The Conflict over Abolition Activism: What Can We Learn from It?

In 2002, Westbury (N.Y.) Meeting celebrated 300 years of meetinghouses on its site. As coordinator of the celebration, part of my task was collecting historic documents to post on our website. I became particularly intrigued by the abolitionist activity in Westbury Quarterly Meeting. Then I began to discover parallels to the turmoil in the meeting following the attacks of September 2001.

I wish I could report defining lessons from my study of history. What I discovered, and share now, is that Friends are often on both sides of a controversy, with strongly held but diametrically opposed leadings. Furthermore, our ways of resolving such conflicts do not seem to have improved much in 150 years.

Almost from the inception, there has been conflict within the Religious Society of Friends over claims of authority for personal action. On the one hand, there is the fundamental opening of George Fox that there is "that of God in every one." The God in each leads to the concept of the direct, unmediated relationship to God through the Inner Light or Holy Spirit. On the other hand, there is the need to test one’s leading with others before proceeding to action. The possibility of contradictory revelation of God’s will has posed a problem to Friends going right back to George Fox and James Nayler. It played out again in the Hicksite-Orthodox separation and Friends response to antislavery activity. And it arises today when we try to apply the Peace Testimony to contemporary world conflicts.

Are individual Friends ultimately responsible for discerning the will of God, and their own conduct? What happens when two people hear the will of God in opposite messages? How shall such issues be tested and resolved?

It may be instructive to study Friends responses to the issues of slavery, to better understand the contradictions inherent in discerning whose will the individual is hearing. I focus here on New York City and Long Island within Westbury Quarterly Meeting in the period from 1830 to 1860. Christopher Densmore explores the same questions in western New York State in "The Dilemma of Quaker Anti-Slavery: The Case of Farm-ington Quarterly Meeting, 1836-1860," in Quaker History (fall 1993).

Abolitionist history may help us to better understand the tensions now arising in many meetings over the present dilemma of Friends’ inner leadings regarding the Peace Testimony as they labor over the war and occupation of Iraq, peace in the Middle East, and peace in the world.

John Woolman (1720-1772) traveled widely under the concern of slave-owning Friends, calling our Religious Society to labor with the paradox of Friends owning human beings as property. John Wool-man’s way was to visit meetings and individual Friends to preach and pray with them towards releasing their slaves. He acted from his own leading to persuade others to test their witness to the Testimony of Equality. He refused to use any product of slave labor, and this became an article of faith for many Friends. Elias Hicks (1748-1830), the fiery preacher from Jericho, New York, took up the concern of Friends’ freeing their slaves. In his pamphlet, "Obser-vations on the Slavery of the Africans and their Descendents" (1811), he condemned the practice on moral grounds and from observations during his travels in the South. His eloquence influenced Friends widely, as well as non-Friends in the New York State legislature writing laws on slavery.

Elias Hicks’s view of slavery grew directly from his views on where authority lay, which eventually led to the separation that took place in New York Yearly Meeting in 1828 and in other yearly meetings within the Religious Society of Friends in the United States. He believed in holy obedience to the "manifestation of the will of God by his own spirit in the soul," rather than the authority of moral laws, scripture, or elders. The Hicksite Friends separated themselves from the turmoil of the world and called themselves quietists. By linking slaves to war booty, Elias Hicks tied freeing slaves to the Peace Testimony. He preached to Friends to manumit their slaves as a matter of faith. Like John Woolman, he acted alone to challenge individuals and our Religious Society to live up to Friends testimonies. In doing so, his persuasive voice reached into U.S. society to have a wider impact than he expected.

To put the pre-Civil War period in perspective for Long Island, Shane White, who researched slavery in New York City, points out that there are two classes of slavery: small-scale, personal or household slavery and large-scale, mostly agricultural slavery. It has been said that there is the society with slaves on one hand, and slave societies on the other. In the former, a small number of wealthy persons owned personal slaves, to some extent for show. In the latter, slaves were used for larger-scale economic purposes, particularly on farms. In Angels of Deliverance, historian James Driscoll points out that according to the 1755 census, in Hempstead town 36 owners had 69 slaves (1.9 average; 43 men, 26 women); in Oyster Bay town, 91 owners had 186 slaves (2 average; 107 men, 79 women); while in Flatlands (a largely agricultural area in Brooklyn) 10 owners had 35 slaves (3.5 average; 17 men and 18 women). The first two are examples of a society with slaves, while Flatlands is a slave society.

