“IT WAS OPPOSITION TO SLAVERY THAT MADE SOUTHERN QUAKERISM WHAT IT WAS”: RARE 1807 AUTOGRAPH LETTER FROM BARNABAS COFFIN, WRITTTEN FROM NORTH CAROLINA TO VIRGINIA QUAKERS
(QUAKERS) COFFIN, Barnabas. Autograph letter signed. North Carolina, October 29, 1807. Single leaf of laid paper (measures 8 by 13 inches), in manuscript hand, docketed on the verso.
Important 1807 autograph letter signed by leading North Carolina Quaker Barnabas Coffin, whose family played a key role in the Underground Railroad, written to the Virginia Friends with a report of the Society of Friends’ difficult and pivotal role in the struggle against slavery.
This 1807 letter, written to the Virginia Friends from Barnabas Coffin, clerk of the Society of Friends in North Carolina, is an exceptional record not only of Southern Quakerism’s anti-slavery role but also that played by the Coffin family. For “slavery was the subject which differentiated Friends in the South from other religious bodies. It was opposition to slavery that made Southern Quakerism what it was.” This letter, which highlights a Yearly Meeting held in October 1807, comes at a turning point, for within a year the state’s rigid laws on the manumission of slaves “caused North Carolina Quakerism to take a form which is assumed nowhere else. The institution itself became a slaveholder. This movement began in 1808. The Yearly Meeting of that year appointed a committee of seven to have under care all suffering cases of people of color…. a system under which certain parties were authorized to act as agents and to receive assignments of slaves from masters who wished to be rid of them. This custom lasted until the Civil War.” This letter’s author Barnabas Coffin and his family were especially prominent in the cause, for “Vestal Coffin organized the Underground Railroad… [and] Vestal’s cousin Levi Coffin…. was, for 30 years, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad.” The Viginia Friends, however, to whom this is written, were too few and by the 1820s many moved West in opposition to slavery (Weeks, Southern Quakers, vii, 108-9, 224-43).
The letter reads: “From Our Yearly Meeting, held at N[ew] Garden in Guilford County, N[orth]. Carolina, by Adjournments from the 26th of the 10th Mo. to the 29th of the same inclusive, 1807. To the Next yearly Meeting of Friends in Virginia. Dear Friends, We feel our Minds renewedly [sic] engaged to salute you in Brotherly Love. Your Salutary Epistle of the 5th Mo.last was received & read in this Meeting, the contents of which were Satisfactory. We are free to inform you this Our Anual [sic] Solemnity hath been large, and measurably overshadowed by divine Goodness, under the animating influence of which, we have been favored to transact the various and interesting concerns of the Church, in Brotherly Love and Condescension. We have felt, at this time, earnest engagement and anxious solicitude of which, that the true peace & growth of the Church, may be promoted, and, Notwithstanding deficiences appear amongst Our members, we have cause of thankfulness of heart, in believing many Brethren are concerned for the promotion of the Great cause of Universal Righteousness. The Subject of the Oppressed African Race, hath claimed Our Serious Attention at this Time. But no way hath opened to address the Legislature on their Account. We are engaged to promote value among those under Friends care. In Gospel Love, we remain your Friends and Brethren. Signed on behalf of the Meeting by, Barnabas Coffin, Clerk to the meeting this year.” Docketing reads, in part: “William Davis, Lynchburg, Virginia.”
Inked manuscript hand clean and fresh, small hole left by trace of wax seal removal affecting one word, faint docketing foldlines. An important religious and historical record in extremely good condition.