« Prev (Part 1) Next »

(Part 1)

“It is my purpose, as briefly as possible, to narrate the circumstances attending the relinquishment of slaveholding by the Society of Friends, and to hint at the effect of that act of justice and humanity upon the abolition of slavery throughout the world.”.

To those who judge by the outward appearance, nothing is more difficult of explanation than the strength of moral influence often exerted by obscure and uneventful lives. Some great reform which lifts the world to a higher level, some mighty change for which the ages have waited in anxious expectancy, takes place before our eyes, and, in seeking to trace it back to its origin, we are often surprised to find the initial link in the chain of causes to be some comparatively obscure individual, the divine commission and significance of whose life were scarcely understood by his contemporaries, and perhaps not even by himself. The little one has become a thousand; the handful of corn shakes like Lebanon. “The kingdom of God cometh not by observation;” and the only solution of the mystery is in the reflection that through the humble instrumentality divine power was manifested, and that the Everlasting Arm was beneath the human one.

The abolition of human slavery, now in process of consummation throughout the world, furnishes one of the most striking illustrations of this truth. A far-reaching moral, social, and political revolution, undoing the evil work of centuries, unquestionably owes much of its original impulse to the life and labours of a poor, unlearned working man of New Jersey, whose very existence was scarcely known beyond the narrow circle of his religious society.

It is only within a comparatively recent period that the Journal and ethical essays of this remarkable man have attracted the attention to which they are manifestly entitled. In one of my last interviews with William Ellery Channing, he expressed his very great surprise that they were so little known. He had himself just read the book for the first time, and I shall never forget how his countenance lighted up, as he pronounced it beyond comparison the sweetest and purest autobiography in the language. He wished to see it placed within the reach of all classes of readers; it was not a light to be hidden under the bushel of a sect.

Charles Lamb, probably from his friends, the Clarksons, or from Bernard Barton, became acquainted with it, and on more than one occasion in his Letters and Essays of Elia, refers to it with warm commendation. Edward Irving pronounced it a godsend. Some idea of the lively interest which the fine literary circle gathered around the hearth of Lamb felt in the beautiful simplicity of Woolman’s pages, may be had from the Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson, one of their number, himself a man of wide and varied culture, the intimate friend of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. In his notes for First Month, 1824, he says, after a reference to a sermon of his friend Irving, which he feared would deter rather than promote belief: “How different this from John Woolman’s Journal I have been reading at the same time! A perfect gem! His is a schöne Seele, a beautiful soul. An illiterate tailor, he writes in a style of the most exquisite purity and grace. His moral qualities are transferred to his writings. Had he not been so very humble, he would have written a still better book; for, fearing to indulge in vanity, he conceals the events in which he was a great actor. His religion was love. His whole existence and all his passions were love. If one could venture to impute to his creed, and not to his personal character, the delightful frame of mind he exhibited, one could not hesitate to be a convert. His Christianity is most inviting, it is fascinating!

One of the leading British reviews a few years ago, referring to this Journal, pronounced its author the man who, in all the centuries since the advent of Christ, lived nearest to the divine pattern. The author of The Patience of Hope, whose authority in devotional literature is unquestioned, says of him: “John Woolman’s gift was love,—a charity of which it does not enter into the natural heart of man to conceive, and of which the more ordinary experiences, even of renewed nature, give but a faint shadow. Every now and then, in the world’s history, we meet with such men, the kings and priests of Humanity, on whose heads this precious ointment has been so poured forth that it has run down to the skirts of their clothing, and extended over the whole of the visible creation; men who have entered, like Francis of Assisi, into the secret of that deep amity with God and with His creatures, which makes man to be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field to be at peace with him. In this pure, universal charity there is nothing fitful or intermittent, nothing that comes and goes in showers and gleams and sunbursts. Its springs are deep and constant, its rising is like that of a mighty river, its very overflow calm and steady, leaving life and fertility behind it.

After all, anything like personal eulogy seems out of place in speaking of one who, in the humblest self-abasement, sought no place in the world’s estimation, content to be only a passive instrument in the hands of his Master; and who, as has been remarked, through modesty concealed the events in which he was an actor. A desire to supply in some sort this deficiency in his Journal, is my especial excuse for this introductory paper.

