Quakers and Slavery

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Quakers and Slavery


For information on early slave owners in Chester and Delaware Counties, Pennsylvania, (and a few adjoining areas) see Ann Wiegle's Web Site. For general African American research, see a Christine's Genealogy Web Site with many links.

When the Quakers first came to Pennsylvania they owned slaves along with other Pennsylvania residents. The first known public protest against slavery was in the Germantown Meeting in Pennsylvania in 1688. Their protest began as follows: "These are the reasons why we are against the traffic of men-body, as followeth: Is there any that would be done or handled in this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?" Gradually the Quakers came to see the error of holding another human being in bondage and around the time of the Revolutionary War they began to manumit their slaves.

One of the few examples within the family occurred on 8th month 18th day of 1775 at Bradford Monthly Meeting in Chester County, Pennsylvania, when Stephen Harlan "manumits a negro Hannah and her children Sampson, London, Daniel and Phillis." Stephen Harlan was second husband of Deborah Woodward Strode, daughter of Richard Woodward, Jr.

John Bartram, the noted naturalist, owned slaves but a Russian visitor remarked that they were rather more well treated than usual and mentioned their sitting down at table with the family and the hired laborers. Bartram, however, was ahead of his time on the subject of abolition.

James Hunt left a slave in his will (1717) to his wife and son but directed if they did not need her that she be set free.

Chester County Court records in 1762 tell of a slave, Abraham Johnson, who was tried and acquitted of murder. He belonged to botanist and Quaker Humphrey Marshall.

Some examples from Gwynedd Monthly Meeting show the changing attitude of the Quakers over time:
4th mo, 27, 1756. We have but very few negroes amongst us, and they we believe are tolerably well used.
2d mo. 26, 1760. Thomas Jones has purchased a slave, and he appearing in this meeting in a plyable frame of mind, expressed disposition of using him well if he should live; this meeting desires him to adhere to the Principle of doing unto others as he would be done unto, which will teach him how to use him in time to come.
1st mo, 1780. Miles Evans agrees to manumit his negro man. A committee of the meeting is appointed to advise the negro with respect to his conduct when free.
7th mo 27, 1784. No slaves amongst us. Those set free are under the care of the committee.

North Carolina

Quaker John Woolman while traveling in the South was much grieved by what he saw. He wanted to bear a vigorous testimony against this evil, but never resorted to harsh condemnation. When being entertained in homes where the food had been grown and served by slave labor, he quietly declined to eat - much to the embarrassment of his hosts. This quiet, gentle testimony was quite effective. John Woolman put great emphasis upon the dangers to the white family coming from slave ownership, especially upon young persons living in idleness, with the concept that they had total dominance over the "slave beings" around them. While Quaker opposition to slavery was based primarily unpon the cruel injustice inflicted upon the Negroes, Friends were clearly aware of what the institution was doing to white children who were brought up in pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness.

North Carolina Quakers were not able to dispense with the problems of slavery quickly and easily. The North Carolina assembly of 1777 passed a law entitled "An Act to Prevent Domestic Insurrection", thereby creating difficulties in continuation of the policies of freeing slaves. In brief, it amounted to even more restrictions to manumission. It demanded that county courts make immediate seizure of "illegally" freed slaves, and to resell them at the next court session. Any black man could be challenged, and without court endorsement of his freedom, could be seized. Seizure actually took place with great regularity in Eastern Carolina, although less in the Piedmont (New Garden Friends Meeting, 1983, p. 48).

Complex situations arose. In many instances slaves had been inherited. Setting them free would have meant possible recapture by slave traders who would have sold them to plantation owners in the deep South. Often the most humane action was to allow them to remain in nominal bondage, but in a state of actual freedom. In one court decision the judge observed: "When Quakers hold slaves nothing but the name is wanting to render it at once a complete emancipation."

In 1786 a large group of North Carolina Quakers presented a petition to the North Carolina General Assembly, not requesting the freeing of slaves, but simply that freed slaves not be captured and enslaved again. The petition was denied in December 1786 by both the House of Commons and the Sentate. For a copy of the signers of the petition connected to families on this Web Site see "Petition 1786" at the bottom of this page. When time permits we will add more of the wording and more of the signers.

In 1788 at the yearly meeting in Perquimans County it was determined that the Quakers were not yet clean of slaveholding and a new committee was formed to report to the next yearly meeting to be held at Centre Meeting in Guilford County. The committee included Strangeman Stanley, John Beals, Samuel Millikan, Isaac Beeson, Thomas Thornbrough, all from our families. It is unfortunate that Centre Meeting records are largely missing so we do not have a report from the committee available.

