Date of Award


Document Type

Union College Only

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Andrea Foroughi




quaker, quakers, antislavery, philadelphia, friends


Long before the Quaker anti-slavery societies of antebellum America worked to abolish slavery, the Religious Society of Friends was discussing the issue from the late seventeenth century onward. The voices and tactics of the different antislavery advocates were not equally effective and it took over a century for the Quakers to reach consensus. In 1657 founder George Fox reminded his co-religionists that Christ had died for people of all races, thus African slaves should be treated kindly and taught the Gospel. At first, Quakers such as Fox, William Penn, and William Edmundson suggested ways to make the institution more humane, including the education and conversion of slaves. In 1688 a group of Dutch Germantown Quakers wrote an epistle to a nearby meeting, stating that the enslavement of humans was sinful and cruel. This missive was forwarded upward through the Quaker hierarchy of meetings until it reached the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Although no final ruling was made concerning this epistle, in 1696 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting did ask its members to try not to support the importation of slaves and to treat kindly slaves that they already owned. While meetings and individual Quakers slowly began to evaluate the morality of slavery, John Hepburn printed the first Quaker antislavery pamphlet, The American Defense of the Christian Golden Rule in 1715. Perhaps influenced by his former status as an indentured servant, Hepburn was sharply critical of wealthy slave owners in general. No responses to his vehement critique of slave owners and the institution they supported exist, but he set the stage for the fiery denunciations of Quaker leadership by Ralph Sandiford and Benjamin Lay. Sandiford and Lay both turned to non-Quaker Benjamin Franklin to print their denunciations of slave-owning Friends. Sandiford, a Philadelphia merchant, published A Brief Examination of the Times… in 1729 against the dictates of the Quaker leadership in the form of the Overseers of the Press, which led to his disownment. His desperate pleas to rid the Society of Friends of the evils of slavery fell on resistant ears, as the 1720s and 1730s were the peak years of slave ownership among members of the Philadelphia meetings. Likewise, Lay’s emotional rants in All Slavekeepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage… (1738) failed to woo prominent Friends, who published a notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette that stated Lay was not truly a Quaker and his words were not supported by the members of that faith. Though the 1740s was a quiet decade for antislavery, the emergence of John Woolman as a respected voice in the Quaker community brought the focus back to this cause. With the help of his influential friend Anthony Benezet, Woolman published his first pamphlet, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, in 1754. Benezet began publishing his own works that combined his Enlightenment education and his Quaker beliefs. Due to well-placed acquaintances in Philadelphia, England, and France, Benezet’s A Caution and Warning to Great Britain (1766) became the widest read and most influential antislavery publication of the eighteenth century. Unlike their predecessors, both men always gained the permission of the Overseers of the Press before publishing and both combined their texts with activities such as itinerant ministry, letter writing, and meeting testimony. By uniting their efforts with each other, with other Quakers, and with like-minded non-Quakers, and by working within the established structure, Woolman and Benezet affected by far the most change of any antislavery advocates up to their time. Moreover, their influence is seen in the written testimony of abolitionists who came after them.