Gest Fellow Ben Wright is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History at Rice University. His research is on “American Clergy and the Problem of Slavery, 1750-1830: Form the Politics of Conversion to the Conversion to Politics.”
My research explores the connections between religious conversion and antislavery activism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Cutting off at 1830, when antislavery hardened into immediate abolitionism, I argue that the Americans and Britons who attacked slavery in this early period, did so primarily out of broader motives than simply a hatred of human bondage. The push to convert the colonies, the new American republic, and eventually the world trumped nearly every other ambition for the growing population of evangelical Protestants in the Anglo-Atlantic world. Quakers, however, offer a powerful counter-example. My study argues that Quakers demonstrated an unrivaled commitment to antislavery because of their inward quest for communal purity. It is no coincidence that the Quaker antislavery crusade coincided with what Jack Marietta has called the Quaker Reformation, a mid-eighteenth century renewal movement among Friends to refocus religious life around the principles of modesty, anti-materialism, and communal discipline.
While working in the Quaker Collection, I have investigated the letters, diaries, and other private writings of dozens of Quaker reformers, the minutes of numerous monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings, and the antislavery publications of numerous Quaker societies. My research has confirmed many of my suspicions, while also revealing several surprising new insights. The writings of early to mid-eighteenth century Quakers like John Fothergill, George Churchman, John Pemberton and others illustrate my arguments regarding Quaker anxieties by revealing a great preoccupation with internal purity and a fear that moral failures among Friends will lead a winnowing of the faithful. I was surprised, however, to find seeds of dissention among mid-to-late eighteenth-century Quakers that would later sprout into the antebellum schisms. I found that reformers were very much aware of these dissentions and used antislavery as a tool to maintain unity. The private letters of several Quaker reformers reveal their relief at the refreshing unity among Friends in the antislavery cause. Another surprise came from a close reading of Quaker conversion narratives. Conversion in the early eighteenth century was a deeply fraught process that often took months if not years, whereas by the end of the century, conversion was a quicker process. In the early nineteenth century, the language of conversion almost completely drops out of Quaker memorials.
It will take more time to integrate these findings within my larger analysis, yet I am grateful to say that the remarkably helpful staff and impressive holdings of the Quaker Collection have given me a treasure trove of evidence to inform my project.