Quaker meeting. After painting of 1839.

Quakers are a part of my heritage.  I’ve learned this through family tree research conducted in recent months. The connection delights me. I already had a general understanding of Quakers as peaceful folk who lived simply. I am pondering Quaker involvement in the underground railroad and their anti slavery sentiments.

I’d always assumed that individual Quaker families across the new world chose to assist runaway slaves to freedom, based solely by their observances and personal convictions. I soon discovered this was not entirely the case. They were part of a large and well organized movement.

Quaker symbol for abolition
Quaker symbol for abolition

At the Heart of Quakerism

All people are equal. This is the core belief that accounts for Quaker involvement the anti slavery movement. At worship meetings, even today, there is no evidence of any hierarchal structure; people speak when they feel compelled to do so.  A priest is not a necessary conduit as Quakers believe that each person has a direct relationship with God. The collective faith is known as the Religious Society of Friends and members generally congregate at Quaker meeting houses.

The First Religion to Denounce Slavery

George Fox
George Fox

Quaker disapproval of the slave trade can be traced back to the  late 1600’s. The idea of one man owning another could not be reconciled against their belief that all men are equal. As the Friends travelled between Britain and the colonies, they witnessed atrocities that their disdain for the practice of slavery.

 “… if you were in the same condition as the Blacks are … now I say, if this should be the condition of you and yours, you would think it hard measure, yea, and very great Bondage and Cruelty. And therefore, consider seriously of this, and do you for and to them, as you would willingly have them or any do unto you …  were you in the like slavish condition.”  George Fox, 1676 (Founder of Quakerism)


Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The Quakers were the first religious organization, in Britain or the colonies, to publicly stand against slavery.  In 1783, a Quaker group initiated the abolition movement but their voice wasn’t heard until they combined their efforts with a group of like minded Anglicans. Together they started the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  Nine of the group’s twelve members were Quaker; this was problematic as Quaker’s were barred from speaking in parliament.  William Wilberforce became their parliamentary spokesman and it is he who popular history identifies as the force behind the movement. However, if not for years of financial support by Quaker merchants and businessmen, history would have looked quite different.


A People of Action

In the Americas, as in Britain, Quaker involved themselves in debates about the slave trade and parliaments were lobbied to end the slave trade. Friends worked to convince their communities to end the practice of slavery through posters and slogans. Protests were held and pamphlets distributed, and anti slavery articles were sent to newspapers. Logos were stamped on items for purchase and women wore pendants bearing the phrase, “Am I not a sister and a woman.”. Quaker groups boycotted goods like sugar, produced by slave labour. In short, their strategies are the same as those of modern day movements.

Quaker Catalysts for Change

Thomas Clarksonelizabethheyrick_msvol239_237joseph sturgeSophie Sturgejohn woolmanAnthonyBezet 

Thomas Clarkson was a leading force in the abolitionist campaign throughout Britain.  After slavery was abolished in his own country, he went on to campaign elsewhere.

Elizabeth Heyrick believed in the immediate emancipation of all slaves. The distribution of her pamphlet played a role in changing public opinion about the use of slave labour.

John Sturge (businessman and philanthropist) and his sister, Sophia Sturge (left figure in fourth photo) visited 3,000 homes to promote a boycott of sugar produced through slave labour. They were appalled by conditions witnessed in the West Indies.

John Woolman worked in Britain and the Americas to end slavery. In 1754, he distributed the first pamphlet denouncing the practice.

Anthony Benezet worked ferverently to demonstrate the equality between the races. He taught poor black children to read. Notably, he also started the first American public school for girls. His work was influential on Thomas Clarkson.

“To live in ease and plenty by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power, is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice…” Anthony Benezet (click to tweet)

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