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Author: Quakers Helped Abolish Slavery in the U.S.


All this week, we have been commemorating the bicentennial of the end of the transatlantic slave trade with a series of tapes to look back at slavery from a variety of perspectives.

Today, for our Faith Matters conversation, we'll take a look at the role of the Quakers. In colonial times, Quakers were considered one of the most radical groups in America, especially when it came to their oppositions to slavery. But their equally strong belief in pacifism led to a moral conflict over how far to go to end the scourge of slavery.

Ryan Jordan explores this dilemma in his new book, "Slavery and the Meetinghouse." He joins me now in the studio.

Later, we'll hear from Clinton Pettus. He's the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee, a group founded by the Quakers to carry out community service projects.

But, Mr. Jordan, first, to you. Thank you so much for coming in.

RYAN JORDAN: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the abolitionist cause was not easy. How did the Quakers come to be so strongly identified with abolitionism?

JORDAN: Initially in the 18th century, they had gone through the process in Pennsylvania, which is a country that they had established, of losing power during a major war - the French and Indian war. They lost power at the same time that they were watching the colony fall apart. And that created an internal crisis to force them to pay attention to purity - internal purity. So it was something initially that was very internalized. It was about getting back to basics, getting away from worldly pollution.

And many of them in Philadelphia then turned their attention to getting involved with other revolutionaries in establishing the first anti-slavery society in the world - the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

MARTIN: What was the theological basis of their embrace of abolitionism?

JORDAN: Pacifism, I think, was the big one. Slavery was a kind of - it really wasn't a state of war.

MARTIN: They understood slavery to be inherently violent.

JORDAN: Yeah. And they used that term - state of war. So they were - because they had been outspoken pacifist, I think it eased the transition for them to move against this institution. They also had made a lot of money in the institution. And I think that they - there was an element of shame.

MARTIN: Now, there is - that actually was a surprise to me. How deep was the involvement of the Quakers in the slaves? And I was not aware that there was a deep involvement.

JORDAN: The Quaker is - because they were barred to many professions in England, from politics, they poured their energy into mercantile endeavors. So it was almost inevitable that if you're involved in merchandise across the Atlantic, slaves are one more piece of property - one more merchandise, like expensive China, that would be carried across the Atlantic.

Slavery and the slave trade was an American institution as far north as Boston in the 18th century - New York has the biggest urban slave population in the 18th century.

MARTIN: You are saying that the drive among the Quakers to end slavery, especially among their own ranks, and then to try to achieve its end in a broader society that started in Pennsylvania. And then, what happened?

JORDAN: They go to the process not only of freeing their slaves, but in trying to establish ways of keeping those slaves free. It wasn't just a case of freeing their slaves. There were all kinds of secondary issues that arose when emancipation occurred of trying to secure a meaningful freedom for - and many Quaker slaves were re-enslaved or were not treated well after emancipation.

MARTIN: How did they handle worship? Were formerly enslaved Americans free to worship with the Quakers as equals? How was this addressed?

JORDAN: A lot of times, no. They were considered people who should be given supervision, so there were black Quaker meetings. It was almost a parent-child relationship. Clearly, many whites - many white Quakers did not believe, unfortunately, that blacks were truly equals, spiritually. There were a lot of complaints about that from the more vocal Quaker abolitionists in the 19th century.

So there was definitely a race problem within the Quaker church. Not - certainly not way worse than most other white churches. And in some sense, at least, white Quakers were trying.

But part of what I tried to focus on the book is how difficult it was for white Christians, even people who were in the vanguard of the white conscience to really envision blacks as equals spiritually in their own meeting houses.

MARTIN: So what was the abolitionist dilemma? Was the question of what's more important? Is it more important to be spiritually pure and theologically pure? Was it more important to live in the world now and to really try to achieve change in this world? Because one of the reason that fascinates me is the struggle between their pacifism and their need to - because on the one hand, as a pacifist, you wouldn't participate in a civil war?

JORDAN: That's right. This...

MARTIN: And yet a few believe that this is a profound moral stain on the consciousness of the nation. What do you do except throw up your hands and say, well, you know, thy will be done?

