A foundation of Friends

Levi Coffin (1798–1877) 

“It tried a man’s soul to be an abolitionist in those days, when brickbats, stones, and rotten eggs were the arguments we had to meet,” lamented Levi Coffin in Reminiscences (1876). A white abolitionist, he became one of the celebrated symbols of the Underground Railroad, the legendary secret network that aided fugitive slaves to escape to freedom.

Coffin was born to a Quaker farming family in New Garden, North Carolina. He had little formal education, being largely taught by his father at home. He wrote that he inherited his antislavery principles from his parents and grandparents who never owned slaves and were all “friends of the oppressed.” As a boy he witnessed an enslaved child torn from his screaming mother and dedicated himself to work to end slavery “until the end of my days.”

Coffin established one of the first Quaker Sunday schools in 1818, modeled on the method developed by Robert Raikes in England. A few years later, he and his cousin Vestal Coffin organized a Sunday school for slaves, teaching them Bible reading and basic Christianity. When it became too successful, some masters were alarmed and shut down the school.

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In 1824 Coffin married Catharine White. They decided they could no longer live among enslaved people in North Carolina and moved to Indiana, a free state. They hid fugitive slaves in their home by day and by night placed them in wagons to transport them to the next safe house on the route to freedom: “Seldom a week passed without our receiving passengers by their mysterious road.”

Quakerism was known as the antislavery church because it was the first denomination to rid its membership of slaveholding in the eighteenth century. But by the early nineteenth century, many meetings opposed immediate emancipation and the breaking of laws to aid escaped slaves. When Coffin and other Indiana abolitionists were deemed “disqualified for usefulness” by their meetings, they organized their own “Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends” in 1842. In 1847 Coffin moved to Cincinnati and opened a “Free-produce Store” selling only goods produced by free labor (see “Seeking freedom,” pp. 24-28). He donated many of the proceeds to assist fugitives.

Many associate the Coffins with Simeon and Rachel Halliday, the couple who sheltered slaves in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). But Stowe’s inspiration was actually other Quaker abolitionists. However, Stowe did use one story from Coffin’s memoir: the rescue of a slave woman pursued by bloodhounds who carried her infant across the frozen Ohio River to the Coffin home. She became Eliza Harris in one of the most riveting scenes in Stowe’s novel.

After the Civil War, Coffin devoted the rest of his life to the Freedmen’s Aid Society. When the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, granting African American men the right to vote, Coffin gave his final speech as the “President of the Underground Railroad” and amid much applause resigned his office and declared, “The operations of the Underground Railroad [are] at an end.”

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)

John Greenleaf Whittier, the best-known Quaker of the nineteenth century, is remembered today primarily for sentimental poems about rural New England and nature, and religious poems still sung as hymns. But Whittier was also a political poet, a fiery abolitionist, and a humanitarian. His 1867 poem “Tent on the Beach” may give us a self-description:

And one there was, a dreamer born,
Who, with a mission to fulfill,
Had left the Muses’ haunts to turn
The crank of an opinion-mill,
Making his rustic reed of song
A weapon in the war with wrong. . . . 

Whittier was born into a poor farming family in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Like Coffin he had little formal education, but his family had a few Quaker books that he studied voraciously. He began writing poetry at age 14, inspired by the work of Robert Burns. When he was 19, his sister sent one of his poems to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who published it in his newspaper. Garrison encouraged Whittier to complete a high school education. The two later became partners in the abolitionist movement.

Whittier wrote widely advocating immediate and unconditional emancipation of slaves, a highly unpopular, even dangerous stance at the time. Being stoned by a mob during a lecture only intensified his commitment to the cause.

In 1838 in an atmosphere of growing violence, some public places closed to abolitionists. Reformers raised money to construct Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, intended for peaceful debate around issues of social justice. Whittier, then editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, wrote a long dedicatory poem to celebrate its opening. He was given an office in the building, but he never got to use it. A mob incensed at seeing whites and blacks mixing burned the building down the day after the first speeches were delivered. The mob called for Whittier to be hung. In the midst of the violence, he donned a disguise and entered the building to salvage his papers.

After this devastating event, Whittier concluded that only political means could end slavery, and he split with Garrison and worked instead with Coffin to found the Liberty Party, a short-lived antislavery political party that attempted to elect abolitionists to office.

After the Civil War, Whittier’s reputation improved, and, with the publication of “Snow-Bound” in 1868, his poetry became increasingly popular. But, by his own estimation, he was always an abolitionist first and a poet second. At his death he was lauded as “the poet of freedom.”

Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906)

In 1872 Susan B. Anthony became a cause célèbre when she attempted to vote in her hometown of Rochester, New York. She was arrested, tried, found guilty, and fined $100, which she never paid. Anthony would not accept defeat. Six years later she convinced a sympathetic congressman to propose an amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote. It continued to be introduced every year until it finally passed in 1920 and is popularly known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

Anthony grew up in a Quaker family known for its radical social activism. She taught school and crusaded for many social reforms but is most renowned for her leadership in the women’s suffrage movement. Anthony began her reform work in the temperance crusade of the 1840s. When she was not allowed to speak at public meetings because she was a woman, she organized her own temperance society with her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1852.

In 1856 Anthony became an antislavery agent. She often faced violent mobs and was once hung in effigy. She realized that women needed political rights to effect social change, and in 1866 she and Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association to promote civil rights for women and black men. A few years later they launched a provocative newspaper, The Revolution, to promote universal suffrage and other radical measures: women’s dress reform, divorce for women in abusive marriages, support for working women, and the newly formed National Labor Union.

In her speeches Anthony often alluded to the Quaker practice of women preaching as the precedent for her reform activities. While retaining core Quaker values, she gradually drifted away from her Quaker meeting and Quaker customs, eventually joining the Unitarians. She even tried unsuccessfully to start her own church in Rochester, New York.

For Anthony reform became her religion. When asked by a reporter if she prayed, she responded, “Every single moment of my life, not on my knees, but with my work.” In a biographical sketch of her, Stanton wrote: “Every energy of her soul is centered upon the needs of the world. To her work is worship. . . . [She] has done the good given her to do, and thus in the darkest hours has been sustained by an unfaltering faith in the final perfection of all things.”

Anthony was publicly vilified and ridiculed most of her life, but in old age she gained begrudging respect and was honored at the White House on her 80th birthday. In 1979 she became the first American woman to be depicted on a coin.

Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911)

Hannah Whitall Smith grew up in a well-to-do Philadelphia Orthodox Quaker family. While Anthony drifted away from her Quaker roots, Smith deepened hers. Although she had a “crisis of faith” as a young woman and resigned from her Philadelphia meeting, she remained a deeply committed Christian and never lost her identity as a Quaker, rejoining in 1886.

From her childhood Smith imagined herself as a minister and dreamed of preaching and traveling all over the world, the one avenue of public life always open for women in the Quaker tradition. Her fame as a preacher expanded far beyond Quakerism, and she became a leading female voice in the holiness revival of the nineteenth century. In England Hannah and her husband, Robert Pearsall Smith (also a prominent Quaker), were star holiness evangelists from the United States, flavoring what was called the “Higher Life” movement with Quaker spirituality.

But scandal struck: her husband was accused of inappropriate relations with a female disciple at the pinnacle of his international fame. Robert withdrew from public life, and the two returned to the United States. That same year Hannah’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875) became an instant bestseller, and it is still in print and read by spiritual seekers today. While she continued to write popular devotional books, her public passion turned to social reform, especially women’s rights and temperance. She wrote to a friend:

I believe God has made me a pioneer, so that I do not expect much sympathy or understanding as I go along; and the breaking through of hedges, and fences, and stone walls is not a very pleasant path . . . But it is my nature, I cannot help it. . . .

Like Anthony, Smith was a born feminist, but it wasn’t until 1882 that she gave her first official public speech for women’s suffrage. She came to her conviction, she wrote, “by the way of the gospel, that Christ came to break every yoke and set free all that were bound.” Her feminism propelled her into leadership in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and a close friendship with its president, Frances Willard, who supported the then-radical fight for female suffrage. Toward the end of her life, she proudly admitted:

I have always rather enjoyed being considered a heretic, and have never wanted to be endorsed by any one . . . to be endorsed was to be bound, and . . . it was better, for me at least, to be a free lance, with no hindrances to my absolute mental and spiritual freedom.

Surprisingly Hannah’s heresy, her universalism, was rarely an obstacle to speaking invitations or book contracts. Her intimate relationship with a “mother-hearted God” sustained her through great joy and deep grief: the deaths of four of her seven children and her husband’s humiliating scandal. In her autobiography (1903), she wrote: “I feel myself to have gotten out into a limitless ocean of the love of God that overflows all things. ‘God is love,’ comprises my whole system of ethics.” CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #117 The Surprising Quakers. Read it in context here!

By Carole Dale Spencer

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #117 in 2016]

Carole Dale Spencer is associate professor of Christian spirituality at Earlham School of Religion and a recorded Friends minister.
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