Quaker certificates of removal

The early Quakers used certificates as a way to introduce themselves to strangers. When they left their home meeting to emigrate and join a new meeting, they needed to show proof that they were members in good standing, of good behavior, and for the unmarried, clear of marriage promises or “entanglements”. The Quakers were fastidious about not allowing young people to marry if they had any prior promises or engagements to others.

The meetings in Pennsylvania sometimes had to remind the English or Welsh meetings to send the certificates. A certificate presented to Radnor meeting in 4th month 1684 for Sarah Hearn began with, “In as much as we have seen an order from you of Pensylvania in order to keep out all disorderly spirits of persons professing the same truth with us and you; that all which came from England to you or from you to us should bring some certificate or signification…”

Although the certificates were considered very important, the procedure for recording them was not standardized. The meeting that issued the certificate sometimes kept a record of them and sometimes did not. There might be a note in the minutes that someone had requested a certificate, and that one was written out for him or her, but there was not usually a copy kept on record. The certificate was written out for the traveller to keep.

What did people do with them? They were supposed to present them to their new meeting when they arrived, although some meetings were more diligent than others in requesting them. The men’s meeting at Concord realized in mid-1687, after they had been meeting for five years, that they had not asked for certificates from their members. They ordered members to bring in their certificate or “verble testimony of friends that live hear [here] of their good lives and conversations in old ingland”. 1 The minutes show that most members complied within a few months. Once in a while people were asked to send back to England for a certificate, either because they never got one or because it did not state clearly that they were free to marry. 2

What was in the certificates? There was no standard form. Some were brief notes, almost “To whom it may concern…”, while others were flowery, like short religious tracts. A typical one might read like the one David Brentnall presented to the monthly meeting in Philadelphia. “10th day of the 8th mo 1681. These are to certify to Friends at London or to whom it may concern that David Brentall of late belonging to our meeting in Derby-Shire called by the name of Breach meeting: We whose names are here subscribed doe give in our testimony according to our knowledge that since the time that he amongst Friends he hath behaved himself soberly as become the truth, and that he is gone away cleare from all Accounts; and as touching the young man Friends had more than an ordinary Respect for him by Reason of his honest Behavior amongst us: And for a particular Account from the Friends where he boarded while he continued with them he had by his Civil Behaviour gained so much upon them that they had a great Respect for him, and are desirous of his well doeing, whose names are here subscribed.” It was signed by 18 Friends, men and women, including some who later emigrated themselves, like John and Michael Blunston, Luke Hank, and Frances Cooke. 3

Why would you want to see them? Certificates show where someone lived before emigrating. They show the approximate date of emigration, since certificates were usually issued a month or so before departure. For a married man, the certificate might show the name of his wife and children, although not always. If you can find the full certificate, it is always worth looking at the names of the people who signed it, as they are sometimes family members. For example, the certificate of Ralph Fretwell from Barbados in 1683 was signed by Thomas Fretwell.

The early certificates are available in various forms (abstracts or full text) and in various places (on Ancestry’s Quaker Records collection, in published books of records, on microfilm at the Friends Historical Library, and in the church record volumes at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Here are some sources for the earliest monthly meetings:

MeetingAncestry (Quaker Collection)Published sourcesHistorical Society of Pennsylvania
Falls"Minutes 1682-1743", a list, not abstracts or full certificates. Early Church Records of Bucks County, volume 2, edited by Watring and Wright, has short abstracts.The best source for full certificates, call numbers Bu 1F:2 and Bu 1F:4.
Middletown“Minutes, marriages, certificates of removal…”. Also Philadelphia Arch Street meeting, “Record of certificates of removal 1682”Early Church Records of Bucks County, volume 2, has some listed. Not in the table of contents, they start at page 239.
Philadelphia“Removals 1681-1758”, a good source for full certificates, Watring’s Early Quaker Records of Philadelphia, volume 1, has a list, not the full certificates. Albert Cooke Myers, Quaker Arrivals at Philadelphia, is also a list. Gilbert Cope’s transcription, call number Ph 1F:5, probably from the same manuscript as “Removals 1681-1758”, a good source
AbingtonNo separate list known. Look for some of their members in the early arrivals at Philadelphia MeetingNone knownNone known
Radnor“Births, deaths, marriages, certificates of removal (received), 1683-1730”Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 3, edited by Launey, has abstracts, in alphabetical order, to about 1730.Gilbert Cope’s copy at call number De 15F:1
Chester“Register Book 1681” is a mix of early subscriptions, marriages, births, burials, certificates, and payments. The certificates are on images 13 and 14.None in Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 1.
ConcordNone knownNone in Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 2.Included with other records, call number De 9F:2.
Darby“A few certificates… 1684-1763” has full certificates of some early arrivals.Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 3, has a list showing date and originDe 13F:1 (in alphabetical order)


  1. Concord men’s minutes, 9th month 1687, available on Ancestry’s Quaker Records collection.
  2. Once in a while a certificate turns up in an odd place. When Jeffery Hawkins presented himself to William Penn in 8th month 1682 to claim his headright, he must have handed his certificate of clearness to Penn, who added a note at the bottom to Thomas Holme directing him to lay out the land. (Copied Survey Books, D-74, page 207, image 415)
  3. On Ancestry’s Quaker records collection, Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Removals 1681-1758, image 26.

4 thoughts on “Quaker certificates of removal”

  1. Your explanation of what a certificate meant for a Quaker is very helpful. I am reading The Journal of John Woolman and wondered if a certificate was like a permission slip to travel outside one’s territory. I now know it meant much more. Thanks.

    1. I landed here for the same reason as the above commenter, reading John Woolman’s diary in the Harvard Classics volume 1. Thanks for explaining this.

  2. I’m still not sure what “removal” in the minutes mean. Was the person kicked out of the congregation? Or does it mean they moved on to a different congregation?

    1. Thanks for reading my blog. Removal meant that they were moving away, not that they were removed from the Society of Friends.

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