Seeking freedom

by Stephen W. Angell

Quakers developed a strong antislavery witness over time

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 117 in 2016 ]

IN 1855 a spectacular slave rescue occurred in Philadelphia, with Quaker Passmore Williamson playing a central role. Williamson rescued a slave woman, Jane Johnson, and helped her and her two sons to depart aboard a ferry from the Philadelphia harbor. From Philadelphia African American activists spirited Johnson and her sons into seclusion, hoping to escape her closely pursuing master—United States ambassador to Nicaragua and North Carolina plantation owner John Hill Wheeler. 

Nineteenth-century Quakers indeed held deep convictions on the slavery issue—an issue that formed them into leaders, sharpened their belief system, and helped divide them into factions. And their influence went beyond their own group. In 1833 after the death of England’s most famous antislavery voice in Parliament, Anglican statesman William Wilberforce, Quaker Joseph John Gurney reflected on the “undeviating steadiness with which Wilberforce, during so long a course of years, pursued his mighty object, the abolition of the slave trade.” What Gurney modestly failed to mention was the part that Quakers had played in helping to generate antislavery moral principles in Wilberforce and his fellow opinion leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. The nineteenth-century antislavery movement rested on a Quaker foundation. 

But that was not how it began.

unrighteous profit

At the outset Quakers in England, North America, and the Caribbean did not differ markedly from other Christian groups in their attitudes and practices regarding the enslavement of other human beings. In a 1671 visit to Barbados, an island where several wealthy Quaker slaveholders lived, Quaker founder George Fox advocated inclusion of slaves in Quaker worship and preached that it might be “acceptable to the Lord” if slaveholders were to free their slaves “after a considerable Term of Years, if they have served faithfully.” In another instance Fox was more specific, suggesting that slaves might be freed after 30 years of service—actually an eternity in the harsh world of West Indies slavery, where the average lifespan of a slave after arriving in Barbados was nine years. 

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In any event, the vast majority of Quaker slaveholders in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries disregarded Fox’s advice to manumit their slaves. Fewer than 10 percent of Quaker slaveholders in Barbados made provisions to free any slaves in their wills. 

But a Quaker reformation centered in the Delaware River Valley of Pennsylvania and New Jersey reoriented Friends toward antislavery principles in the latter half of the eighteenth century. No Friend was more influential in this regard than Anthony Benezet (1713–1784), son of French refugees in Philadelphia and a teacher and author. Benezet and fellow Quaker John Woolman campaigned to free Quakers of slaveholding, starting with the influential Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and extending their efforts to other Yearly Meetings. 

Benezet published antislavery tracts that combined moral and scriptural exhortation with travel narratives from explorers and slave traders. His strong grounding in facts made his warnings especially compelling. He admonished that people should not amass “unrighteous profit arising from that iniquitous practice of dealing in Negroes and other slaves . . . in direct violation of the gospel rule which teacheth every one to do as they would be done by, and to do good to all.” 

Benezet was also an indefatigable correspondent, writing at length to thought leaders of his day: English attorney Granville Sharp, Methodist leader John Wesley, Queen Charlotte of Great Britain (the wife of King George III), and Virginia orator Patrick Henry. Both Sharp and Wesley reprinted Benezet’s writings or incorporated his prose into their works, influencing legions of evangelical Christians. English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846) based a prize-winning antislavery essay on Benezet’s publications; Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery (1778) was taken largely from Benezet’s work.

strenuous effort

It was Sharp and Clarkson who helped to bring Wilberforce, soon the movement’s star, into the antislavery fold. Clarkson worked with public opinion outside of Parliament, while Wilberforce persuaded legislators through his eloquent speeches. As a result Britain outlawed participation in the international slave trade in 1808 and ceased West Indies slaveholding in the 1830s. Benezet’s correspondents also included less visible English Quakers who played vital roles in the English antislavery movement.

