In Roberts and Robert's A History of England, the authors do not mention Quaker involvement in the British anti-slavery movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Instead, Wilberforce, Clarkson, and the Evangelicals alone are credited with arousing public opinion and patiently building support in Parliament for first banning the slave trade in 1807, and then finally banning slave ownership outright in 1833 (Roberts and Roberts, pgs. 501, 503, 538). In this paper I'll argue that the inspiration and activism of Colonial American and English Quakers together were significant reasons for why English abolitionism started when it did, and that it was the convergence of Quaker and Evangelical activism working together that were the consequential factors in the abolition of English slavery.
Roberts and Roberts don't give much attention either to the details of England's eighteenth and nineteenth century Atlantic triangle trade; but English profits in slaves, sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton, manufactured English trade goods, and guns were very good, beginning with the exponential profits from shipping African slaves to the Americas. This was a trade dominated by Britain after the naval successes of the Seven Years War.
Mercantilists do not give up profitable monopolies easily; and it would be an uphill struggle to engage ordinary Britons into understanding the immorality of slavery and their own culpability. It was a culpability easier to avoid in England than in the English Colonies, because there were no sugar or tobacco or cotton plantations in England and therefore no large visible populations of slaves.
Slavery was visible in the Americas. It was profitable on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, though profitability went up and down in the mainland colonies of North America. Black slaves had been important in the early tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake and the Tidewater; but tobacco exhausted the land, and by the second half of the eighteenth century, thoughtful people understood that black chattel slavery, in the mid-Atlantic colonies anyway, had become an expensive business model, and difficult to justify for the small farms and artisans there. There were social dynamics at work as well in those mid-Atlantic colonies that were different than in the plantation economies further south: smaller operations, fewer total numbers of slaves, and blacks and whites working and living closer together.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) of Pennsylvania and New Jersey fit this model. The wealthier farmers among them owned a few slaves, and some Quaker merchants invested in slavery. However, as a group for whom simple charitable Christian humanitarianism and ethical self-examination were ingrained cultural traits, moral concerns about the legitimacy of slavery were raised early. In 1688, the Germantown, New Jersey Quaker meeting (that is, "church") sent a letter to New Jersey Yearly Meeting, (analogous to an annual convention or congress) the letter warning Friends against the evils of slavery. By the eighteenth century many colonial Quakers were speaking out against Quakers profiting from slavery (David, pg. 373).1 One of the most influential Quaker anti-slavery activists was John Woolman, an eighteenth century New Jersey Friend, who early on felt both a conviction of slavery as evil, and a strong motivation to travel among Friends and speak against it in meetings for worship. To Quakers, Woolman was known as a gentle humble Godly man, and when he spoke against slavery, hearts and minds were changed. It began to be uncomfortable in colonial Quaker communities for white Friends to be served by black Friends who were not in fact 'savages' but Christians who spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, worked the same work as their masters, and arguably attended to the same Inner Light (Brown, pg. 60).2 One by one, family by family, meeting (church) by meeting, eighteenth century American Quakers stopped participating in slavery.
Quaker populations were substantial in the colonies. According to historian David Huw, by 1800 there were about 40,000 Quakers in the English colonies in America, mostly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 1760, there were about 50,000 Quakers in England, a substantial number, but a much smaller percentage out of an English population of 6.5 million people (Roberts and Roberts, pg. 468; Brown, pg. 370). Transatlantic correspondence and visitation between these sister communities was common, and American Quakers traveling to England with a concern for the abolition of slavery helped bring the issue to the fore with English Quakers (David, pg. 370).
The New Jersey Friend John Woolman continued to be one of the most consistent Quaker voices raised against slavery. In 1754, with help from the schoolmaster Anthony Benezet and help from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends on the costs, Woolman published an essay entitled: "Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the Professors of Christianity of every Denomination". This essay was circulated among American Friends and English Friends, and according to an article by Ira Brown,
"It prepared the way for later pamphlets by Anthony Benezet and Dr. Benjamin Rush in the Colonies and by John Wesley, Granville Sharp, and Thomas Clarkson in England. It influenced official antislavery pronouncements by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting which soon followed (Brown, p. 69)."
In fact, four years later in 1758, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the authoritative annual congress of Quakers in America, found unanimous agreement (or 'clarity', as Quakers say it), to stop slavery among themselves (David, p. 374).
It should be noted here that by long tradition there was no vote at that Philadelphia meeting; nor was that decision imposed by leadership. When Quakers bring an agenda item, often called a "concern" to a meeting for business, (more properly, a meeting for worship with a concern for business), first they hear the concern, and discuss it, and then they sit in silence. According to Quakers they are listening in the silence for God's guidance, and they will not move forward or take action as a group until they are unanimously clear that they have received that guidance. This practice leads to powerful social cohesion, and it did so around the issue of the abolition of slavery in America and eventually among English Quakers also.
