In the World but Not of It: Quakers, War, and Slavery in the Early Modern Anglo-Atlantic World

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Religion; Social and Cultural


Quaker communities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had an ambivalent relationship to the mainstream social and economic culture of the Anglo-Atlantic world. Their central doctrine of the Inner Light, which declared that all people were part of God, created a spiritual imperative to treat others with respect, dignity, and love, yet the world of the expanding British Empire centered not love but on violence, human exploitation, and profit.

Quakers’ radical theology created a cultural gulf between the people they did business with and themselves. While this tension amounted to little overt persecution after the détente of the Restoration, and did not prevent their dominance of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island governments until the 1750s, during times of tension, or over issues of existential import, Quakers could find themselves bearing the brunt of extreme ire. Quakers were never completely accepted by their contemporaries.

The papers in this panel interrogate the ways in which Quakers dealt with these tensions in the context of the development of two important Quaker ideals, pacifism and abolition. Both developing theological positions at times highlighted contradictions between theological ideas and reality. Quaker families had prospered--and thus helped gain enough political and financial power within the Anglo world to protect their sect from further governmental prosecution--partly through participation in the slave trade, where some had made large fortunes. They had also prospered as the Assembly leaders of colonial Pennsylvania, where at times had at least implicitly sanctioned military action.

Partially because of this outsiders-on-the-inside position, the Society of Friends developed a unique identity that continued to evolve in the development of their practices. They developed unique methods of conversation and decision making that enabled them to live in the world in ways quite different from their neighbors. Their meetings became mechanisms of ideological evolution and they developed unique institutions of mutual aid unlike anything else seen in the Atlantic world. From mutual aid, to pacifism, to slavery; Quaker relationship with their world and each other evolved in ways their contemporaries found alternately strange, admirable, and threatening.

Papers Presented

“A Cloak of Rankist Toryism”: Quakers and War in 18th-Century Pennsylvania

During the American Revolution, a charge lobbed at the Quakers of Pennsylvania, as proof of the insincerity of their pacifist principles as motives in opposing American independence, was the frequent objection that revolutionary-era pacifists now objected even to indirect methods of military support, such as governmental appropriations, that their forefathers had accepted during King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War. Patriots saw such inconsistency as proof that Quakers had “made religion a cloak for the rankest toryism, and conscience a plea to avoid those duties, the performance of which reflect the greatest honour on human nature.” (“Belisarius,” Pennsylvania Packet, Aug. 15, 1778). In fact, the theological position of Quakers and other peace churches in Pennsylvania had shifted and hardened over the course of the eighteenth century in no small part due to their experiences during the earlier colonial wars, and, particularly, the collapse of the colony’s earlier, less adversarial approach to Indian relations (an effort in which the Quakers had served as leaders). This paper will look at the debates within the Pennsylvania Quaker communities in the 1739–1764 period, particularly regarding the Quaker efforts to serve as mediators between the colonies and the Pennsylvania Indian groups, as well as the Quaker response to the French and Indian War and Paxton uprising, to explain the theological shift that resulted in the Pennsylvania Quaker Meetings’ refusal to accept any accommodation with the oaths, taxes and militia service demanded of them during the revolution.

Presented By
Shannon Elaine Duffy, Texas State University

“Good” Quakers: The Redwood-Langford Family, Philanthropy, and the Atlantic Slave System

The founders of Quakerism modeled the faith’s structure on the “natural” hierarchy of the family. Wealthier Quakers were the “fathers” and “mothers” of the “Holy Family” that was the Society of Friends. They were told to nurture and support both their own children and all those in the Society who had fewer resources. Philanthropy was thus central to the faith. The support that wealthy Quakers provided helped the sect survive and flourish, but it also meant that the Society relied on the largesse of members whose wealth was often generated through participation in the Atlantic slave system. This paper traces the multigenerational philanthropy of one sugar plantation–owning Quaker family, the Langford-Redwoods, to argue that wealthy slave-owning Quakers were central to the survival and growth of Quakerism. Jonas Langford played a key role in enabling the survival of the Quaker community in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, though, the Society of Friends was economically successful enough that they no longer needed to prioritize supporting only those within their faith. Abraham Redwood, who inherited his family’s plantation, used his wealth to endow the secular Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island. After the American Revolution decimated the wealth of the New England Quaker community however, Redwood returned to supporting the sect of his birth, endowing the New England Yearly Meeting School. By then, however, he had been disowned for refusing to free his 200-some slaves.

