Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Warner Mifflin, a Colonial Enslaver Who Saw the Light

Warner Mifflin was born in 1745 along Chincoteague Bay in Virginia. A lapsed Quaker, his father enslaved upwards of 100 black people, forcing them to labor on his farm. Being raised in such an environment, Warner knew nothing else. But after an honest conversation with one of the slaves, a seed was planted that would take years to spout.

Here, Warner tells of his early childhood, his move to Delaware, the conversation, and eventual manumission of all his slaves. He was among the first in the colonies to do such a thing. So strong were his convictions, that he convinced even his father to follow his path. Both became strict abolitionists, and preached their gospel across Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

mifflin-defense

I was born, and chiefly raised, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Although my parents were of the religious society, called Quakers, and exemplary in their lives, yet I was subject to great incitements to a departure from the principles, held by that people; there being none of that profession, except our family, within sixty miles. My associates were those, who tenaciously held the prevailing sentiments in favour of slavery; so that I had no opportunity of having my heart and views enlarged, on this interesting subject, by conversing with such of my brethren in profession, who had come to see the necessity of an impartial inquiry into the nature and tendency of this atrocious practice.

Thus circumstanced, and my father then possessing a number of slaves, I was in great danger of becoming blinded by the influence of custom, the bias of education, and the delusions of self-interest; by which I must certainly have become fettered, as in chains of wrong habits, had not the emanations of Divine light and grace, to which I had been early instructed to give attention, powerfully prevailed in successive visitations; so operating, as to subvert the effects of dangerous prepossessions, and disposing my mind to yield to the influences of pure wisdom, in regard to this, to my present view, one of the worst of sins.

About the fourteenth year of my age, a circumstance occurred, that tended to open the way for the reception of those impressions, which have since been sealed, with indelible clearness, on my understanding. Being in the field with my father’s slaves, a young man among them questioned me, whether I thought it could be right, that they should be toiling in order to raise me, and that I might be sent to school; and by and by, their children must do so for mine. Some little irritation, at first, took place in my feelings; but his reasoning so impressed me, as never to be erased from my mind.

Before I arrived at the age of manhood, I determined never to be a slave-holder. But the idea of losing so much property, as I might reasonably expect, from the great number of slaves my father possessed, at first view, seemed hard to reconcile. When I settled in a married life, the proving of my faith on the subject of slavery commenced. I became possessed of several minor slaves, by my wife; and divers came from my father’s, on different errands, with the conclusion to reside with me, without any move thereto on his part, or mine; also, my mother’s family of blacks, from Kent County, Maryland, came to live with me. Thus, all I then had, of lawful age, being volunteers in my service, I rested quiet in the use of them; until, at length, I became almost persuaded, I could not do without them.

When the subject of setting the blacks free was treated on, the prevailing opinion was, that negroes were such thieves, that they would not do to be free. And though this was chiefly the plea of slave-holders, yet I was glad to embrace it, as a pretext for keeping mine. But I was not suffered long to rest unreproved, in this spot. My fig—leaf covering of excuse was stripped off, and my state discovered to me, by the penetrating rays of that Light, which maketh manifest; for “whatsoever maketh manifest, is light.” From these convictions, a considerable conflict arose in my mind. But after continuing for some time, debating, resolving, and re-resolving, a period arrived, when He who hath his way in the clouds, in the whirlwind, in the earthquake, and in the thick darkness,—was pleased to arouse me to greater vigilance, by his terrors for sin; and for having omitted to do what had clearly appeared as my duty, in this business.

In the time of a thunder storm, when every flash of lightning seemed as though it might be the instrument to despatch me into a state of fixedness, and with the measure of my duty herein, not filled up, what could I expect, if taken hence in that condition, but an eternal separation from heavenly enjoyment? Though these sensations may appear strange to some, who neither fear God, nor regard man, yet I still retain a willingness, that such seasons of convulsion in the outward elements, may be impressive of solid instruction to my mind.

Warner Mifflin's Deed of Manumission, 1775
Warner Mifflin’s Deed of Manumission, 1775

It then settled on my understanding, that I should be excluded from happiness, if I continued in this breach of the Divine law, written upon my heart, as by the finger of God: although want and disgrace to my family seemed to present, with threatening aspect, if I should adhere to the dictates of justice. I therefore, in the year 1774, manumitted those I had, as my Wife’s property; flattering myself that I might retain such who came of their own accord, while they chose to continue as heretofore.

But, being visited with afiliction, and the presentation of an awful eternity, a willingness was wrought in me, to cast my care on a merciful Providence, and, at all events, to resign to what I did believe was called for, at my hands,— that of bearing a faithful testimony against the abominable practice of enslaving my fellow-men. I therefore let my father know that he must take the blacks away, or authorise me to set them free. He readily told me, I might do as I would; on which, in the year 1775, I executed another deed of emancipation for all I held, as mine.

It is with peculiar satisfaction, I can remark, that my father was not long behind me, in espousing the cause of liberty. After sealing the sincerity of his professions, by the liberation of about a hundred slaves,—-notwithstanding the discouragement of a law then existing, he became a zealous advocate, and intercessor for them, with their masters; and in many instances, his labors were successful. He often appeared alone in courts of law, amidst surrounding opponents, to plead the cause of individuals, of the African race, who had a claim to freedom.

Warner Mifflin's Grave
Warner Mifflin’s Grave

Warner Mifflin went on to found the first Abolition Society in Delaware. He spoke before the Virginia General Assembly, petitioned for the cessation of the slave trade, spoke candidly with President George Washington, and published tracts read even by John Adams. He was considered by many to be the grandfather of the American abolitionist movement.

He died of Yellow Fever in 1798. He contracted the horrible disease while ministering to those afflicted by the epidemic in Philadelphia. 1There are almost no modern books that even mention his name. The most complete source, Life and Ancestry of Warner Mifflin complied by Hilda Justice, was published in 1905. It is made up exclusively of primary documents and testimonies by Mifflin and those who had contact with him. Fortunately, it can be read in its entirety here.

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Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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