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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Selected Letters of John Woolman

(The following letters and materials are taken from Friends' Miscellany: Being A Collection of Essays and Fragments, Biographical, Epistolary, Narrative, and Historical; Designed for the Promotion of Virtue, to Preserve in Remembrance the Characters and Views of Exemplary Individuals, and to Rescue from Oblivion Though Manuscripts left by them, which may be Useful to Survivors, a twelve volume collection of Friends' material edited by John and Isaac Comly, of Byberry Meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting [Hicksite] (Philadelphia: Printed for the Editors by J. Richards, 1834). These letters were the first writings presented in the first volume. Two paragraphs from Woolman's Journal have been inserted to explain a reference made in one of the letters.)

The Letters

#1: To A Friend.

Beloved friend, -

Since our last conversation, I have felt an increase of brotherly love, and therein a liberty to hint further to thee, how, at different times for years past, things have wrought on my mind respecting high living.

First. In some afflicting seasons abroad, as I have sat in meetings with desires to attend singly on the pure gift, I have felt that amongst my brethren grievously entangled in expensive customs, the Lord had a work for some to do, by exampling others in the simplicity of Christ. 2 Cor. xi. 3. And as I have seen, that a view to live high hath been a stumbling block, - and that what some appeared to aim at was no higher than many, esteemed of the foremost rank in our society, lived; - there hath been a labour upon me, that in this respect the way may be cast up; and the stumbling block be taken our of the way of the people. Isa. lvii. 14. And here, the inexpressible love of Christ, in denying himself and enduring grief for our sakes, is often before me as an example for us to follow in denying ourselves of things pleasant to our natural inclinations, that we may example other in the pure christian life of our age.

Second. In regard to thieves, I have had many serious thoughts, and often been jealous over myself, lest by withholding form a poor man what our heavenly Father may intend for him through me, I should lay a temptation in his way to steal: and I have often felt a care that no desire for riches, or outward greatness, may prompt me to get that in my house which may create envy, and increase this difficulty.

Third. I have sometimes wrote will for people when sick and expecting soon to leave their families, and who have but little to divide among their children: and I have so far felt a brotherly sympathy, that their cares have become mine, in regard to a comfortable living for them. And here, expensive customs,on such occasion, have often affected me with sadness.

Fourth. The manner of taking possession of the silver mines, south-westward, - the conduct of the conqueror toward the natives, - and the miserable toil of many of our fellow-creatures, in those mines; have often been the subjects of my thoughts. And though I sometimes handle silver and gold as a currency, my so doing is at times attended with pensiveness, and a care that my ears may not be stopped against further instructions. I often think on the fruitfulness of the soil where we live, - the care that hath been taken to agree with the former owners, the natives, - and the conveniences this land affords for our use, - and on the numerous oppressions there are in many places; - and I feel a care that my craving may be rightly bounded, and that no wandering desire may lead me to to strengthen the hands of the wicked, as to partakes of their sins. 1 Tim. v. 22.

Fifth. In conversing at times with some well-disposed Friends who have long pressed with poverty, I have thought that some outward help, more than I believe myself a steward to communicate, might be a blessing to them. And at such times, the expenses that might be saved amongst some of my brethren, without any real inconvenience to them, hath often been brought to my mind; nor have I believed myself clear, without speaking at times publicly concerning it.

Sixth. My mind is often settled on the immutability of the Divine Being, and the purity of his judgments; - and a prospect of outward distress in this part of the world, hath been open before me; - and I have had to behold the blessedness of a state, in which the mind is fully subjected to the Divine Teacher, and the confusion and perplexity of such who profess the Truth, and not faithful to the leadings of it. Nor have I ever felt pity move more evidently on my mind, than I have felt it toward children who, by their education, are led on in unnecessary expenses, and exampled in seeking gain in the wisdom of this world, to support themselves therein.


9th day of 7th month, 1769.

# 2: To a Friend.

My dear friend, -

In our meeting of ministers and elders, I have several times felt the moving of Divine love among us, and it me there appeared a preparation for profitable labours in the meeting; but the time appointed for public meetings drawing near, a straitness of time hath been felt. And in Yearly Meetings for the preservation of good order in the society, when much business hath lain before us, and weighty maters relating to the testimony of Truth have been under consideration, I have sometimes felt that a care in some to get forward soon, hath prevented so weighty and deliberate a proceeding as by some hath been desired.

Sincere hearted Friend who are concern to wait for the counsel of Truth, are often made helps to each other; - and when such from distant parts of our extensive Yearly Meeting, have set their houses in order, and are thus gathered in one place, I believe it is the will of our heavenly Father that, with a single eye to the healers of his Holy Spirit, should quietly wait on him, without hurrying in the business before us.

As my mind hath been on these things, some difficulties have arisen in my way. First, there are, thro' prevailing custom, many expenses attending our entertainment in two, which, if the leading of Truth were faithful followed, might be lessened.

Many, under an outward show of a delicate life, are entangled in a world spirit, labouring to support those expensive customs which they at times feel to be a burden.

