John Woolman’s Journey to Wyalusing
Carol Walz, June 22, 2013
I am honored to be here. We are here to commemorate Woolman’s 1763 journey and to welcome
the Woolman Walkers who have followed a similar route over the past fifteen days, and arriving
here this morning. I will speak briefly about who John Woolman was, offer a concise explanation of
Quakerism and talk about Woolman’s 400 mile journey 250 years ago from Mount Holly in West
Jersey to Wyalusing and back, on a visit to the Native American community here.
Who was John Woolman?
John Woolman was a Quaker minister, writer, teacher, surveyor and tailor from West Jersey. He is
best known for his lifelong action to end slavery, and for his Journal, which has been continuously
in print since its first publication in 1774. The Journal, has been translated into over 50 languages,
and continues to inspire readers throughout the world to:
• bring injustices to light when they are not widely recognized, and to
• act on their consciences
Woolman’s example shows us how one person can take action to end systemic violence,
one step at a time.
John Woolman was a recorded minister at the age of 22, which means his gift for spoken ministry
was recognized by his religious congregation at a young age. His words and his life provide a
major pattern and example for Friends to live up to today. Having received recognition of this gift,
Woolman traveled frequently over the next 50 years in the Quaker ministry throughout the
American colonies and eventually to England, where he died of smallpox in 1772.
What is Quakerism?
John Woolman was a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends. The Quaker religion,
founded in 1652, was barely a Century old at the time of Woolman’s journey to Wyalusing. Quakers
refer to ourselves as Friends. Quakerism’s central tenets as I understand them are that:
1. Direct experience of God is possible for all people.
2. Revelation of God’s nature, presence, and intentions for us is ongoing.
3. Our experience of Divine guidance is strengthened by testing it with others in our
community, and by acting upon it. We have a saying that if we live up to the Light that we are given,
we will be given more.
4. We attempt to live in simplicity, equality, integrity and peace, and by doing so to be patterns
and examples to others who are seeking a grounded spiritual life.
Our Meetings for Worship, on Sunday mornings and at other times, are occasions for silent,
expectant, prayerful waiting and listening in the presence of God, and for speaking when we are
clearly led by the Divine Spirit to share messages that are intended for the gathered group.
The Wyalusing Journey
To give you an idea of the circumstances, scope and spirit of Woolman’s journey, I’ll highlight some
key passages about the journey from his Journal. John Woolman left his home and family in Mount
Holly to travel here on horseback in June, 1763. He writes that he came to Wyalusing because
[I had for] … “many years felt love in my heart toward the natives of this land who dwell far
back in the wilderness, whose ancestors were the owners and possessors of the land where
we dwell, and who for a very small consideration assigned their inheritance to us…”
Woolman truly means that the Delaware people had possessed the land where he lived, and he
recognized and felt the injustice of this.
From this inward experience, a responding outward action formed over time. This is a typical
dynamic of Woolman’s meditations and action. Two years before the journey, Woolman was in
Philadelphia on a visit to some Friends who had slaves, to convince them to free the slaves. There
he met a group of Indians from Wyalusing. He writes:
“…in conversation with them by an interpreter, as also by observations on their
countenance and conduct, I believed some of them were measurably acquainted with
that divine power which subjects the rough and froward will of creature; and at times I
felt inward drawings toward a visit to that place, of which I told none except my dear wife
until it came to some ripeness.”
Woolman admired their spiritual depth. He seasoned his leading to make this journey for two years
with Quaker committees and Meetings until the time for action was clear. Even during the journey,
he revisited the purpose and spiritual grounding of his action. One week into the journey, on a
rainy morning, sitting in his tent on swampy ground he pondered the swamps and mountains
traversed; the dangers of the trip, and asked himself why he was here. He wrote this answer:
‘”Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians,
that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive
some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my
following the leadings of truth amongst them.
And as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of
war were increasing, and when by reason of much wet weather travelling was more
difficult than was usual at that season, I looked upon it as a more favorable
opportunity to season my mind and bring me into a nearer sympathy with them.”
The purpose of Woolman’s journey was to deeply understand the Indians’ condition, to be in close
sympathy - and by being present here in their community, to express love and offer spiritual
acknowledgement and support at a very difficult time.
Like the walkers arriving today, Woolman was joined by good and helpful people on his journey. He
was traveling with his friend Benjamin Parvin and four Native American guides, one man and three
women, whom he had met one month earlier while they were in Philadelphia on business. Woolman
had agreed to join with them as companions for their return, when they would travel through
Wyalusing and ‘a little beyond’. In addition to the six who traveled together to Wyalusing, various
Quakers housed, fed and accompanied and the group as far as the frontier at Fort Allen (now
Allentown). And from Wyoming to Wyalusing, Indians in similar numbers offered food, shelter and
assistance. David Zeisberger, the Moravian missionary, and his Indian interpreter, passed Woolman’
s party on the trail, pausing for friendly conversation.