It may surprise us today that as prosperous farmers, Friends on Long Island in the 1700s owned from one to eight slaves. Many well-to-do Quaker families owned one or two personal slaves. However, as early as 1759, New York Yearly Meeting decided that Friends could not import slaves. In 1771 the yearly meeting ordered members not to sell their slaves if they wished to remain in good standing with their meeting. In 1776 the yearly meeting mandated the freeing of members’ slaves, threatening possible disownment of those who did not do so. By 1776, Long Island Friends from Manhasset to Jericho had freed a total of 154 slaves. Westbury Meeting recorded 90 manumissions in 1776-77. Most of the rest were freed by 1783. With forceful leadership from Elias Hicks, most Quakers in Westbury Quar-terly Meeting had freed their slaves by 1789. The last New York Quaker manumissions were recorded in 1798. Thus Friends acted well ahead of society in general and New York state in particular.

During the 18th century, individual actions to oppose slavery seem to be the norm. Many Friends followed the leading of John Woolman and instituted a boycott of slave-made goods, known as the Free Produce movement. After the separation, both Hicksite and Orthodox Friends frowned on participation with those "not in unity with the Society," preferring to work with other Quakers. In addition to Free Produce, activities included the petition campaign to the U.S. Congress to end slavery in the District of Columbia, first begun in New England Yearly Meeting and supported by John Greenleaf Whittier. Samuel Parsons, an Orthodox Friend from Flushing, carried the petition campaign to New York Friends. He was also active in financing a movement to help North Carolina Quakers turn over their slaves to their own yearly meeting so that they would no longer be slaveholders. Samuel Parsons raised funds to help resettle North Carolina Friends who wanted to leave the South for Ohio and Indiana to avoid the growing violence against those who opposed slavery. According to James Driscoll, there is evidence that Thomas Willis of Jericho participated by bringing freed North Carolina slaves to his town.

As opposition to slavery grew, some Friends were wary of involvement in what they saw as social action rather than religious concerns. They saw the gathering storm and sought to remove Friends from aggravating the tendencies toward war. Further, while most Hicksite Friends worked to change the hearts and minds of Quaker slave owners, they did not want to mix in the turbulence of abolitionist activities. From about 1840, New England and then New York yearly meetings prohibited any meeting from using its facilities for abolitionist speeches and later for temperance and suffrage meetings. Amy Post, originally a Westbury Friend who in this period worked with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, invited him to speak at Westbury Meeting. However, some in the meeting objected to Frederick Douglass’s radical message, so he eventually met with local activists but did not speak at the meetinghouse.

Similarily in western New York, Christopher Densmore found that a group of radical reformers began to challenge the quietist assumptions of the Religious Society. The Hicksite quarterly meeting denied the use of meetinghouses for anti-slavery lecturers on the grounds that the speakers, even though Quaker, were paid by abolition societies, thus invoking the rule against "hireling ministry." As in other instances in Friends history, the tensions grew over how to resolve conflicts that arose within the Religious Society. In Genesee Yearly Meeting (Hicksite), some, including Amy and Isaac Post, asked to be released from membership while about 200 others withdrew to form their own yearly meeting in 1848.

Nevertheless, individual Quakers continued their involvement in various organizations that included non-Friends. In 1785 the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was founded by twelve Friends and six others; eventually, 251 of the 454 members were Friends. This tolerance by the Religious Society did not continue as the slavery issue became central in U.S. consciousness. However, those who opposed mixing with non-Friends did work for change in their own ways. To illustrate the paradox created when Friends have diametrically opposed understandings of the will of God, we can see how slavery affected two Quakers connected to Westbury Quarterly Meeting: Isaac T. Hopper and Rachel Seaman Hicks.

Organized in 1839 by Hicksite Friends, the New York Association of Friends for the Relief of Those Held in Slavery worked to publish pamphlets on slavery, endorse the Free Produce movement, and help educate free African Americans in New York City. Many of its members were also active in non-Quaker abolitionist groups, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society—among them Isaac T. Hopper, his daughter Abigail, her husband, James S. Gibbons, and Charles Marriott, who were members of New York Monthly Meeting. Isaac T. Hopper was a noted and outspoken supporter of Elias Hicks and the Liberal position in the Quaker separation, but he did not advocate separating from the broader society.

