Slavery is not simply a historical phenomenon.. It persists to this day in modern forms, such as trafficking. Quakers have opposed it from very early on and still do.
In the first few years after the Quaker movement began in 1652, slavery would have been outside the experience of most Quakers, as it was not much practiced in Britain. But in British colonies in the Caribbean and North America it was widespread. Britain was also heavily involved in the slave trade, as many of its merchants brought captives from African countries to the New World to sell to plantation owners and wealthy householders. So as early Quakers and others of like mind traveled across the Atlantic, they saw slavery at first hand, and some became slave-owners themselves. But they soon saw that ownership of one human being by another contradicted their belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings (the testimony to equality).
Quakers were not alone in this, and the key strength of the historical abolitionist movement, in Britain and North America, was the determination of the slaves themselves. Quakers nevertheless made a vital and distinctive input, in five main ways.
They raised slavery as a moral issue as early as the 1670s and 80s. When George Fox and Irish Friend William Edmundson visited Barbados in 1671 they were confronted with the realities of slave labor face to face. Fox immediately appealed for better treatment. By 1675 Edmondson was condemning slavery outright. The Germantown Quakers in Philadelphia stated that slavery itself was immoral in 1688. Many others raised the moral issue over the years that followed.
The 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery was the first protest against African-American slavery made by a religious body in the English colonies. It was drafted by Francis Daniel Pastorius and signed by him and three other Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia) on behalf of the Germantown Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. It was forwarded to the monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings without any action being taken on it. According to John Greenleaf Whittier, the original document was discovered in 1844 by the Philadelphia antiquarian Nathan Kite and published in The Friend (Vol. XVII, No. 16).
The four men presented their petition at the local Monthly Meeting at Dublin (Abington), but it is not clear what they expected to happen. Although they were accepted in the Quaker community, they were outsiders who could not speak or write fluently in English, and they also had a fresh view of slavery that was unique to Germantown. They must have understood from the beginning that it would be difficult to force the whole colony to abolish slavery, as it was generally believed that the colony’s prosperity depended on slavery. It is not clear whether the four men expected the local Meeting to affirm their view, because they knew that nearby Meetings might not in be in agreement, and consequences would be far-reaching. The Meeting decided that although the issue was fundamental and just, it was too difficult and consequential for them to judge, and would need to be considered further. In the usual manner the Meeting sent the petition on to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, where it was again considered and sent on to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (held in Burlington, NJ). Realizing that the abolition of slavery would have a wide and overreaching impact on the entire colony, none of the Meetings wanted to pass judgment on such a “weighty matter.” PYM minuted that they would send the petition to London Yearly Meeting, without mentioning whether they actually did so, and on this point no direct evidence has been discovered. The minutes of London Yearly Meeting do not mention the petition directly, apparently skirting the issue.
The practice of slavery continued and was tolerated in Quaker society in the years immediately following the 1688 petition. Some of the authors continued to protest against slavery, but for a decade their efforts were rejected. Germantown continued to prosper, growing in population and economic strength, becoming widely known for the quality of its products such as paper and woven cloth. Eventually several of the original Krefelders rejoined the Mennonites and moved away from Germantown at least in part because of their insistence not to side with slave-owners. Several other petitions and protests were written by Quakers against slavery in the next several decades, but were based on racist or practical arguments of inferiority and intolerance. Some of the protests became entangled with politics and theology and as a result were dismissed by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, confusing the issue. Almost three decades passed before another Quaker petition against slavery was written with sophistication comparable to the Germantown 1688 petition. But the Germantowners’ condemnation of slavery continued, and their moral leadership on the issue influenced Quaker abolitionists and Philadelphia society.
Gradually over the next century, due to the efforts of many dedicated Quakers such as Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet, Quakers became convinced of the essential wrongness of the institution of slavery. Many of the Quaker abolitionists published their articles anonymously in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper. In 1776 a proclamation was written by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banning the owning of slaves. By that time, many Quaker monthly meetings in the Delaware Valley were attempting to help freed slaves by providing funds for them to start businesses and encouraging them to attend Quaker meetings and educate their children.
They worked for nearly a century to eradicate it from the Quaker community. In 1727, Britain Yearly Meeting forbade owning, and dealing in, slaves. In North America a long process of persuasion culminated in 1774, when Quakers, involved with slavery, were told to give it up or leave the Society of Friends.
Quakers provided a leadership structure, reliable national network, and significant material resources to the campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1783 Quakers in Britain began active campaigning. They joined forces with William Wilberforce and others. The campaign drew heavily on the extensive Quaker network. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slavery itself became illegal in the British Empire in 1833. In North America, Quakers campaigned equally vigorously. Many also broke the law by assisting slaves to escape from the slave-owning states in the South to the freer North. Slavery was finally abolished in the United States in 1865.
The methods Quakers pioneered constituted an extraordinary model which evolved rapidly and illustrates the key elements still required for such campaigns today: research, committee leadership, logo, publications, petitions, lobbying, produce boycotts, networking, fundraising, legislation and direct action/ civil disobedience.
A remarkable number of individual Quaker men and women gave exemplary leadership.
Thus the evils of slavery were gradually and systematically exposed in what is arguably the first Human Rights movement aimed at securing the fundamental rights of others. Quakers played a prominent, active, supportive and moral role. They helped to create a moral-political momentum, which attracted allies in other churches and from wider society, making it a mass movement.
In truth these landmarks in legislation were far from final: slavery has not been eliminated. It has gradually metamorphosed into its contemporary forms – forced and bonded labor, trafficking in persons, the worst forms of child labor, forced child begging, and child soldiers. Descent-based (traditional) Slavery still exists in some places. The distinctiveness of the Quaker contribution has gradually merged with the universal commitment to standards of human rights and justice to which Quakers individually and collectively continue to contribute, as do many others. Quakers are much involved in modern anti-slavery movements.
The British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1839 and continues to this day as Anti-Slavery International (ASI). Throughout the generations and decades Quaker individuals, families and local Meetings have continued to support this organization and its work. Current Quaker support at all levels for the Anti-Slavery cause remains a significant bulwark.