Benezet and Woolman also made strenuous efforts to convince American Quakers to free their slaves. Their efforts bore fruit. The 1758 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decided that Quakers who bought or sold slaves would be forbidden from taking part in Quaker business affairs—a disciplinary step that stopped short of expulsion (or “disownment,” in the language of Friends). By 1784 all North American Yearly Meetings officially prohibited slaveholding among their members. 

Quaker abolitionists may have been less influential within their own sect than commonly portrayed; for example, most Quaker slaveholders in the regions surrounding Philadelphia during the 1760s resigned their Quaker membership and joined other churches rather than voluntarily freeing their slaves. Nonetheless, by the last decade of the eighteenth century, virtually no American Quaker individually held slaves (North Carolina Yearly Meeting still formally held some slaves as a way of protecting them from re-enslavement by non-Quakers).

Many American Quakers in the South, where slavery was most entrenched, chose to move to the Northwest Territories of Ohio and Indiana, where it was prohibited. While all Quakers by this point would have understood themselves to be antislavery, the ramifications of that understanding varied widely. 

A notable Quaker activist in the early American republic, Benjamin Lundy traveled to Missouri in 1819 to promote the idea of an antislavery constitution, but the non-Quaker Missouri whites opted for a slavery constitution instead. Lundy also promoted black immigration to Haiti, to Texas (then part of Mexico), and to Canada as well as gradual plans to end slavery, and he partnered with famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) to publish the antislavery newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation

Quaker businessman and sea captain Paul Cuffee (1759–1817), of mixed African American and Native American descent, traveled to West Africa, where he hoped to build healthy trade relations not based on slavery between Africa and North America. His voyages served to inspire the American Colonization Society (ACS), established in 1817 to relocate American blacks to Africa, and eventually the founding of Liberia. 

One notable Quaker who promoted colonization was Benjamin Coates (1808–1887), a merchant from Philadelphia. Coates kept up a prodigious correspondence with leading antislavery figures of his time, including Frederick Douglass and Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia. Coates proclaimed himself to be both colonizationist and abolitionist, and he saw the black republic of Liberia as breaking down barriers for Africans worldwide: “Liberia now lives, a grand success, acknowledged as an Independent Republic, showing the ability of the Negro race in the conducting of affairs of state and nationality as well as in the humbler pursuit of picking cotton.”

the shortest and safest means

Until 1824 most American Quakers assumed that complete abolition would be gradual, taking place perhaps over many decades. But in that year, English Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick published a passionate tract called Immediate, not gradual Abolition, or An inquiry into the shortest, safest, and most effectual means of getting rid of West Indian slavery. Heyrick urged immediate abolition for humanitarian, practical, and religious reasons. She appealed passionately to the conscience of the slaveholder: 

The sooner the planter is obliged to abandon a system which torments him with perpetual alarms of insurrection and massacre . . . the sooner he is obliged to adopt a more humane and more lucrative policy in the cultivation of his plantations.

To those “incredulous as to the efficacy” of immediate abolition, Heyrick commended “the consciousness of sincerity and consistency, of possessing ‘clean hands,’” as directed by “the Great Searcher of hearts, who regarded with favorable eye, the mite cast by the poor widow into the treasury.” This eloquent pamphlet played a large part in bringing Quakers like Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) and non-Quakers like William Lloyd Garrison to a more radical timetable. In 1831, seven years after Heyrick’s pamphlet was published, Garrison founded the American Antislavery Society and its influential publication, The Liberator. Mott became one of the founding members of the society.

But into the midst of these shifting sands came a devastating schism. In 1827 and 1828, large majorities of Quakers in New York, the Delaware Valley, Maryland, and Virginia (and lesser numbers elsewhere) founded the “Hicksite” branch of Quakerism. The movement was named after Elias Hicks, a Quaker influenced by Enlightenment views. Hicks downplayed the inspiration of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, and the Trinity, and also denied substitutionary atonement. 

