August 24, 2012

The Dilemma of Abolitionism: Quakers at Odds With One Another

Quakers are recognized as one of the moving forces in the abolition of slavery in America.  Since the 1770s, all Yearly Meetings of the Religious Society of Friends in North America agreed that slavery was a "national evil" and that holding slaves was in direct conflict to their values.  Although their ideals were clear, their actions were often less so.

In recalling her earlier involvement with the anti-slavery movement, Quaker abolitionist Elizabeth Buffum Chace wrote in 1891 about her family's renewed enthusiasm for the emancipation of the slaves--an enthusiasm sparked by William Lloyd Garrison's call for immediate emancipation during the 1840s in his publication The Liberator.  "I remember well how eager we were [ . . .] to present the cause of the slave to everybody we met; not doubting that, when their attention was called to it, they would be ready, as we were, to demand his immediate emancipation."

Elizabeth was profoundly disappointed when this turned out not to be the case.  "[ . . .] from the Friends, surely, we expected sympathy and understanding.  But as we met them, individually and in groups, and made our appeal for the slave, we were shocked to find out even they [ . . .], with rare exceptions, shut their eyes to the great inequity.  They objected to the strong, denunciatory language of The Liberator, they disapproved of Friends uniting with other people in public meetings [ . . . ]; they did not think the slaves should be set free all at once, and they did not want their daughters to marry Negroes."  (Salitan and Perera, 95-96.)  These were the reactions of New England Quakers, long at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and long engaged in open condemnation of the practice.  The reactions of Quakers farther west, who were settling the states of the Northwest Territory, were even more disappointing.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace's grace marker, Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, RI.
Born in 1806,she was the daughter of abolitionist Arnold Buffum.  After marrying
Sanuel Buffington Chace in 1828, she helped found the Fall River Anti-Slavery Society
in Fall River, MA.  She died in 1899 at the age of 93.  Photograph courtesy of
Jen Snoots,
The Indiana Yearly Meeting, representing the states of Indiana, Illinois, and the western part of Ohio, held its first meeting in 1821.  According to Errol T. Elliott, the meeting consisted of no fewer than 20,000 members, approximately one quarter of whom previously belonged to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and the rest representing Quaker migration from the southern states.  By 1841, the growing activism of its abolitionist members was causing tension in the Meeting.  All were united in their belief that slavery was evil, but they differed greatly on how it should be abolished.  The more radical in their numbers favored the Garrisonian approach of immediate emancipation and, until then, active participation in the Underground Railroad; others favored "colonization" of the blacks, sending them back to Africa where they could thrive in their own country; and yet others believed in the gradual emancipation of slaves as an inevitable outcome of man's sense of humanity and justice.
These differences of opinion eventually caused the Indiana Yearly Meeting to advise all members to cease joining anti-slavery societies and to wait for "divine direction" on the issue.  Active abolitionists were also banned from holding positions of responsibility within the Yearly Meeting and, at local Monthly Meetings, many were disowned or condemned for their views.  The result was the founding of Anti-Slavery Meetings by those who wished to continue their pursuit of emancipation, including an Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends founded by Levi Coffin.  Many who were disowned or condemned by their Meetings for their anti-slavery activism joined these new Meetings, resulting in what came to be known as the Separation of 1843.
The Clinton County Historical Society in Wilmington, Ohio, possesses a quilt that gives testimony to the separation that took place over the anti-slavery issue.  Called The Abolitionist Quilt, it hangs for public viewing in the Rombach Place Museum in Wilmington.
The Abolitionist Quilt, Rombach Place Museum, Wilmington, Ohio.  Photograph
courtesy of the Clinton County Historical Society.  For more information about the
The Abolitionist Quilt was researched extensively by Ricky Clark who published her findings about it in the July/August 1995 issue of Piecework.  The quilt was signed by women from the Hadley, Coate, Bailey, McCracken, Coggeshall, and Bangham families.  These Quaker women, as it turned out, were close relatives and abolitionists.  On the quilt, most had inscribed Clinton County, Ohio.  The other location noted on the quilt was Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana.  Newport was situated ten miles north of Richmond, the seat of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends.

Close-up of  The Abolitionist Quilt, circa 1842, comprised of 11 inch blocks
and measuring 72 X 72 inches.  Photograph courtesy of the Clinton County
Historical Society.
Ricky discovered through Hinshaw's records and other sources that the women listed as living in Clinton Colunty on the quilt relocated to Newport where they joined their fellow-quilters and relatives as members of the New Garden Monthly Meeting.  The Separation of 1843 began in this Meeting and several of the women named on the quilt were disowned.  They subsequently participated in the establishment of the New Garden Monthly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.
In her article, Ricky Clark speculates that the women who made The Abolitionist Quilt may have done so to strengthen their bonds as Quakers, relatives, and abolitionists.  She says:  "They may have made the qult [ . . .] during a time of crisis, the abolition Separation of 1843, when Quakers were so divided over the question of abolition that members left or were excluded from the particular Quaker meetings to which they belonged."  (Clark, 68.)
Clark, Ricky.  "Making a Case for the Abolitionist Quilt" in  Piecework (July/August 1995): 66-70.
Elliott, Errol T.  Quakers on the American Frontier.  Elgin, IL: The Friends United Press, 1969.
Salitan, Lucille and Eve Lewis Perera, Eds.  Virtuous Lives, Four Quaker Sisters Remember Family Life, Abolitionism, and Women's Suffrage.  New York: Continuum, 1994.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

1 comment:

  1. We know of mixed feelings within our families regarding Slavery. Speaking of Clinton County & Warren County in Ohio, Moses McKay was an abolishionist from Warren County, VA. He and his family moved to Southwestern Ohio in the 1700s (with the exception of son Robert S. who stayed in Virginia, more on him later).

    His house located in Waynesville, Warren County, Ohio was used during the Underground Railroad days. When he removed to Ohio he brought along 22 just freed slaves who helped him in settling in Ohio. With that they were all given their own parcels of land I believe. There had been a long association with descendants of these slaves and members of our family attending the Collett-McKay Picnic held annually in Clinton County.

    In contrast, Moses's son Robert S. who stayed in Virginia was listed as a slave owner. He along with other McKays (my great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Buck McKay being one of them) continued to own slaves. I believe when the Society of Friends reached the decision to denounce slavery, those McKays who wanted to keep their slaves simply joined other faiths.

    Thomas Buck McKay's father Jacob was the last in my McKay line who was a member of the Society of Friends. He being a member of Crooked Run Monthly Meeting.