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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Complex History of Quakers and Slavery

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is one of the best books I've read this year. I found it provocative and original.  It dealt with the reasons why Quakers who were abolitionists might not want to be publicly associated with the cause, and the dangers of assisting escaping slaves. I reviewed it on Book Babe here . The research source that Chevalier cited most prominently in her acknowledgements was this book, Slavery and the Meetinghouse by Ryan P. Jordan.  I decided that I needed to read and review it on this blog.


I learned that Quakers who were abolitionists didn't all agree about how the abolition of slavery should be achieved.  The most important distinction among abolitionists was gradualism vs. immediatism.

 Gradualists, some of whom were slave owners themselves, thought that the emancipation of slaves needed to happen gradually.  Another characteristic of  gradualists is that some believed in shipping freed African Americans back to Africa, or  moving them West as had been done with the Cherokees and other East Coast Native American peoples.  This was called "colonization" which was a euphemism for forced removal.  Many people don't realize that Abraham Lincoln was a gradualist who supported "colonization" in Africa.  He would not have emancipated the slaves when he did if he hadn't been forced by political pressure.   (See Lincoln and Negro Slavery. Also see my remarks on the subject in my review of the alternate history novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln on Book Babe.)

Immediatists, who we would now describe as the real abolitionists, thought that emancipation of African American slaves couldn't wait.   Gradualists considered them irresponsible radicals. Quaker leaders, who were wealthier than most Quakers according to a sociological study cited in this book, tended to be gradualists.  They "disowned" many immediatists which was equivalent to excommunication.  Immediatism was first proposed by British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824.

Immediatist Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier thought that "colonization" by sending former slaves back to Africa would be a re-enactment of the "Middle Passage"--the horrifying voyage that those kidnapped into slavery in Africa  had to undergo to reach  America.  Whittier thought that African Americans had suffered enough.  They shouldn't be forced to endure another ordeal.  I find Whittier's argument persuasive and powerful, but he apparently didn't convince gradualist Quakers.

An important gradualist Quaker objection to immediatism is that it was associated with violence.  Gradualism's quiet unobtrusive change was perceived as more in accordance with Quaker philosophy.  A common Quaker gradualist position was that God would see to it that slavery was abolished in his own time. 

 I think that modern Quaker activists have been influenced by Gandhi.  Gandhi tried to promote a revolution that was both non-violent and immediate through his concept of satyagraha.  This idea that change could be both non-violent and immediate altered the way people thought about protest movements.

Yet in the 19th century abolitionist movement,  some Quaker immediatists abandoned the principle of non-violence and started carrying guns. John Greenleaf Whittier proclaimed that although Quakers wanted peace, a country that practiced slavery couldn't be at peace.  This happened in a context where abolitionism had become increasingly dangerous.  The Quaker abolitionist Grimke sisters watched Pennsylvania Hall being burned by a pro-slavery mob in 1838.  Pennsylvania Hall had been funded by Philadelphia abolitionist Quakers to be the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The belief that violence over slavery was inevitable culminated in Quakers fighting in the Civil War with the purpose of bringing about the abolition of slavery.  Jordan includes the statistic that at least 25% of draft age Quaker men in Indiana fought in the Union army during the Civil War.

I thought that all of this information was very interesting, but there was also the sort of repetition that is common in academic studies.  I find repetition annoying.  It causes me to lower my estimation of a book.  Despite the redundancy, Slavery and the Meetinghouse might still be one of the best non-fiction books that I'll read in 2014.


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