(1713 – 1784)
Anthony Benezet was born on January 31, 1713 in Saint-Quentin, France, to Huguenot parents, an ethnoreligious group of French Protestants. At the age of two, his family fled to Rotterdam to escape persecution in France and eventually moved to England in 1715. Upon their arrival, they had little to their name, having been forced to abandon their possessions in France. In London, they were met with open arms by fellow Huguenot refugees. Once established in London, Benezet’s father befriended the Society of Friends and Moravians and subsequently became Quakers. In 1731, at 18 years old, Benezet and his family moved to Philadelphia. There, they befriended several Moravians, including August Spangenberg, Peter Bohler, and Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinsendork, all of whom were connected to John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan Methodists. The Moravians are credited with having exposed Wesley to evangelical Christianity and thus contributed to his spiritual development. Shortly after arriving in America, along with his father, Benezet joined the Society of Friends, to which he remained a member for life. At the age of 23, he married Joyce Marriot, a fellow Quaker who had started her ministry when she was 18. She continued her ministry for the rest of her life. The couple gave birth to a daughter and a son, neither of whom survived infancy. Benezet and his wife remained in Philadelphia or within a 25 mile radius of it, until his death in 1784.
In 1739, Benezet began his career as a teacher in Germantown. In 1750, he began conducting evening sessions exclusively for black students. He taught them the foundations of education, as well as Christianity. Through his interactions with enslaved Africans, free blacks, and white slave owners in Philadelphia, he began to recognize the brutality and dehumanizing effects of slavery and became aware of the difficulties formerly enslaved individuals faced in society without an adequate education. These observations formed the focus of his life work, eradicating slavery and ameliorating the treatment of blacks. Benezet remained an ardent opponent of slavery for the rest of his life. Consistent with his Quaker beliefs, he considered all individuals as equals in the eyes of God. Thus, he could not comprehend how Christians could remain silent in the presence of evil, let alone inflict such terror upon others. In his later writings, he stated with respect to slavery that “We cannot be at the same time silent and innocent spectators.”
To supplement his teaching, Benezet worked in a printing office as a proof reader. At the age of 41, he began writing tracts against slavery. In 1754, he published The Epistle of 1754, Presented to the Year Meeting of the Society of Friends. Over the next 29 years, he wrote seven tracts, ranging from three pages to more than 144. The most influential was A Caution and Warning to Great-Britain, and Her Colonies, in A Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominions, which he finished in 1766. At times, he used a primarily religious argument, drawing upon Scriptures and Christian responsibility to denounce slavery. In other writings, he appealed to humanitarian principles. His publications possessed a powerful emotional element, describing first-hand accounts of the atrocities endured by those who had been enslaved. Although he lived in America, he had a significant influence on the British abolitionist movement. His pamphlet, Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation, Produce, and the General Disposition of Its Inhabitants. With an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, Its Nature, and Lamentable Effects written in 1772, was read by John Wesley who referenced the first half of the book in his own anti-slavery tract in 1774. Other prominent British abolitionists such as Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, found his favourable descriptions of Africans helpful to inform their own arguments against the slave trade. Sharp utilized his 1772 pamphlet during the Somerset case, delivering copies of it to Lord Mansfield to convince him of the evils of slavery. His influence on Thomas Clarkson was profound. Clarkson read Benezet’s writings when researching his essay on slavery. He indicates that prior to Benezet he was wholly ignorant of the horrors of the slave trade and it was his writings that influenced him to take up the abolitionist cause. Benezet even wrote to Queen Charlotte in 1783, to ask her to consider the injustices inflicted upon the enslaved. Gustavus Vassa quoted Benezet numerous times in his autobiography. He used evidence from Benezet’s publications to support his accounts of the punishments for adultery and the means of procuring slaves in Africa that went beyond his personal experience. He also cites Benezet’s account of Guinea to support his argument concerning the declining population of the enslaved in the West Indies.
One of Benezet’s most notable accomplishments was his role in convincing Quakers to establish a non-denominational school for blacks, called the Negro School at Philadelphia, in 1770. He spent that last two years of his life teaching at this school. In 1775, he became the president of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first anti-slavery society in the Americas. He died on May 3, 1784. In his will, he bequeathed his estate to support the education of blacks. When Vassa travelled to Philadelphia in 1785, he visited the school. Back in London, in October 1785, Vassa presented an address of thanks to Benezet and the Quakers of Philadelphia for their role in the fight against slavery, specifically mentioning Benezet’s tract, A Caution to Great Britain and her Colonies, concerning the Calamitous State of the enslaved Negroes.
RELATED FILES AND IMAGES
Brendlinger, Irv. A. To Be Silent…Would be Criminal: The Antislavery Influence and Writings of Anthony Benezet (Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 2006).
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-made Man (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005).
Jackson, Maurice. Let this Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
This webpage was
on 2020-08-18 by Carly Downs