Tension grew between these activists and those Friends who, while abhorring slavery, did not believe in direct intervention to end it. George F. White, for example, a recorded minister of New York Monthly Meeting (Hicksite), warned against involvement in societies for popular reform, including abolitionist organizations. An article highly critical of George F. White was published on March 25,1841, in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Overseers of the monthly meeting acted to discipline Isaac T. Hopper, James S. Gibbons, and Charles Marriott for helping to publish "a paper calculated to excite discord and disunity among Friends." The three countered that while they were not responsible for the particular article, they felt no need to apologize for it since it was "factually accurate." According to the monthly meeting (paraphrased, except where directly quoted):

  1. The will of man, not the will of God, prompted the activity; therefore it was wrong and sinful because it was not under divine guidance.
  2. Such activity was a mixing in the world, with the "low and the vile, the just and the unjust"; therefore it could not have a good outcome.
  3. Friends in such activities came into contact with ministers of other faiths, in violation of the testimony against being "corrupted by the hireling ministry" and constituted a "slippery slope" leading to leaving the Religious Society of Friends.
  4. If there were anything wrong with slavery, or any other situation, God would correct it. Such activity implied that abolitionists thought they were wiser than God.
  5. Such activity implied that something was wrong with Friends testimonies. Faith should be sufficient to cause change; therefore, it was not necessary to form or participate in man-made organizations.
  6. Such activity ignored the slaveholders, many of whom were performing a moral good by making slaves morally good and happy; it also ignored the problems that abolition would bring to slaveholders.
  7. Such activity employed strong language and harsh activities unbefitting to Friends.
  8. Quakers belong to a religious society, not a benevolent society; therefore, slavery was not a proper issue for the care of the Religious Society of Friends.

In three separate actions the three men were disowned in 1842: first by New York Monthly Meeting, then by Westbury Quarterly Meeting to which the monthly meeting belonged, and finally confirmed by the New York Yearly Meeting. The 1842 minutes of the yearly meeting read:

The Committee appointed in the case of Isaac T. Hopper on his appeal against the judgement of Westbury Quarterly meeting made the following report:
To the Yearly Meeting
The Committee on Isaac T. Hopper’s appeal report, that, after patient deliberation, we find that eighteen of our members are in favor of confirming the judgement of the quarterly meeting, fifteen for reversing it, and three decline giving judgement in the case.
On behalf of the Committee
Jacob Willetts

When I read this I was amazed. Voting, or taking a poll, is not a part of Friends right order. But even by non-Quaker standards, there was not a majority in favor of the judgement, but an even tie when the abstentions are counted. Right order insists on continued testing an issue in the Light for as long as it takes to find the sense of the meeting. Clearly, emotions were high in this case and overruled Friends traditional discernment process.

Lucretia Mott wrote to the yearly meeting in support of Isaac T. Hopper and angry at the actions of George T. White, whom she accused of provocative activity. In addition to her passionate commitment to abolition, her daughter, Anna, married the Gibbonses’ son, Edward. Following disownment, Isaac T. Hopper continued to sit on the facing bench at his meeting, Rose Street, in New York City. He commented "Thee have disowned me. I have not disowned thee." Disownment meant that he could no longer take part in meeting for business, but it did not bar him from meeting for worship. However, the disownment caused waves of reaction throughout Friends meetings. It precipitated the "Progressive" separations among Hicksite Friends in Marlborough Meeting and Genesee Yearly Meeting, and it may have caused the collapse of the Hicksite meetings in Ferrisburg Quarter in Vermont and on Nantucket, both strongholds of Quaker abolitionist sentiment. However, the abolitionist Friends continued their work, and the Hicksite meetings continued to be wary of direct action.

Isaac Hopper, who lived until 1852, continued his abolitionist activities and continued to attend meeting. Following the Civil War, his daughter, Abigail H. Gibbons, became active in another reform movement, the Women’s Prison Association. She presented her letter of withdrawal from the Religious Society of Friends personally to Rose Street Meeting, at which Sally Hicks of Westbury spoke against her actions. In 1870, members of New York Yearly Meeting approached her to return to Friends. She agreed, if the yearly meeting would approve a minute retracting her father’s disownment. This did not occur, and even as late as 1900 the sides were still adamant.

