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