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.
Further condemnation of the slave trade was issued by Yearly Meeting in 1758 culminating in the decision in 1761 to remove Friends in Britain and America from membership of the Religious Society of Friends if they were found to be participating in the slave trade. Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting’s copy of ‘The Christian and Brotherly Advices given forth from time to time by the Yearly Meeting in London’ records this as follows:
This meeting taking into Consideration the former advice of this meeting particularly in 1727 and 1758 against dealing in Negroes and having reason to apprehend that divers under our name are concerned in this Unchristian Traffick do recommend it earnestly to the Care of friends every where to discourage as much as in them Lies a Practice So repugnant to our Christian Profession and to deal with all Such as shall persevere in a Conduct So Reproachful to our Society & disown them if they desist not therefrom.
Local Quakers would have had the opportunity to encounter the ideas of the American abolitionists and their writings. Financial records of the local meetings show that there were regular purchases of books which were then shared between the meetings. Mary Capper, who became a member of the Society of Friends in 1784, and was later acknowledged as a minister of the Society of Friends in Birmingham, wrote in her journal on 19 January 1795 describing her activities that day,
…in the evening the subject of our reading was very affecting; relative to some of the grievous iniquities of the Slave trade. O! how cruel is the human heart, when not changed by the power of God! I feel sad under the consideration.
(‘A Memoir of Mary Capper, late of Birmingham, England: a minister of the Society of Friends’ by Mary Capper, ed. Katharine Backhouse 1847, Ref 462634 L78.1)
One example of the writing which local Quakers may have been reading is the work of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784). Benezet was a Pennsylvania-based Quaker abolitionist, teacher and writer, who published a number of anti-slavery tracts and pamphlets which were widely distributed in Britain and influential in raising the profile of the anti-slavery campaign. Indeed, fellow abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson based his anti-slavery writing on some of Benezet’s work and Benezet distributed the work of Granville Sharp in America and vice-versa. Amongst the archives of Mary Capper (MS 695), there is a 1784 edition of Anthony Benezet‘s (1713-1784) widely distributed 1766 pamphlet ‘A caution to Great Britain and her colonies in a short representation of the calamitous state of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominions’. This starts by asking how it is that,
…many of those who distinguish themselves as the Advocates of Liberty, remain insensible to the treatment of thousands and tens of thousands of our fellow men, who, from motives of avarice, and the inexorable decree of tyrant custom, are at this very time kept in the most deplorable state of Slavery, in many parts of the British Dominions?
It goes on,
‘The intent of publishing the following sheets, is more fully to make known the aggravated iniquity attending the practice of the Slave-Trade whereby many thousands of our fellow creatures, as free as ourselves by nature, and equally with us the subjects of Christ’s redeeming Grace, are yearly brought into inextricable and barbarous bondage; and many, very many, to miserable and untimely ends.’
Benezet’s writings marked a change in tactic amongst abolitionist writers as he had first-hand knowledge of how the slaves lived and were treated, and his work included eye-witness accounts from those involved in the slave trade.
Another abolitionist who would have influenced local Quakers is the work of John Woolman, the influential American Quaker abolitionist and preacher, who published essays on keeping slaves, and refused to use products made by slaves. He visited Britain in 1772 and his journal indicates that after having attend Yearly Meeting in London, he travelled on foot northwards to York. On 17 July 1772, he wrote that he was in Birmingham and had also been to meetings at Coventry and Warwick. That same year, following his attendance at the Yearly Meeting, the Religious Society of Friends called for the abolition of the slave trade for the first time in its annual epistle (letter) sent to Friends in Britain and overseas. However, in his journal, Woolman remarked,
I have felt great distress of mind since I came on this island, on account of the members of our Society being mixed with the world in various sorts of traffic, carried on in impure channels. Great is the trade to Africa for slaves; and for the loading of these ships a great number of people are employed in their factories, among whom are many of our Society.
One such example in Birmingham, was the Quaker firm Farmer and Galton which made and supplied guns to European slave traders, and was also involved more directly in slave trading. The Galton family came under considerable criticism from local Quakers, with Samuel Galton Junior eventually being disowned for involvement in the gun trade. Example documents on the slave and gun trade from the Galton papers (MS 3101) can be found here.
The effect of these and other publications produced by Quaker abolitionists meant that there was sufficient awareness and support from Friends for the Yearly Meeting to present a petition to parliament in 1783 calling for the end to the slave trade. Signed by 273 Friends, this was the first petition to parliament and it was followed shortly afterwards by the establishment of what was to be the first anti-slavery organisation in Britain, the Society of Friends’ Meeting for Sufferings Committee on the Slave Trade. The petition had little impact because as non-conformists, Quakers had little influence in society at this time, but over the next few years, the committee developed links with non-Quaker abolitionists, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, which gave added momentum to the campaign. This led in 1887 to the formation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, consisting of 9 Quakers, Clarkson, Sharp and Phillip Sansom, with William Wilberforce representing the Society in parliament. The first page of the minutes can be seen here. The Society achieved its aim when the Slave Trade Act abolished the slave trade in the the British Empire in 1807, but slavery wasn’t abolished until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
You can see a selection of material from our collections relating to the anti-slavery movement here. Further material in our collections relating to abolition can be found in MS 3173 Records of the Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, 1825-1919, MS 3058 Birmingham Anti-Slavery Society, 1826-1863, and MS 3338 Birmingham & Midland Freedmen’s Aid Association, 1826-1865. In all of these, many local Quakers were prominent.
Information about the anti-slavery campaign can be found on-line here:
Project Archivist (Warwickshire and Birmingham Quakers)