The history of the movement meant to put an end to slavery dates back to the establishment of slavery in America. In the West, millions of African slaves were entrenched in to the American labor force from the beginning of the 16th century and were not freed until the last decade of the 19th century. Unlike the modern day slavery, America’s economy was dependent on the labor of slaves whose masters treated them unfairly.
During that time, very few people spoke against slavery since they were satisfied with the status quo. However, the Quakers from the very beginning came out strongly to criticize slavery, which they viewed as immoral.
Even though some members within the church were slaveholders, they soon banned the ownership of slaves among themselves in a move that they believed would set an example for others to follow. 1 Throughout the slavery period, Quakers distributed pamphlets and staged demonstrations that finally gave rise to the abolitionist movement.
History of the Quakers
The Friends Church was begun over three centuries ago. The church was established by George Fox who was an Anglican before he began feeling that there was more to religion than what was being offered by the Anglican Church. When he was only 19 years old, George Fox moved across churches looking for an answer to his questions but he never got them. Apparently, the Church of England, which was the official religion at the time, was too sophisticated for the common person and many people felt that it did not address their needs. 2
This desire to find a connection and inner peace with God led George Fox to establish an association of “Friends” after the exhortation given by Jesus in John 15:15 where he called the believers his Friends.
However, there were people who opposed the changes that this “Friends” were bringing to the church and they branded them “Quakers” after the manner in which they trembled when speaking of their newfound faith. Instead of taking the name in a negative manner, the Friends felt that it complemented them and they decided to adopt the name as their official logo. 3
Since the foundation of the church in 1647, the Quakers focused on passing across the message that Jesus Christ was the answer to all problems. This saw many people who were tired of the formal religion coming forward to join the movement that was offering them something “real” as opposed to what the Church of England was offering. In reality, the one thing that was attracting people to the Friends was their doctrine.
The Quakers viewed slavery as unjust and this compelled them to form an anti-slavery group, the first in history. Throughout the 18th century, the Quakers initiated a strong opposition against slavery. This fight by the Quakers saw the number of abolitionists go up and by 1830, the issue had already become a political matter in America. 4
To many people, the Quakers were perceived to be drastic people. The reason for this was their deep sated belief that before God, all people were equal, and every person had the privilege of receiving God’s salvation and wisdom. Additionally, this Society of Friends was against any form of cruelty and they lived simple lives, which differentiated them from the mainstream church.
This conviction led them to view slavery as morally wrong and they spent most of their time preaching against this vice. Just a few years after its establishment, the Quakers Society began opposing slavery and this marked the beginning of the Abolitionist Movement. In 1696, Quakers made a public declaration renouncing slavery and renewed their calls to fight the vice. 5
Before this declaration, the founder of the Quakers group had stated his detest for slavery but never took tangible steps to fight the vice. During that time, there were still leaders in the Quaker group who owned slaves thus making the issue divisive within the church.
Despite this being the case, some of the Quaker leaders such as Benjamin Lay continued to push for the abolition of slaveholding within the church. In one of his searing addresses, Lay termed the practice as “Hellish” and a “filthy sin…the greatest sin in the world, of the very nature of Hell itself, and is the Belly of Hell.” 6 This sharp criticism brought an awakening within the group and soon many members began questioning the morality of the leaders who owned slaves within the Friend Society.
This led to the replacement of leaders who owned slaves with others who abhorred the practice. Although this was a gradual process, it gave way to the enactment of the popular “Act for the Gradual Abolishment of Slaver” in Pennsylvania. By the time that this was happening, all the Quakers were against slavery and they had become members of the abolitionist movement. 7
Key Figures in the Movement
Upon coming to America, Quakers were viewed as dangerous heretics and they often underwent persecution by people who termed them as Witches. Since these Quakers were not welcome in most states, they found asylum in Rhode Island, which had tolerance towards minority groups. The first Quakers who came to America went on to become key figures both in the Friends Society and in the formation of the Abolition Movement. 8
William Penn who lived from 1644-1718 is believed to have been one of the most instrumental figures in the Quakers Society in America. With the help of his friends, Penn is said to have aided in the establishment of Pennsylvania colony, which later came to be the center for American Quakers and went ahead to be the first colony to abolish slavery. As the years progressed, Pennsylvania became the only state where people with divergent people would congregate without the fear for reprisals.