It was a war zone. The night before Woolman left home, a delegation of Friends rode out from
Philadelphia and roused him out of bed to try to talk him out of going at that time. They brought
fresh news of hostilities increasing on the frontier. Woolman went the next morning, knowing this,
and also clear that he was in God’s care. His actions would be for the good, even if he did not
survive. During the journey, further news arrived of forts taken, settlers killed and scalped, Indian
families relocating and warriors on the move. The first night that his party camped in the woods,
Woolman observed pictographs drawn on the trees near his tent:
“…depictions of men going to and returning from the wars, and of some killed in battle,
this being a path hitherto used by warriors. As I walked about viewing those Indian
histories, which were painted mostly in red and some in black, and thinking on the
innumerable afflictions which the proud, fierce spirit produceth in the world – thinking
on the toils and fatigues of warriors travelling over mountains and deserts, thinking on
their miseries and distresses when wounded far from home by their enemies, and of
their bruises and great weariness in chasing one another over the rocks and mountains,
and of their restless unquiet state of mind who live in this spirit, and of the hatred that
mutually grows up in the minds of the children of those nations engaged in war with
each other – during these meditations the desire to cherish the spirit of love and peace
amongst these people arose very fresh in me.”
As they traveled, Woolman contemplated the difficulties and injustices faced by the Indians.
“As I rode over the barren hills my meditations were on the alterations of the
circumstances of the natives of this land since the coming of the English. The lands
near the sea are conveniently situated for fishing. The lands near the rivers, were the
tides flow, and some above, are in many places fertile and not mountainous, while the
running of the tides makes passing up and down easy with any kind of traffic…
…I had a prospect of the English along the coast for upwards of 900 miles where I
have travelled. And the favorable situation of the English and the difficulties attending
the natives in many places, and the Negroes, were opened before me. And a weighty
and heavenly care came over my mind and love filled my heart toward all mankind. "
Woolman is a keen observer of outward reality, and of oppression and its sources. In typical
Woolman fashion, he then also contemplated his own role in this oppression.
"And here I was led to a close, laborious inquiry whether I, as an individual, kept clear
from all things which tended to stir up or were connected with wars, either in this land
or Africa, and my heart was deeply concerned that in future I might in all things keep
steadily to the pure Truth and live and walk in the plainness and simplicity of a sincere
follower of Christ.
And in this lonely journey I did this day greatly bewail the spreading of a wrong spirit,
believing that the prosperous, convenient situation of the English requires a constant
attention to divine love and wisdom, to guide and support us in a way answerable to the
will of that good, gracious and almighty Being who hath an equal regard to all mankind.
And here luxury and covetousness, with the numerous oppressions and other evils
attending them, appeared very afflicting to me, and I felt in that which is immutable that
the seeds of great calamity are sown and growing fast on this continent."
Woolman yearned for his countrymen to turn away from luxury and greed before it was too late, and
to follow Christ’s example by living simply and abundantly in equality and love.
Once they arrived in Wyalusing, Woolman was welcomed and after some discussion was allowed to
speak as love required at the regular community meetings. This he did at times, with interpreters.
As Woolman expressed it, “They helped one another, and we labored along, divine love attending”.
Sometimes he asked the interpreters to omit their labors, believing that the love he was expressing
and the divine presence would be manifest beyond language. Sometimes an interpreter would
summarize Woolman’s message afterward in the Delaware language. But sometimes the message
was not interpreted. On one such occasion, Papunehang an important religious leader in the
community, spoke to an interpreter who afterward told Woolman that Papunehang had said “I love
to feel where words come from.”
Papunehang, like Woolman had a “feeling sense of the conditions of others”. Woolman spent four
days at Wyalusing attending meetings morning and night, feeling unity in divine love and
‘meditating on the manifold difficulties of these Indians, who by the permission of the Six Nations
dwell in these parts’. A near sympathy with the Indians in this region arose in him, and he wrote
shortly before leaving:
“And now this day, though I had the same dangerous wilderness between me and home,
I was inwardly joyful that the Lord had strengthened me to come on this visit and
manifested a fatherly care over my poor lowly condition, when in mine own eyes I
appeared inferior to many amongst the Indians.”
Woolman and Parvin departed Wyalusing with much affection, and in addition to the two guides
they expected on their return, had a dozen more. This Woolman attributed to “the troubles
westward”, and the “difficulty for Indians to pass through our frontier”. They made remarkably good
time, traveling by canoe on the rain-swollen river while Indians familiar with the fords and currents
guided the horses. As they approached Bethlehem, Woolman and Parvin were careful to ride in
front to protect their guides from the armed- and alarmed - English inhabitants.
Once he reached home, John Woolman again took a broad view, and commentated on the journey:
"Between the English inhabitants and Wyalusing we had only a narrow path, which in
many places is much grown up with bushes and interrupted by abundance of trees lying
across it, which together with the mountains, swamps and rough stones, it is a difficult
road to travel, and the more so for that rattlesnakes abounded there, of which we killed
four … But I was not only taught patience but also made thankful to God, who thus led me
about and instructed me that I might have a quick and lively feeling of the afflictions of my
fellow creatures whose situation in life is difficult."
It is very fitting that to commemorate this journey, the next three speakers will provide a deeper
understanding of the Indians here in the Wyalusing area in Woolman’s day and today. The purpose
of the 2013 journey is also to connect to people and place on a spiritual level.
Carol Walz is Co-Director of the John Woolman Memorial Association in Mount Holly New Jersey,
which operates the historic house which was the starting point of the 2013 Woolman Wyalusing