Presented By
Katherine Karendy Freedman, University of Massachusetts Amherst

As Witnesses of God: The Role of Quaker Spiritual Epistemology in the Fermentation of Antislavery Thought

From the 1670s up through the mid-18th century, the number and quality of antislavery writing within the Quaker community of the mid-Atlantic grew exponentially. These writings, as Brychan Carey has demonstrated, build rhetorically upon one another. However, the process of how these ideas were generated, discussed, and evolved within the meetings is poorly understood. This paper will explore the possible connection between this rhetorical evolution and the worship practices of Quakers in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Is it possible, in brief, that these ideas were generated as a direct result of the meeting practices? I will focus my investigation on how the interplay between 17th-century Quakers’ personal/empirical relationship with God, and their expectations of the public performance of that relationship within certain confines (testimony), created the tension within meetings that lead to occasional, yet regular, outbursts of moral ferment. In addition, due to the horizontally oriented structure of the meeting systems, Quakers were then compelled to digest these outbursts as metaphysically and epistemologically legitimate. It seems this process of digestion, though it involved a great degree of contestation between competing propositions, allowed these outbursts the space to evolve into fully formed ideologies.

Presented By
Robert Franks Williams, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Robynne Rogers Healey, Trinity Western University
Robynne Rogers Healey is professor of history and co-director of the Gender Studies Institute at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. She is Associate Editor (History) of the new Brill Press series Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies. She convenes the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists and is publications chair for the Canadian Friends Historical Association. She has published widely in Quaker history, especially related to eighteenth-century topics and the evolution of the Peace Testimony. She is editor of the third volume in the Penn State University Press New History of Quakerism series, Quakerism in the Atlantic World in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680s – 1830s (forthcoming). Book chapters include “Into the Eighteenth Century,” in The Quakers, 1656–1723: The Evolution of an Alternative Community (Philadelphia; Penn State University Press, 2018); “History of Quaker Faith and Practice: 1650-1827,” in The Cambridge Companion on Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); “From Apocalyptic Prophecy to Faithful Tolerability: George Whitehead and a Theology for the Eschaton Deferred,” in Early Quakers and Their Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); “Quietist Quakerism, 1692 – ca. 1805,” in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (OUP, 2013); “Canadian Quakers and the South African War,” in Empire from the Margins: Religious Minorities in Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017); “Quakers and World War One: Negotiating Individual Conscience and the Peace Testimony,” in American Churches and the First World War (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016). She is also author of the book From Quaker to Upper Canadian: Faith and Community Among Yonge Street Friends, 1801-1850 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).

Presenter: Shannon Elaine Duffy, Texas State University
Shannon E. Duffy received her BA from Emory University, her MA from the University of New Orleans, and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in Early American History at Texas State University, and writes on issues of personal and community identity formation in the Revolutionary and Early National period. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Colonial, Revolutionary and Early National American history, as well as Early American constitutional and legal history. Her upcoming manuscript, The Twin Occupations of Revolutionary Philadelphia, explores the psychological effects of the British occupation of Philadelphia, after General William Howe’s forces took the city on September 26, 1777, as well as the American re-occupation of the city eight months later, under the command of Gen. Benedict Arnold. She is also currently researching the experiences of Quakers and other pacifists in 18th century Pennsylvania.

Presenter: Katherine Karendy Freedman, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Kate Freedman is the History Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where they also earned their PhD in history. Their research looks at Quakerism in the context of the Early Modern British Empire and the growth of the Atlantic slave system, complicating the sect’s relationship to slavery and the later abolition movement. Their work has been published in the Journal of Global Slavery and they have presented their work at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, the Society for Quaker Historians and Archivists, and the Massachusetts Society for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, among others. This paper is part of their current book project, entitled By This Craft, We Have Our Wealth: Quakers, Slavery, and the Birth of Capitalism.

Presenter: Robert Franks Williams, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Bob Williams is a Ph.D. Candidate in the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies. Bob's research focuses on the emergence of antislavery writing in the early Quaker communities, and the construction of counter narratives of race and personhood by Quakers in the face of the emerging enslavement systems in the Anglo-Atlantic. This paper is a section of the second chapter of his Dissertation, which will be entitled Children of the Light: Quietism and The Evolution of the Quaker Antislavery Thought.