Those Quakers who opposed Hicks—often more urban and more influenced by other Protestant denominations—were called “Orthodox.” The Orthodox and the Hicksites agreed on abolition, but the more radical move for immediate abolition introduced new divisions. Radical abolitionists, like Lucretia Mott and sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké (converted Quakers from an aristocratic slaveholding family in South Carolina), felt that the only way the tiny but noisy abolitionist movement could have an effect on public policy was to get Quakers working with non-Quakers. Mott and the Grimkés were soon accused of compromising the purity of the Quaker faith by working “promiscuously” with members of other denominations. 

After a highly successful lecture tour in 1838, the Grimké sisters were disowned by Orthodox Quakers—Angelina for “marrying out of meeting” the Presbyterian Theodore Weld and Sarah for attending her sister’s wedding. (For more on Weld, see CH issue 33.) Mott, whose relationship to Quaker discipline was more cautious and circumspect than that of the Grimkés, managed barely to maintain her Quaker membership, despite several attempts by Hicksites more conservative on abolition to have her disowned. After an uncomplimentary portrait of one Hicksite, George White, appeared in a journal in 1842, White caused venerable antislavery activist Isaac T. Hopper and two of his associates to be disowned for supporting “a paper which has a tendency to excite discord and disunity among us.” 

free labor, free produce

North Carolina native and birthright Quaker Levi Coffin (see “Seeking freedom,” pp. 37–40) is best known for his work on the Underground Railroad. But in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, in the 1840s, Coffin devoted his energies to promoting “free produce.” A number of Quakers at the time embraced this purchase of cotton, substitutes for sugar, and like items produced by free labor rather than slavery. But the economics of free-labor goods, which sold at higher prices and often were of inferior quality, were daunting, and even Quakers had difficulty living up to their good intentions in this area. Meanwhile many Quakers objected to Coffin’s Underground Railroad work, citing Romans 13 to question his defiance of the nation’s laws in helping fugitives. 

Meanwhile further schisms among both Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers developed. The more radical Quaker abolitionists in both groups formed their own antislavery Yearly Meetings. Other abolitionists cheered by this development—such as William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth—frequently attended the Hicksite antislavery Progressive Yearly Meeting at Longwood, Pennsylvania. Garrison, having in mind this association with Progressive Quakers, sometimes called himself a Quaker; Truth was more circumspect in declaring her religious commitments, but her latest biographer asserted that “Sojourner’s relationship with . . . Progressive Friends was as close as she came to a religious affiliation.” The Progressive Friends movement in Pennsylvania survived disagreements over slavery and other nineteenth-century controversies, lasting until 1941.

hoping in vain

During the last decade before the Civil War, most Quakers grew steadily more radical on the slavery issue, while still hoping in vain for a nonviolent outcome that would end slavery and preserve the peace. It was at this juncture, in 1855, that Passmore Williamson rescued Jane Johnson, who had escaped her master, the United States ambassador. 

Accused of kidnapping Johnson, Williamson served time in prison for this episode; Johnson, at great personal peril of being re-enslaved, appeared in a Philadelphia courtroom to refute the charge of kidnapping. Abolitionists and local officials managed to preserve her freedom despite federal marshals’ strenuous attempts to recapture her after her testimony.

But radicalism went further still. Two Quaker brothers from Iowa, Edwin and Barclay Coppock, found abolitionism a stronger call than nonviolence and joined John Brown’s 1859 armed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. Edwin was executed for his participation in Brown’s insurrection, while Barclay escaped Harper’s Ferry, only to die two years later while serving with the Third Kansas Infantry. 

In Indiana, though more than 2,000 Quaker men of military age refused to serve in the Civil War for reasons of conscience, over 1,000 served in the Union Army. Of these over 200 died during the war. English Friends such as John Bright, a member of Parliament, aided the Union cause, successfully lobbying the conservative English government not to recognize the Confederacy nor to enter the war on the side of the Southern states. After the war numerous Friends from New England, Philadelphia, and Indiana, including Levi Coffin, worked strenuously to assist the freed slaves after their emancipation. What Benezet and Woolman had begun, they hoped to finish—by bringing African Americans to full participation in American society. Their task continues today. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #117 The Surprising Quakers. Read it in context here!

Stephen W. Angell is Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion.

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