Quaker Universalist Voice

Speaking truth in the global public square…

Quaker Embrace of Slavery

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, (2018) by Katharine Gerbner

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World by K. Gerbner tells us the story as the book’s title reads.  It is a clear, candid, full, and, as yet, uncontested, account of a history that includes Quakers.  Quakers are part of the Christian tradition. This history describes the solid and sustained network among Britain, West Africa, the Caribbean islands and the Atlantic colonies for the commercial development of slavery. Quakers were part of Christian slavery as slave owners, slave merchants, supporters of abolitionism, and slaves.Some Quakers today are blood relatives of slaves, slave owners and slave merchants.  Some Quakers are descendants of Quakers in 18th century Quaker meetings.  How do we allocate responsibility for slavery?

Author Gerbner helps Quakers sort out the problem by placing Quakers in the larger framework of Christian involvement in the institution of African slavery, in which Quakers were a part.  Quakers were a footnote, but fully real and involved.

In this book, for Christians, including Quakers, the basic idea and practice of African slavery was fine. Some Quakers joined other Christians in seeking the religious conversion of slaves.  Accompanying conversion (and consequently literacy and sharing of the Bible) was the idea of our oneness in Christ and equality in the church, men and women, with the addition of the admonition of kind treatment within the complex relationships within slavery.  Some Quakers joined other Christians in opposing religious conversion because these associated ideas of equality would ignite and encourage slave revolts and other negative social consequences.  Those Christians, including Quakers, who supported slave conversion eagerly denied any implication that religious conversion to Christianity in various forms would disturb the existing social order of slavery.

The issue of guilt and responsibility for reparations for historic slavery is currently unclear.

Blood relatives, institutional relatives, and responsibility are unclear. Is there a difference between a slave holder in my lineage or my lineage as a meeting member, or the lineage of citizenship in a nation of slavery?

The author describes the history.  The author does not deal with the healing options today.  The author implies that this issue of apology and reparations is part of the ongoing history for another book in the future.  What Quakers do now matters in this next chapter of the continuing history of slavery in the U.S.

The book includes an easily referenced index and bibliography.  The end notes are substantial and a good read in themselves. The book cover art is discomforting, but it accurately depicts the U.S. dominant soft and happy cultural view of slavery on the occasion for religious conversion in a harmonious social order.

Quakers: Quakers are substantially mentioned in this book.  Undeniably, Quakers were part of slaver ownership, slave trade, slavery, and slavery abolitionism. 

This book presses the reader to address: Can we reject or disassociate from our history as a religious organization, or as a nation? Can Quakers burn this book and several others and confirm the heroic narrative of Quaker abolitionism into the future with closure and without poisoning consequences?  Would the slavery experienced by Quakers captured on the high seas by Barbary pirates mitigate the responsibility of Quakers and Quaker meetings for their role in the slavery trade, slave ownership and cultural confirmation of the larger slavery culture?


  • Does Quaker leadership and support for abolitionism cancel guilt for involvement in the slave trade and slave ownership?
  • What historic relationships (genetic or institutional) trigger guilt and reparation responsibility today?
  • What would reparations look like today if embraced by Quakers?
  • What would happen if slave descendants forgave Quakers for their involvement in slavery in the absence of Quaker apology and rerparations?


  • Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, Katharine Gerbner (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)
Add a Comment