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Sun, 02.04.1787

Quakers, and American Abolition, a story

*Quakers and American abolition are affirmed on this date in 1787.  Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends) were the only large religious American denomination to make it a requirement of membership to refuse to enslave people. 

Quakers struggled internally for a century to come to this place.    Quakers such as John Woolman and Benjamin Lay traveled and met with Quaker meetings and with Quaker slave owners to bring them to see that owning slaves was against God’s direction and endangering their own salvation.     Resistance to calls for emancipation among some Quakers came not only because a number of Quakers were slave owners, but because some of them profited from the slave trade.  But gradually, by 1787, most Quaker meetings required that members release their enslaved people to freedom. 

Besides disowning members who were enslavers, many Quakers became involved in movements to end slavery. Almost all antislavery movements before 1830 supported gradual emancipation and many Quakers were active in forming and participating in organizations such as “The American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race.”   Quakers were involved in movements to encourage purchasing goods that were not dependent on slavery (known as the free produce movement). 

A number of Quakers supported colonization efforts, resettling freed people in Africa or other parts of the United States.   Paul Cuffe, an African/Native American Quaker proposed and began a colony in Sierra Leone that was different from other colonization proposals in that it had an economic plan that seemed feasible.   For various reasons, Cuffe’s health issues and disinterest on the part of more Blacks relocating to Africa led to the failure of the colony in Sierra Leone.  More and more abolitionists, including a number of Quakers, became impatient and disillusioned with “gradualism.”    

In the 1820s and 1830’s much of the Abolitionist movement called for immediate emancipation.  Abolition leaders, such as William Lloyd Garrison (not a Quaker) saw that gradualism was an excuse to postpone the freeing of enslaved people forever.  An organizing convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society was held in Philadelphia in 1833.  One-third of the attendees were Quakers.  This convention called for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people.  A number of Quakers became fierce leaders calling for immediate emancipation.  Lucretia and James Mott, Levi Coffin (Underground Railroad), Angelina and Sarah Grimke were Quakers who devoted their energy and lives to ending slavery.  

Sarah Mapps Douglass, a Black woman, and her mother were founders of the Female Anti-Slavery Society.  She and her mother faithfully attended but did not join a Quaker meeting, probably because Quakers seated Blacks in segregated areas during worship.  Quakers were against slavery, but less inclined to mix freely with Blacks.  Some Quakers and Quaker organizations were not in line with immediate emancipation.   Quaker organizations (meetings and yearly meetings) were often reluctant to take a public stand for immediate abolition.  Some of this related to the fact that a number of Quakers were benefiting from the slave trade. 

Some Quakers felt that taking a political stand was too divisive and not something a religious organization should do.  A few Quakers were chastised by their meetings or even disowned for being too radical, political, or active in the movement calling for immediate emancipation.  So, while Quaker’s reputation for having a strong stand against slavery and working to end it has some credibility, Quakers were not united in their support of abolition. 


Fit For Freedom

Annette 'Nettie Kay' Smith

Quaker Press of Friends General Conference 2009

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