The current series being published on The Empire podcast covers the history of slavery. As usual, it has been quite good. I think the series is nearing conclusion; though it has not finished yet. I’ve heard quite a lot of reference to Quakers and The Society of Friends throughout the series. In a recent episode entitled Wilberforce and the Fight for Freedom, William Dalrymple asked a leading question of the guest historian, Michael Taylor, author of The Interest, a book about the resistance of the British establishment to ending slavery. He wanted Taylor to explain the connection of Quakers to abolition. Here’s what Taylor said in response.
So the Quakers probably deserve more credit than any other single group in terms of the whole sweep of the history of abolitionism. Benjamin Lay, the eccentric Philadelphian abolitionist in the early part of the 18th century… In the later part of the 18th century, it’s American Quakers and American abolitionists in the northern states, who produced some of the most persuasive and influential literature. And it’s this literature which they are sending across to their brethren in the United Kingdom that is absolutely vital to the growth of the abolitionist movement in places like Manchester.
Dalrymple followed up asking what it is about Quakers that leads them to the conclusion that enslaving other human beings is wrong when apparently neither Anglicans nor Catholics saw it this way. Michael Taylor answers:
For the simple reason that within Quakerism, within the Society of Friends, there is no hierarchy of persons. They are no respecters of persons, so whilst there might within the Catholic and Anglican churches be a very strict hierarchy, a rigid order of things, Quakers have no such problems and they look at everybody as being on an equal plane.
Well, there it is. No hierarchy of persons. It’s just engrained in most Friends, who seem to learn Quakerism more by living among Quakers in community than through schooling – that was certainly my experience. And that’s why recent developments in some Friends groups to establish a ruling hierarchy is so troubling to me and others. It’s a fundamental shift away from Friends ways and the Friends understanding of humans in their relationship to Christ who comes to teach us Himself.
The lowest person in human society is not low in Jesus’ eyes, and can and should hear directly from Him – and speak as she or he hears. Lord Acton’s famous quote regarding the corrupting influence of power comes to mind. As power, particularly coercive power increases, morality so often lessens. Forsake power and speak the truth in love? Jesus, who had more coercive power available to Himself than any other human in history took up the cross. May we grow to be more like Him.