Anti-Slavery: Raising the Moral Issue
Slavery, bondage and serfdom had been the norm for ordinary people for most of history worldwide up to and during the 18th century. Quakers from the outset believed that each person had an element of the Divine (“that of God”) within him or her. Given this belief, and their consequent testimony to equality, slavery inevitably came to be unacceptable to Quakers. Similarly the violence and injustice entailed in enslavement were quite contrary to the Quaker peace testimony.
When George Fox visited Barbados with William Edmundson in 1671 he was confronted with the realities of slave labour face to face, probably for the first time. His initial reaction was to appeal for masters to treat their slaves better. It was the Irish Friend, William Edmundson, on that same visit, who denounced the authorities’ attitude to African slaves. By 1675 he was condemning slavery outright. The Germantown Quakers in Philadelphia first recorded their protest that slavery itself was immoral in 1688, almost a full century before the first national campaign to make the trade illegal began in Britain.
North American Friends were very active throughout the 18th and much of the 19th centuries with outstanding committed individuals and organisation. John Woolman and Anthony Benezet were two of the initial Quaker writers, and were widely influential. Woolman and Benjamin Lay were pioneer campaigners amongst the Quaker communities, together with William Savery who petitioned Congress in 1783.
In 1727 London Yearly Meeting censured the slave trade and forbade Friends to practise it. Thus Quakers raised a moral voice, alongside prominent African-American abolitionists, most of whom were ex-slaves able to speak and write powerfully from experience.
At a national level, British Quakers founded a committee in 1783 and lobbied MPs with “The Case of our Fellow-creatures the Oppressed Africans”. 12,000 copies were printed and circulated widely to decision-shapers of the day. It was a very powerful plea on moral grounds to end an evil trade and its practices; however it made no impact on Parliament as Quakers were still too nonconforming to be influential there. Finally a Quaker alliance with a few well-connected Anglican Evangelicals,notably William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, forced Parliament to begin to listen in 1787.
This final campaign against the transatlantic slave trade in Britain (1787-1807) was a strategic compromise for Quakers, and for many others. But the campaign made considerable use of moral methods, such as boycotting goods produced by slave labour. At least 300,000 'Saccharists', led largely by women, refused to purchase slave-produced sugar. British Quaker women took a leading role in this. In the USA this consumer awareness took the broader form of “Free Produce” committees, which covered other products besides sugar.
The move to address slavery itself, particularly during the 1820s, was seriously hampered by the continuing “gradualism” of the male leadership. In Britain it was two Quaker women, Elizabeth Heyrick and Anne Knight who were leaders in demanding immediate Abolition and compensation for the slaves, as well as for the slave-owners. Most of the women’s anti-slavery societies took this position. In Pennsylvania, in similar fashion, Quaker Lucretia Mott organised the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Joseph Sturge visited the West Indies in 1836/7 and realised that the recently freed slaves were having a hard time of it. He wrote a powerful report, raising many moral issues, and went on to found the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1939, to campaign on this and other matters. The society continues to this day as Anti-Slavery International, camapgining against modern forms of slavery.
A new moral method of civil disobedience evolved in the US in the 1860s taking the form of “The Underground Railroad” which entailed breaking the Fugitive Slave Act by helping slaves to escape from southern to northern states. Two Quakers, Levi Coffin and Thomas Garrett were deeply involved. The former was known as its “President” and helped about 2,000 ex-slaves.
It was Thomas Clarkson whose dedication truly led the Anti-Slavery Movement to its successes in Britain from 1787 till his death. As Secretary, he rode 35,000 miles on horseback to collect the evidence which Wilberforce presented to Parliament. The poet Coleridge called him “The Moral Steam Engine”. Once asked by the Russian Emperor if he was a Quaker himself he replied: “I am not so in name, but I hope in spirit. I am nine-tenths of their way in spirit”.