It is instructive to study the history of the moral progress of individuals or communities; to mark the gradual development of truth, to watch the slow germination of its seed sown in simple obedience to the command of the Great Husbandman, while yet its green promise, as well as its golden fruition, was hidden from the eyes of the sower; to go back to the well-springs and fountainheads, tracing the small streamlet from its hidden source, and noting the tributaries which swell its waters, as it moves onward, until it becomes a broad river, fertilising and gladdening our present humanity. To this end it is my purpose, as briefly as possible, to narrate the circumstances attending the relinquishment of slaveholding by the Society of Friends, and to hint at the effect of that act of justice and humanity upon the abolition of slavery throughout the world.

At an early period after the organisation of the Society, members of it emigrated to the Maryland, Carolina, Virginia, and New England colonies. The act of banishment enforced against dissenters under Charles II consigned others of the sect to the West Indies, where their frugality, temperance, and thrift transmuted their intended punishment into a blessing. Andrew Marvell, the inflexible republican statesman,22    Andrew Marvell:—A Yorkshireman, partisan in the English Civil Wars, and author of the poem, Horatian Ode (cited here?) -kw. in some of the sweetest and tenderest lines in the English tongue, has happily described their condition—.

“‘What shall we do but sing His praise

 Who led us through the watery maze,

 Unto an isle so long unknown,

 And yet far kinder than our own?

 He lands us on a grassy stage,

 Safe from the storm and prelates’ rage;

 He gives us this eternal spring,

 Which here enamels everything,

 And sends the fowls to us in care

 On daily visits through the air

 He hangs in shades the orange bright,

 Like golden lamps in a green night,

 And cloth in the pomegranate close

 Jewels more rich than Ormus shows

    *       *       *       *       *

And in these rocks for us did frame

 A temple where to sound His name

 Oh! let our voice His praise exalt,

 Till it arrive at Heaven’s vault,

 Which then, perhaps rebounding, may

 Echo beyond the Mexic bay.’

 So sang they in the English boat,

 A holy and a cheerful-note;

 And all the way, to guide their chime,

 With falling oars they kept the time.”

Unhappily, they very early became owners of slaves, in imitation of the colonists around them. No positive condemnation of the evil system had then been heard in the British islands. Neither English prelates nor expounders at dissenting conventicles had aught to say against it. Few colonists doubted its entire compatibility with Christian profession and conduct. Saint and sinner, ascetic and worldling, united in its practice. Even the extreme Dutch saints of Bohemia Manor on the Delaware, the pietists of John de Labadie, sitting at meat with hats on, and pausing ever and anon with suspended mouthfuls to hear a brother’s or sister’s exhortation, and sandwiching prayers between the courses, were waited upon by negro slaves. Everywhere men were contending with each other upon matters of faith, while, so far as their slaves were concerned, denying the ethics of Christianity itself.

Such was the state of things when, in 1671, George Fox visited Barbadoes. He was of those men to whom it is given to discern through the mists of custom and prejudice something of the lineaments of absolute truth, and who, like the Hebrew lawgiver, bear with them, from a higher and purer atmosphere, the shining evidence of communion with the Divine Wisdom. He saw slavery in its mildest form among his friends, but his intuitive sense of right condemned it. He solemnly admonished those who held slaves to bear in mind that they were brethren, and to train them up in the fear of God. “I desired, also,” he says, “that they would cause their overseers to deal gently and mildly with their negroes, and not use cruelty towards them as the manner of some hath been and is: and that, after certain years of servitude, they should make them free.”

In 1675, the companion of George Fox, William Edmundson, revisited Barbadoes, and once more bore testimony against the unjust treatment of slaves. He was accused of endeavouring to excite an insurrection among the blacks, and was brought before the Governor on the charge. It was probably during this journey that he addressed a remonstrance to Friends in Maryland and Virginia on the subject of holding slaves. It is one of the first emphatic and decided testimonies on record against negro slavery as incompatible with Christianity, if we except the papal bulls of Urban and Leo the Tenth.

Thirteen years after, in 1688, a meeting of German Quakers, who had emigrated from Kriesheim, and settled at Germantown, Pennsylvania, addressed a memorial against “the buying and keeping of negroes” to the Yearly Meeting for the Pennsylvania and New Jersey colonies. That meeting took the subject into consideration, but declined giving judgment in the case. In 1696, the Yearly Meeting advised against “bringing in any more negroes.” In 1714, in its Epistle to London Friends, it expresses a wish that Friends would be “less concerned in buying or selling slaves.” The Chester Quarterly Meeting, which had taken a higher and clearer view of the matter, continued to press the Yearly Meeting to adopt some decided measure against any traffic in human beings.

