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Slavery in the Quaker World

running slaves and quaker silhouette
Régnier- Claude- 19th cent., “Uncle Tom’s Cabin. George et Elisa Chez les Quakers,” WRPR 153: History of Conflict at Haverford (HC)https://ds-omeka.haverford.edu/annotations/items/show/253.

“Slavery in the Quaker World” is a nuanced topic addressed by historians, including Katharine Gerbner, professor of history at the University of Minnesota. An article in Friends Journal by Dr. Gerbner deals with the complicated intersection of Quaker idealogy in the 17th – 19th century, during which slavery was an acceptable practice. Culture and religion often sanctioned slavery, for reasons Dr. Gerbner discusses in her book, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit by Jean R. Soderlund deals with the same topic. Soderlund focuses on the growth of abolitionist beliefs among the Society of Friends. Neither book ignores the fact that individuals condoning slavery could be found even amongst those of Quaker upbringing.

However, predominate Quaker attitudes against slavery were early and strong. This Bryn Marw College timeline shows that by the mid 1770’s, Quaker religous councils forbade the owership of slaves amongst the Society of Friends; continuing the practice would result in disownment. Working toward the abolition of slavery was seen as a Christian duty.

old society of friends woman in virginia
old quaker woman underground railroad

Quaker Mary Tate (1809-1889), shown above (Courtesy of Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA), was a sister of William Tate, discussed on other “Nest of Abolitionists” pages and posts. The Tates lived on Greggsville Road, 3 miles outside the village of Lincoln. The picture’s back (above right) makes a short handwritten claim of Tate efforts to fight slavery. Once the Civil War ended slavery, the Tates continued their philanthropic work by donating land on which to build a school for newly freed blacks. Not all Quakers acted on enlightened principles to the extent of the Tate family, but many did. The fact that anti-slavery practices were not universal within the Quaker faith makes abolitionists even more important to recognize.

Anecdotal evidence doesn’t tell the whole story, either “for” or “against” the activism of Quakers in the centuries long fight against slavery. A full picture must still be uncovered. In the process, we will learn more about our nation’s complicated and continuing racial issues.

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