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Woolman, John (1720-1772)

John Woolman (1720-1772)

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Antislavery pioneer

Quaker Youth. John Woolman was a devout Quaker who by his personal example and eloquent testimony became one of the revolutionary eras strongest advocates of the abolition of slavery. Woolman was born in Burlington County, New Jersey, and grew up in the tightly knit religious community the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Woolman was the fourth of thirteen children. His father was a farmer, and the family was of middling status. The Quakers believed in simple living, fellowship, and personal devotion to God. The Bible and other religious books were read aloud on Sundays in Quaker house-holds, and the Woolman house was no exception. John received about ten years of schooling and for the rest of his life voraciously read and pursued his own education. At age twenty-one he moved to Mount Holly, New Jersey, where he set up his own successful store. He also worked as a teacher and did legal work, drawing up wills and contracts. Despite his success in business, Woolman taught himself to be a tailor, believing that his religion valued simplicity over worldly success. At age thirty-six he withdrew from business altogether, devoting his energies to religious work.

A Personal Crusade . The Society of Friends had no regular clergy. Church members with a special gift for speaking could do so at weekly meetings. They could also go on missionary travels with the recommendation (but without the pay) of their home congregation. From age twenty-three to his death Woolman went on approximately thirty such missionary journeys, from New England to the Carolinas. Wherever he went he urged Quakers to live simply and to harm no one. He called upon the Society of Friends to abstain from paying war taxes to support the British governments wars against the French and the Indians. But increasingly slavery preoccupied Woolman in his thoughts and preaching.

Slavery and Sin. Woolman grew steadily in his conviction that owning slaves was a sin in the eyes of God. His first concern was to absolutely purify himself of any personal connection with slavery or its fruits. Woolman made himself conspicuous by wearing undyed clothes: dyes were made by slave labor. He also abstained from using slave-produced items such as sugar and silver tableware. Many Quakers, North and South, owned slaves, and he sought to cleanse his church of this wrong-doing. Visiting the homes of slave owners, he calmly argued the wrongs of the slave system. Wishing not to be personally implicated by slavery, he paid either his host or the hosts slaves for food received in the slave owners houses.

Early Quaker Antislavery. There had been antislavery stirrings in the church in earlier years: in the 1730s a sincere but eccentric Quaker, Benjamin Lay, harangued the Society of Friends meetings on the evils of slavery. He kidnapped a Quaker child to demonstrate the grief slaves felt when family members were sold. In 1738, at the annual meeting in Burlington, New Jersey, Lay threw a substance that appeared to be blood on the assembled the Society of Friends, who ignored his message and ejected him from the church.

Message. Woolman, however, found a more receptive audience among Quakers in the 1750s, delivering his message of antislavery more soberly and plausibly than Lay. He communicated his own turmoil and guilt over slavery in such a convincing manner that he touched the consciences of thousands of people to whom he spoke or addressed his writings. In 1754 the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends at Philadelphia endorsed Woolmans antislavery pamphlet, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, publishing it and sending it out to other Quaker congregations. His personal mission was now disseminated in print, and others began to take up the cause, including Anthony Benezet, who quoted Woolman in an antislavery publication that gained much attention in 1759. In 1762 Woolman published his Considerations on Keeping Negroes: Part Second, which had an even stronger effect on Quakers. The antislavery movement grew within and outside the church, and manumissions of slaves became common in Pennsylvania.

Legacy. In 1776 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting officially prohibited the Society of Friends from owning slaves. Woolman had died two years earlier, but others carried on his work. Benezet tirelessly distributed anti-slavery writings in England and America. Benjamin Lundy, a follower of Woolman, continued antislavery missionary work in the early 1800s and in turn inspired William Lloyd Garrison and other leading American abolitionists. Woolmans Journals published in 1776 and became an inspiration to advocates of peace and the abolition of slavery. Eighty years after Woolmans death the governor of the slave state Missouri blamed Woolmans Journal for the evils of the abolitionist movement.

Sources

William A. Beardslee, ed., The Works of John Woolman (New York: Garrett Press, 1970);

Phillips P. Moulton, ed., The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman (Oxford &, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971);

Jean R. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985).

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John Woolman

John Woolman

John Woolman (1720-1772), American Quaker merchant and minister, was known for his opposition to slavery, poverty, and war. His journal is one of the finest statements of Quaker inner life.

