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Quakers Played Major Role in Ending Slavery in United States

Sect is an early example of human rights activism by religious groups

By Ralph Dannheisser | Special Correspondent | 12 November 2008
Painted portrait (AP Images)

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, espoused human liberty but owned slaves.

Washington — A focus on advancing human rights, a hallmark of many contemporary religious groups, is nothing new for the Quakers.

That sect, formally called the Religious Society of Friends, has championed equal rights for women and for religious and racial minorities virtually since its founding in 1640s England.

Quakers were among the earliest and most insistent voices opposing slavery and the slave trade in both England and the United States, and they led the 19th century abolitionist movement that preceded the U.S. Civil War.

Despite the sect’s long history of commitment to human rights, some early Quakers were slave owners. William Penn, who founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682 as a haven for Quakers and other minority religious groups, owned slaves.

Penn believed, author Betty Wood has said, that “slavery was perfectly acceptable, provided that slave owners attended to the spiritual and material needs of those they enslaved.”

Jim Powell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, described the dichotomy: “William Penn was the first great hero of American liberty. … [In an era] when Protestants persecuted Catholics, Catholics persecuted Protestants, and both persecuted Quakers and Jews, Penn established an American sanctuary which protected freedom of conscience.

“Almost everywhere else, colonists stole land from the Indians, but Penn … negotiated peaceful purchases. He insisted that women deserved equal rights with men. He gave Pennsylvania a written constitution which limited the power of government, provided a humane penal code and guaranteed many fundamental liberties.”

Yet, Powell points out, Penn “had a curious blind spot about slavery. …. Quakers were far ahead of most other Americans, but it’s surprising that people with their humanitarian views could have contemplated owning slaves at all.”


In her book The Abolitionist Movement, Claudine Ferrell observes the history of the anti-slavery movement during the Colonial period “is, with few exceptions, the history of Quaker arguments, publications, pronouncements and activists,” even though their progress was “slow, inconsistent and piecemeal.”

She writes that “the inner battles between ‘right’ and ‘greed’ became the focus of a handful of [Quaker] individuals from the late 1600s to the late 1700s,” including George Keith and his followers. In 1673, they published An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Selling of Negroes, perhaps the first anti-slavery protest published and circulated in the American Colonies.

By 1688, a group of Quakers and German Mennonites meeting in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued a petition explaining “why we are against the traffick of men-body.”

“To bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against,” the document said. “In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed wh[o] are of a black colour. … Ah! Doe consider well this thing, you whoe doe it, if you would be done at this manner? And if it is done according to Christianity?”

Efforts to end slave-owning, at least by Quakers themselves, continued with the impassioned words of itinerant preacher John Woolman in the mid-1700s and the writings of educator and abolitionist Anthony Benezet, including his 1760 essay “Observations on the inslaving, importing and purchasing of Negroes.”

By 1787, the year the U.S. Constitution was adopted, virtually no Quakers owned slaves; in 1790 the Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress to abolish slavery.


As the abolition movement gained momentum in the 1800s, Quakers matched their human rights rhetoric with strong action, often at great risk.

Ohio schoolteacher Richard Dillingham was arrested in Tennessee during an 1848 attempt to help three slaves escape. He died of cholera while serving a three-year sentence in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee.

Quakers played a major role in organizing and running the so-called “Underground Railroad” — a system of secret routes and safe-houses that helped runaway slaves reach freedom in the northern states and in Canada.

Educator Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, hid slaves in their Indiana home over a 21-year period. Coffin, later a delegate to the 1867 International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris, claimed to have helped 3,000 slaves escape.

Another major figure in the movement, Thomas Garrett, openly defied both the system and slave hunters as he operated an Underground Railroad stop in Wilmington, Delaware. Found guilty of helping a family of slaves escape in 1848, he was fined $4,500. Garrett worked closely with famed African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who frequently brought runaway slaves through his Wilmington “station.”


Several female Quakers worked at the intersection of women’s rights and abolitionism.

Minister and social reformer Lucretia Mott, a champion of women’s rights, labored in the pre-Civil War period to wipe out slavery. Susan B. Anthony, born a Quaker, worked to ban slavery even as she pursued a woman’s right to vote.

Anthony articulated the link between the two in the broader context of human rights when she asked at the1859 Ninth National Women’s Rights Convention, “Where, under our Declaration of Independence, does the Saxon man get his power to deprive all women and Negroes of their inalienable rights?”

Slavery, curtailed by President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, was outlawed by the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 15th Amendment in 1870 guaranteed the right of black men to vote, but neither Mott nor Anthony lived to see women gain the franchise through the 19th Amendment in 1920.

House (AP Images)

The home of abolitionist Louisa May Alcott harbored runaway slaves.

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