The Society gave these memorials a cold reception. The love of gain and power was too strong, on the part of the wealthy and influential planters and merchants who had become slaveholders, to allow the scruples of the Chester meeting to take the shape of discipline. The utmost that could be obtained of the Yearly Meeting was an expression of opinion adverse to the importation of negroes, and a desire that “Friends generally do, as much as may be, avoid buying such negroes as shall hereafter be brought in, rather than offend any Friends who are against it; yet this is only caution, and not censure.”

In the meantime the New England Yearly Meeting was agitated by the same question. Slaves were imported into Boston and Newport, and Friends became purchasers, and in some instances were deeply implicated in the foreign traffic. In 1716, the monthly meetings of Dartmouth and Nantucket suggested that it was “not agreeable to truth to purchase slaves and keep them during their term of life.” Nothing was done in the Yearly Meeting, however, until 1727, when the practice of importing negroes was censured. That the practice was continued notwithstanding, for many years afterwards, is certain. In 1758, a rule was adopted prohibiting Friends within the limits of New England Yearly Meeting from engaging in, or countenancing the foreign slave-trade.

In the year 1742 an event, simple and inconsiderable in itself, was made the instrumentality of exerting a mighty influence upon slavery in the Society of Friends. A small storekeeper at Mount Holly,33    Mount Holly is a village lying in the western part of the long, narrow township of Northampton, on Rancocas Creek, a tributary of the Delaware. In John Woolman’s day it was almost entirely a settlement of Friends. A very few of the old houses with their quaint stoops or porches are left. That occupied by John Woolman was a small, plain, two-storey structure, with two windows in each storey in front, a four-barred fence enclosing the grounds, with the trees he planted and loved to cultivate. The house was not painted, but whitewashed. The name of the place is derived from the highest hill in the country, rising two hundred feet above the sea, and commanding a view of a rich and level country, of cleared farms and woodlands. Here, no doubt, John Woolman often walked under the shadow of its hollytrees, communing with nature and musing on the great themes of life and duty.
   When the excellent Joseph Sturge was in America, some thirty years ago, on his errand of humanity, he visited Mount Holly; and the house of Woolman, then standing, he describes as a very “humble abode.” But one person was then living in the town who had ever seen its venerated owner. This aged man stated that he was at Woolman’s little farm in the season of harvest, when it was customary among farmers to kill a calf or sheep for the labourers. John Woolman, unwilling that the animal should be slowly bled to death, as the custom had been, and to spare it unnecessary suffering, had a smooth block of wood prepared to receive the neck of the creature, when a single blow terminated its existence. Nothing was more remarkable in the character of Woolman than his concern for the well-being and comfort of the brute creation. “What is religion?” asks the old Hindoo writer of the Vishnu Sarman. “Tenderness toward all creatures.” Or, as Woolman expresses it: “Where the love of God is verily perfected, a tenderness towards all creatures made subject to our will is experienced, and a care felt that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation, which the Creator intends for them under our government.”
in New Jersey, a member of the Society, sold a negro woman, and requested the young man in his employ to make a bill of sale of her. On taking up his pen, the young clerk felt a sudden and strong scruple in his mind. The thought of writing an instrument of slavery for one of his fellow-creatures oppressed him. God’s voice against the desecration of His image spoke in his soul. He yielded to the will of his employer, but, while writing the instrument, he was constrained to declare, both to the buyer and the seller, that he believed slave-keeping inconsistent with the Christian religion. This young man was John Woolman. The circumstance above named was the starting-point of a lifelong testimony against slavery.

In the year 1746 he visited Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. He was afflicted by the prevalence of slavery. It appeared to him, in his own words, “as a dark gloominess overhanging the land.” On his return, he wrote an essay on the subject, which was published in 1754. Three years after, he made a second visit to the Southern meetings of Friends. Travelling as a minister of the gospel, he was compelled to sit down at the tables of slaveholding planters, who were accustomed to entertain their friends free of cost, and who could not comprehend the scruples of their guest against receiving, as a gift, food and lodging which he regarded as the gain of oppression. He was a poor man, but he loved truth more than money. He therefore either placed the pay for his entertainment in the hands of some member of the family, for the benefit of the slaves, or gave it directly to them as he had opportunity.44    The tradition is that he travelled mostly on foot during his journeys among slaveholders. Brissot, in his New Travels in America, published in 1788, says: “John Woolman, one of the most distinguished of men in the cause of humanity, travelled much as a minister of his sect, but always on foot, and without money, in imitation of the apostles, and in order to be in a situation to be more useful to poor people and the blacks. He hated slavery so much that he could not taste food provided by the labour of slaves.” That this writer was on one point misinformed is manifest from the following passage from the Journal:—“When I expected soon to leave a friend’s house where I had entertainment, if I believed that I should not keep clear from the gain of oppression without leaving money, I spoke to one of the heads of the family privately, and desired them to accept of pieces of silver, and give them to such of their negroes as they believed would make the best use of them; and at other times I gave them to the negroes myself, as the way looked clearest to me. Before I came out, I had provided a large number of small pieces for this purpose, and thus offering them to some who appeared to be wealthy people was a trial both to me and them. But the fear of the Lord so covered me at times that my way was made easier than I expected; and few, if any, manifested any resentment at the offer and most of them, after some conversation, accepted of them.”

