In the early 19th century, Quakers opposed slavery. But active opposition created tension with traditional testimonies. Helping an escaped slave, for instance, sometimes created pressure to bear false witness. Or to bear arms. The ensuing disagreement between what historian Errol T. Elliott has called the activists and the gradualists led some Friends to give up their membership, while other 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.” 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. Support for the Underground Railroad was viewed by many as a form of religious extremism.
Initially, Friends worked together to fight the “Black Laws.” These laws, first enacted in Ohio, required that any free person of African descent obtain and carry certain court documents for employment and residency. These laws fined those who helped fugitive slaves. But Levi Coffin called Quakers to a greater cause. He 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 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 can look back on our history with pride. What we forget are the compromises that were made, the internal rancor that often boiled up into battles for control, battles that frequently led to schism. We forget that the 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.
Plain & Simple gives us a look at our history from the lesser-known corners of Quaker heritage.