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Quakers (Society of Friends)

George Fox

The abolition campaign in Britain was started by the Society of Friends, known as the Quakers. Quakers believe that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. If this is the case, then how can one person own another?

The beginnings of the Quakers' opposition came in 1657, when their founder, George Fox,  wrote "To Friends beyond sea, that have Blacks and Indian slaves" to remind them of Quaker belief in equality. He later visited Barbados and his preaching, which urged for better treatment of enslaved people, was published in London in 1676 under the title Gospel Family-Order. He said:

'... now I say, if this should be the condition of you and yours, you would think it hard measure, yea, and very great Bondage and Cruelty.  And therefore consider seriously of this, and do you for and to them, as you would willingly have them or any other to do unto you...were you in the like slavish condition.' (Listen to this extract) 

Around 1727, the Quakers began to express their official disapproval of the trade and promote reforms. From the 1750s, a number of Quakers in the American colonies began to oppose enslavement. They visited the slaveholders and lobbied the English Headquarters for action. By 1761, Quakers had come to view abolition as a Christian duty and all Quakers, on both sides of the Atlantic, were barred from owning slaves. Any members that did not conform were disowned.

In 1783 the 'London Society of Friends' yearly meeting presented a petition against the slave trade, signed by nearly 300 Quakers, to Parliament. They subsequently decided to set up a formal committee to consider the slave trade as well as an informal group of six Quakers who pioneered the British abolitionist movement. They later decided to form a small group, open to all denominations, to gain wider Anglican and Parliamentary support.

Prejudice in Britain against religious dissenters, meant that the committee was not gaining public attention and Quakers were barred from standing for Parliament. The new committee had nine Quaker members and three evangelical Anglicans, which strengthened the committee's influence. The Anglicans who co-founded the committee were Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and Philip Sansom. The Quaker members were: John Barton, William Dillwyn, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare Jr., Joseph Hooper, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods Sr., James Phillips and Richard Phillips.

Quakers continued to work for the movement and provide financial support throughout the campaign. They had built up a lot of knowledge of campaigning through struggling for their own rights. Their organisational skills were important to the success of the campaign, providing a network of contacts across the country which helped initiate local support. 

You can find the accounts of some Quaker abolitionists in this section, others are less well known but their support was just as vital. Activists like: American, William Southeby, who, in 1696, demanded a ban on slave ownership and importation (he continued to publish attacks on slavery until his death in 1720); John Woolman who, in 1754, published one of the first tracts opposing slavery; James Wright of Haverhill, one of the first British businessman to refuse to sell slave processed sugar. Then there was Sophia Sturge who trudged round 3,000 households personally, asking them not to eat slave-grown sugar. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS), founded in 1839 by Joseph Sturge, still survives today as Anti-Slavery International. 

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