- David Ferris:Arguments Against Quaker Slaveholding1
David Ferris (1707–1779), a well-known early Wilmington Friend, was born into a Connecticut Congregationalist family in 1707. He attended Yale with the intention of becoming a minister, but kept stumbling over questions that the established church could not answer to his satisfaction. His spiritual seeking paralleled that of earlier Friends, and he sought out some of these religious people who were despised and feared by the colony’s religious leaders. After much internal struggle he left Yale without getting his degree, ending his career opportunity in the Connecticut ministry, and made his way to Philadelphia in 1733. His spiritual life is detailed in his memoir.2
David and his growing family were among the early settlers of Wilmington, New Castle County, moving there in 1737. David opened a dry goods shop and also was an active member of Wilmington Meeting. After prolonged resistance, he finally submitted to divine promptings and offered vocal ministry in meeting for worship. He was acknowledged as a minister in 1757 at the age of 50.
Curiously, he does not mention antislavery activity in his Memoir. His name is not often mentioned when Anthony Benezet and John Woolman are heralded for their work. They are rightly held up and celebrated, and their stories told and retold. They are the exemplars whose widely-circulated writings affected untold numbers of people on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth century and ever since. David Ferris stands with other, more faceless Friends in the mid-eighteenth century, often but not always ministers, such as John Scarborough and James Moon in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or Joshua Evans of New Jersey. Like Benezet and Woolman, these men also worked to bring their personal lives into line with their understanding of the necessity to be increasingly free of the system of enslavement. They all labored with others, especially fellow Friends, about complicity in the enslavement system. This cannot have been comfortable work.
Building the Argument Against Enslavement
The arguments used by these anti-slavery Friends were neither new nor novel. A few Friends had begun speaking out against the evil of race-based chattel slavery as soon as they encountered it in the Caribbean in the 1650s and began to understand its implications—even as the practice of enslavement was evolving into the increasingly rigid, race-based, chattel servitude system of the eighteenth [End Page 18] and nineteenth centuries. At first it was just a very few Friends such as Alice Curwen and William Edmundson whose consciences were awakened to this injustice, while the great majority of Friends in the colonies were content to go along with the surrounding dominating culture and accept what seemed to be the way things were—and by extension, the way they should be. But as Brycchan Carey has shown in his recent study, the commonly understood narrative of a few occasional, disconnected comments by individual Friends addressing enslavement is incorrect. There was an ongoing discussion among increasing numbers of Friends concentrated in the Delaware Valley that built on one another’s statements, honing effective, specific arguments and figures of speech that over time constructed a set of shared and repeated statements condemning first the slave trade and then enslavement itself. One small example is the commonly-used phrase “gain of oppression” to signify the greed of enslavers gaining wealth and ease through the oppression of their slaves.3
Participating in and responding to this discourse, increasing numbers of Friends came to see that slavery contravened the Golden Rule, and this was the primary argument repeated again and again. It was man-stealing, the product of war and violence, and it could only be maintained through brute force or the threat of force. To Christians and Quakers, such sinful activities were—or should be seen as—an affront to what Jesus taught and their Inward Guide directed.
In addition to being a personal sin, slavery was also, of course, a systemic evil embedded in the economic, cultural, and political institutions most people assumed were immutable givens. At first fewer Friends were able to see it with this broad vision, especially not with any...