By the mid-18th century, it appears few Pennsylvania Mennonite farmers owned slaves. Their preferred source for supplemental labor was through indentured servants, often poor immigrants paying off their passage to North America through work. In 1753, for example, John and Jacob Clemens, two brothers from Lower Salford Township in Montgomery County, “freed a carpenter from the ship and each of us paid one half of his freight, and we must furnish him with clothing as long as he works for us. He belongs to each of us in equal shares.”
However there were some Mennonite slave owners. Cornelis Bom, an early Dutch Mennonite settler in Germantown, wrote to a friend in 1684, “I have no servants except one negro whom I bought.” Mennonite Samuel Pennypacker of Skippack was said to own a slave in the 1780s, and Jacob Latchar (Latschaw), a Mennonite in Berks County, was taxed for a “Negro” in his 1779 and 1780 tax assessments. These appear to have been exceptions. Mennonite historians have even puzzled over the status of “Isaac Jones,” a black boy or teenager who came to Canada from Lancaster with the Abraham Erb family in 1806—was he a slave, indentured servant, hired hand, or something else?
The reticence to own slaves does not mean that Mennonites were active abolitionists. Unlike the Quakers, who originally owned quite a few slaves, Mennonites were never significant slave owners. But also unlike the Quakers, Mennonites took no leadership in rejecting slavery as the century progressed. There was no Mennonite equivalent to Quaker John Woolman. Later Mennonites in Canada were not active in the Underground Railroad, except for a few influenced by Methodist theology. One such was Henry S. Huber, who grew up in a Mennonite family, but early on joined the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian).
By the mid-19th century, there were Mennonite encounters with Blacks in Canada. The 1851 census shows that Mennonites and black immigrants of United States origin lived near each other in a number of places. They sometimes exchanged labor, or Mennonites hired black laborers. Mennonites, including some Miller, Hershey, and Shisler families, lived adjacent to “Little Africa” in Welland County; Abraham Hershey may have hired some of these men to work in his lumber mill. Other contact was in the Queen’s Bush, the vast unsettled area between Waterloo County and Lake Huron that included Wellesley Township of Waterloo County and Peel Township of Wellington County. At one time up to fifteen hundred black settlers lived in the Queen’s Bush. John Little, an early black settler, referred to assistance he had received from “Dutchmen” in providing seed in exchange for his labor during harvest. There are also accounts of black families providing child care for neighbors, including Mennonites. This history and relationship has only begun to be explored by scholars like Timothy Epp.
These relationships were transitory, as many black immigrants were forced to leave the Queen’s Bush because they could not afford to purchase the land or because they chose to relocate back to the United States after the Civil War, or to another location in Canada. One exception took place later in the century when Charles Jones, who was raised by the Jacob Z. Kolb family, became a member at the Berlin Mennonite Church (First Mennonite Church) in 1882 after hearing the preaching of John S. Coffman. Jones was an anomaly in taking the black-Mennonite relationship to the level of church membership.
To learn more about Mennonites and Blacks read In Search of Promised Lands.
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