The following will and codocil present an interesting picture of slavery in North Carolina: In the name of God amen. I Thomas Lytle of the County of Randolph State of North Carolina being of sound & perfect mind & memory please be God. Do this twentyfifth day of Jennuary in the year one thousand seven hundred & ninety four do make and publish this my last will and testament in manner following. That is to say Firste I give and bequeath to my brother Henry Lytle's daughter Elizabeth Merrek(?) one hundred pounds current money to be paid as soon as convenient after my Decease to her and her heirs forever, 2nd I give and bequeath to my said brother's daughter Rosanna Johnston the sum of one hundred pounds to be paid as soon as convenient after my decease to her and her heirs forever, 3rd I give and bequeath to my said brother's daughter Agnes Johnston one hundred pounds as soon as convenient after my decease to her and her heirs forever - 4th I give & bequeath the remainder of my estate both real and personal to my loving wife Catherine my friend William Bell John Beard & Samuel Millikan to them and their heirs forever Excepting my loving wifes part my will is that it devolves to the above named William Bell John Beard & Samuel Millikan forever, 5th I do hereby nominate & appoint my loving wife Catherine Executrix & William Bell John Beard & Samuel Millikan Executors of this my Last Will & Testament. Ratifying and confirming this and no other to be my last will and testament. Thomas Little (Seal) Signed Sealed & Delivered by the said Thomas Little to be his last will & testament in presence of us
Joseph Smith
Thomas Alexander
Peter Dicks
Copy: THarper Clerk

Randolph County March Term 1794
The execution of the above last will and testament was duly proved in Open Court by Joseph Smith & Peter Dicks & ordered to be resolved. T. Harper, Clerk

A document was appended to this will signed by Catrain (Cathrine) Lytle, William Bell, John Beard, and Samuel Millikan "We the Subscribers Heirs & Executors of the Real & Personal Estate of Thomas Lytle after his Deceas do Hereby bind ourselves & Each of our Heirs faithfully to Distribute & divid the Estate in Manner & form here in after Directed that is to Say to my Negrow Frank his Freedom as soon as possible & all his smith tools a Mair & two hundred acres of Land Joining Dicks the uper end of the Robbins track & the tract in the pines Joining John Beard the Remainder of sd tract with all my other Lands & property to be Equally divided among my other Negrows at my Wifes Death at the Discretion of my Exeutors & they Freed as soon as may be According to Law. Witness our hands and Seals this twentyfifth day of January 1794.
/s/Catrain Lytle her mark
/s/William Bell
/s/John Beard
/s/Sam Millikan
Witnesses Joseph Smith and Thomas Alexander.

Thomas Lytle wished to free his slaves and had included the two Quakers, John Beard and Sam Millikan to see that his instructions were carried out. See the will of John Beard to see how he attempted to do his part. Unfortunately he was not able to keep the slave families together and the children were sold to a slave trader. For more on this see the Lytle family Web Site. There is a link back from the will and document to the Lytle family history page and from there among their descendants to a "Slaves in the family" page that tells some of their history.

A further example at a later date from the biography of Nereus Mendenhall (descendant of Aaron & Rose Pearson Mendenhall) illustrates the difficulties encountered in North Carolina. It speaks of George Mendenhall, grandfather of Nereus. "He was a lawyer of distinction in the State...greatly interested in everything which tended to an improved and enlightened state and community...He married Eliza Dunn, a woman of intelligence and refinement, but the heir to a large number of Negro slaves. For this act he was promptly disowned and never came back into the Quaker fold. Both he and his wife were opposed to slavery and were quite ready to arrange for the freedom of those belonging to them as soon as this could be done...this was a difficult thing for the masters and a perilous thing for the Negroes. The only safe way was to transport them to free soil, and even then to have left them there to provide for themselves would have been a cruelty...The Negro population on the estate grew with wonderful rapidity. They were well fed, well clothed, and each family had its own cabin on the bluff down the river. George Mendenhall never sold a slave, but he bought several who came to him pleading that he would not allow them to be put up at public auction and very likely sent into the more southern states...After a few years George Mendenhall married as his second wife, Delphina E. Gardner...She at once entered into her husband's plans for liberating the slaves. Group by group, as the slaves could be made ready without disrupting family units, they personally took them to Ohio and stayed with them there until each one was secure in some sustaining occupation.

The biography further tells of little Nereus Mendenhall overhearing his grandfather's visitors discussing the horrors of the slave trade. When he grew up he was anti-slavery, as was his wife, and distributed books against slavery. He was summoned to appear before the bar of justice in the town of Greensboro for this act. His friends helped his wife collect the books and burn them.

For a long time the Yearly Meeting in North Carolina took protective custody of slaves but then there was the question of what to do with them. Over time a system evolved whereby Quakers traveling to free territory took "ownership" and transported them to free territory and helped them establish themselves. No accurate number of liberation remains but it is estimated at about two thousand.

New GardenFriends Meeting by Hiram Hilty, 1983, pp. 48-49, tells us that "the underground railroad and the Manumission and Colonization Society of North Carolina were both tools of Guilford County Quakers. Settlement of freed slaves was made in Haiti and Liberia, with Guilford Quakers involved all the time. One shipload of freedmen was diverted to New Orleans by a greedy captain, who sold them back into slavery. One of the slaves had been taught to write by the Quakers, and he succeeded in sending back a letter. Thereafter, a representative of the Quakers was on every ship until the people were landed in a safe port."


