Slavery and dissident Quaker voices today
Elizabeth Buffum Chace
Well over one hundred years ago, Elizabeth Buffum Chace wrote some words which I hope give comfort to the persistent voices out of step with the Meeting, and I hope give pause to those who feel they know what is best for Quaker institutions and are well ensconced in the Friendly mainstream. She writes:
Several persons, in various parts of the country, were forcibly carried out of the Friend's meeting for attempting, therein to urge upon Friends the duty "to maintain, faithfully their testimony against slavery," as their Discipline required. A few meeting houses in country places, had been opened for the Anti-Slavery meetings, whereupon our New England Yearly Meeting adopted a rule that no meeting house under its jurisdiction, should be opened except for meetings of our religious Society.
During those years, I could not help feeling a sense of gave responsibility for these unrighteous proceedings, so long as I remained a member of the Society, and my mind was deeply exercised concerning my duty in the matter. Other Anti-Slavery Friends thought it was best to remain in the Society, and strive to reform these abuses. But we were few in number; and the great body of Quakerism in the country was against us. Our lips were sealed in the meetings, and out of our meetings we were in disgrace. -" despised and rejected. " One young Friend in Massachusetts had written a very earnest, open letter to Friends, in remonstrance for their pro-slavery position. He was universally condemned by all the powerful influences of the Society.Talking with one of the most influential members at our Yearly Meeting, who expressed strong condemnation of this young man's presumption, I said, "But is not what he says true?" And the man replied, "Well, thee may be sure, it will certainly kill him as a Friend."
No belief in Papal infallibly was ever stronger in the Catholic mind, than was the assumption, not expressed in words, that the Society could do no wrong, and that on this question of slavery, silence should be maintained and no reproof, exhortation, or entreaty against the pro-slavery attitude of the Society, should be tolerated. The claim of Friends, that the transaction of their Society affairs, should be under the immediate inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, so beautifully set forth in so many of their writings and sermons, as well are required in their Discipline, was sometimes perverted to authorize proceedings and actions which were far from being holy...
Reading this today, some argue that there are no issues as pressing as was slavery ... the wrong of slavery was as profound a stain on the soul of our nation as ever existed, and as such, such observations as that of Friend Chace cannot be applied to the petty questions of freedom and fairness of the world today. And yet, perhaps this should cut in the opposite direction. If we Friends turned the other way in the face of our sisters and brothers chained to plow and property, perhaps because it was the way of the world of that day, we should be careful to weigh our processes against our being inured to the way of the world today.
Today, some friends notice that there is a profound wrong in the use of prison goods in our Meeting houses, there is a profound wrong in sacrificing even one Quaker child to the ideal that certain children are not clever enough or wealthy enough to be deserving of a Quaker education, that our Meetings would turn their schools founded by our spiritual ancestors over to non-Quaker business interests, or that there should be an end to secret back room dealing on nominations, that there should be transparency in our business dealings, that trustees should never act on the power given by the state but should only following the dictates of God speaking through a Meeting in unity and that unity should include dissident voices with the same weight and equality of the institutional status quo, the "great body of Quakerism"... I can only urge faith and gentleness of people who profess the same.
Thine walking cheerfully across the world - out of step with all but the still, small voice of God within all,