JORDAN: The central contradiction or the central dilemma was one of violence that it became very clear, very early on that slavery was not going to be dislodged peacefully in the United States, and as early as the 1820s and '30s, there are all kinds of riots and fights and things. And, you know, Americans perceived that there was going to be a civil war over this issue. So Quakers were always concerned about the means and ends. And the larger institution really, unfortunately, I guess, their pacifism became a more conservative kind of thing because they understood that their beliefs might be used to foment revolutionary insurrection.

And in that, where you really have a real divide racially again because these whites were never enslaved themselves, but here they are telling slaves and telling free blacks not to use violence, not to use weapons, you know, to defend themselves or their freedom. That's the central dilemma. One of how violent one could be or should be to abolish another kind of violence - which is slavery.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with Ryan Jordan, author of "Slavery and the Meetinghouse," about the role of the Quakers and the Abolitionist movement.

Ryan, I'm going to ask you to stand by for a minute, but I want turn now to Clinton Pettus. He's the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee. It's a Quaker organization devoted to social justice. He's joining us from member station WEAA in Baltimore.

Mr. Pettus, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

CLINTON PETTUS: Thank you. A pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Pettus, what - I don't know if it was - if it's news to you to hear that the Quakers had this internal struggle over the best way to fight the injustice of slavery. Do you feel that - I don't know if you - there's a similar struggle within the Friends now?

PETTUS: Ah, yes, I was not surprise, of course. Over time, I have read minutes from many of the meetings comparable to churches, I guess, in other religious practices. So it was not a surprise. We still struggle with many issues. I think that when you talk about an issue such as slavery and yes, it was inhumane and I'm a person of African descent. And so there's nothing about it that I can say that that is positive. And it's difficult sometimes to, as we would say, find a way forward that reflects what is supposed to be fundamental to your religion. And so we still struggle with a number of issues in terms of racism, in terms of sexism. All of those kinds of things are still issues that we try to address through the American Friends Service Committee.

MARTIN: Clearly, slavery is not an issue in the United States today, although, you know, we can debate about ways in which it still resonates. So, setting that sort of arguments and what are some of the causes of issues that most engage the Friends today?

PETTUS: Basically, peace continues to be one of those. There's no question about it. We are concerned about our being involved in Iraq and about the possibility of being involved in Iran and we strive very hard for people to understand the costs of war, both materially and in terms of its loss of human lives. And we have something that we call "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit. You may know about where we have an exhibit of boots of the persons who have lost their lives in Iraq. So certainly that is one. Second would be economic justice issues, trying to ensure that every person has an opportunity to earn a living wage A wage that will allow him or her to support his or her family as well as herself.

MARTIN: Mr. Jordan, I want to ask you. Are there ways in which you think the Quaker legacy is resonating today in the way we think about some of these issues, social justice issues?

JORDAN: I would hope so. I think there are some amazing obstacles when dealing with governments and dealing with large institutions. How you actually bring about social change peacefully is a very, very difficult thing to do in spite of the - the fact that the outcome didn't come about quite the way they wanted.

And there was that hope that by - that you might be able to win over your oppressors by being humble and being meek in trying to change things, almost changing things one person at a time. Sounds sort of hokey, but that was the Quaker hope in the 19th century.

So that the lesson, I guess the lesson is never give up. There were some amazing challenges in the 19th century and that peaceful vision did not play out and that was not how slavery was abolished. And I'm sure most African- Americans in the 19th century were pretty happy that the civil war happened. So that's the - and, as a fundamental of, you know, limitation, I guess, of pacifism in some ways, that it also could be a human limitation.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Pettus, the same question to you. What lesson do you draw from this dilemma. Mr. Jordan pointed out slavery was not ended through peaceful means and yet, that is the reason that you and I are here to sit down together with Mr. Jordan on equal terms. So what lesson do you draw from that dilemma?

PETTUS: Well, I think we can continue with something that was said was winning people over one by one, and knowing that the tough issues are not going to be resolved easily. They're not going to be resolved quickly. And quite honestly, most of the time, they certainly are not going to be resolved through violence.

And so, I think, the lesson is stay the course. When I - they seem like a negative expressions at this point, but if you're a led, if you're spiritually led to take on an issue where the social political whatever. I think one has to be willing to stay with that issue and work with it one person at a time over the long haul.

MARTIN: Clinton Pettus is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee. He joins us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. We are joined here in Washington by Ryan Jordan. He is the author of "Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JORDAN: Thank you.

PETTUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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