- Quakers and Abolition ed. by Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank
Quakers have long been acknowledged as an important part of the abolitionist movement. But “outside specialist circles,” as the editors of this important new volume explain, “the Quakers’ involvement in debates over slavery is underappreciated” (5). So is the complexity of their often-fraught relationship with abolitionism. Outsiders are often shocked that Quakers themselves owned slaves, held racist views, and were, at times, bitterly divided over abolition. This collection takes a broad approach to remedying these misunderstandings, with fourteen brief essays on a variety of topics related to Quakers and abolition in both American and trans-Atlantic contexts. With its rich offerings and accessible prose, this collection is bound to spark lively conversations among scholars and in classrooms alike.
The collection is divided into three sections: The first deals with periods of agreement and disagreement among Friends on their anti-slavery stance; the second treats race relations within Quaker meetings; and the third explores the Quakers’ influence and public perception of their activity. This brief review can only highlight a few of the work’s many compelling aspects.
As J. William Frost notes, only between the 1760s and 1820s did Quakers agree about their collective stance on slavery (29). A powerful early impulse to reform first oneself and then the world is represented by Joshua Evans, as described by Ellen M. Ross, and Anthony Benezet, [End Page 341] as described by Maurice Jackson. Thomas Hamm’s illuminating essay unravels the complexities of antebellum Quakers’ ambivalence to abolitionism, and explains why Friends ultimately withdrew from the very movement they founded. It had become tainted, some believed, by the mercenary enthusiasm of evangelical preachers, more interested in lining their own pockets than saving souls. Especially here we see clearly the tragic irony of Quaker abolitionism: eighteenth-century Quakers founded abolitionism to purify themselves; later Quakers withdrew from abolitionism to remain pure.
Yet many Quakers did continue in abolitionism. When some individuals found that their reformist impulses could not be fulfilled within the confines of meetings that had retreated from the cause, they left or adapted. Amy Kirby Post, for example, found that to embrace fully the Quaker teachings by which she had been raised, she had to forsake her meeting of 20 years (73). As Nancy Hewitt explains, Post founded a new meeting that was devoted to the social causes that had historically defined Quakerism. In their essays, Christopher Densmore and James Emmet Ryan document ordinary Quakers’ approaches to abolition and interactions between them and African Americans. One such relationship is also highlighted in Andrew Deimer’s examination of Moses Shepherd’s and Samuel Ford McGill’s joint efforts at African colonization.
Across the Atlantic, British Quakers as a group were going strong, side-by-side with evangelicals and other fellow-travelers, such as Thomas Clarkson, about whom there are two essays, one by James Walvin and the other by Emma Lapsansky-Warner and Dee Andrews. Anna Vaughan Kett shows how British Quakers found creative ways to reconcile their participation in the new capitalist economy with their abolitionism. Women especially used the power of the purse to make statements, as when they bought “free-labor” textiles. Kett argues that for Quakers resisting slavery, using “free produce” was “sacralized as form of Christian worship,” reminding us that for Friends, even mundane actions were imbued with religious purpose (68).
Friends’ activities also had profound influence abroad. Marie-Jeanne Rossignol’s discussion of Crévecœur’s and Brissot’s admiration of Quaker abolitionism gives us a hint of what a much-needed update on the general topic of the French fascination with Quakerism might look like. She shows clearly how French abolitionism was inspired by these men’s promotion of American Quaker values in revolutionary France. [End Page 342] One can easily imagine a book-length study inspired by this new research.
Kristen Block would like to argue that seventeenth-century Quakers evangelized blacks in Barbados. Unfortunately, as she admits, there is no evidence for her argument...