Quakers – officially members of the Religious Society of Friends - are a small Protestant sect founded in England in 1647. Quakers believe in a direct experience of God through sitting in “silent expectation” at Meetings for Worship. There is no leadership through clergy, and decisions are reached through consensus.
Quakers began emigrating to the USA in 1656, though their numbers were always small. The best-known American Quaker, William Penn, founded Pennsylvania in 1682 as a religious experiment; the religious freedom it held out attracted many others. Quakers also moved to southern states and west, settling in Ohio, Indiana and other states.
Quakers opposed slavery in principle, as it challenged their beliefs in the equality of all people. Thus they were instrumental to the growth of both the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Most early abolitionists were Quakers, and many Quakers worked to help free slaves, including Levi Coffin, called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.
As principled as they sound, in practice, early Quakers also kept slaves; ownership of slaves by Friends was only prohibited by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1776. Quakers often did not help runaway slaves because they already had a reputation for going their own way, and were reluctant to be seen further attacking government policy. It was more important for them to be considered law-abiding citizens.
Quakers were also as prejudiced as others at the time. At the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, as in some other Quaker Meetings, a bench was set aside as the “Negro Pew” where black members were expected to sit. Quakers might believe in equality, but they did not want their white daughters sitting next to black women or marrying black men.