Wherever he went, he found his fellow-professors entangled in the mischief of slavery. Elders and ministers, as well as the younger and less high in profession, had their house servants and field hands. He found grave drab-coated apologists for the slave-trade, who quoted the same Scriptures, in support of oppression and avarice, which have since been cited by Presbyterian doctors of divinity, Methodist bishops, and Baptist preachers for the same purpose. He found the meetings generally in a low and evil state. The gold of original Quakerism had become dim, and the fine gold changed. The spirit of the world prevailed among them, and had wrought an inward desolation. Instead of meekness, gentleness, and heavenly wisdom, he found “a spirit of fierceness and love of dominion.” In love, but at the same time with great faithfulness, he endeavoured to convince the masters of their error, and to awaken a degree of sympathy for the enslaved.

At this period, or perhaps somewhat earlier, a remarkable personage took up his residence in Pennsylvania. He was by birthright a member of the Society of Friends, but, having been disowned in England for some extravagances of conduct and language, he spent some years in the West Indies, where he became deeply interested in the condition of the slaves. His violent denunciations of the practice of slaveholding excited the anger of the planters, and he was compelled to leave the island. He came to Philadelphia, but, contrary to his expectations, he found the same evil existing there. He shook off the dust of the city, and took up his abode in the country, a few miles distant. His dwelling was a natural cave, with some slight addition of his own making. His drink was the spring-water flowing by his door; his food, vegetables alone. He persistently refused to wear any garment or eat any food purchased at the expense of animal life, or which was in any degree the product of slave labour. Issuing from his cave, on his mission of preaching “deliverance to the captive,” he was in the habit of visiting the various meetings for worship and bearing his testimony against slaveholders, greatly to their disgust and indignation. On one occasion he entered the Market Street Meeting, and a leading Friend requested some one to take him out. A burly blacksmith volunteered to do it, leading him to the gate and thrusting him out with such force that he fell into the gutter of the street. There he lay until the meeting closed, telling the bystanders that he did not feel free to rise himself. “Let those who cast me here raise me up. It is their business, not mine.”

His personal appearance was in remarkable keeping with his eccentric life. A figure only four and a half feet high, hunchbacked, with projecting chest, legs small and uneven, arms longer than his legs; a huge head, showing only beneath the enormous white hat, large, solemn eyes and a prominent nose; the rest of his face covered with a snowy semicircle of beard falling low on his breast,—a figure to recall the old legends of troll, brownie, and kobold. Such was the irrepressible prophet who troubled the Israel of slaveholding Quakerism, clinging like a rough chestnut-burr to the skirts of its respectability, and settling like a pertinacious gad-fly on the sore places of its conscience.

On one occasion, while the annual meeting was in session at Burlington, N.J., in the midst of the solemn silence of the great assembly, the unwelcome figure of Benjamin Lay, wrapped in his long white overcoat, was seen passing up the aisle. Stopping midway, he exclaimed, “You slaveholders! Why don’t you throw off your Quaker coats as I do mine, and show yourselves as you are?” Casting off as he spoke, his outer garment, he disclosed to the astonished assembly a military coat underneath and a sword dangling at his heels. Holding in one hand a large book, he drew his sword with the other. “In the sight of God,” he cried, “you are as guilty as if you stabbed your slaves to the heart, as I do this book!” suiting the action to the word, and piercing a small bladder filled with the juice of poke-weed (phytolacca decandra), which he had concealed between the covers, and sprinkling as with fresh blood those who sat near him. John Woolman makes no mention of this circumstance in his Journal, although he was probably present, and it must have made a deep impression on his sensitive spirit. The violence and harshness of Lay’s testimony, however, had nothing in common with the tender and sorrowful remonstrances and appeals of the former, except the sympathy which they both felt for the slave himself.55    Lay was well acquainted with Dr. Franklin, who sometimes visited him. Among other schemes of reform he entertained the idea of converting all mankind to Christianity. This was to be done by three witnesses, himself, Michael Lovell, and Abel Noble, assisted by Dr. Franklin. But on their first meeting at the Doctor’s house, the three “chosen vessels” got into a violent controversy on points of doctrine, and separated in ill-humour. The philosopher, who had been an amused listener, advised the three sages to give up the project of converting the world until they had learned to tolerate each other.