Thus we see that Friends could participate in individual actions such as support of the Free Produce movement. Similarly, Friends could respond to a fleeing slave by giving sanctuary and passing the person on to safety, as Valentine Hicks was reported as doing. These actions grew out of the personal witness to Friends testimonies. They did not violate any of the precepts laid out in the charges against Isaac Hopper. On the other hand, these individual actions did not urge anyone else to follow, but left it up to each person. It seems that advocacy, agitation, and overt action, particularly in cooperation with non-Friends, were frowned upon. Just as abolitionists acted outside of monthly meeting approval, today some peace activists are forming interfaith alliances to alleviate possible meeting dissent around their actions, such as civil disobedience.

The dilemma of holy obedience in a world of war and social injustice can be further examined in the life and work of a Westbury woman, Rachel Seaman Hicks (1789-1878), who became a noted Quaker minister. She was the daughter of Gideon Seaman, a longtime clerk of Westbury Meeting. At the time of the separation, he remained clerk of Westbury Orthodox Friends while his daughter went with the followers of Elias Hicks, her uncle by marriage.

Rachel Seaman Hicks was a shy, deeply spiritual woman who felt called by God. In 1808, at the age of 18, she writes in her Memoir of an unwelcome message from God requiring her to travel in the ministry to call Friends back into faithfulness. She resisted this and future messages until 1836, after the death of her father, husband, and two sons. Although plagued by self-doubt and homesickness, she traveled widely in New York Yearly Meeting, along the East Coast from Maryland to Canada and as far away as Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana. She saw her mission as calling Hicksite meetings back into faithfulness to the quietist path in the face of an upsurge of spiritualism sweeping the country. She labored with meetings and individuals in an "earnest appeal for obedience to the voice within."

Rachel Hicks, like so many Friends, lamented the institution of slavery and its bitter fruits. As her Journal indicates, she foresaw the day of reckoning "not only to the slaveholder, but also to those who sustain the system by using and trafficking in the articles produced by the labor of slaves. . . . I fear that, ere long, the soil that has received the tears and sweat of the oppressed in our land will be moistened by the blood of the white man—the inevitable consequence and just retribution for his unrighteous doings."

No one can doubt the sincerity of her feelings against slavery, her steadfast belief in the hand of God working in history, and that the individual’s salvation came by faithful obedience to the Inner Light. Nevertheless, she could not condone the efforts of the Quaker abolitionists, who also believed they were being faithful to their own Inner Light to overturn slavery. We learn, not from Rachel Hicks but from letters of Lucretia Mott, that the former strongly criticized the latter’s abolitionist and women’s rights activities. Rachel Hicks’s reasons are summed up in the charges against Isaac Hopper—with the added charge that Lucretia Mott thrust herself upon meetings uninvited and would refuse to keep silent.

The parallel with today becomes evident. Many Friends follow their Inner Light individually or act in concert with like-minded Quakers, often outside the official jurisdiction of a meeting in the matter of witnessing to the Peace Testimony. When it comes to the war in Iraq or conflict in the Middle East, there seem to be too many potential conflicts within meetings. We can hear the same arguments today about witnessing to peace as those used in the Isaac Hopper indictment and Rachel Hicks’s ministry: Such activist Friends are mixing with those who do not share Quaker spiritual grounding, who use strong language, who may cause trouble for its own sake. One hears the clash of the will of humans versus the will of God, and that opposition to the war ignores the good intentions of government leaders who are trying to protect the people.

Discernment of the will of God and testing personal leadings continue to cause pain and suffering in meetings. Friends leave meetings because they do not find support for activism—or because they are uncomfortable with the activism of others. Quakers are still torn between a commitment to spiritual reality and the call to witness against social injustice, war, and suffering.

Friends still struggle with how to resolve such issues. When faced with two strongly held but opposite views of God’s will, one is tempted to band with those who agree with one’s interpretation and limit one’s conversation with "the others." Friends sometimes avoid conflict within the meeting and the Religious Society by acting outside of both.

Now Friends face the challenge: What can be learned from the conflicts of 150 years ago? I ask other Friends: How can we live up to our reputation? How can we entertain differences, and love those who disagree, even among our own members? We can begin by recognizing that both sides of an issue have part of the Truth, but not all of it; that both have some of it wrong. We must set aside our emotions and our personal agendas to labor with each other in love and in the Light for as long as it takes to find the common ground.
Documents used in this article are posted at

Gretchen Haynes

Gretchen Haynes is a member and clerk of Westbury (N.Y.) Meeting and the co-author of Mediation: Positive Conflict Management, forthcoming from SUNY Press.