Quakers in the Anti-slavery Movement
Before the eighteenth century, very few white men questioned the morality of slavery. The
Quakers were among these few. The
doctrines of their religion declared an issue such as slavery to be unjust. By 1775, the
Quakers founded the first American
anti-slavery group. Through the 1700s, Quakers led a strong-held prohibition against
slavery. The Quakers fight inspired
growing numbers of abolitionists, and by the 1830s abolitionism was in full force
and became a major political issue in the
The Quakers were radical Christians. They believed that all people were equal in the sight
of God, and every human being was
capable of receiving the "light" of Gods spirit and wisdom. They also were
against violence. Quakers were known for their
simple living and work ethic. Therefore, to the Quakers, slavery was morally wrong.
It was as early as the 1600s that Quakers began their fight against slavery, and thus the
beginning of the abolitionist movement.
They debated, made speeches, and preached to many people. By 1696, they made their first
official declaration for
abolitionism in Pennsylvania, in which they declared they were not going to encourage the
importation of slaves.
George Fox, founder of the Quaker group "Society of Friends", preached against
slavery in the late 16oos, but never really
took action against it. Even though Fox, a major Quaker leader, was opposed to slavery,
other Quaker leaders owned slaves.
This was because they interpreted the doctrines of their religion to exclude slaves. The
institution of slavery became a divided
issue among Quakers in the Society. Benjamin Lay, for example, was against slavery. He
thought that it was a "Hellish practice"
and a "filthy sin
the greatest sin in the world, of the very nature of Hell
itself, and is the Belly of Hell" (Davis 291), and he
reprimanded all Quaker slave owners. As he stated in 1736, "I NEVER read in History
of the Waldenses, our first Reformers
from Popery, that they kept any slaves" (Davis 291). Travelling ministers visited
various states, advocating for the abolition of
slavery among Quakers. John Woolman was one of these ministers, and he worked successfully
to rid slavery among Quakers.
Members of the Society of Friends began questioning the institution of slavery within
Quakerism, and those Quaker leaders
who did own slaves were eventually replaced by leaders who did not own slaves. In 1780,
Pennsylvania, the core of
Quakerism in the United States, passed An Act for the Gradual Abolishment of Slavery. By
this time, almost all Quakers were
against slavery and had joined in the abolitionist movement.
Now that Quakers had abolished slavery amongst themselves, they began to reach out to
others. Anothony Benzet was one of
these Quakers who became renowned in his fight against slavery. Through pamphlets and
other writings, he urged the
government to outlaw slavery. He earned notable respect from the likes of Benjamin
Franklin and the influential Benjamin Rush,
who also published literature. In 1787, Rush and Franklin united to lead the Pennsylvania
Society for Promoting the Abolition
of Slavery in 1787. Other prominent abolitionists beside Benzet and Woolman who had major
influence included the Grimke
sisters, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony.
With the Quakers support for anti-slavery came hatred for them by slaveowners. They
were ridiculed and even abused
because of their want to free slaves. Quakers from the South began migrating towards the
West, where they could escape the
hatred. It was in the West that the southern Quakers joined with other Quakers from around
the nation in lands officially
declared free of slavery.
To continue their message Quakers constantly had their hand in society and government,
pushing for the abolition of slavery.
They aided slaves in reaching their freedom by operating in the Underground Railroad,
distributed pamphlets, held meetings,
and petitioned to Congress throughout the abolitionist movement. One such petition was
"The Address from the Yearly
Meeting of the People Called Quakers."
Because of the Quakers involvement in anti-slavery, by the 1830s, slavery
became more of an issue in American society, and
thus the abolitionist movement began.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Cultures. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1966. 291.
Boyer, Paul S. and Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Thomas L. Purvis, Harvard
Sitkoff, Nancy Woloch. The Enduring Vision. Lexington: D.C. Health and Company,
Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968. 55-61