“From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Antislavery, 1657-1761″*

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

The British literary scholar Brycchan Carey avers in the first sentence of his Introduction to From Peace to Freedom, “almost everyone knows that Quakers were at the forefront of campaigns to abolish slavery and the slave trade.” In the small world of scholarship, especially the historical realm, that assessment may be accurate but had our author read the paper of Gary Nash, offered in the collection of essays he co-edited from a conference in the Philadelphia area on Quakers and slavery two years before, he might have severely qualified his statement. Nash’s essay, focusing on the coverage of Quakers and abolition in high school textbooks, demonstrates that it was not until the late 1960s that Friends and anti-slavery received anything but cursory notice. Nash is more accurate: in his opening, he announces that Quaker leadership in abolition “has been known and recounted by Friends and friends of Friends for two centuries [p. 209].” What we are dealing with here then is an in-group thing.

But what an in-group! Quakers or not, we can legitimately celebrate it. Roman Catholic Garry Wills, one of the most insightful commentators on historical events in the United States over the past 40 years, named Quaker Anthony Benezet an authentic American hero and coupled him with Civil War President Abraham Lincoln as two who “combined the best elements of both head and heart in our religious tradition.” He also pointed out that, in demonstrating one could be a sincere Christian while defying scriptural endorsements of slavery, Friends, prodded by Benezet, “played out in the meetinghouses of eighteenth-century Philadelphia . . . one of the greatest moral episodes in American history.”[Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities (New York: Penguin Press, 2007), 152, 333.]  Those are powerful accolades.

Since 1661, with the announcement of what Quakers today call their “peace testimony,” members of the Religious Society of Friends have seldom been noted for the radicalism charged against them during the seminal 1650s. Withdrawn from polite society to a level of quaintness after 1661, yet growing increasingly substantial and even bourgeois, they opened a sustained offensive against that system of property holding called slavery – and they did so not from economic envy but because they felt called by God’s Spirit to be obedient in this lonely work. If Carey is to be believed – and he builds a powerful, compelling case for his interpretation – they started down this path as early as 1657 when the Quakers’ founder George Fox addressed a brief epistle “To Friends beyond the Sea, that have Blacks and Indian Slaves.”

Friends, hardly organized in the mother country at the time, had only the year before arrived in Britain’s colonies, but Carey’s inference from the letter is that they were already buying slaves, and Fox decided they needed his guidance. As far as we know, the thirty-three-year-old Fox had never seen an African – he would not until he went to Barbados in 1671, fourteen years later – and he did not explicitly mention them in his epistle, only in the title quoted above. But he did paraphrase Paul’s sermon to the Athenians in which the apostle affirmed that God had made of one blood all the nations and was no respecter of persons. This assertion, as the First Friend understood it, justified Friends in carrying the gospel to all, and thus implicitly undercutting slavery and potentially racism.

This interpretation is a broad one and will not convince those who insist on absolute certainty, but for me, it echoes the truth. Despite Voltaire, history occasionally rises above being “a pack of tricks we play on the dead.” Hence we all are indebted to Carey’s diligent mind and skillful hands.

Let it be said parenthetically that relatively few literary scholars invade the territory of historians of Quakerism to examine such documents as epistle 153; fewer still are serious enough about their task that they dig through better than a century of such writings to ferret out other examples of published questionings of slavery.

And it is to my chagrin that, though I specifically remember reading epistle 153 for my biography of Fox, I saw but failed to attach the significance to it that Carey teased out. He is careful not to claim too much, and he is balanced in his even-handed approach – all the more reason to trust him and his approach. After surveying the published anti-slavery effort up to 1761, usually among Friends, he comes back to his central contention, that had not Fox started Quakers off on an anti-slave path in 1657 the history of the effort would have likely been quite different. May Carey’s tribe increase. 

Without Fox’s epistle, the fine collection of essays in Quakers & Abolition could not have been written, yet another reason to honor Fox. Usually, when a reviewer has a volume of disparate essays to review, she will succumb to the temptation to point out that they are all different and by different people so that no theme could possibly unite them. I will not say anything like this. The two editors, one the aforementioned Carey, the other Geoffrey Plank, author of probably the best biography of the anti-slave advocate John Woolman, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, did not select all the papers from the 2010 conference and grouped the fourteen chosen into three discrete sections that make sense and show a good bit of prior thought: “Freedom within Quaker Discipline: Arguments among Friends,” “The Scarcity of African Americans in the Meetinghouse: Racial Issues among the Quakers,” and “Did the Rest of the World Notice? The Quakers’ Reputation.” 

The papers are uniformly excellent, none should be passed over, all demand to be read and pondered. Together they demonstrate how some of the best minds among Friends and scholars continue to push back the frontiers of our knowledge about Quakers and anti-slavery. Only one tiptoes up to being plagued by the curse of other books like this one – a promotional attempt to promote a just-published work – the exemplary one by Maurice Jackson on Anthony Benezet; our author here wisely avoids referring to it at all in the text. Instead, without mentioning Wills, he spends his time showing that his assessment of Benezet squarely makes the mark.

