The Quaker belief that everyone is equal in the eyes of God has meant that the Religious Society of Friends has a long history in campaigning for equality and justice which continues to this day. One of the earliest campaigns the Friends were involved in was the campaign to abolish the slave trade, and they were instrumental in initiating the campaign both in North America and in Britain.
Quaker concern for the welfare of slaves has its origins in the 17th century in the early days of the establishment of the Quaker movement. In Birmingham Preparative Meeting’s 1764 copy of ‘A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters and Testimonies’ written by George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, there is an epistle he wrote in 1657, ‘To Friends beyond the sea, that have Black and Indian slaves’ in which he highlighted the importance of equality in the Quaker faith. Later, while preaching in Barbados, Fox witnessed the realities of slavery, leading him to call for the better treatment of slaves. This was reproduced in his text of 1676 under the title, ‘Gospel Family-Order, Being a Short Discourse Concerning the Ordering of Families, both of Whites, Blacks and Indians’, which can be seen here. It should be noted that he did not go so far as to question the practice of actually owning slaves.
Opposition to the slave trade in the late 17th and early 18th centuries began amongst a small number of Friends in America but as many of these retained strong links with London Yearly Meeting, the head of the Quaker church both in America and Britain, they were able to pressurize and raise awareness about the slave trade amongst British Quakers. In 1713 and 1715, Friends in Pennsylvania wrote to the Yearly Meeting requesting that it take a stand opposing the importing of slaves and that it make its position known in all of the plantations. Yearly Meeting took no action at the time, but in 1727, when the slave trade was still a practice which was accepted unquestioningly by the majority of the British population, it did decide that the importing of slaves should not be allowed. Quakers in Birmingham and Warwickshire would have been aware of this as extracts of the most important of the Yearly Meeting minutes were sent out to be read at the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings. In Warwickshire Monthly Meeting’s copy of extracts of the Yearly meeting minutes for 1727, we find the following declaration,
About importing of Negroes
The answer given by th[e] Correspondents here to Friends of pensilvenia & the Jerseys th[e] 17th [of the] 6 [mo]nth 1713 by th[e] Yearly Meeting & their Answer to th[e] Friends of Pensilvenia th[e] 3[r]d [of the] 8 mo[nth] 1715 both containing the Sence of this Meeting th[at] the Importing of Negroes from their native Country and Relations is not a Commendable nor Allowed Practice w[hi]ch Answers and Sense is approved & th[e] Practice censured by the Meeting & this Minute is ordered to be Sent by Benja[min] Bealing to Friends In the Plantations abroad, as well as to th[e] Several Quarterly Meetings at Home.