According to David, English Quakers' awareness of and opposition to slavery was very much affected by all this American activity: Woolman's pamphleteering and ministry, the many visits to Britain from American abolitionist Friends, and the influence of the unanimous 1758 statement (called a "minute") against slavery by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. David says, "(American) transatlantic influence put anti-slavery issues on, first, the Society's own agenda, and then the wider British social and political agenda ( David, pg. 375)". For instance, in minutes from the Friends' London Yearly Meetings of 1758 and 1761, English Quakers found clarity with themselves (and their American co-religionists) not to own or traffic in slaves. In 1772, when John Woolman came to England and was prominently in attendance, the London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends addressed the following minute to themselves – and for the first time on this issue more directly addressed mainstream English society:
"It appears that the practice of holding negroes in oppressive and unnatural bondage hath been so successfully discouraged by Friends in some of the colonies as to be considerably lessened. We cannot but approve of these salutary endeavors, and earnestly intreat they may be continued, that, through the favour of Divine Providence, a traffic so unmerciful and unjust in its nature to a part of our own species made equally with ourselves for immortality may come to be considered by all in its proper light, and be utterly abolished, as a reproach to the Christian profession (from Minutes, London Yearly Meeting, of the Society of Friends, 1772)".3
They said, "utterly abolished", and as in Philadelphia in 1758, (and all Quaker business meetings), agenda items were either unanimously approved – or tabled. Unanimous approval of this London minute calling for the abolition of English slavery meant that when it was carried back by Yearly Meeting representatives to their home shires and towns across England, this minute would have considerable weight with fifty thousand-plus English Quakers.
The last third of the eighteenth century brought new interacting technologies and markets that made the British slave trade suddenly much more profitable – and opposition much more urgent. Arkwright's water frame and the rapidly mechanizing British cotton industry were building and feeding a burgeoning English demand for cloth. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the hostilities of the American Revolution, allowing the cotton trade with America to resume. In 1794, Whitney's cotton gin, and the westward expansion of the new U.S. were making short-staple cotton both attractive and and newly available in huge cheap quantities. The result of all this was that thousands of new American acres were planted to cotton for the British market; black slave labor in America shot up in value; British and American slave traders hurried to take advantage; and abolitionists re-doubled their efforts.
Quakers had never been alone in their opposition to slavery – they had just reached clarity and unanimity earlier. By the late eighteenth century, Lord Ashley, Adam Smith, and John Wesley were among the prominent Englishmen on record in opposition to slavery; and the zeal and piety – and numbers – of Evangelicals within the Church of England who were sympathetic to abolition was becoming powerful. The Quakers were finding and cultivating allies in the cause of abolition, of course a necessary step, because as dissenters, Quakers could not serve in Parliament and could neither introduce nor vote on abolition bills.
One such young Anglican ally was Thomas Clarkson, who in 1785 won a prize at Cambridge for an essay in Latin on opposition to slavery. Important to Clarkson's research for the essay was the John Woolman associate and Pennsylvania Quaker Anthony Benezet's influential published account of the slave trade in West Africa. Clarkson wrote in his journal: "A thought then came into my mind that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end (Merrill, pg. 386)."4 On May 22, 1787, Clarkson was one of twelve anti-slavery activists who met and founded the "Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade". Thomas Clarkson was a member, the solicitor Granville Sharp its first chairman, and while three of the attenders and original founders were Anglican, the other nine founding members were English Quakers.5 The Evangelical abolitionist MP William Wilberforce, though not an original member, quickly became one of the committee's most important friends in Parliament.
According to Merrill, in 1788, William Pitt the Younger, acting on behalf of Wilberforce,
"moved in the house of commons, without stating his opinion of the subject, that early in the next session parliament take up the 'circumstances of the slave trade, complained of in the said petitions, and what may be fit to be done thereupon.' This was the opening of a parliamentary siege that was to be continued for twenty years before the trade could be legislatively battered to pieces (Merrill, pg. 388)".
In the eighteenth century, making up less than one percent of England's population, and barred by law from standing for election, it was quite unlikely that English Quakers would catalyze opposition to slavery strong enough to end the institution – yet they did, and it should be recognized. Slavery was hugely profitable, and its ugliness was (conveniently for the traffickers) out of sight for most Englishmen most of the time. It is testimony to the tendering of the reform-minded Evangelical Christian conscience by people like Whitfield and Wesley, that prepared the seedbed for that radical Quaker witness of charity and brotherhood to black African slaves to be heard and valued, to take hold and grow. It was a tender time, a time when English Christianity took itself very seriously; like young Thomas Clarkson for example, and the moral outrage in his conclusion to his winning Cambridge essay where he says: "the slave trade ought to be continued only 'if murder is strictly honorable, and Christianity is a lie' (Merrill, pg. 385). With their lives' work, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and the improbable out-numbered Quakers denied that lie and affirmed their truth.
1 Huw T. David, "Transnational Advocacy in the Eighteenth Century: Transatlantic Activism and the Anti-Slavery Movement." Global Networks 7, 3 (2007) 367-382, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-0374.2007.00174.x/abstract
2 Ira Brown, "Pennsylvania's Antislavery Pioneers, 1688-1776." Pennsylvania History, 55, 2 (1988) 59-77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27773235
3 Thanks to London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, who digitized their archives on
4 Louis Taylor Merrill, "The English Campaign for Abolition of the Slave Trade." The Journal of Negro History, 30, 4 (1945) 382-399, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2715027