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Category: Quaker

Schism

02

In the early 19th century, to be a Quaker was to be opposed to slavery. But how to live out this opposition? To work against slavery was to live in tension with Quaker testimonies to both integrity and peace. Helping an escaped slave, for instance, sometimes created pressure to bear false witness. Or to bear arms. As it turns out, balance is difficult. And there was disagreement between what historian Errol T. Elliott has called the activists and the gradualists. Some Friends gave up their membership. Some Friends lost their membership. Meetings were split.

American Friends at North Carolina’s Rich Square Monthly Meeting minuted in 1843 that they did not “allow their members to hold slaves,” but neither did they allow interference “with the system of slavery further than by petitions, reason, and remonstrance in a peaceable manner.” The larger yearly meeting minuted its condemnation in that same year of “those Friends who had given ‘shelter improperly’ to slaves.” That, too, was the year that Indiana Yearly Meeting would split over the issue of slavery. Hundreds of Indiana Quakers would leave their yearly meeting and start a new one, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.

Of course, they would argue they’d been kicked out.

At issue was the Underground Railroad. With active Quaker supporters in both North Carolina and Indiana, its existence created a problem for Friends everywhere. Support for the Underground Railroad looked to many like a form of religious extremism.

Initially, Friends had worked together to support the education of African-American children, as well as to fight the “Black Laws.” These laws, first enacted in Ohio and later in neighboring states, required that any free person of African descent obtain and carry certain court documents for employment and residency. These laws also fined those who helped fugitive slaves. But Levi Coffin called Quakers to a greater cause. An Indiana Quaker with North Carolina roots, Coffin had personally witnessed the separation of a slave woman from her child, resulting in his resolution “to labor in this cause until the end of my days.” For 30 years, he served as an unofficial president of the Underground Railroad.

Many Friends joined him.

Their activism resulted in an 1841 minute by Indiana Yearly Meeting: “As the subject of slavery is producing great excitement in our land, we again tenderly advise our dear friends not to join in associations.” The following year, an enforcing minute was approved, excluding from service on committees, any who identified themselves as abolitionists. Coffin and hundreds of others, having been removed from their leadership positions, simply started a new yearly meeting.

There was reconciliation, with the two yearly meetings effectively recombined by 1857. But old wounds heal slowly. There are still those who call us to orthodoxy. There are others who argue that faith without works is dead.

Quakers today have the privilege of looking back on our history with pride for what was accomplished. What we forget are the compromises that were made, the internal rancor that often boiled up into battles for control over meetinghouses and yearly meetings, battles that frequently led to schism. We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us. There are still battles. There are still wounds. There is still hope for reconciliation.

We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us.

Change

02

When Zachariah Dicks visited Friends in Georgia in 1803, he predicted that the house in which they met – only five years old at the time – would soon stand empty. “O Bush River! Bush River! How hath thy beauty faded away and gloomy darkness eclipsed thy day.” Only five years later, what Dicks foretold had come to pass. Bush River’s member meetings in South Carolina and Georgia had been disbanded. The roughly 500 Quakers of Bush River had moved away, most of them to Ohio.

The issue was slavery.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness, to educate them (an open violation of the law) and to “let them go free after a considerable term of years, if they have served . . . faithfully.” William Edmundson offered Friends an additional challenge: “Many of you count it unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?” Eighty years later, traveling minister John Woolman further identified slavery as a kind of moral disease motivated by “the love of ease and gain.”

But effecting change proved difficult.

Southern Quakers argued that purchasing a slave often prevented the separation of man and wife or parent and child. In addition, Friends in North Carolina had learned from painful experience that their former slaves could be seized by their non-Quaker neighbors and once again sold into slavery. In many meetings, then, trustees were appointed to receive transfers of ownership for the slaves, giving freedom while legally binding these “ex-slaves” as property of the entire meeting. Others worked together to get slaves to the North, where they could be free.

Every step closer to abolition of slavery made southern Quakers a nuisance to their neighbors. So when Zachariah Dicks visited Bush River, he found an audience that Errol Elliott describes as “tired and largely hopeless. They had stood firm, but uprisings and violence” in the region had convinced them that war was imminent.

So they left, sold their property and resettled in Ohio, where they helped build up towns like Salem and Springboro – stops on the Underground Railroad.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness

A Portraiture

02

British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson set out in 1806 to tell the story of Quakers, to help the larger English-speaking world understand these foreign-seeming Friends. He titled the work, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Why Quakers? As Clarkson puts it, he had been “thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers” in his work against the slave trade, and he “conceived a desire of writing their moral history.” But Clarkson’s explanation doesn’t quite work. This book – presumably conceived in 1787 – didn’t come to fruition for almost 20 years. If the subject – near to Clarkson’s heart – was as important as he claimed, then why did the inexhaustible writer, speaker, publisher, and organizer keep putting off the project?

Some historians have suggested that the book – published when it was – proved politically expedient.

Clarkson had founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He had interviewed 20,000 sailors as part of his research. He had ridden on horseback more than 35,000 miles in his search for artifacts and evidence. He had published essay after essay against the slave trade. He had convinced William Wilberforce to present legislation, year after year, that if passed, would have abolished the slave trade. But in 1794, war with France had largely ended the debate in Parliament, and Clarkson was tired. He retired from the movement, bought a home, married, and had a child. Then, 10 years later, as the war was coming to an end, Clarkson saw an opportunity for victory.

He wrote a book, a book that normalized Quakers in order to give public appeal to a cause that had largely been championed by this marginalized religious sect. And it worked. Within a year of the book’s publication, the Slave Trade Act was passed.

But what about the book? What exactly does Clarkson say about Quakers?

He says that no matter the issue, Quakers will consistently “reason on principle, and not upon consequences.” He says that Quakerism itself is a system that leads “towards purity and perfection.” He says that Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.” He says that Quakers are “anxious for the moral improvement of mankind.” He says that “we seldom see a noisy or irascible Quaker.” He says that although Quakers are just as apt as others to enjoy wine with a meal, “neither drunkenness, nor any situation approaching to drunkenness, is known in the Quaker companies.”

Clarkson says that Quakerism, at heart, is “an attempt at practical Christianity . . . as far as it can be carried.”

Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.”

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