Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

The Quaker Five in the 1787 national Abolition Committee

Five Quaker businessmen were prominent in the 12-member 1787 Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Four were British - Joseph Woods, James Phillips, George Harrison, and Samuel Hoare. The fifth was William Dillwyn from Pennsylvania. Dillwyn, Harrison, Hoare and Woods had previously been members of the 1783 Quaker Committee.

Joseph Woods (1738-1912) was a successful woollen merchant. Unlike the others, he was not inclined to give ministry aloud in Quaker meetings for worship. He was however concerned with the “Quietism” which had beset, and slowed down the Quaker movement.  George Harrison was his brother-in-law. As early as 1784 Woods wrote a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts on the Slavery of the Negroes”. It contained a “sober and dispassionate appeal to the reason of all, without offending the prejudices of any”. Woods understood slavery and the slave trade in commercial and political as well as human terms. He defended the difficult strategic decision to choose the abolition of the slave trade and not slavery as the campaign objective.


James Phillips (1745-99) came from Cornwall, where his family was engaged in the copper trade. He gravitated to London and took over a printing and publishing business, which was to produce most of the Quaker and Abolitionist literature of the time. These were books, pamphlets, the plan of a slave ship and even poetry. He also played a role developing the international contacts.  The mother of Thomas Clarkson (the committee chair) used to write to her son c/o James Phillips because he was the pivot of the communications system. He used his Quaker connections to obtain the muster rolls of the Customhouse at Liverpool, which was a major port for the slave trade. These records showed the contents of all ships passing through the port. They were pored over from 9.0 pm to 1.0 and sometimes 3.0 am by candlelight.


George Harrison (1747-1827) was the son of a shoemaker. He was a contemporary of Samuel Hoare at a Quaker boarding school. He too had become a banker, with connections to the Barclays. It was he who is credited with “re-igniting the movement in 1803” for the final push which achieved abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The movement had faltered in the mid 1990s, partly due to political fears caused by the 1789 French Revolution. For a time, any dissent was deemed to be “Sedition”.


Samuel Hoare (1751-1825) became a banker in London with his early Quaker upbringing given practical force by his experiences of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780. He became the Committee’s banker and Treasurer. Both Hoare and Harrison provided the witnesses for Parliamentary enquiries.


William Dillwyn (1743-1825) was a part of the international Quaker network. He was a plump, ruddy-cheeked Quaker businessman from Pennsylvania who had gone to the American South to study slavery firsthand, lobbied the New Jersey legislature for slave freedom, and then moved to London. As early as 1774 he had carried a letter from Pennsylvanian Quaker Anthony Benezet to a future member of the Committee, Anglican Granville Sharp. He enabled the Committee to understand slavery issues in North America.

Such was the trust amongst this committee of twelve that they agreed on a quorum of only three for conducting committee business. For hard-headed businessmen this small group was amazingly motivated. The vast majority of the population from the clergy to the farmhands regarded slavery as perfectly normal. The British economy was flourishing with the employment and profits from the slave trade. Politically only 5% of men and no women were eligible to vote.

A bank account was opened and long lists of names from all over Britain were drawn up identifying which committee member would contact each person – thus mobilising the Quaker network and beyond. The minutes carefully listed all the jobs to be done, a sign of experienced activists. They were used to sending deputations, publishing pamphlets, placing articles in the press and organising signatures on petitions.

These men were well-organised realists at the centre of a truly extraordinary small organising hub around which the whole visionary movement was set in motion and gathered strength. It did falter, but then rallied to succeed in its immediate objective in just 20 years.

Print this article