- Anthony Benezet:The Emergence of a Weighty Friend
Anthony Benezet emerged as a leader in the international antislavery movement because he already enjoyed a community of support in the Society of Friends in America and Britain that gave legitimacy to his many charitable activities and access to political leaders in Pennsylvania and London. Why he became a Quaker, his understanding of Christian living, and how he became a reformer among Friends and their influence upon him are the subjects of this article. Had Benezet joined any other denomination in Philadelphia, it is doubtful that he could have become such an influential person.
Although Benezet remains little known by the general public, scholars of colonial Quakers and antislavery have often noted his many accomplishments: creator of the international antislavery movement, indefatigable pamphleteer about the slave trade and slavery, advocate for relief of the Acadians, defender of Native American rights, defender of pacifism, proponent of what is now termed “progressive education,” and beloved teacher in Penn Charter schools for boys, girls, and African Americans. Historians have provided good secondary literature focusing on Benezet’s public career after 1755, but no one has concentrated on what can be discovered about his earlier life, particularly on his roles in Friends meetings where he gained the skills that he later utilized.1
The Benezets had been a prominent and prosperous Huguenot family in France before Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes and began the persecution of Protestants. In 1713 Anthony was born in St. Quentin, France, but two years later, after John Stephen Benezet’s estate was confiscated, his family fled first to Holland and then to England where they lived until 1731. John Stephen Benezet prospered as a merchant in London, but, according to an account provided many years later by Anthony Benezet, “My father was not better pleased with those [priests] of England; wishing to get out of the way of all hierarchy.”2 Living in Philadelphia and Germantown, John Benezet prospered and both he and his son attended Friends meetings.
While it would be tempting to assume that Philadelphia Quakers immediately recognized Anthony Benezet’s talents and piety upon arrival as a young immigrant, that does not seem to have been the case. Benezet did not have many of the advantages of most eighteenth-century weighty Friends in Philadelphia. He was an immigrant, even if he did Anglicize his name, during a period that France and England were often at war.3 Initially, he was an unsuccessful merchant [End Page 1] living among Quaker leaders like the Pembertons, Logans, Smiths, Morrises, and Norrises who had become wealthy by trade and land speculation and whose families had long been influential in Philadelphia Monthly and Yearly Meeting. Benezet’s family, though prosperous, was no help because he was the only one who remained a Friend. Speaking in meeting and being recognized as a minister was one way for outsiders who were not wealthy to gain stature in meeting, but Anthony never became a minster. Unlike London Yearly Meeting, where school teachers Alexander Arscott, David Hall, and John Gough provided intellectual leadership, the only prominent Philadelphia teachers before the Revolution were George Keith, who was disowned, Francis Daniel Pastorius of Germantown, who was a lawyer and scholar, and John Woolman, who also was a minister. Teachers in the Penn Charter Latin School, mostly immigrants from England, had prestige and a substantial salary, but that was not true of Benezet who taught first in the English school for boys and then a school for girls.
Anthony Benezet arrived in Pennsylvania in 1732 as a boy of eighteen who was accepted by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as a member, but we have little personal information before he emerged as an antislavery advocate twenty-two years later. The compilation of Benezet’s letters by George Brookes has only two letters, an application to be a schoolmaster in the English school of Philadelphia Friends in 1742 and one he wrote on behalf of his father and brothers in 1751 attempting to persuade his sister, Susanne Pyrleus, not to leave her infant children behind while she accompanied her Moravian missionary-minister husband on a trip to...