Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist

By Gary B. Nash. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 352 pages. $34.95/hardcover or eBook.

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Thorough books have been produced in recent years by historians exploring the writings and works of early Quaker anti-slavery activists, including Marcus Rediker’s biography The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (reviewed in FJ Sept. 2017) and David L. Crosby’s annotated collection, The Complete Antislavery Writings of Anthony Benezet, 1754–1783 (reviewed in FJ Nov. 2014).

These books and others have been efforts to recover a little known aspect of early American history: how a small band of religious white people—the most vocal of them Quakers—pressed for the universal emancipation of slaves on moral grounds. They met strong opposition from those with vested economic interests in slavery, including fellow Quakers, yet they persisted.

Now Gary Nash, a history research professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has produced a comprehensive biography of the all-but-forgotten leader of this small movement, Warner Mifflin.

Mifflin, the scion of a wealthy plantation owner, became convinced through epiphanous awakenings to see slavery as an evil antithetical to the natural order and the God who created that order.

Mifflin (1745–1798) freed his own slaves, urged others to do the same, lobbied legislatures to press for slavery’s end, and even advocated and practiced a form of reparations—he called it restitution—paying slaves he freed with money or goods for the work they had done. Southern politicians hated him, with one declaring him “a meddling fanatic.” Many slaves and former slaves held him in the highest regard, as a man who pushed for their cause long after both Lay (1681–1759) and Benezet (1713–1784) and other abolitionists like John Woolman (1720–1772) were gone. Though he would have little or no contact with these activists, Mifflin would take up their cause.

Mifflin grew up on a plantation on the Delmarva Peninsula. As a boy most of his companions were slaves. He did not publicly question the peculiar institution, however, until his late 20s, when he suffered an illness and in his recuperation became, as he wrote, “fully persuaded in my conscience that it is a sin of a deep dye to make slaves of my fellow creatures.” He also wrote he would free slaves because he believed “it to be impossible to obtain that peace my soul desires while my hands are found full of injustice . . .” Mifflin’s efforts to abolish slavery were complicated by the American Revolution, which tore colonial society apart and sorely tested the Quaker testimony of peace, which Mifflin and others held dear. Many revolutionaries considered Quakers to be royalist sympathizers and profiteers. Quakers were abused and their property destroyed. Mifflin and others risked their lives to travel to Quaker gatherings and to meet with both British and American military leaders to urge peace.

Throughout the war, Mifflin only became more committed to his belief that slavery was a moral wrong. He freed all his slaves and paid them back wages, and his home became a safe haven for slaves and ex-slaves.

Mifflin and other Quakers press leaders of the new United States, including Congress, for an end to slavery. Mifflin was widely known during his lifetime as a leading abolitionist, being praised by like-minded people in the United States and Europe, including Thomas Clarkson, who mentioned him in his popular book on Quakers opposing the slave trade. Southern politicians and businessmen railed against him. But after he died of yellow fever in 1798, his legacy faded almost to oblivion. Now, Professor Nash has delivered a noble effort of, as he puts it, “[r]estoring Warner Mifflin to public memory.” Bravo.

The book has some weaknesses. At points it loses larger themes in too much detail about Mifflin’s family life and his comings and goings. A bigger problem is no fault of Professor Nash, but of the historical record. Here is yet another work about white abolitionists where we learn very little about the people they were trying to free. Slaves, even if named in the book, remain undeveloped as characters because little record was made of their opinions and concerns. We are left to wonder what they thought of the cruel social order in which they were expected to inhabit the lowest level in perpetuity—and we learn little of their own efforts to escape that system’s broad reach.


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1 thought on “Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist

  1. Mifflin was also a war tax resister. He refused to use the Continental currency that the United States Congress was issuing to pay for the revolutionary war effort, which put him at risk of being considered a traitor.

    His story in his words: https://sniggle.net/TPL/index5.php?entry=15Jan08#item3


    “I told my wife, if every farthing we possessed was seized for the purpose of supporting war, and I was informed that it should all go, unless I voluntarily gave a shilling, I was satisfied I should not so redeem it.”

    “I saw a Testament, and opening it at the 13th chapter of Revelations, found mention there made of a time when none should buy or sell, but those who received the mark of the beast, in the right hand, or forehead. Now, it fixed in my mind, that if I took that money, after receiving those impressions, I should receive a mark of the bestial spirit of war, in my right hand, and then, the penalty which is annexed, and described in the ensuing chapter, must follow. I then resolved, through the Lord’s assistance, (which I craved might be afforded,) let what would follow, never to deal in any of it.”

    “[O]n the issuing of the bills of credit, by Congress, I felt restricted from receiving them, lest I might thereby, in some sort, defile my hands with one of the engines of war. From this circumstance, I was further dipped into sympathy with the condition of the blacks; for, by declining to use the paper money, I was in danger of being declared an enemy to my country, and like them, to be thrown out from the benefit of its laws… Abundant threats were poured out, that my house should be pulled down over my head; — that I should be shot, carted, &c. This proved a fiery trial…”

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