New Book Sheds Light on Quakers' Role in Abolition Movement


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Quakers played a major role in the abolition movement against slavery. The first whites to denounce slavery in the American colonies and Europe.

While individual Quakers spoke out against slavery after U.S. independence, local meetings of Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) were divided on how to respond to the institution. Outspoken Quaker abolitionists were sharply criticized by other Quakers.

Quakers were also prominently involved with the Underground Railroad.

Many families assisted slaves in their travels through the Underground Railroad. Many Quakers were persecuted by slave owners, and forced west in an attempt to avoid persecution.

According to Christopher Densmore, Curator, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, “Quakers of the 18th and 19th century were very aware that Quakers had once held slaves, people who had worked for Quakers but had not been paid for their labors. It was not enough to clear the Society of Friends of the sin of slave-holding but to look to the education of the freed people.

“Quakers had a problem. They had determined that slavery was absolutely wrong, but lived in the United States within a society and under a government that held that people could be property.

“Quakers had a history of going to jail for their beliefs--for not paying church tithes, for refusing to swear oaths, for refusing to bear arms. In the seventeenth century in England, thousands of Quakers spent time in prison--in some cases for years when they could easily have won their freedom by paying fines or swearing oaths.”

Read "Quakers and the Underground Railroad: Myths and Realities," by Christopher Densmore, curator, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College

book cover:Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950

The abolitionist work of Quakers during the Antebellum Era has been well documented, and their contemporary anti-war and anti-racism work is familiar to activists around the world. Allan W. Austin, a professor of history at Misericordia University, answered our questions about his new book Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950, University of Illinois Press. This material comes from the University of Illinois Blog:

Q: Why do you think, up until now, there has been a gap in scholarship on the Friends’ post-Civil War period?

Austin:  I suppose many factors contribute to this gap.  The abolitionist crusade is obviously a big story, full of drama and situated at the fault line of the Civil War, which forever altered the course of United States history.  Abolitionism and the Civil War remain popular topics today, too, because these stories, it seems to me, translate neatly into (admittedly oversimplified) narratives of a heroic crusade against an evil institution and racism. For some Friends, focusing on memories of their past interracial heroism has from time to time provided an escape from confronting vexing interracial problems in their contemporary world.

In addition, the absence of Quakers in our memories of post-Civil War American history reflects the broader absence of an appreciation on the part of historians for the influence of religion after the Civil War.  As we move forward into the history of “modern” America, religion often fades away, no longer considered a serious motivating force in the twentieth century and beyond.  Despite this tendency among scholars, for Friends, religion did still matter dearly and motivated some to act to address racism and inequality.

Finally, the dwindling number of Quakers in the United States over the past one hundred-plus years has removed Friends a bit from more contemporary historical memories.  Quakers loomed a bit larger in the story of early American history, but seem a less prominent force today.

Q: What sort of “complicated connections” between Quakers and race were there during this time period?

Austin:  Because Quakers have often been painted as either crusading, flawless heroes who attacked racism or (in counterpoint to such valorous images) as hypocrites who talked about the evils of racism while succumbing to it within their own institutions at the very same time, nuance is often missing in popular memories of Friendly interracialism. While many people have thus focused on a simplistic story of good versus evil, the relationship between Quakers and race actually reveals tremendous complexity. Some individuals, for instance, risked a good deal to stand against racial inequality, but their battles often pitted them against fellow Friends who were less progressive on such matters as well as the broader society.  Furthermore, even those Quakers who felt moved at times to act against racism adopted programs that were hardly untainted by racialized attitudes.  While this is true of any number of organizations and individuals throughout American history, we often don’t see Quakers in this same and very complex way.

Q: How did Quaker connections and relationships vary across different ethnic

Austin:  The relationships did not vary as much as one might suppose, although AFSC staffers at times tended to view different groups from different perspectives.  Thus, to cite one example, while the key ideas motivating their work with African Americans and Japanese Americans remained fairly consistent, Quakers in the AFSC tended to see African Americans as a “domestic” and Japanese Americans as an “international” problem.  Thus, they tended to present programs to better understand African Americans—through “tours of understanding” in 1920s Philadelphia or post-WWII employment programs—in the context of improving internal race relations.

Work with Japanese Americans, alternatively, always weighted the outside world a bit more, whether that be through inviting Japanese students to study at institutions of higher learning in the 1920s United States or in helping Japanese Americans resettle from government-run concentration camps during World War II.

Q: In what ways were these interactions religious?

Austin:  These were religious interactions in several ways.  The Friendly belief in the Inner Light—or that of God within—lay at the center of much of the Quakers’ activism on race (as well as other programs, too).  This fundamental belief has long moved
Quakers to support egalitarian movements.

Maybe just as importantly, many Friends have emphasized a fundamental connection between faith and practice, stressing the importance of acting on spiritual leadings to
change the world around them.  From their earliest beginnings, in fact, Friends have emphasized the importance of acting on their faith.  Many leading Quakers in the early twentieth century, including key founders of the AFSC, were particularly interested in shaping the world around them, and they attempted to do so in any number of ways.

Read the rest of the interview, "Q&A with Quaker Brotherhood author Allan W. Austin."

Visit your local library to obtain these resources:

Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950
Allan W. Austin, (2012).

Historical Dictionary of The Friends (Quakers).
Margery Abbott,; Chijioke, Mary Ellen; Dandelion, Pink; Oliver, John William, editor, (2003).

The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America
 Margaret Hope,  (1999).

The Quakers
Hugh Barbour, Frost, J. William.(1988).
Historical survey, including many capsule biographies online edition.

The Quakers in America
Thomas D. Hamm, (2003).
There have seldom been more than 100,000 Quakers in North America, yet the religious movement begun in mid-seventeenth-century England has been amazingly influential. Quakers founded colonies; led the antislavery, woman suffrage, and black civil rights movements; spearheaded relief efforts after both world wars; launched the first religiously based lobbying organization in Washington, D.C.; and on and on. Hamm’s overview shows that the sect’s fierce social activism has been accompanied all along by internal turbulence over doctrine and practice. — Excerpt of review by Ray Olson first published December 1, 2003 (Booklist).

The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction
Pink Dandelion, (2008.).


Benezet instructing colored children
Date 1850,from Historical poetical and pictorial American scenes, by J.W. Barber.
Source: manuscript collection 852, Haverford College
ANTHONY BENEZET This celebrated philanthropist was a native of France. On account of religious persecution in that country, his parents, in 1731, removed to London. While here, the family adopted the religious opinions of the Society of Friends, and in 1731, emigrated to Philadelphia. In his zeal to do good, he left a profitable mercantile business, and devoted himself to the instruction of youth. He was a friend to the poor and distressed of every description, and he labored most earnestly for their relief and welfare. He made great exertions to have the slave trade suppressed.
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