John Woolman

November 11, 1999

Mount Holly man was pioneer in fight against slavery


     Long before Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the 1860s, a South Jersey man was waging a battle to end the practice.
     John Woolman, a Quaker tailor from Mount Holly, launched the first formal opposition to slavery in North America in the 1750s. Woolman formed his anti-slavery views while he was a clerk in a Mount Holly store and was asked to write a bill of sale for a slave woman.
     "He told them owning slaves wasn't a Christian thing to do," says Jack Walz, co-director of the John Woolman Memorial Association. "After that, he started speaking out more against slavery at Quaker Meetings, traveling around different parts of the colonies."
     Walz, whose association began in 1915, says Woolman "was making sure that when you make a living, you don't take advantage of other people. He tried to live his life so that he wasn't practicing anything that had to do with the abuse of other people."
     For example, Walz says, Woolman wore undyed clothes because dyed clothes used indigo, a substance that was known to cause nerve damage to slaves who dyed the clothes.
     Born in 1720, Woolman was one of 13 children of white Quakers in what at the time was Northampton (it eventually became part of Westampton). When he was in his late teens, Woolman moved to Mount Holly to apprentice as a tailor and shopkeeper, Walz says.
     In 1754, he published a pamphlet declaring slavery was an immoral institution that imperiled the salvation of any Christian who owned slaves. Historical records show that at the time of Woolman's labors for emancipation, there were at least 13,000 slaves in New Jersey.
     Eventually, Woolman and his friends convinced the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that having a slave meant one was not a good Quaker. The Quakers meet each year as a unit called Meetings, Walz says. The Philadelphia Meeting is composed of Quakers from the region. It has met yearly for about 300 years.
     A few years after Woolman's death in 1772, the Quakers reached a consensus saying that you can't be a Quaker and own slaves, Walz notes.
     Today, Woolman is memorialized through a homestead at 99 Branch St., Mount Holly, where about 1,000 visitors come each year to learn of his life and his message. It is believed that the building is the house he had built for his daughter in 1771.

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