Under the group doctrines, Penn insisted that women needed to be accorded their due respect since this was in tandem with God’s view of equality. Being one of the founders of the Pennsylvania State, Penn helped the colony to come up with a constitution that was credited with placing power in the hands of citizens other than concentrating it on the government.
The constitution drafted by Penn also provided a humane Penal Code for offenders and ensured that the fundamental rights for everyone were respected. Under this constitution, many slaves took their masters to court protesting against the inhumane treatment they were receiving. The lenient terms outlined in this constitution enabled the Quaker group to blossom and provided them with a forum for their criticism of slavery. 9
George Keith was an energetic Quaker who was mainly credited with producing numerous pamphlets that spoke against the enslavement of Africans. Even before Quakers began opposing slavery, Keith had already published a pamphlet titled “An exhortation and caution to Friends concerning the buying and selling of Negroes.” In the 1693 publication, Keith criticized the Quakers leadership for its failure to take a strong stand against slavery.
He termed the enslavement of Africans as human rights violation and claimed that those who were supporting slavery within the church were erring and called for their repentance. This statement put Keith on a collision path with the church leadership and led to his disownment two years later. Even after his exit, other members picked up Keith’s message and the leadership of the Quakers was forced to comply with their demands. This made George Keith an important figure in the Abolitionist Movement. 10
After fellow Friends disowned George Keith, things seemed to cool down a bit within the movement. However, another Quaker William Southeby who died in 1720 picked up from where Keith had left and continued making calls for the society to disown slavery.
What made Southeby’s calls weightier was because unlike the others before him he was a Native American. Like Keith before him, Southeby kept on publishing attacks on those who imported and held slaves. Encouraged by his courageousness, other Native American Quakers joined the abolition movement making it even stronger. 11
The Quaker Benjamin Lay came in to the limelight in the 1730’s when he and other Quaker abolitionists led by John Woolman and Anthony Benezet came out in strong opposition to slavery. Before he began opposing slavery, Lay had been a renowned West Indian slaveholder and many slaveholders therefore heeded his calls.
Instead of choosing the diplomatic way, Lay adopted a more confrontational method where he could kidnap the children of slaveholders apparently to acquaint the child with the grief of slaves. This antislavery tactics made him a key figure among abolitionists and even fellow Quakers. Lay also contributed to Woolman’s 1754 publication titled Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, which criticized the notion of valuing money over the lives of Negroes. 12
Quaker John Woolman was drawn in to the abolitionist movement from an early age. In fact, Woolman spent most of his life traversing the country to preach on the ills of slavery. When he was 20 years, Woolman shocked his friends when he began talking openly on the ills of slavery.
This was in response to a request by his boss to draft a bill of sale for a slave girl to which he complied but not before expressing his thoughts on the matter. Immediately after this incident, Woolman quit his job and traversed the country preaching the abolitionist gospel. 13
Anthony Benezet was also another Quaker who worked closely with Lay and Woolman in their opposition to slavery. Throughout his life, Benezet dedicated his life to the course of abolishing slavery and he had a collection of nearly every publication on antislavery. As an ardent abolitionist, Benezet also corresponded with abolitionists living outside America and kept on updating them on how the situation was on the ground.
His love for slaves led him to establish a school for slave children in his home compound, which went on to become the first Negro school in the United States. Under his leadership, Quakers unanimously resolved to bar any slaveholder from the church in order to set an example to the rest of the world. 14
The Quakers sensitivity to the needs of freed slaves compelled them to devise a safe passage to ensure that the slaves were not recaptured until they got into the Northern states or other places where slavery was banned. To achieve this mission, the Quakers devised an “Underground Railroad” (UGRR), which was simply a means for slaves to move safely from one place to the other. By 1835, thousands of people majority of who were Quakers operated the UGRR.
