Slavery is not simply a historical phenomenon; It persists to this day in modern forms, such as trafficking. Quakers have opposed it from very early on and still do.
In the first few years after the Quaker movement began in 1652, slavery would have been outside the experience of most Quakers, as it was not much practised in Britain. But in British colonies in the Caribbean and North America it was widespread. Britain was also heavily involved in the slave trade, as many of its merchants brought captives from African countries to the New World to sell to plantation owners and wealthy householders. So as early Quakers and others of like mind travelled across the Atlantic, they saw slavery at first hand, and some became slave-owners themselves. But they soon saw that ownership of one human being by another contradicted their belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings (the testimony to equality).
Quakers were not alone in this, and the key strength of the historical abolitionist movement, in Britain and North America, was the determination of the slaves themselves. Quakers nevertheless made a vital and distinctive input, in five main ways.
They raised slavery as a moral issue as early as the 1670s and 80s. When George Fox and Irish Friend William Edmundson visited Barbados in 1671 they were confronted with the realities of slave labour face to face. Fox immediately appealed for better treatment. By 1675 Edmondson was condemning slavery outright. The Germantown Quakers in Philadelphia stated that slavery itself was immoral in 1688. Many others raised the moral issue over the years that followed.
They worked for nearly a century to eradicate it from the Quaker community. In 1727, Britain Yearly Meeting forbade owning, and dealing in, slaves. In North America a long process of persuasion culminated in 1774, when Quakers, involved with slavery, were told to give it up or leave the Society of Friends.
Quakers provided a leadership structure, reliable national network, and significant material resources to the campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1783 Quakers in Britain began active campaigning. They joined forces with William Wilberforce and others. The campaign drew heavily on the extensive Quaker network. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slavery itself became illegal in the British Empire in 1833. In North America, Quakers campaigned equally vigorously. Many also broke the law by assisting slaves to escape from the slave-owning states in the South to the freer North. Slavery was finally abolished in the United States in 1865.
The methods Quakers pioneered constituted an extraordinary model which evolved rapidly and illustrates the key elements still required for such campaigns today: research, committee leadership, logo, publications, petitions, lobbying, produce boycotts, networking, fundraising, legislation and direct action/ civil disobedience.
A remarkable number of individual Quaker men and women gave exemplary leadership.
Thus the evils of slavery were gradually and systematically exposed in what is arguably the first Human Rights movement aimed at securing the fundamental rights of others. Quakers played a prominent, active, supportive and moral role. They helped to create a moral-political momentum, which attracted allies in other churches and from wider society, making it a mass movement.
In truth these landmarks in legislation were far from final: slavery has not been eliminated. It has gradually metamorphosed into its contemporary forms – forced and bonded labour, trafficking in persons, the worst forms of child labour, forced child begging, and child soldiers. Descent-based (traditional) Slavery still exists in some places. The distinctiveness of the Quaker contribution has gradually merged with the universal commitment to standards of human rights and justice to which Quakers individually and collectively continue to contribute, as do many others. Quakers are much involved in modern anti-slavery movements.
The British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1839 and continues to this day as Anti-Slavery International (ASI). Throughout the generations and decades Quaker individuals, families and local Meetings have continued to support this organisation and its work. Current Quaker support at all levels for the Anti-Slavery cause remains a significant bulwark.