Quakers Address the Problem of Slavery



“How is it,” the English essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) asked at the start of the Revolution, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Many British Tories taunted colonists with the jarring contradiction between their complaints about political oppression and the reality of chattel slavery. The American Revolution underscored the contradiction between a people torn between allegiance to high moral ideals and a base reality of racial domination.

While it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of slavery during the revolutionary period, there can be no doubt that slavery had begun to arouse concern in new ways. This concern was evident in the Continental Congress’s agreement in 1774 to prohibit the importation of slaves; in the founding of the first antislavery society in Philadelphia in 1775; in Vermont’s decision to explicitly exclude slavery in its Constitution of 1777; and Pennsylvania’s enactment of the western hemisphere’s first gradual emancipation act in 1780.

Slavery posed special problems for Quakers, who strove to lead sinless lives. In 1774, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting forbade Quakers from buying or selling slaves and required masters to free slaves at the earliest opportunity. Two years later, the meeting directed Friends to disown any Quakers who resisted pleas to manumit their slaves. For Quakers, as for many later abolitionists, slavery could never be reconciled with the Golden Rule or with the other bedrock Judeo-Christian precept that God “is no respecter of Persons”–or in other words, that worldly titles, status, and privilege do not matter in the ultimate scheme of things.


…In this time of Singular Difficulty and tryal…we are unanimous in sentiment that…friends [Quakers] should be particularly vigilant in and watchful Christian care over themselves & each other….

And as we have for some years past been frequently concerned to exhort & advise Friends to withdraw from being active in Civil Government…we find it necessary to give our sense & judgment, that if any making Profession with us, do accept or continue in public offices of any kind, either of Profit or Trust, under the present Connections, & unsettled state of public affairs, such are acting therein contrary to the profession, & principles we have ever maintained since we were a religious society…. We are United in judgment that such who make religious profession with us and do either openly or by connivance pay any fine, penalty or tax in lieu of their personal services for carrying on the war under the prevailing commotions, or who do consent to, and allow their children, apprentices, or servants to act therein, do thereby violate our Christian testimony and by so doing, manifest that they are not in religious fellowship with us….

We affectionately desire, that Friends may be careful to avoid engaging in any trade or business tending to promote war, and particularly from sharing or partaking of the spoils of war, by buying, or vending [selling] prize goods of any kind….

On the subject of obtaining liberty to the Bondmen among us…a Committee of 32 friends was appointed…. It is earnestly recommended…to persevere in a further close Labour for the Convincement of those professing with us, who yet continue in the Iniquitous Practice of depriving any of their just right to Liberty, and for the exaltation of our Testimony against it, agreeable to the sense of judgment of the said committee….

We the committee appointed to take under our Consideration the deeply affecting case of our oppressed fellow men of the African race and others as also the state of those who hold them in Bondage, have several times met and heard the concurring sentiments of diverse other friends and examined the reports form the Quarterly meetings, by which it appears that much labor & care hath been extended since the last year for the Convincement of such of our Members who had, or yet have them in possession, many of whom have of late from under hand & seal properly discharged such as were in their position from a State of slavery.

Yet sorrowful it is, that many there are in Membership with us, who, notwithstanding the Labour bestow’d still continue to hold these People as Slaves under the Consideration whereof we are deeply affected, and United in Judgement, that we are loudly called upon to a faithful Obedience to the Injunction of our blessed Lord “to do all Men as we would they should do unto us” and to bear a clear testimony to these truths that “God is no respecter of Persons” and that “Christ died for all Men without distinction,” which we earnestly and affectionately entreat may be duly consider’d int he awful and alarming Dispensation, and excite to impartial justice and judgment to black and white, rich and poor.

Under the calming influence of pure love, we do with great unanimity give it as our sense & judgment that quarterly & Monthly Meetings should still speedily unite in further close labor with all such as are slaveholders and have any right of membership with us, and where any members continue to reject the advice of their brethren, and refuse to execute proper instruments of writing for releasing from a state of slavery such as are in their power, or on whom they have any claim, whether arrived to full age or in their minority, and no hopes of the continuance of friends labor being profitable to them that Monthly meetings, after having discharg’d a Christian duty to such should testify their disunion with them….


Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute