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Quakers, Slavery, and Racial Justice

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 592-599 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0091

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Quakers have long been acknowledged as influential beyond their numbers in areas of social reform. Each of these valuable though quite different books examines Quaker contributions to efforts for justice that culminated respectively in the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century and the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth. Each meticulously traces the development of ideas and actions, and through sources largely unexplored in the past, tells a story of successes and failures, of worthy ideals and moral shortcomings.

The early twentieth-century Quakers of Allan Austin’s book differed in significant ways from their forebears studied in Brycchan Carey’s volume. By the late seventeenth century, Friends had, for the most part, cooled down from their initial zeal as religious radicals and settled into a more withdrawn mode of existence. In a curious mix, Quakers in William Penn’s colony combined their austere plainness with substantial political power and material success.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, Friends progressively made common cause with others in abolition and women’s rights. This openness resulted in schism: by the century’s end, some Friends reflected the influences of evangelical revivalism while others partook of liberal modernist Protestantism. The American Friends Service Committee—the focus of Austin’s work—served as a meeting ground for different sorts of Quakers, though the liberal impulse was prevalent.

Carey articulates the foundational assumption of his study with commendable succinctness: “Political change is usually dependent on the formation of discursive structures that allow change first to be imagined, next to be advocated, and finally to be enacted” (p. 142). Upon this he builds his thesis that “a sustained debate over slaveholding . . . subsisted among colonial Quakers from at least the late seventeenth century. What had changed by the late 1750s was that antislavery Friends had won the debate and were able henceforth to begin and sustain a debate with others beyond the Society” (p. 25). His book “attempts to explain how Quakers turned against slavery, and it reveals that the process was neither easy nor inevitable” (p. 1). He traces parallel stories: the development of public antislavery writings, and the conflicts among Friends as they slowly came to unity on this cause.

Carey is well acquainted with previous studies of Quakers and slavery, particularly those of Thomas Drake, David Brion Davis, and Jean Soderlund. His work draws on the sources gathered in J. William Frost’s Quaker Origins of Antislavery, though he has also done much archival research. Carey’s distinctive approach is that of a literary historian. Earlier studies focused on social outcomes of antislavery arguments, but he prefers to see antislavery rhetoric in terms of an emerging discourse in which the formation and expression of an idea is as important as its fulfillment. He argues that “Quakers produced a discourse of antislavery that underpinned and informed all later antislavery discourse, both in America and Europe” (p. 3), and his book traces the evolution of that discourse.

Although the focus is on Philadelphia, Carey appropriately begins in Barbados, with the earliest references to slavery in Quaker texts written by George Fox, William Edmundson, and Alice Curwen. Although later abolitionist Friends would interpret Fox’s ambiguous expressions as pointing toward political emancipation, Carey prudently concludes that Fox was more an ameliorationist, seeking to find some meeting ground between Quaker ideals and the brutal reality of Barbados with its notoriously punitive slave code. Both Fox and Edmundson recommended that slaves be freed after a lengthy term of service, which Carey notes allowed the appearance of virtue but in reality merely supported the status quo. He nonetheless accedes that Fox “represents perhaps the first serious attempt in the English language to ameliorate the condition of slavery” (p. 58). For her part, Alice Curwen abandoned caution and compromise and made more radical demands, unambiguously questioning the legitimacy of slavery. Whatever their intentions, others perceived Quakers as a threat and responded with a law prohibiting Quakers from allowing slaves to attend Quaker worship and with efforts to ban visiting Quakers from preaching in Barbados. Philadelphia had links with Barbados, relying on produce from its plantations and attracting Quaker immigrants from the island.

The next important moment in antislavery history is...

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