Posted on 28 April 2021
Quakers have a long history of campaigning against the Slave Trade but, to begin with, several Friends did own slaves.
In 1657, founding Friend George Fox wrote “to Friends beyond sea, that have Blacks and Indian Slaves [God] hath made all Nations of one Blood”. It was a Quakerly reminder against Friends participating in the Slave Trade as the ownership of another human being conflicted with the Quaker Testimonies, especially the testimony of Equality.
However, 25 years later, Quaker ownership of slaves began in Pennsylvania. After the founding of the state in 1682, its main city Philadelphia became the region’s main port for the importation of slaves and its founder William Penn became a slave owner. Throughout the state’s history, the majority of slaves lived in or near the city. Although most slaves were brought into the colony in small groups, in December 1684 the slave ship Isabella unloaded a cargo of 150 slaves from Africa. Slavery was now commonplace in the city of Brotherly Love and across the American colonies.
1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery
The 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery is arguably the world’s first written protest against the enslavement of human beings. Francis Daniel Pastorius, founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia), authored the petition along with three other Quakers and it was signed on behalf of the Germantown Meeting of the Society of Friends. Part of the petition states:
“There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience wch is right and reasonable; here ought to be liberty of ye body, except of evil-doers,wch is an other case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against.”1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery
Despite the obvious arguments of the petition, Philadelphia Quakers rejected it, writing “We having inspected ye matter, above mentioned, and considered of it, we find it so weighty that we think it not expedient for us to meddle with it here.”
1776 Declaration By Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Gradually, over the course of the next century, due to the efforts of many dedicated Quakers such as Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet (pictured), Friends became convinced of the essential wrongness of the institution of slavery. Many of the Quaker abolitionists published their articles anonymously in Benjamin Franklin’s several newspapers. In 1776 a declaration was written by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting reversing its position of nearly 100 years earlier. The meeting banned the owning of slaves and any Quaker who kept them would be disowned by the society. Part of the declaration states:
“Under the calming influence of pure love, we do with great unanimity give it as our sense & judgment that quarterly & Monthly Meetings should still speedily unite in further close labor with all such as are slaveholders and have any right of membership with us.”1776 Declaration By Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
By now Quakers were already actively engaged in attempting to sway public opinion in Britain and America against the slave trade and slavery in general. At the same time, Friends became actively involved in the economic, educational and political well being of the enslaved.
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.
Political Pressure From Britain
London Yearly Meeting soon followed Philadelphia’s declaration, issuing a ‘strong minute’ against slave trading in 1761. Nearly three decades later, In 1789, William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament and leader of the movement to end the Slave Trade, introduced Abolition Bill. He was helped in the creation of the bill by British Quakers, who, at the time, were barred from entering Parliament.
Two years later, in 1791, the British Parliament rejected the Abolition Bill and many people took matters into their hands. The idea of a Free Produce Movement began to form among several abolitionist circles, not just the Quakers. Its aim was to promote goods that were ‘free’ from being made by slaves (not ‘free’ from cost). This would be a peaceful protest that would avoid any bloodshed.
If economic pressure could be put on slave-dependent industries, then this might accelerate end of the trade. An anti-sugar pamphlet by William Fox (not a Quaker) was published in 1791 and it led to a world first in what became known as the Sugar Boycott.
The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, outlawing British Atlantic slave trade, came into force and proved the boycott a great success. However, the slave trade remained in existence and so the boycott was revived in the 1820s. The Free Trade Movement subsequently becomes a spearhead for the abolitionists goal of totally ending slavery in the British colonies.
The Underground Railroad, in the United States is a term used from about the 1840s, to describe an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by the fugitive slaves on their journey north to either the ‘Free States’ or Canada. The railroad spanned 29 states, as well as Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Quakers played an active part in it, along with many others.
It was called ‘Underground’ because it was secret and ‘Railroad’ because it marked the ‘passenger’ journey of the fleeing slaves. The safe houses that were used were known as ‘stations’ and those who allowed their property to be used in this way were known as ‘station masters’.
There are records of 82 Quakers being involved in Chester County in Pennsylvania alone. Other Underground Railroad Quaker strongholds were Salem, Iowa; Newport, Indiana; Alum Creek, Ohio; Cass County, Michigan; Farmington, New York; and New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Quaker Thomas Garrett (1789 – 1871) is reputed to have helped over 2,700 slaves to escape and was known as the ‘Station Master’ of the final Underground Railroad station, which was in Wilmington, Delaware. He worked on the Underground Railroad for about 40 years and although he was fined more than $5,400 for helping runaway slaves it did not deter him.
Quaker Levi Coffin (1798 – 1877), based in Cincinnati, Ohio, was known as the ‘President’ of the Underground Railroad. He and his wife Catherine, also a Quaker, helped about 2,000 slaves to freedom,
Some Quakers did not feel that acting outside the law was appropriate, despite their concern for the slaves’ plight. They thought that it was better to work within the existing law for the complete abolition of slavery, as this would benefit all slaves rather than the few runaways that they could conceivably help as individuals.
The End of The Slave Trade
The British Abolition of Slavery Act, aimed at finally ending slavery once and for all, passed in 1833 and the ownership of slaves in the British Empire is prohibited five years later in 1838. The following year in 1839, Joseph Sturge established the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society to maintain pressure around the world to end global slavery.
America followed Britain in ending slavery thirty years later with The Underground Railroad coming to a natural end with the abolition of slavery at the end of the American Civil War (1861-65). In the United States, the Friends Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia (1863-1934) worked for both relief and increasingly the education of those freed from slavery by the civil war.
Despite the freedom of slaves in the United States, some Quakers were persecuted by slave owners for being abolitionists and were forced to move to the west of the country in an attempt to avoid persecution. The Slave Trade as it was had ceased, but slaves and slavery would still continue to this day and be a current concern to Friends.
Ending Modern Day Slavery
As a revival to the 19th century British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, in the 1990s Quaker Michael Rendell Harris established Anti-Slavery International (ASI) as a modern campaigning organisation. ASI states:
“People end up trapped in modern slavery because they are vulnerable to being tricked, trapped and exploited, often as a result of poverty and exclusion. Political, economic and social systems that disadvantage some groups in society push people into taking risky decisions in search of opportunities to provide for their families. At the same time people may not have access to the sort of help and support that we take for granted – such as going to the police for help.
At Anti-Slavery International we look at those systems, those root causes, and do everything we can to try and re-balance them to provide people at-risk from slavery with an opportunity to build sustainable futures.”Anti-Slavery International
In 2015 Quakers in Britain issue their Modern Slavery Statement (opens in a new tab) aimed at “preventing modern slavery within our operations and sphere of influence.”.
Image from wikipedia.org/