These expenses, arising form a conformity to the spirit of this world, have often lain as a heavy burden on my mind, as especially at the time of our solemn meetings: and a life truly comformable to the simplicity that is in Christ, where we may faithfully serve God without distraction, and have no interruption from that which is against the Truth, to me hath been very desirable. And, my dear friend, as the Lord, in infinite mercies, hath called us to labour at time in his vineyard, and hath I believe sometimes appointed to us different offices in his work, our opening our experience one to another in the pure feeling of charity, may be profitable.

The Great Shepherd of the sheep, I believe, is preparing some to example the people in a plain simple way of living; and I feel a tender care that thou and I may abide in that, where our light may shine clear, and nothing pertaining to us have any tendency to strengthen those customs which are distinguishable for the Truth as it is in Jesus.


# 3: To the children of Stephen Comfort, of Bucks County.

I am now, this 16th of 9th month, 1772, at Robert Proud's, in Yorkshire, so well as to continue travelling, though but slowly.

Yesterday, as I was walking over a plain on my way to this place, I felt a degree of Divine love attend my mind, and therein an openness toward the children of Stephen Comfort, of which I believed I should endeavour to inform them. My mind was opened to behold their happiness, the safety and beauty of a life devoted to follow our heavenly Shepherd; and a care that the enticements of vain young people may not ensnare any of you.

I cannot form a concern, - but when a concern cometh, I endeavour to be obedient.


# 4: To Reuben and Margaret Haines, of Philadelphia.

14th day of 6th month, 1772.

Cousins Reuben and Margaret, -

I am middling well,in London, and believe I may go northward in a few days. Your care for me toward parting, hath feel inwardly gathering toward the true union; in which I hope we may at last unite.

My heart hath often been contrite since I say you; and I now remember you with tears.


#5: To the same.

31st of 7th month, 1772.

Beloved Cousins, -

I am now at our ancient friend, John Haslam's, whose memory is much impaired by the palsey; but he appears to be in a meek, quite, state; - about one hundred and sixty miles northward of London. My journeying hath been through much inward watchfulness. I cannot see far before me; but the Lord, in tender mercy, hath been gracious to me, and way opens for my visit among Friends.

Friends from America, on visits here, were all middling well lately.

I send no letters by post here, nor do I want any sent to me by post. (*)

I feel a care that we humbly follow the pure leading of Truth, and then, I trust, all will work for good. Your loving cousin,


Notes by the original editors:

Note. - The first of these letters to R. and M. Haines, was written and sent for England to America, on one-eighth of a sheet of common foolscap writing paper, the other on a quarter sheet of the same - giving a practical comment on his ideas of economy. It is said of John Woolman, that on an occasion of being appointed by Burlington monthly meeting to prepare a certificate of removal, he use a piece of paper of smaller size, than usual for others; - and on being faulted for his parsimony therein, he modestly answered, "I never found any better rule, than enough."

His singular appearance in dress and manners, his clothing being all of natural colours, occasioned some difficulties in the minds of Friends in London in relation to his travelling, and they had an interview with him on the subject; after hearing them patiently, he said he believe he had better go as he was. This circumstance appears to be alluded to in the expression, "way opens for my visit among Friends;" - for it had been suggested to him that his singularities would close his way for religious service.

His testimony against sending or receiving letters by post, is explained in his journal, page 231, first edition.

John Woolman's account of Peter Harvey, who died in the year 1771.

In the time of his health, a few months before he departed, I had some loving conversation with him in regard to sundry things in his possession, relating got his living, which appeared to be comformable to the spirit of this world. He appeared to take my visit very kind; and though he was not fully settled in his mind, as to what he would do with them, yet he told me that he was inwardly united to a plain way of living, and to such who in faithfulness walked therein.

I was twice with him in his last sickness, and the first of these times he told me, that in his youthful years his mind was much on improvement in outward business, and that being successful, many spoke in praise of his conduct; and in this prosperity, he got sundry sorts of superfluities in workmanship about him; and though he had not seen clearly what to do with them, he saw that at the time of getting these things, he went on in the dark, and they were latterly a burden to his mind.


An excerpt from The Journal of John Woolman, explaining his unease with the use of the postal service:

Stage-coaches frequently go upwards of one hundred miles in twenty-four hours; and I have heard Friends say in several places that is is common for horses to be killed with hard driving, and that many others are driven till they go blind. Post-boys pursue their business, each one to his stage, all night through the winter. Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.

As my journey hath been without a horse, I have had several offers of being assisted on my way in these stagecoaches, but have not been in them,; nor have I had freedom to send letters by these posts in the present way of riding, the stages being so fixed, and one body dependent on another as to time and going at great speed, that in long cold winter nights the boys suffer much. I heard in America of the way of these posts, and cautioned Friends in the General Meeting of minsters and elders at Philadelphia, and in the Yearly Meeting of ministers and elders in London, not to send letters to me on any common occasion by post. And though on this account I may be likely not to hear so often from my family left behind, yet for righteousness' sake I am, through Divine favor, made content.

The Journal of John Woolman, Chapter 12. In: Elliot, Charles., ed., The Harvard Classics, Vol. I. New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1909, pages 318-319.

Writings by John Woolman in Print

Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, edited by Phillips Moulton, Friends United Press, 1997

Walking Humbly With God: Selected Writings of John Woolman Walking Humbly With God: Selected Writings of John Woolman, edited by Keith Beasley-Topliffe, Upper Room, 2000

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