John Woolman was born in Ancocas, N.J., and raised in Quaker schools and meetings. He read widely and prepared himself for a variety of occupations. Primarily a tailor and shopkeeper, he also kept an apple orchard, taught school, wrote, maintained a lending library, and was a surveyor and conveyancer. As conveyancer, he wrote bills of sale for slaves; this was his introduction to slavery. His meeting recorded him as a minister in 1743.

Woolman's was an itinerant ministry; his territory included the Atlantic seaboard, England, and Ireland. He traveled twice to the South, where he witnessed plantation life. His advocacy of the abolition of slavery, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, was published in two parts in 1754 and 1762. In 1763 Woolman visited the Indians on the Pennsylvania frontier, converting many to the Quaker ideals of peace and Christian brotherhood. In 1772, in Yorkshire, England, he made a walking tour in protest against the treatment of postboys. He died of smallpox at York on Oct. 7, 1772.

The mystical experience underlies Woolman's positions on social and economic questions. Convinced of the universal brotherhood of man with Christ, he regarded no distinction of nationality, race, or education as more basic to human nature. Woolman identified with the evildoer and with the slaveholder as well as the slave. He was a keen student of his own motives. He located first in himself the tendencies he sought to eradicate from the world. He devised a theory of action, which he called "passive obedience," similar to contemporary nonviolence. Woolman found the causes of war in the economic self-aggrandizement of nations.

Woolman strove to strengthen his community at Mount Holly, N.J., and resisted oppression by every lawful means. He gave up dyed clothes when he discovered the dyes were harmful to the workers. He ate no sugar because of his convictions about slavery. When his own merchandising business succeeded, he withdrew to concentrate on the "inward business" of living.

Woolman's publications included An Epistle (1772), defining his religious beliefs; his Journal (1774); and Plea for the Poor (1793). Modern peace and civil rights advocates feel akin to this quiet radical.

Further Reading

Biographies of Woolman are Janet (Payne) Whitney, John Woolman, American Quaker (1942), and C. O. Peare, John Woolman (1954). Reginald Reynolds, The Wisdom of John Woolman (1948), is the most perceptive appreciation of Woolman. For general background on Quakerism see Frederick B. Tolles, Quakers and the Atlantic Culture (1960).

Additional Sources

Kohler, Charles., A quartet of Quakers: Isaac and Mary Penington, John Bellers, John Woolman, London: Friends Home Service Committee, 1978. □

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Woolman, John

Woolman, John (1720–1772), American Quaker and reformer.Born near Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Woolman traveled as a minister through the colonies and England. Best known for his Journal and for his antislavery efforts, he became involved in peace issues during the French and Indian War, becoming a war tax refuser, and joining others in 1755 in signing An Epistle of Tender Love and Caution. In 1759, he wrote a second letter, sometimes called the Pacifist Epistle. In response to the draft, Woolman emphasized principled objection, decrying objectors who merely “pretend scruple of conscience.” He did not refuse to quarter soldiers, but would not accept pay, explaining that he acted “in passive obedience to authority.” During the frontier violence after the war, he visited the Indians at Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, “to feel and understand the spirit they live in” and to promote peaceful relations. His essay A Plea for the Poor shows unusual insights into the causes of war, urging people to look at their possessions and “try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in them.”
[See also Conscientious Objection; Nonviolence; Pacifism; Quakers.]

Bibliography

Edwin H. Cady , John Woolman, 1965.
Phiilips P. Moulton , The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, 1971.

Sterling P. Olmsted

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Woolman, John

John Woolman, 1720–72, American Quaker leader, b. near Mt. Holly, N.J. Originally a tailor and shopkeeper, Woolman was recorded a minister (1743) by the Burlington, N.J., Meeting. Thereafter he made many journeys throughout the colonies, preaching and advancing the antislavery cause. Keenly aware of social injustice, Woolman was one of the first protesters against slavery. He personally boycotted products made by slave labor, and was responsible for convincing many Quaker communities to publicly denounce slavery. He died at York on a visit to England. Among his published works is Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754, 1762, repr. 1969). Woolman is best remembered for his journal (1774; ed. by J. G. Whittier, 1871, and P. P. Moulton, 1971).

See study by R. Reynolds (1981).

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Woolman, John

Woolman, John (Quaker committed to abolition of slavery): see FRIENDS, THE SOCIETY OF.

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