Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The Church in the Southern Black Community

[Detail] Training School for Wives and Mothers, Baton Gouge, La. 1888.

Early Anti-Slavery Efforts by Religious Communities

Opposition to slavery in some religious communities began in the colonial era. Carter Woodson mentioned the Quakers and an early anti-slavery leader, John Woolman. More can be learned about this member of the Society of Friends by reading “John Woolman’s Efforts in Behalf of Freedom” by David Houston (Journal of Negro History, April 1917).  The article explores Woolman’s early efforts to influence the Quakers to forbid their members to own slaves.  Although the article focuses on Woolman’s efforts, it also introduces readers to the work of two other colonial abolitionists, Benjamin Lay and Anthony Benezet. 

  • What, according to this article, was the reason that Quakers resisted early efforts to ban slaveholding in their community?
  • What experiences stimulated Woolman’s anti-slavery efforts?
  • How successful were the efforts of John Woolman to convince the Society of Friends to prohibit Quakers from owning slaves or participating in the slave trade? Would you, like author David Houston, classify Woolman as a success? Why or why not?
  • How did Woolman’s efforts differ from those of Benjamin Lay? Explain which approach you think was more likely to be effective. Can you think of another example from U.S. history of two advocates for change who took differing approaches?

John Wesley, the English evangelist and co-founder of Methodism, traveled to British colonial America in the early part of the eighteenth century.  After his return to England, he published a tract Thoughts upon Slavery, in which he condemned the African slave trade and slavery and refuted the notion that slavery rescued Africans from barbarism, an often-used justification for slavery.  Although some Methodists took Wesley’s message to heart, many ministers and congregations in the Southern colonies did not heed it.  In documenting the experience of enslaved people from Africa, Wesley briefly described the Middle Passage,

. . . It is common for several hundreds of them to be put on board one vessel; where they are stowed together in as little room, as it is possible for them to be crowded. It is easy to suppose what a condition they must soon be in, between heat, thirst, and stench of various kinds. So that it is no wonder, so many should die in the passage; but rather, that any survive it.”

From Thoughts upon Slavery, pages 21-22

John Dixon Long in Pictures of Slavery in Church and State included John Wesley’s “Testimony Against Slavery” as an appendix.

If, therefore, you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor the revealed law of God,) render unto all their due. Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do unto every one as you would he should do unto you.

From “Testimony Against Slavery,” from Pictures of Slavery in Church and State, pages 406-407

Read the “Testimony Against Slavery” and all or parts of Thoughts upon Slavery.

  • What arguments does Wesley make against slavery? Which do you find most compelling? How does he draw upon his religious beliefs in making the case against slavery?
  • In introducing “Testimony Against Slavery,” John Dixon Long wrote of Powell, “The energy, the eloquence, and the earnestness with which, almost single-handed, he combated an institution recognized by the public sentiment of Christendom are an additional proof of the daring moral courage which characterized him as a Christian and as a man.” Do you agree with this description of Wesley? To what other figures in the early fight against slavery might the description apply?

Methodists and Quakers were not the only churches whose early members included abolitionists. Among the small Baptist communities established in New England in the early colonial period, some, such as the Freewill Baptists of New Durham, New Hampshire, strongly favored abolition of slavery.  An Outline of Baptist History provides some background on Baptist communities in colonial America.  By 1760, Baptists had reached out to the poor, preaching a gospel of equality.  In the South a number of slaves were attracted by Baptist beliefs.  Because of restrictions on the assembly and movement of slaves, religious services were often clandestine and took the form of early morning sunrise prayer services.