Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded

The first antislavery society in America was formed by, mostly, members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The Quakers had formed an abolitionist philosophy that was in line with the religion’s belief in equality for all individuals.

Summary of Event

On April 14, 1775, a group of men gathered at the Sun Tavern on Second Street in Philadelphia to establish the first Antislavery movement antislavery Slavery;of Africans[Africans]
African slaves society in America. After electing John Baldwin their president and adopting a constitution, they named their organization the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage (United States) Sixteen of the twenty-four founders were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Quakers;antislavery stance The creation of this antislavery society was instigated when Philadelphia Quakers Pemberton, Israel Israel Pemberton and Harrison, Thomas Thomas Harrison aided American Indian Neville, Dinah Dinah Neville and her children, who were being detained in Philadelphia waiting to be taken to the West Indies to be sold as slaves. [kw]Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded (Apr. 14, 1775)
[kw]Founded, Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is (Apr. 14, 1775)
[kw]Slavery Is Founded, Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of (Apr. 14, 1775)
[kw]Abolition of Slavery Is Founded, Pennsylvania Society for the (Apr. 14, 1775)
[kw]Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded, Pennsylvania (Apr. 14, 1775)
Slavery;colonial America
Abolition movement;colonial America
Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery
[g]American colonies;Apr. 14, 1775: Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded[2150]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 14, 1775: Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded[2150]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 14, 1775: Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded[2150]
Benezet, Anthony
Woolman, John

Harrison was fined in a Philadelphia court for giving protection to the Neville family. When this incident gained notoriety, members of the Quaker Philadelphia Meeting came together to form the antislavery society. At its first meeting, the antislavery society enlisted legal counsel to help the Nevilles and five other victims illegally held in bondage and to form a standing committee to investigate any conditions of slavery in the Philadelphia area.

“Am I not a man and a brother?” pleads a slave in chains. The image was adopted originally by England’s Society for the Abolition of Slavery in the 1780’s, but it is symbolic of the struggles against slavery in the American colonies as well.

(Library of Congress)

The Revolutionary War interrupted regular meetings until 1784. At this time, Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet revived the antislavery society as members learned that two African Americans had committed suicide rather than be illegally enslaved. Benezet increased the membership to forty, including Franklin, Benjamin
[p]Franklin, Benjamin;abolition movement Benjamin Franklin, Pemberton, James James Pemberton, and Rush, Benjamin Benjamin Rush. The society renamed itself the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (United States) for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race. Since the majority of the members were Friends, the group developed directly from Quaker religious beliefs and within the Quaker social structure. To explore the founding of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, it is critical to trace events and movements within the Society of Friends in seventeenth century colonial Pennsylvania.

One of the basic principles espoused by Quaker founder Fox, George George Fox was that all people are created equal. Human rights On a visit to the colonies in 1671, Fox spoke at Friends’ meetings and encouraged Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves after a specified period of service. In 1676, Quaker Edmundson, William William Edmundson, an associate of Fox, published the first antislavery literature in Rhode Island. While Quakers were formulating an antislavery position early in their movement, German Mennonites Mennonites migrating to America had vowed that they would not own slaves. Several members of the Mennonite community and Dutch Pietists Pietism adopted Quakerism and became members of the Friends’ Germantown Meeting. These Quakers, their minister Pastorius, and other Friends of the Germantown Meeting delivered a petition to the Philadelphia Meeting in 1688 demanding that slavery and the slave trade be abolished. The protest addressed to slave owners of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting challenged these Friends to explain why they had slaves and how such a practice could exist in a colony founded on the principles of liberty and equality.

Representing the radical leadership of Philadelphia Friends, Keith, George George Keith published a tract entitled An Exhortation and Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes. Exhortation and Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes, An (Keith) He gave several directives: that Friends should not purchase African slaves except for the express purpose of setting them free, that those already purchased should be set free after a time of reasonable service, and that, while in service, slaves should be given a Christian education and taught how to read.

