity? Is it God's way to bring "heathens" to a Christian land, thus saving their souls? Here we read brief excerpts from eight religious tracts on slavery from 1696 to 1759—two by the Puritan minister and slaveholder Cotton Mather, one by the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield (after visiting the southern colonies), and five from abolitionist Quakers (Society of Friends), whose insistent condemnation of slavery was voiced in many pamphlets as the American printing industry flourished in the 1700s. Upon what scriptural bases do these Protestants support their positions?
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather (Puritan), A Good Master Well Served, sermon, 1696, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather (Puritan), The Negro Christianized, essay, 1706, excerpts.
    • - Rev. George Whitefield (Anglican), To the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South-Carolina, Concerning their Negroes, essay, 1740, excerpts.
    • - John Hepburn (Quaker), The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, or An Essay to Prove the Unlawfulness of Making Slaves of Men, essay, 1715, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Elihu Coleman (Quaker), A Testimony Against That Antichristian Practice of Making Slaves of Men, essay, 1733, excerpts.
    • - Benjamin Lay (Quaker), All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, essay, 1737, excerpts.
    • - Rev. John Woolman (Quaker), Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, essay, 1754, excerpts.
    • - Anthony Benezet (Quaker), Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes, essay, 1759, excerpts.

In addition to religious arguments, what social, legal, economic, and historical considerations are offered in these writings? Which arguments persisted into the nineteenth-century debate over slavery? (13 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Of the Puritan, Anglican, and Quaker writers, which oppose slavery as an institution? What are their main arguments?
  2. Of those who do not condemn slavery itself, what aspects of slavery do they deem unChristian? What are their main arguments?
  3. How do the writers interpret these scriptural texts in their arguments? Which texts are emphasized by the opposing positions? Which texts are used by both to buttress their opinions? (See for quick reference.)

    Genesis 9:25-27 Matthew 7:12
    Genesis 37 John 13:34
    Exodus 21:16 Acts 17:26-28
    Leviticus 25:39-46 Colossians 3:11
    Psalm 115:15-16 Revelation 18:10-13
    Jeremiah 34:8-10    

  4. Specifically, how do opposing writers interpret the "golden rule," the "curse of slavery," the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and the status of Jewish and Gentile slaves in the Old Testament?
  5. What non-scriptural religious arguments are presented for and against slavery?
  6. In addition to religious arguments, what social, legal, economic, and historical considerations are offered in these writings?
  7. What interpretations of equality, rights, and liberty do these religious writers bring to the discussion of slavery?
  8. What considerations do the Quaker writers add to the debate?
  9. In style, tone, and use of rhetorical devices, how do the tracts by Quakers differ from those by Puritan and Anglican writers?
  10. How did slaveholders respond to the debate over slavery? What were their primary religious and secular concerns, as apparent in these writings?
  11. Do research to learn the slavery positions held by other denominations in the 1700s and 1800s, e.g., Methodist, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, and Jewish.
  12. Do research to compare the 18th- and 19th-century debates over slavery in America. How does the argumentation change after the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution?

Framing Questions
  •  What central ideas distinguished the eighteenth- from seventeenth-century American colonies?
  •  How were these ideas shaped, and how did they influence the colonists' perception of themselves and their relationships with God, with each other, and with Britain?
  •  How did their concepts of liberty, rights, equality, and independence change in this period?
  •  To what extent were the shaping ideas "American"?

Is slavery Christian?:  7
What about slavery is unChristian?:  6
TOTAL 13 pages
Supplemental Sites

"A Puritan Judge's Antislavery Voice," on Sewall's The Selling of Joseph; by Gustav Niebuhr, The New York Times, 24 June 2000

Cotton Mather and slavery, in "'This Miserable African': Race, Crime, and Disease in Colonial Boston," by Mark S. Weiner, Rutgers School of Law, in Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, April 2004

Quakers: From Slave Traders to Early Abolitionists, in This Far from Faith (PBS/The Faith Project)

Journal of John Woolman, Quaker abolitionist, excerpt of travels in Maryland and Virginia in 1757, in History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York

Anti-slavery texts (Quaker) in The Anti-Slavery Literature Project, based in the Arizona State University English Department Anti-slavery texts, with active links to scriptural references, in online collection of texts on the abolition of slavery and tobacco, by Leroy Pletten, The Crime Prevention Group Christianity and slavery, overview in, from the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

1 Cotton Mather, A Good Master Well Served: A Brief Discourse on the Necessary Properties and Practices of a Good Servant, in Every Kind of Servitude (Boston: Green & Allen, 1696), pp. 52, 54.

2 Lawrence W. Towner, "The Sewall-Saffin Dialogue on Slavery," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. series 21:1 (January 1964), pp. 40-52.

- Anthony Benezet. Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes, 1760, title page. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.
- Benjamin Lay, All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, 1737, title page. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.
- Samuel Sewall, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, 1700, title page. Massachusetts Historical Society. Permission pending.

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