Contextual Essays:

'What's in a Manumission?'

Haverford College holds records, created by white Quakers, which promise the release of people they enslaved. These legal documents are called Manumissions. Within the Manumission, you can find names of enslaved people, slaveholders, and witnesses to the manumission. You can also find the date of the manumission signing and the place (Township and County) the enslaver lived. Often, the approximate age of the enslaved person is listed as well. Sometimes freedom is withheld from enslaved people until a certain age, often 18 or 21. Occasionally, a precise date for the turning of 18 or 21 is listed. Some of the people Quakers enslaved were Quakers themselves, while others were not; religious affiliations of the enslaved are not noted in the manumissions.

The reasons for Quaker denouncement of slavery are quite varied. For the manumissions in our collection, rationale for manumitting is often left unsaid or out of Christian motives. These Christain motives are stated in various ways, such as: “from a desire of offering the precept of our Lord Jesus Christ to do unto others as I would they should do unto me” (HC10-10002_053), “from a persuasion of duty, agreeable to that great command of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Matt 7 & 12th, ‘all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them’ ” (HC10-10002_064), “from a sense of duty and for my own peace” (HC10-10002_066). Other, less charitable, sentiments contriubting to a general Christian denouncement of slavery can be found in Katherine Gerbner’s book Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (2018). Among them are: distress over the slaveholder’s soul in participating in brutal/sinful practices of slaveholding, the desire to resolve a conundrum brought about by converting enslaved people to Christianity and thus enslaving other Christians (though converting enslaved people was also discussed as creating “better” and “more docile” slaves), segregating white Quakers from Black enslaved Quakers since enslaved people would often worship alongside their enslaver while freed Black people would often not, and the horror over the brutality of slavery. For many Quakers, evangelism was a motive for manumission. Block, in her book Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean, explains how the Protestant emphasis on free will as a necessity to conversion was especially acute for Quakers. This meant that conversion under enslavement was always viewed skeptically as enslavement due to its coercive nature. For true conversion and evangelism, the convert must be free (Block, 192).

The process of convincing many slaveholding members to manumit slaves, even after slaveholding was considered a disownable offense, was a lengthy one. Elders of monthly meetings and volunteers would visit slaveholding Quakers to inform them of their violation. According to J. William Frost’s The Quaker Origins of Antislavery, between 1757 and 1776, there were “111 instances of disciplinary proceedings for engaging in the slave trade” (Frost, 23). Moreover, he says, “If the records of manumissions preserved by meetings are an indication of general practices, then few Friends voluntarily complied with the requests to manumit slaves” (Frost, 23).

Some pro-slavery Quakers said saw slaveholding and slave-trading as a way to support and gain entry to societal approval (Block, 184). Some on-the-fence Quakers felt that it would be inappropriate to denounce slaveholding while their Quaker peers in the Caribbean still practiced it (Frost, 11). To print and distribute anti-slavery materials, outside of the meeting, was seen as a breach of unity, a disownable offence (Soderlund, 17). For Frost, the process of slow reform was an attempt to maintain unity among Friends (Frost, 27).

Rebellions by enslaved people caused fear among whites. This fear was influential enough to cause white Quakers to rethink their doctrines around evangelism and literacy--specifically around teaching enslaved people to read the Bible. Maybe most surprising is white Quakers’ reconsideration of their customary rejection of militia participation. Some white Quakers chose to participate in unarmed patrols, which would notify authorities of suspected conspiracy, de facto enacting violence upon Black people (Block, 180). Of course, the disciplining of the enslaved is another instance of the fungibility of the Quaker doctrine of nonviolence.

These manumissions hold many fragments and pieces to the story of slavery, life, and Quakerism in the Mid-Atlantic region. It is our hope that this site, and the data created for it, can help flesh out the story further.


  • Block, Kristen. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. University of Georgia Press, 2012.
  • Frost, J. William. The Quaker Origins of Antislavery. Norwood Editions, 1980.
  • Gerbner, Katharine. Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
  • Soderlund, Jean R. Quakers & Slavery: a Divided Spirit. Princeton University Press, 1985.