Still later, a descendant of the persecuted French Protestants, Anthony Benezet, a man of uncommon tenderness of feeling, began to write and speak against slavery. How far, if at all, he was moved thereto by the example of Woolman is not known, but it is certain that the latter found in him a steady friend and coadjutor in his efforts to awaken the slumbering moral sense of his religious brethren. The Marquis de Chastellux, author of De la Félicité Publique, describes him as a small, eager-faced man, full of zeal and activity, constantly engaged in works of benevolence, which were by no means confined to the blacks. Like Woolman and Lay, he advocated abstinence from intoxicating spirits. The poor French neutrals who were brought to Philadelphia from Nova Scotia, and landed penniless and despairing among strangers in tongue and religion, found in him a warm and untiring friend, through whose aid and sympathy their condition was rendered more comfortable than that of their fellow exiles in other colonies.66    The reader of Evangeline will recall in this connection the words of the poet—“In that delightful land which is washed by the Delaware’s waters, Guarding in sylvan shades the name of Penn the apostle, Stands on the banks of its beautiful stream the city he founded.
    There from the troubled sea had Evangeline landed, an exile, Finding among the children of Penn a home and a country.

    There old Rene Leblanc had died; and when he departed, Saw at his side only one of all his hundred descendants.

    Something at least there was in the friendly streets of the city, Something that spake to her heart, and made her no longer a stranger; And her ear was pleased with the Thee and Thou of the Quakers, For it recalled the past, the old Acadian country, Where all men were equal, and all were brothers and sisters.

   —Henry W. Longfellow, in his epic poem Evangeline [-kw].

The annual assemblage of the Yearly Meeting in 1758 at Philadelphia must ever be regarded as one of the most important religious convocations in the history of the Christian Church. The labours of Woolman and his few but earnest associates had not been in vain. A deep and tender interest had been awakened; and this meeting was looked forward to with varied feelings of solicitude by all parties. All felt that the time had come for some definite action; conservative and reformer stood face to face in the Valley of Decision. John Woolman, of course, was present, a man humble and poor in outward appearance, his simple dress of undyed homespun cloth contrasting strongly with the plain but rich apparel of the representatives of the commerce of the city and of the large slave-stocked plantations of the country. Bowed down by the weight of his concern for the poor slaves and for the well-being and purity of the Society, he sat silent during the whole meeting, while other matters were under discussion. “My mind,” he says, “was frequently clothed with inward prayer; and I could say with David that ‘tears were my meat and drink, day and night.’ The case of slave-keeping lay heavy upon me; nor did I find any engagement to speak directly to any other matters before the meeting.” When the important subject came up for consideration, many faithful Friends spoke with weight and earnestness. No one openly justified slavery as a system, although some expressed a concern lest the meeting should go into measures calculated to cause uneasiness to many members of the Society. It was also urged that Friends should wait patiently until the Lord in His own time should open a way for the deliverance of the slave. This was replied to by John Woolman. “My mind,” he said, “is led to consider the purity of the divine Being, and the justice of His judgments; and herein my soul is covered with awfulness. I cannot forbear to hint of some cases where people have not been treated with the purity of justice, and the event has been most lamentable. Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries have entered into the ears of the Most High. Such are the purity and certainty of His judgments, that He cannot be partial in our favour. In infinite love and goodness He hath opened our understandings from one time to another, concerning our duty towards this people; and it is not a time for delay. Should we now be sensible of what He requires of us, and, through a respect to the private interests of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand upon an immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in firmness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, God may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this matter.”

This solemn and weighty appeal was responded to by many in the assembly, in a spirit of sympathy and unity. Some of the slaveholding members expressed their willingness that a strict rule of discipline should be adopted against dealing in slaves for the future. To this it was answered, that the root of the evil would never be reached effectually, until a searching inquiry was made into the circumstances and motives of such as held slaves. At length, the truth in a great measure triumphed over all opposition; and, without any public dissent, the meeting agreed that the injunction of our Lord and Saviour to do to others as we would that others should do to us, should induce Friends who held slaves “to set them at liberty, making a Christian provision for them,” and four Friends—John Woolman, John Scarborough, Daniel Stanton, and John Sykes—were approved of as suitable persons to visit and treat with such as kept slaves, within the limits of the Meeting.