During the early eighteenth century, the conservative, wealthy membership of the Philadelphia Meeting took a somewhat confusing position on slavery. Their inconsistent policies included a separate meeting for African Americans, a request that Quakers in the West Indies stop sending slaves to Philadelphia, and disciplinary measures for members of the meeting who were engaged in antislavery activity. Many prominent Quakers, such as James Logan, Jonathan Dickinson, and Isaac Norris, continued to purchase and own slaves.

The customary procedure of resolving issues at Friends’ meetings was to achieve a consensus by gaining a sense of the meeting. Thus, the Quaker drift toward an antislavery sentiment gained momentum with the efforts of a few radicals but achieved success only when the majority bowed to the principles of Quaker conscience.

Unpopular radical member Benjamin Lay Lay, Benjamin was unwelcome at the Philadelphia Meeting because of his unorthodox promotion of the antislavery cause. For example, Lay once had kidnapped a Quaker youth in order to illustrate the tragedy of abduction of African children for the slave trade. In 1738, he outdid himself at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, wearing a military uniform to emphasize the connection between slavery and war and concealing under his cloak an animal bladder that he had filled with red juice. Delivering an inflamed speech on the evils of slavery, he concluded by saying that slavery took the very lifeblood out of the slave, simultaneously piercing the bladder and splashing the horrified audience with simulated blood.

By the 1730’s, the effects of the antislavery movement were evident among Quakers as more Friends provided for the manumission of their slaves in their wills. In addition, the increased immigration of Germans in need of work eliminated the demand for slave labor in the Middle Colonies.

Much of the credit for the success of the antislavery movement among Quakers must be given to New Jersey Quaker John Woolman. Known for his gentle, persuasive approach as a Quaker minister, he began a series of visitations to Quaker slaveholders in New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South in 1743. In 1754, he published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (Woolman) which proclaimed the evils of slavery and the absolute necessity for Friends to free their slaves. Meetings throughout the colonies and England effectively used his visitations to pressure Quakers to free their slaves. By 1774, Quaker meetings in England, New England, and Pennsylvania had adopted sanctions to disown any member for buying slaves or for serving as executor of an estate that included slaves. It also required slaveholders to treat their slaves humanely and to emancipate them as soon as possible.


Some have argued that Quakers were willing to emancipate their slaves because slavery was not profitable in Pennsylvania in the absence of labor-intensive agriculture. Others claim that Quaker sensitivity to antislavery was aroused not by their own religious ideals but rather by eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy, which held that liberty is a natural human right. These may be considered arguments; nevertheless, it was the Quakers who first championed the antislavery cause and who organized the first antislavery group in America. The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery served as a model for other antislavery groups. As early as 1794, other states that had formed antislavery societies were asked to send representatives to Philadelphia for annual meetings. As new associations were formed, Friends constituted a majority of the membership. Statesmen such as Franklin, Rush, Hamilton, Alexander Alexander Hamilton, Jay, John John Jay, and Paine, Thomas Thomas Paine believed that the institution of slavery contradicted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and joined in support of the Friends’ antislavery campaign.

Further Reading

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. An exhaustive study of the slave question immediately before the American Revolution and in the succeeding federal period, which includes the pioneering efforts of the Quakers.
  • Frost, J. William, ed. The Quaker Origins of Antislavery. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1980. A history of the Quaker antislavery cause that includes a comprehensive collection of Quaker documents.
  • James, Sydney V. A People Among Peoples: Quaker Benevolence in Eighteenth Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. This classic work discusses antislavery as an outreach of Quaker religious piety, along with the Quakers’ other efforts for the good of the social order.
  • Nash, Gary B. Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania 1681-1726. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. Places the antislavery cause within the larger framework of troubled politics in colonial Pennsylvania.
  • _______. Race and Revolution. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1990. An examination of racial relations during the Revolutionary War. Chapter 2, “The Failure of Abolitionism,” includes information on the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. The book also contains supporting annotated documents, including a petition from the society.
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolition: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. A history of American abolitionist activities from the 1770’s to the 1830’s. Newman traces the beginning of the abolition movement to Pennsylvania, and the first four chapters detail the founding and activities of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.
  • Soderlund, Jean R. Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. A study of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and its progression to an antislavery philosophy. Draws parallels with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

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Abolition movement;colonial America
Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery