July 14, 2023
The parable of the sower – this week’s RCL1 gospel reading – makes the point that seeds can be fragile. Without the right conditions, they just won’t grow. Anyone who gardens these days knows that. Too much rain or too much heat and the seeds are lost.
And yet some seeds are remarkably resilient and persistent.
Ibram Kendi writes about the seeds of anti-slavery sentiment in colonial America. Conditions were not good for those early seeds. The colonial version of mainline Christianity was firmly pro-slavery. One of the most prominent clerics of the age, Cotton Matther (1663-1728) was Harvard-educated and pastored a prominent Boston church. And he was an enslaver who wrote many well-received books which “proved” that the practice of enslavement was a Christian virtue.
Some Quakers were not persuaded. In 1688, four members of the Germantown, Pa., Quaker Meeting had come to believe that slavery was incompatible with the Golden Rule — e.g., Matthew 7:12. The four petitioned the leaders of the Meeting to publicly take an anti-slavery stand. The leaders declined.
Maybe the Germantown Four continued talking about what they believed. Maybe one of them moved to New Jersey where a young Quaker man, John Woolman, was working as a store clerk. In any event, he too had come to believe that Christianity was incompatible with enslavement and in 1746, when asked to write a will which would have transferred the ownership of an enslaved person, he refused.
Woolman had a strong sense of his own Inner Light. He felt he needed to do more. He gave up his business and became a Quaker minister traveling from New Jersey to Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. He wrote, spoke at Friends Meetings and met with farmers, merchants and shipowners to explain his religious objections to slavery. After eight years, he found just enough support in the Philadelphia Meeting to publish one of his tracts. It was sent to every Yearly Meeting in America.
Hearts were touched. Minds were changed. Other Quakers began to agree and the dream of the Germantown Four became real. In 1758 the Philadelphia Meeting banned the buying and selling of slaves, and in 1774, it was agreed that no Quakers would own enslaved people. Quakers became the first corporate body in North America to condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong in all circumstances.
A seed was sown by the Germantown Four and nurtured by John Woolman’s life’s work. The seed grew against the odds and in the face of enormous opposition. We know that the end of slavery was still a hundred years and a Civil War away. And we know that despite the legal end of enslavement, anti-black racism has emerged and re-emerged in ever new institutions and systems. 2 But the seeds of equality and justice have prevailed against the odds before. They can again.
1 Revised Common Lectionary – the three-year (A,B&C) cycle of biblical readings heard on Sundays in Roman Catholic, Anglican and many Protestant churches in Canada and the U.S.
2 “…160 years after the abolition of slavery, its badges and incidents remain embedded in the political, legal, health, financial, educational, cultural, environmental, social and economic systems of the United States of America. Proclamation: Black Lives Matter Day, July 13, 2023.