Column – Hundreds of IW slaves were freed long before Civil War

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The latter half of the 18th century, which saw the 13 English colonies declare their independence, also witnessed a period of religious revival in America. In fact, the drive for independence was strongly influenced by what has become known as the First Great Awakening.

During the years just prior to and following the American Revolution, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers were calling for a spiritual awakening. Among them, the Methodists and Quakers, in particular, began expressing revulsion over the very idea of slavery. 

Quakers remained steadfast in their opposition to slavery and played a huge role in what would become the 19th century’s abolition movement.

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Early on, Methodists also strongly opposed America’s “peculiar institution.” John Wesley, founder of Methodism, felt that even those who did not own slaves were accommodating evil if they tolerated the system of enslavement.

Wesley’s view, pressed by itinerant circuit-riding Methodists, eventually gave way to acceptance of the very evil they had earlier denounced, but for a brief period in the late 1700s, particularly after the colonists had declared their independence, the anti-slavery movement seemed to be taking hold, and the emancipation of slaves took place despite legal barriers.

The Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 had formally declared slavery to be state policy. From that time forward, there was a legal protection given the ownership of slaves and little opportunity to free them.

That attitude slowly changed in the 1770s as the state at first barred further importation of slaves, then, in 1782, amended the Slave Code to specifically allow for the manumission (freeing) of slaves.

The window of opportunity was brief. The state panicked over freed slaves after a failed slave revolt in the Richmond area in 1800, and in 1806 essentially slammed the door on further manumissions.

That brief window of opportunity — lasting just over two decades — occurred at the height of revivalism across the state, including Isle of Wight County. The emancipation of slaves shows up in county records with increasing frequency during the brief period from 1782 to 1806.

The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) genealogical records project, which has done so much to catalog and often preserve local historic court records, has, among other things, documented manumissions during the waning days of the First Great Awakening.

Isle of Wight courthouse historian Caroline Hurt recently obtained and shared with me a list compiled by Latter Day Saints researchers of slave manumissions in Isle of Wight between 1782 and 1806. It’s a fascinating document.

According to the LDS compilation, 173 slaves were emancipated by their owners in the three years immediately following the state’s decision to allow manumission. That was the peak period. During the next two decades, another 200 manumissions were recorded.

The manumission papers in Isle of Wight document — as they were legally required to do — whether emancipated slaves were adults or minors, and during that period, slightly more children were freed than were adults.

And age was significant. The state required that slave owners continue to provide financially for the care of freed persons over 45 years of age, boys under 21 and girls under 18. And if a former owner failed to do so, the county confiscated property from that person to provide for the care of juvenile and elderly former slaves.

The legal documents these slaveholders signed made declarations of their intent as well as their reasoning. Typical of the language used in the freedom documents was the following:

“I (slaveholder’s name) am fully persuaded that freedom is the natural right of all mankind, and that no law, mortal or divine, hath given me a just right or property in the persons of any of my fellow creatures, and desirous to fulfill the injunction of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, by doing to all others as I would be done …”

There appear to have been some cases of particularly good intentions, including several people, among them women, who seemed to have been actively engaged in attempting to free African Americans. They purchased slaves and immediately freed them, thus paying to buy them and then paying the legal costs associated with freeing them, plus assuming their future care if they were minors.

None of which made a lot of difference, because in 1806, following that unsuccessful slave revolt, Virginia slammed the door and nailed it shut. The General Assembly declared that any slave freed in Virginia had to leave the state within a year. If he or she did not leave, they would be sold back into slavery. You can’t get much more draconian than that. The revised law trapped not only slaves but those inclined to help them as well.

Southern states, including Virginia, continued to tighten slavery rules, particularly after another failed revolt, led by Nat Turner of Southampton County, and slavery remained rigidly protected in the South.

Another revival period, known as the Second Great Awakening, would be central to the abolition movement of the 1800s, but slavery would be ended only by a catastrophic Civil War.

The horrific effects of slavery have endured, first through decades of Jim Crow laws and even today, when there are efforts by revisionists to declare that slavery wasn’t all that bad after all.

Yes, it was that bad — and worse. But it’s fair to recall that there were courageous preachers of the Gospel who, for a period, stood against slavery and touched the hearts of people who owned other people. And that here in Isle of Wight, nearly 100 people, so moved, stepped up during that period and freed those under their control. 


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is