This painful and difficult duty was faithfully performed. In that meekness and humility of spirit which has nothing in common with the “fear of man, which bringeth a snare,” the self-denying followers of their divine Lord and Master “went about doing good.” In the city of Philadelphia, and among the wealthy planters of the country, they found occasion often to exercise a great degree of patience, and to keep a watchful guard over their feelings. In his Journal for this important period of his life, John Woolman says but little of his own services. How arduous and delicate they were may be readily understood. The number of slaves held by members of the Society was very large. Isaac Jackson, in his report of his labours among slaveholders in a single Quarterly Meeting, states that he visited the owners of more than eleven hundred slaves. From the same report may be gleaned some hints of the difficulties which presented themselves. One elderly man says he has well brought up his eleven slaves, and “now they must work to maintain him.” Another owns it is all wrong, but “cannot release his slaves; his tender wife under great concern of mind” on account of his refusal. A third has fifty slaves, knows it to be wrong, but can’t see his way clear out of it. “Perhaps,” the report says, “interest dims his vision.” A fourth is full of “excuses and reasonings.” “Old Jos. Richison has forty, and is determined to keep them.” Another man has fifty, and “means to keep them.” Robert Ward “wants to release his slaves, but his wife and daughters hold back.” Another “owns it is wrong, but says he will not part with his negroes—no, not while he lives.” The far greater number, however, confess the wrong of slavery, and agree to take measures for freeing their slaves.77    An incident occurred during the visit of Isaac Jackson which impressed him deeply. On the last evening, just as he was about to turn homeward, he was told that a member of the Society, whom he had not seen, owned a very old slave who was happy and well cared for. It was a case which it was thought might well be left to take care of itself. Isaac Jackson, sitting in silence, did not feel his mind quite satisfied; and as the evening wore away, feeling more and more exercised, he expressed his uneasiness, when a young son of his host eagerly offered to go with him and show him the road to the place. The proposal was gladly accepted. On introducing the object of their visit, the Friend expressed much surprise that any uneasiness should be felt in the case, but at length consented to sign the form of emancipation, saying, at the same time, it would make no difference in their relations, as the old man was perfectly happy. At Isaac Jackson’s request the slave was called in and seated before them. His form was nearly double, his thin hands were propped on his knees, his white head was thrust forward, and his keen, restless, inquiring eye gleamed alternately on the stranger and on his master. At length he was informed of what had been done; that he was no longer a slave, and that his master acknowledged his past services entitled him to a maintenance as long as he lived. The old man listened in almost breathless wonder, his head slowly sinking on his breast. After a short pause, he clasped his hands, then, spreading them high over his hoary head, slowly and reverently exclaimed, “Oh, goody Gody, oh!”—bringing the hands again down on his knees. Then raising them as before, he twice repeated the solemn exclamation, and with streaming eyes and a voice almost too much choked for utterance he continued, ”I thought I should die a slave, and now I shall die a free man!
    It is a striking evidence of the divine compensations which are sometimes graciously vouchsafed to those who have been faithful to duty, that on his deathbed this affecting scene was vividly revived in the mind of Isaac Jackson. At that supreme moment, when all other pictures of time were fading out, that old face, full of solemn joy and devout thanksgiving, rose before him, and comforted him as with the blessing of God.

An extract or two from the Journal at this period will serve to show both the nature of the service in which he was engaged and the frame of mind in which he accomplished it:

“In the beginning of the 12th Month I joined in company with my friends, John Sykes and Daniel Stanton, in visiting such as had slaves. Some, whose hearts were rightly exercised about them, appeared to be glad of our visit, but in some places our way was more difficult. I often saw the necessity of keeping down to that root from whence our concern proceeded, and have cause in reverent thankfulness humbly to bow down before the Lord who was near to me, and preserved my mind in calmness under some sharp conflicts, and begat a spirit of sympathy and tenderness in me towards some who were grievously entangled by the spirit of this world.”

“1st Month, 1759.—Having found my mind drawn to visit some of the more active members of the Society at Philadelphia who had slaves, I met my friend John Churchman there by agreement, and we continued about a week in the city. We visited some that were sick, and some widows and their families; and the other part of the time was mostly employed in visiting such as had slaves. It was a time of deep exercise; but looking often to the Lord for assistance, He in unspeakable kindness favoured us with that influence of that Spirit which crucifies to the greatness and splendour of this world, and enabled us to go through some heavy labours, in which we found peace.”

