The Southern Quakers Confront Slavery

manacles2In 1784, a traveling Quaker named Hugh Judge stayed for a night in the house of a woman who had converted to Quakerism, and whose husband was “very kind to Friends.”  In the evening, Judge and another visiting Quaker “had some friendly conversation with [the husband] concerning his holding a black man in bondage and proposed to him to set him free.”  After “laboring with him till late bed-time,” the two Quakers asked the man “to think deeply of it till morning.”  Before breakfast the next day, Judge’s companion had written out a deed of manumission, which was presented to the man when he appeared.  “After a pause, it was proposed that he should sign it, which he did.”

This type of righteous coercion was something very new to southern Quakers.  For most of the 18th century, Quakers had merely been admonished not to import or trade in slaves, to use their own slaves “as fellow creatures,” and to instruct them in the principles of Christianity.  It was not until 1765, when the anti-slavery missionary John Griffith paid a visit to Virginia, that the Virginia Yearly Meeting even considered the subject.  A year later it was reported that “Friends are divided in their sentiments,” and the matter was left for further consideration.

Then came the sea change.  By 1772 some Monthly Meetings were passing resolutions banning the purchase of slaves, and disowning members who would not comply. A year later the Yearly Meeting exhorted all Friends to “clear their hands of this iniquity, by executing manumissions for all those held by them in slavery.” By 1780 the yearly Meeting was directing the Monthly Meetings to “admonish” and “labor with” any Friends who still owned slaves. When Virginia law was changed in 1782 to allow manumission, most Quakers promptly did so, and those who did not were subject to serious “laboring.”

It was the beginning of a significant decline for Quakerism in Virginia.

For most of a century, the Quakers had stood firm against the prevailing values of their society.  But they could not continue to live in that society while rejecting its economic and social foundations.  Within a generation many had emigrated, along with their freed slaves and other free people of color, to the free states of Ohio and Illinois. Others found a new spiritual home in an even more radical faith.

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