Eliminating Slavery amongst Quakers
William Penn himself owned slaves during the four years he spent in Pennsylvania, though they were eventually freed. In Philadelphia in 1756, John Woolman was asked by a dying neighbour to write a will bequeathing his slave to one of his children. He gently declined on grounds of conscience and persuaded the neighbour to free “the young negro” instead. Benjamin Lay, a Quaker 'hermit', known for 'action-statements', stood barefoot in the snow outside a Meeting House in order to dramatise the vulnerability of under-clothed slaves. He was disowned (expelled) from the Society, not for the truth of what he said, but for publishing criticisms of Friends who owned slaves.This was seen as an internal concern to be resolved within the Quaker family.
The struggle within the Quaker communities in America was approached with a quiet insistence on persuasion which deeply affected their several Yearly Meetings. In Woolman’s journal (May 1757) he records how he decided tactfully to insist on embarrassing his Quaker slave-holding hosts on departure by paying the slaves for any services which they had rendered to him. In some cases Quakers bought slaves from each other to establish their freedom, in others they compensated the slaves whom they themselves freed. Eventually, between the 1750s and the 1770s all the Yearly Meetings had concluded that slave-owning was incompatible with membership as Friends. By 1774, Quakers individually had to choose: it was a matter of disownment - they could no longer be Quakers if they continued to own slaves.
In Britain, Quakers were involved in the lucrative slave trade in various ways. Some were ship owners, some were ship's captains, some were involved in related trades, and some were involved as investors. A well-known example concerns Robert King, a prominent Quaker merchant in the West Indies, who in 1763 purchased Olaudah Equiano, the famous black Abolitionist, though he sold him his freedom three years later. At one time Quaker iron-masters made chains and shackles for use in the slave trade. These Quaker businessmen faced an increasingly powerful groundswell against slavery within the Quaker movement on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-18th Century. They gradually had to withdraw either from their slave-related activities or from Quakerism.
In 1785, eight black African abolitionists, including Olaudoh Equiano, thanked the Quakers for their 'benevolence, unwearied labour and kind interposition, towards breaking the yoke of slavery'.
It took about two generations for Quakers to cleanse their membership from benefiting from the institution of slavery, as owners and/or traders. Nevertheless this was achieved well before the campaigns for its complete abolition in society at large began. In this their position as a religious abolitionist denomination was probably unique. It gave them the moral authority to advocate the abolition of slavery throughout society. They moved on to raise the moral issue for everyone, both in Britain and in North America. And they were active campaigners for complete abolition on both sides of the Atlantic.