These labours were attended with the blessing of the God of the poor and oppressed. Dealing in slaves was almost entirely abandoned, and many who held slaves set them at liberty. But many members still continuing the practice, a more emphatic testimony against it was issued by the Yearly Meeting in 1774; and two years after, the subordinate meetings were directed to deny the right of membership to such as persisted in holding their fellowmen as property.

A concern was now felt for the temporal and religious welfare of the emancipated slaves, and in 1779 the Yearly Meeting came to the conclusion that some reparation was due from the masters to their former slaves for services rendered while in the condition of slavery. The following is an extract from an epistle on this subject:—

“We are united in judgment that the state of the oppressed people who have been held by any of us, or our predecessors, in captivity and slavery, calls for a deep inquiry and close examination how far we are clear of withholding from them what under such an exercise may open to view as their just right; and therefore we earnestly and affectionately entreat our brethren in religious profession to bring this matter home, and that all who have let the oppressed go free may attend to the further openings of duty.”

“A tender Christian sympathy appears to be awakened in the minds of many who are not in religious profession with us, who have seriously considered the oppressions and disadvantages under which those people have long laboured; and whether a pious care extended to their offspring is not justly due from us to them is a consideration worthy our serious and deep attention.”

Committees to aid and advise the coloured people were accordingly appointed in the various monthly meetings. Many former owners of slaves faithfully paid the latter for their services, submitting to the award and judgment of arbitrators as to what justice required at their hands—so deeply had the sense of the wrong of slavery sunk into the hearts of Friends!

John Woolman, in his Journal for 1769, states that, having some years before, as one of the executors of a will, disposed of the services of a negro boy belonging to the estate until he should reach the age of thirty years, he became uneasy in respect to the transaction, and although he had himself derived no pecuniary benefit from it, and had simply acted as the agent of the heirs of the estate to which the boy belonged, he executed a bond, binding himself to pay the master of the young man for four years and a half of his unexpired term of service.

The appalling magnitude of the evil against which he felt himself especially called to contend was painfully manifest to John Woolman. At the outset, all about him, in every department of life and human activity, in the State and the Church, he saw evidences of its strength, and of the depth and extent to which its roots had wound their way among the foundations of society. Yet he seems never to have doubted for a moment the power of simple truth to eradicate it, nor to have hesitated as to his own duty in regard to it. There was no groping like Samson in the gloom; no feeling in blind wrath and impatience for the pillars of the temple of Dagon. “The candle of the Lord shone about him,” and his path lay clear and unmistakable before him. He believed in the goodness of God that leadeth to repentance; and that love could reach the witness for itself in the hearts of all men, through all entanglements of custom and every barrier of pride and selfishness. No one could have a more humble estimate of himself; but as he went forth on his errand of mercy, he felt the Infinite Power behind him, and the consciousness that he had known a preparation from that Power “to stand as a trumpet through which the Lord speaks.” The event justified his confidence; wherever he went, hard hearts were softened avarice and love of power and pride of opinion gave way before his testimony of love.

The New England Yearly Meeting then, as now, was held in Newport, on Rhode Island. In the year 1760 John Woolman, in the course of a religious visit to New England, attended that meeting. He saw the horrible traffic in human beings—the slave-ships lying at the wharves of the town—the sellers and buyers of men and women and children thronging the market-place. The same abhorrent scenes which a few years after stirred the spirit of the excellent Hopkins to denounce the slave-trade and slavery as hateful in the sight of God to his congregation at Newport, were enacted in the full view and hearing of the annual convocation of Friends, many of whom were themselves partakers in the shame and wickedness. “Understanding,” he says, “that a large number of slaves had been imported from Africa into the town, and were then on sale by a member of our Society, my appetite failed; I grew outwardly weak, and had a feeling of the condition of Habakkuk: ‘When I heard, my belly trembled, my lips quivered; I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble.’ I had many cogitations, and was sorely distressed.” He prepared a memorial to the Legislature, then in session, for the signatures of Friends, urging that body to take measures to put an end to the importation of slaves. His labours in the Yearly Meeting appear to have been owned and blessed by the divine Head of the Church. The London Epistle for 1758, condemning the unrighteous traffic in men, was read, and the substance of it embodied in the discipline of the meeting; and the following query was adopted, to be answered by the subordinate meetings:

“Are Friends clear of importing negroes, or buying them when imported; and do they use those well where they are possessed by inheritance or otherwise, endeavouring to train them up in principles of religion?

At the close of the Yearly Meeting, John Woolman requested those members of the Society who held slaves to meet with him in the chamber of the house for worship, where he expressed his concern for the well-being of the slaves, and his sense of the iniquity of the practice of dealing in, or holding them as property. His tender exhortations were not lost upon his auditors; his remarks were kindly received, and the gentle and loving spirit in which they were offered reached many hearts.