From Goodspeed's History of Tennessee, page D19 & D20:
The first branch of the Tennessee Manumission Society was organized at Lost Creek Meeting-house in Jefferson County on February 25, 1815. On that day eight persons met for the purpose of forming themselves into a society, under the style of the Tennessee Society for promoting the Manumission of Slaves. These persons were Charles Osborne, John Canady, John Swan, John Underwood, Jesse Willis, David Maulsby, Elihu Swan and Thomas Morgan. The constitution adopted for this society was as follows:

Article I
Each member is to have an advertisement in the most conspicious part of his house, in the following words, viz.: "Freedom is the natural right of all men, I therefore acknowledge myself a member of the Tennessee Society for promoting the manumission of slaves."

Article II
That no member vote for a governor or legislator unless he believe him to be in favor of emancipation.

Article III
That we convene twelve times at Lost Creek Meeting-house. The first on the 11th of the third month next...shall proceed to appoint a president, clerk and treasurer, who shall continue in office twelve months.

Article IV
The required qualification of our members are true Republican principles...and in form of ...and that no immoral character be admitted into the society as a member.

Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois)

In The Emerging Midwest by Nicole Etcheson (Indiana University Press, 1994) republican ideals are discussed (note reference to Republican principles in Article IV of the Tennessee Manumission Society document). The midwest was being settled by southerners and by northeasterners. Both believed in economic independence but they disagreed on how to get it. Property was one prerequisite for republican virtue. Southerners (and this included more than the Quakers) were frightened of conglomerations of the rich and powerful who would reduce them again to subservience as in the south. The most visible sign of wealth in the south had been slave ownership. Some fought the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory on grounds of natural rights, but most were concerned over the economic results and uneven distribution of wealth and power familiar to them from the Southern system of slavery. A slave society closed opportunities for the poor to advance economically and socially. Poor men would be unable to accumulate the capital to invest in land and slaves necessary for economic betterment, just as yeoman farmers in the south had been unable to compete with the expanding plantation system. Many Southerners migrated to escape slavery and were called "abolitionist" in their sympathies, but another reason for leaving was their want of means to become slaveholders, a man's respectability being, in a great measure, proportioned to the number of slaves in his possession.

Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory but it had limited effect. It did not prevent southerners from traveling with their slaves and from forcing blacks to accept "voluntary" indentures; therefore slavery in the Northwest Territory died a lingering death. There were always arguments that slavery would promote the growth of the territory. Others argued that they had left the South specifically to get away from slavery and were also fearful of the degrading effect slavery would have on white labor and hence on the prosperity of most whites. Oddly enough a concurrent debate raged over whether or not banks should be allowed. They too were seen as ways to create wealth and power that would leave out the majority of white yeoman farmers. While slavery died its lingering death the Northwest Territory was very slow to allow the introduction of banks. There was a constant battle for "republican" ideals that would uphold the equality of the majority of men and slavery and credit were the major issues. And finally in this territory the Quakers were not alone in their battle against slavery.


In 1786 a large group of North Carolina Quakers presented a petition to the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, desiring that they might liberate their slaves without the danger of their being again enslaved. Several Friends had set their slaves free, only to see local authorities capture them and sell them back into slavery.

Signers of the petition included [among others] the following persons documented on this Woodward Web Site:
William Brazelton
John Rudduck
John Hoggatt
Isaac Mendenhall
Joseph Thornbrough
Jonathan Wheeler
Benjamin Mendenhall
William Piggott
Mordecai Mendenahll
Aaron Hoggat
Thomas Peirson
Henry Thornbrough
Joseph Hoggatt
Moses Mendenhall
Tarlton Johnson
John Mendenhall
John Mendenhall
Stephanas Hoggatt
Richard Mendenhall
Walter Thornbrugh
Moses Hoggatt
Thomas Thornbrough
Joseph Mills
Edward Bond
John Beals Jr
John Mills
Amos Mills
Thomas Elmore
Thomas Marshill
Richard Beeson
Archelous Elmore
William Hoggatt
William Chamness
John Henley
Thomas Cook
John Beard
George Thornbrough
Robert Brattain
James Thornbrugh
Uriah Baldwin
Aaron Mendenhall
Jesse Baldwin
William Hunt
Baraciah Macy
Allen Unthank
Charles Cannady
Abraham Cook
Joseph Henley

The petition was referred to committees in the House of Commons and in the Senate and finally referred to a specially appointed committee. The committee ultimately determined that the emancipating of slaves was dangerous to the peace and good order of the state and community and rejected the petition. The Senate concurred on 7th Dec 1786 and the House of Commons concurred 8th Dec 1786.

A copy of this petition was found in the Dallas Library. There were many more signatures.