Who was John Woolman?
John Woolman was an 18th century Quaker from Mount Holly, West Jersey. He is
best known for his Journal, and for his life-long work to end slavery. Both were
sources of inspiration to the emerging abolitionists of his day, and continue to inspire
readers today. In his journal, Woolman guides his reader on an inward journey to
discover the firm foundation for outward action to end oppression of all kinds, using his
own life as an example.
Born in 1720, John became a recorded minister at age 21, and traveled in the ministry
throughout the American colonies and eventually to England. After marriage,
parenthood and success in business, John decided in 1756 to give up his growing retail
dry goods store on Mill Street in Mount Holly, and make a more modest living as a
tailor. Of tailoring he wrote:
I saw that a humble man with the blessing of the Lord might live on a little, and that
where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving,
but that in common with an increase of wealth the desire of wealth increased.
That same year, at the age of 36, John began writing a journal intended for
publication. In the first sentence he explained, “I have often felt a motion of love to
leave some hints in wirting of my experience of the goodness of God”. John Woolman’
s Journal is the only piece of Colonial American literature continuously in print since
Woolman’s Journal contains not just “hints” but eloquent descriptions of his
experience of the God’s love, and his resulting understanding of the interconnectedness
of all life:
I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein
the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice
and goodness, not only toward all men but also toward the brute creatures; that…to
say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise creulty toward the least
creature moving by his life….was a contradiction in itself.
For John Woolman, the process of letting go of selfish desires and aligning oneself
with God’s nature was the key transformational religious experience. The experience of
God’s love leads us to love others as we are loved, to exercise compassion and to act to
bring about justice and end oppression. John saw that those who were transformed in
this way stood on a firm foundation, radiated joy, possessed authority and could inspire
John Woolman identified slavery as the major issue of his day- one that was nearly
invisible from within his contemporary culture, in the way that militarism and
consumerism are in our own. Those who shared his views on slavery generally
recognized it as such a great evil that they saw no common ground between themselves
and slave abductors, traders and masters. John Woolman was able to find common
ground—even to love them as part of God’s creation—and take action.
First, he provided an example of non-participation in slavery. John refused to write
wills, bills of sale, or any other document that perpetuated slavery. He boycotted slave
products, willing to appear foolish in the eyes of others. And he capitalized on every
opportunity to explain why he did not use the cotton, silver, rum, sugar or dyed clothing
that others found acceptable. It wasn’t easy for John to appear “singular”. He would
have preferred not to. But he understood that actions spoke where words would not,
and that actions faithful to God’s leadings have a power to persuade.
Second, John spoke his truth, even when it was unpopular. On returning from his
first southern journey to visit slave owners and talk with them about freeing their
slaves, he wrote to a friend:
I found that to be a fool as to worldly wisdom and commit my cause to God, not fearing
to offend men who take offense at the simplicity of Truth, is the only way to remain
unmoved at the sentiments of others.
John Woolman modeled fearlessness in this way. He engaged in loving dialog with
those with whom he disagreed. And he did not let friendship stop him from raising his
concerns with those close to him when necessary. He listened. He did not back off.
He did not blame or demonize others. He reminded them of God’s love and care for
them. Here is an example from the Journal:
A neighbor received a bad bruise in his body and sent for me to bleed him, which being
done he desired me to write his will. I took notes, and amongst other things he told me
to which of his children he gave his young Negro. I considered the pain and distress he
was in and knew not how it would end, so I wrote his will, save only that part concerning
the slave, and carrying it to his beside read it to him and then told him in a friendly way
that I could not write any instruments by which my fellow creatures were made slaves,
without bringing trouble on my own mind. I let him know that I charged nothing for
what I had done and desired to be excused from doing the other part in the way he
proposed. Then we had a serious conference on the subject, and at length, he agreeing
to set her free, I finished the will.
John Woolman died in 1772 of smallpox, while traveling in the ministry in York,
England. He did not live to see the end of slvery. He was not motivated by results, but
by love. He was able to act when others were paralyzed by hatred, fear or guilt.
Liberated from the need to look good, he was able to do the good thing.
Carol Walz, copyrighted 2005