- Personal and Social Transformation in the Work of Anthony Benezet (1713–1784)
2013 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Anthony Benezet, one of America’s too-little-known but most significant reformers. The French-born white Philadelphia Quaker schoolteacher and abolitionist taught black people in his home for many years, persuaded the Society of Friends to establish a school for black children, and organized education for white girls, poor children, multiracial children, and for Indian children. A prolific writer and savvy strategist, Benezet circulated throughout the Americas and Europe his own treatises against slavery and war alongside works of like-minded thinkers. Benezet’s writings were foundational for the work of leading abolitionists including Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and John Wesley. This essay articulates Benezet’s overarching vision for personal and social transformation by exploring how his widespread reform concerns, including his opposition to war, his antislavery work, his work on behalf of Acadians and Indians, his temperance concerns, and his concerns for education, emerge from and are inextricably interwoven with his foundational religious commitments.1
In my research on historical patterns of Christian personal and social transformation, I frequently encounter the seeming simplicity of the theological commitments that led believers to challenge the status quo in order to advocate on behalf of the oppressed, the poor and the hungry, and to protest against systematic oppression perpetrated by war, slavery, and greed. History is a witness to how often we ignore, dismiss as naïve, and argue away such deceptively simple aphorisms as: Thou shalt not kill, Love your enemies, Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And yet, my research documents the radical action, courage, and creativity of reformers who set their sights on living in concert with these foundational prohibitions and affirmations.
Anthony Benezet is a leading example of an important American Christian ethical tradition of adherence to fundamental theological commitments, a lineage that continues to be of significance in today’s world. In this tradition, personal and social actions are predicated upon the seemingly simple theological affirmations that 1) God loves all humans equally and 2) people have a fundamental responsibility to interact with others in a way commensurate with their status as beloved by God. The radical consistency of Benezet’s commitment to this twofold calculus had widespread ramifications that challenged dominant notions of the rights and responsibilities of humans as well as of nations. To recognize Benezet’s consistency of thought illuminates his motivation in his extraordinary work on behalf of humanity. I explore, in particular, the key concept [End Page 30] of “peace” that runs throughout Benezet’s writing across a broad spectrum of topics. His steadfast dedication to working out the implications of this concept as a core affirmation of human life, may account for the reputed comment of François, the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois that “Benezet has intelligence, wit, and fire, and if I may express it, he carries his love of humanity to the point of madness.”2 Benezet’s consistency certainly accounts, in great part, for his own unceasing pursuit of what he called “universal love.”
Of course, not all of Benezet’s arguments against slavery, war, and related oppressions are theological arguments. In fact, a cluster of three interconnected ideas recurs throughout Benezet’s writings. First and foremost, the Gospel, from which the theological axioms are derived, sets the guidelines for living life. Second, the human capacity of reason offers a guide for living. And third, Benezet maintains that humans are bound to one another by “bonds of natural affection and interest,”3 what he often calls the “feelings of humanity,” for example, parents’ love for their children. For Benezet these ideas are inseparably linked in that religion accords with reason, and the Gospel itself cultivates feelings of humanity as is evident in the Bible’s commandment that humans should love one another (John 13:34-35). The three work in accord with the goal of human life: “the voice of reason, the feelings of humanity, and more especially the gospel of Jesus Christ” call for persons to protest against everything which is inconsistent with patience...