Other essays single out how Joshua Evans (1731-1798) and Amy Kirby Post (1802-1889) were moved to become abolitionists; Ellen Ross depicts the former as an exemplary anti-slave advocate as John Woolman, while Post was raised a Hicksite who moved gradually into the camp of the much over-looked and neglected Progressive Friends, dabbled in spiritualism, and ended up formally affiliated with the Unitarians. Nancy Hewitt sees Post following a theological trajectory many other Hicksite Quakers, women and men, followed.

Unlike Evans and Post, not all Quakers could be considered radicals when it came to anti-slavery, especially if taking positions against slavery required one to cooperate with the “world’s people” in any kind of public way. Thomas Hamm outlines the career of New Yorker George Fox White, who though claiming to be an abolitionist, was notorious for attacking Friends who joined in political crusades. Lucretia Coffin Mott, still regarded as almost a saint by her followers, was an especial target of White, and she returned his scorn, measure for measure. J. William Frost focuses on the institutional underpinnings for Quakerism to show how Friends after the divisive splits of 1827-28 effectively assured that the historic Religious Society of Friends would exercise diminishing control over individuals. His much too brief account of Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier – who badly needs a good biography – and the poet’s calculated reticence on the divisions among his fellow Friends are especially illuminating.

Likewise, perhaps Quakers’ attitude toward race was something that Whittier recognized it was better to be reticent about, since he was too retiring to take the mantle of a prophet. In her essay, Kristen Block relates the failure of Barbadian slaveholders to include African slaves in Quaker meetings that they did not take Fox’s 1657 appeal any more seriously than the admonitions he delivered in person when he was later on the island. (Block’s paper has at least two minor errors – one mis-identifying Thomas Rous, Fox’s step son-in-law [p. 94], the other confusing the better-known Elizabeth Hooten with a “Martha” [pp. 98, 101] – the only factual errors I discovered in the entire volume.) Similarly Christopher Densmore explains how even though Quakers sometimes distanced themselves socially, religiously, and economically from former slaves who freed themselves by running away, the two groups today have a joint history that enables them to talk honestly and openly about race. 

Such conversations even took place in the antebellum period. Benezet’s successful school for black children in Philadelphia brought his students to gain a level of confidence and allowed them to operate on a plane approaching equality, African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen being the best but not only example. Essayist Andrew Diemer shows how one Quaker who favored colonization of freed slaves in Africa, Moses Sheppard of Baltimore, was forced by an African American he helped educate and send to Liberia, the medical doctor Samuel McGill, to confront racial problems and the inadequacy of his own view that colonization could lead to abolition. Finally, James Emmett Ryan resurrects Charles Pancoast’s memoir, A Quaker Forty-Niner, to reveal a typical 19th century America entrepreneur who was only peripherally interested in slavery or race and hardly given to enough “moral bravery” to lead him to deal with matters of how different types of people lived with each other.

Stories like these serve to tarnish some of the gloss on pre-Civil War Friends’ reputations and to suggest that Fox’s 17th-century admonition failed to call all his followers to live by the light he championed. Dimmed though their reputation might have been, Quakers, as the volume’s last section vividly demonstrated, still had significant pioneering in anti-slave agitation to their credit. The Benezet whom Jackson and Wills elevated to hero status for his work, including original research into the African background of the transatlantic slaves, received ovations also from James Walvin for supplying information that made British opposition to the slave trade in the late 18th century a popular cause, one that forced Parliament to take action against it. Quakers were absolutely vital in this work, Walvin concludes.     

French historian Marie-Jeanne Rossignol in her essay on J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782; 1784, French edition) reexamines the book in the light of its author’s plaudits toward Friends, especially Benezet and another Philadelphian, Warner Mifflin. Rossignol ties them through Crevecoeur to French abolitionist Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville and other founders in 1788 of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, designed to eradicate the slave trade and slavery in the French colonies. They designated Friends as having triggered the “revolution” of anti-slavery. Dee Andrews and Emma Jones Lapsansky-Werner use their essay to highlight Thomas Clarkson, the British Anglican who, with William Wilberforce, was responsible for ending the British slave trade. (Walvin had already surveyed Clarkson’s 1806 prize-winning essay on the slave trade.) They ponder why he did not become a Friend, given the fact that he published three volumes of nearly 1300 pages on what they call “the moral superiority” (p. 205) of Quakers in about seven years, 1806 to 1813, A Portraiture of QuakerismThe History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade; and The Memoirs of the Private and Public Life of William Penn; they speculate but offer no final answer.

I had an undergraduate professor who insisted that the purpose of doing history was to force textbook writers to rewrite their surveys. The Quaker in-group with which we started had better get cracking if its members are to shift the story to what we have found to be the truth – and that truth does not, readers will note, begin with a capital letter. George Nash’s fine and final contribution in Quakers & Abolition, “The Hidden Story of Quakers and Slavery,” though, is a sobering reminder of the folly of trying to easily overcome the received wisdom. Nash thinks that even today, after scholarly literature has blossomed to recount the story of Quakers and abolitionism, “public consciousness remains largely as it was in the days of our grandparents” (p. 209). May these two valuable, readable, even indispensable, works help reverse that judgment. 


* Brycchan Carey, From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the  Birth of American Antislavery, 1657-1761. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012. 257pp. $40.00.  Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank, eds., Quakers and Abolition. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2014. 264 pp. $45.00.

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