In 1769, at the suggestion of the Rhode Island Quarterly Meeting, the Yearly Meeting expressed its sense of the wrongfulness of holding slaves, and appointed a large committee to visit those members who were implicated in the practice. The next year this committee reported that they had completed their service, “and that their visits mostly seemed to be kindly accepted. Some Friends manifested a disposition to set such at liberty as were suitable; some others, not having so clear a sight of such an unreasonable servitude as could be desired, were unwilling to comply with the advice given them at present, yet seemed willing to take it into consideration; a few others manifested a disposition to keep them in continued bondage.

It was stated in the Epistle to London Yearly Meeting of the year 1772, that a few Friends had freed their slaves from bondage, but that others “have been so reluctant thereto that they have been disowned for not complying with the advice of this meeting.

In 1773 the following minute was made:—“It is our sense and judgment that truth not only requires the young of capacity and ability, but likewise the aged and impotent, and also all in a state of infancy and nonage, among Friends, to be discharged and set free from a state of slavery, that we do no more claim property in the human race, as we do in the brutes that perish.”

In 1782 no slaves were known to be held in the New England Yearly Meeting. The next year it was recommended to the subordinate meetings to appoint committees to effect a proper and just settlement between the manumitted slaves and their former masters, for their past services. In 1784 it was concluded by the Yearly Meeting that any former slaveholder who refused to comply with the award of these committees should, after due care and labour with him, be disowned from the Society. This was effectual; settlements without disownment were made to the satisfaction of all parties, and every case was disposed of previous to the year 1787.

In the New York Yearly Meeting, slave-trading was prohibited about the middle of the last century. In 1771, in consequence of an epistle from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a committee was appointed to visit those who held slaves, and to advise with them in relation to emancipation. In 1776 it was made a disciplinary offence to buy, sell, or hold slaves upon any condition. In 1784 but one slave was to be found in the limits of the meeting. In the same year, by answers from the several subordinate meetings, it was ascertained that an equitable settlement for past services had been effected between the emancipated negroes and their masters in all save three cases.

In the Virginia Yearly Meeting slavery had its strongest hold. Its members, living in the midst of slaveholding communities, were necessarily exposed to influences adverse to emancipation. I have already alluded to the epistle addressed to them by William Edmundson, and to the labours of John Woolman while travelling among them. In 1757 the Virginia Yearly Meeting condemned the foreign slave trade. In 1764 it enjoined upon its members the duty of kindness towards their servants, of educating them, and carefully providing for their food and clothing. Four years after, its members were strictly prohibited from purchasing any more slaves. In 1773 it earnestly recommended the immediate manumission of all slaves held in bondage, after the females had reached eighteen and the males twenty-one years of age. At the same time, it was advised that committees should be appointed for the purpose of instructing the emancipated persons in the principles of morality and religion, and for advising and aiding them in their temporal concerns.

I quote a single paragraph from the advice sent down to the subordinate meetings, as a beautiful manifestation of the fruits of true repentance:

“It is the solid sense of this meeting, that we of the present generation are under strong obligations to express our love and concern for the offspring of those people who by their labours have greatly contributed towards the cultivation of these colonies, under the afflictive disadvantage of enduring a hard bondage; and many amongst us are enjoying the benefit of their toil.”

In 1784, the different quarterly meetings having reported that many still held slaves, notwithstanding the advice and entreaties of their friends, the Yearly Meeting directed, that where endeavours to convince those offenders of their error proved ineffectual, the monthly meeting should proceed to disown them. We have no means of ascertaining the precise number of those actually disowned for slaveholding in the Virginia Yearly Meeting, but it is well known to have been very small. In almost all cases the care and assiduous labours of those who had the welfare of the Society and of humanity at heart, were successful in inducing offenders to manumit their slaves, and confess their error in resisting the wishes of their friends, and bringing reproach upon the cause of truth.

So ended slavery in the Society of Friends. For three-quarters of a century the advice put forth in the meetings of the Society at stated intervals, that Friends should be “careful to maintain their testimony against slavery,” has been adhered to so far as owning, or even hiring, a slave is concerned. Apart from its first-fruits of emancipation, there is a perennial value in the example exhibited of the power of truth, urged patiently and in earnest love, to overcome the difficulties in the way of the eradication of an evil system, strengthened by long habit, entangled with all the complex relations of society, and closely allied with the love of power, the pride of family, and the lust of gain.

« Prev (Part 1) Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection