Quakers in the abolition movement
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) played a major role in the abolition movement against slavery in both the United Kingdom and in the United States of America. Quakers were among the first white people to denounce slavery in the American colonies and Europe, and the Society of Friends became the first organization to take a collective stand against both slavery and the slave trade, later spearheading the international and ecumenical campaigns against slavery.
Quaker colonists began questioning slavery in Barbados in the 1670s, but first openly denounced it in 1688. In that year, four German settlers (the Lutheran Francis Daniel Pastorius and three Quakers) issued a protest from Germantown, close to Philadelphia in the newly founded American colony of Pennsylvania. This action, although seemingly overlooked at the time, ushered in almost a century of active debate among Pennsylvanian Quakers about the morality of slavery which saw energetic anti-slavery writing and direct action from several Quakers, including William Southeby, John Hepburn, Ralph Sandiford, and Benjamin Lay.
During the 1740s and 50s, anti-slavery sentiment took a firmer hold. A new generation of Quakers, including John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, protested against slavery, and demanded that Quaker society cut ties with the slave trade. They were able to carry popular Quaker sentiment with them and, in the 1750s, Pennsylvanian Quakers tightened their rules, by 1758 making it effectively an act of misconduct to engage in slave trading. The London Yearly Meeting soon followed, issuing a ‘strong minute’ against slave trading in 1761. On paper at least, global politics would intervene. The American Revolution would divide Quakers across the Atlantic.
In the United Kingdom, Quakers would be foremost in the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 which, with some setbacks, would be responsible for forcing the end of the British slave trade in 1807 and the end of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1838.
In the United States, Quakers would be less successful. In many cases, it was easier for Quakers to oppose the slave trade and slave ownership in the abstract than to directly oppose the institution of slavery itself, as it manifested itself in their local communities. While many individual Quakers spoke out against slavery after United States independence, local Quaker meetings were often divided on how to respond to slavery; outspoken Quaker abolitionists were sometimes sharply criticized by other Quakers.
Nevertheless, there were local successes for Quaker anti-slavery in the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. For example, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, first founded in 1775, consisted primarily of Quakers; seven of the ten original white members were Quakers and 17 of the 24 who attended the four meetings held by the Society were Quakers. Throughout the nineteenth century, Quakers increasingly became associated with antislavery activism and antislavery literature: not least through the work of abolitionist Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. North Carolina's Quakers often trusted their slaves to local meetings in order to de-facto free their slaves while the state's laws prohibited slaveowners from legally freeing their slaves; this practice ran from 1808 to 1829, after which trusteeship declined and many Quakers left the state to free their slaves in "free states".
Quakers were also prominently involved with the Underground Railroad. For example, Levi Coffin started helping runaway slaves as a child in North Carolina. Later in his life, Coffin moved to the Ohio-Indiana area, where he became known as the President of the Underground Railroad. Elias Hicks penned the 'Observations on the Slavery of the Africans' in 1811 (2nd ed. 1814), urging the boycott of the products of slave labor. Many families assisted slaves in their travels through the Underground Railroad. Henry Stubbs and his sons helped runaway slaves get across Indiana. The Bundy family operated a station that transported groups of slaves from Belmont to Salem, Ohio.
Quaker anti-slavery activism could come at some social cost. In the nineteenth-century United States, some Quakers were persecuted by slave owners and were forced to move to the west of the country in an attempt to avoid persecution. Nevertheless, in the main, Quakers have been noted and, very often, praised for their early and continued antislavery activity.
Drake, Thomas E. (1950). Quakers and Slavery in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Frost, J. William (1980). The Quaker Origins of Antislavery. Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions.
James, Sydney V. (1963). A People Among Peoples: Quaker Benevolence in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Nash, Gary, and Jean Soderlund (1991). Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Soderlund, Jean (1985). Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Quakers and the Abolition of the Slave Trade
- Quakers and Slavery: Resources and Information
- Quakers and the Underground Railroad
- Anti-slavery Movement: Quakers
- Quakers and Slavery; Conference and Publication
- Africans in America/Part 3/ Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society
- MSN Encarta: Abolitionist Movement