One of the men credited with devising the UGRR was Levi Coffin. During his lifetime, Coffin who was a Quaker businessperson devoted most of his time to the UGRR a contribution that earned him the title of Presidency for the underground movement. Indeed, the Coffin’s are said to have hidden a group of escaped slaves for more than 21 years. Later, Coffin confessed to having aided close to 3,000 slaves using the UGRR. This made him a key figure in the abolitionist movement. 15
Lucretia Mott & Susan Anthony
Several female Quakers worked side by side with the men to fight for women’s rights and put an end to slavery. One of these women Lucretia Mott, a Quaker leader and reformer worked tirelessly to ensure that the rights of women were respected and had a desire to see slavery wiped out. On her part, Susan B.
Anthony who had been born to Quaker parents endeavored to see slavery banned even as she fought for women rights to vote. According to Anthony, denying women the right to vote was tantamount to slavery since there was no provision in the constitution that denied women and slaves their absolute rights. Although neither Mott nor Anthony lived long enough to see the fruits of their struggle, their efforts were undoubtedly rewarded since their campaign helped in strengthening the Abolitionist Movement. 16
The Quakers contribution to the Abolition Movement is unquestionable. In fact, their boldness gave other abolitionists courage and led to the formation of the first anti-slavery group in America. Throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries, the Quakers traversed the country giving sermons and spreading anti-slavery messages. Their involvement saw all their members free the slaves they possessed and they failed to buy or sell any products made by slaves.
Throughout this period, the Quakers produced publications urging the Congress to outlaw slavery and slave trade. Finally, the importance that the Quakers gave the matter made other people realize that it warranted attention and soon an abolitionist movement was born. This abolitionist movement finally saw the outlawing of slavery in 1888 thus ending the slavery era that spanned three centuries. 17
The road leading to the abolition of slave trade was not an easy one. For close to three decades, slaves of African origin toiled in white farms without receiving any meaningful pay for their services.
Due to the contribution that the slaves were making to the economy, their presence became an accepted way of life thus making many people not to address the matter. However, the start of the 18th century saw Quakers begin to question the morality of slavery and slave trade. Although some Quakers owned slaves, this soon changed and nearly every slaveholder within the church liberated the slaves that he owned.
This was meant to set a moral example for many to follow since majority of these people could not imagine a life without slaves. Throughout the slavery period, the Quakers provided freed slaves with safe passages to areas that did not support slavery. This boldness encouraged many people to join the abolitionist movement, which finally led to the abolition of slavery.
1Ferrell Claudine, The Abolitionist Movement (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 66-76
2Larry Ingle. First among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. (Oxford University Press, 1994), 28-55.
3 Ibid, 31.
4 Ibid, 34.
5 Judy Cameron and Rosemary Bachelor, “Quakers in the Anti-Slavery Movement.” The Second Boat 17 (Winter 1998): 102-118.
6 David Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. (Oxford University Press, 1988), 94-104.
7Cameron and Bachelor, 104
8 Gary Nash and Jean Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath. (Oxford University Press, 1991), 101-108.
9James Huston, “The Experiential Basis of the Northern Antislavery Impulse.” Journal of Southern History 56 (November 1990): 609–640.
10 Ibid, 613.
11 Ibid, 618.
12 Davis, 98.
13 Ibid, 101.
14 Ibid, 104.
15 William Switala, Underground Railroad in New Jersey and New York. (Stackpole Books, 2006), 67-81.
16 Ibid, 76.
17 Claudine, 71.
Cameron, Judy, and Bachelor, Rosemary, “Quakers in the Anti-Slavery Movement.” The Second Boat 17 (Winter 1998): 102-118.
Claudine, Ferrell. The Abolitionist Movement. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.
Davis, David. The Problem of Slavery in western Culture. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Huston, James. “The Experiential Basis of the Northern Antislavery Impulse.” Journal of Southern History 56 (November 1990): 609–640.
Ingle, Larry. First among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. Oxford University Press, 1994.
Nash, Gary and Soderlund, Jean. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath. Oxford University Press, 1991.
Switala, William. Underground Railroad in New Jersey and New York. Stackpole Books, 2006.