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Early colonial Quakers protest against slavery

The first public protest by Quakers against slavery took place in 1688 in Germantown, Pennsylvania when a group of German Quakers of Pietist origins drew up a formal remonstrance against the notion that one person can own another, the so-called 'Germantown Protest'. It said in part: 'Now, tho' they are black, we cannot conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones...And those who steal or rob men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike?'

In 1696 Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Quakers made the first official, corporate pronouncement against the slave trade when it wrote a minute urging Quaker merchants and traders to 'write abroad to their correspondents that they send no more Negroes to be disposed of' [sold].  Between 1674 and around 1710, many Maryland Quakers freed their slaves, either by wills or deeds of manumission. But many others continued to hold and trade in slaves and the institution of slavery became a divided issue amongst Friends.


Influence of colonial Quakers on Friends in Britain

The origins of the Quaker anti-slavery movement in Britain lie in the transatlantic connection with North America, and especially Philadelphia. Quakers from Britain first visited America in the 1650s, and from the 1680s following the founding of Pennsylvania by William Penn many emigrated there.  In the late 17th and early 18th century many Quakers in America were either British born or first generation American, and connections with Quakers in Britain were very close. London Yearly Meeting (today known as Britain Yearly Meeting) was the parent organisation and so colonial Quakers turned to it for advice and instruction.

The number of African slaves imported to America increased in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and for several years Quakers in America opposed to slavery put pressure on London Yearly Meeting to take decisive action, and regularly sent minutes and epistles across the Atlantic.  Debate and discernment ensued - some Friends were involved in the slave trade and many owned slaves, and needed persuading.

Finally in 1727 London Yearly Meeting officially expressed its disapproval of the slave trade outright.

'It is the sense of this meeting, that the importing of negroes from their native country and relations by friends, is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.'

London Yearly Meeting minutes, 25th 3 month 1727 [YM/M6/ 457-458] and included in Quaker faith & practice 23.24 (2005)

In 1758 London Yearly Meeting issued the first of a series of denunciations of the slave trade stating, that it was 'in direct Violation of the Gospel Rule, which teacheth every one to do as they would be done by, and to do Good unto all ... We therefore can do no less than, … impress it upon Friends every where, that they endeavour to keep their Hands clear of this unrighteous Gain of Oppression.'

18th Century text reads, 'We also feverently warn all in Profession with us, that they be careful to avoid being in any way concerned, in reaping the unrighteous Profits arising from that iniquitous Practice of dealing in Negroes and other Slaves...'

Epistle of London Yearly Meeting, 1758 [YM/M11 /374]

At last in 1761 London Yearly Meeting banned the owning of slaves, and any Quaker who didn't comply was disowned.

'that the slave trade is a practice repugnant to our Christian profession and to deal with such as shall persevere in a conduct so reproachful to Christianity, and to disown them, if they desist not therefrom'
London Yearly Meeting minutes, 5th 5 month 1761 [YM/M12 /205]

The Society had made slave-owning and slave-dealing a disownable offence amongst Quakers in Britain and the American colonies. It had been a slow process, but British and American Friends had worked together for a common aim.

Free now from all involvement in the slave trade itself London Yearly Meeting made the Society's first corporate public statement in 1772, calling for the practice of holding of slaves to be 'utterly abolished'.  

I8th Century text reads '...oppressive and unnatural Bondage, hath been so successfully discouraged by Friends in some of the Colonies, as to be considered lessened.'

Epistle of London Yearly, 1772 [YM/M14 /384] and included in Quaker faith & practice 23.25 (2005)

Present at the Yearly Meeting was John Woolman (1720 - 1772) from New Jersey, one of the best-known advocates of the anti-slavery cause; a Quaker whose beliefs and writings still resonate with Friends today. Since his early 20s Woolman had lived under concern against the wickedness of slavery, and had lived his life testifying to it.  Over a number of years he had gradually convinced Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the harm caused by slavery, which in turn put pressure on London Yearly Meeting.  

Another who influenced British Friends was Anthony Benezet (1713 - 1784). In 1759 he wrote Observations on the inslaving, importing and purchasing the Negroes which was the first publication to go beyond appeals to natural law or religion by using narratives of slave traders and other eyewitnesses. A few years later he wrote two important works that were influential in raising the interest of the British public against slavery. The first in 1766 was A Caution and warning to Great Britain and her colonies on the calamitous state of the enslaved negroes which was widely distributed in Britain. This was followed in 1771 by Some historical account of Guinea: its situation, produce and the general disposition of its inhabitants; a book on which Thomas Clarkson drew heavily to write his essay on slavery in 1785. 

18th century text reads, 'Observations on the inslaving, importing and purchasing of Negroes; With some Advice thereon, extracted from the Epistle of the Yearly Meeting of the People called Quakers...'

Title page of Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and
Purchasing of Negroes...
1760 [Tract Box 6 /1]

Having changed attitudes within the Society and practised what they advocated, Friends could now turn all their efforts to the much bigger task of changing society at large. Recognising that Britain remained the key to closing down the slave trade and that it could only be done through legislation, American Quakers urged their British counterparts to petition Parliament.


Quakers initiate the abolition movement in Britain