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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

John Woolman, Quintessential Quaker
Review by Bill Samuel
Originally published May 1, 2000 at

John Woolman: Quintessential Quaker book cover
Book cover
cover illustration John Woolman and the Slave
based on an illustration by H. Williamson
in A Quaker Calendar for 1914

This article is intended to serve both as an introduction to John Woolman and a review of the book, John Woolman: Quintessential Quaker, 1720-1772 by David Sox (Sessions of York in association with Friends United Press, 1999). David Sox was raised in North Carolina but now lives in England. He is both a Quaker and an Anglican clergyman. Such dual affiliation would generally not be permitted among North American Friends (Quakers), but is allowed in Britain. The book title is apt, as probably no other Friend is held up as often by other Friends as an example of someone who truly lived the Quaker faith. Harold Loukes described him as "the purest and sweetest flowering of the Quaker spirit" (The Quaker Contribution, London, 1965, p.67).

Introduction to John Woolman

John Woolman's grandfather, also named John Woolman, was one of the early Quaker settlers of New Jersey. John Woolman (the grandson) was the fourth child and eldest son in a family of thirteen. The family homestead was halfway between Burlington and Mount Holly, New Jersey. Woolman lived all his life in that area, but traveled considerably and died while on a visit to England.

For the first two hundred years or so of Quakerism, it was common for ministers and other prominent Friends to write spiritual journals of their life which were often published after their deaths. I think there can be little doubt that the most widely read of these journals is the Journal of John Woolman. Like many such journals, it focuses on his spiritual labors and concerns, and does not say a lot about his family. However, it is known that he married at 29 and had at least one child.

Concern About Slavery

Woolman's best known concern was about the evil institution of slavery. At age 23, his employer asked him to write a bill of sale for a slave. He was uneasy about this, and told his boss he thought slavekeeping was "a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion." He came to try to live as much as he could without depending on the labor of slaves. For example, in his last decade he wore undyed clothes because slaves were used in the making of dyes. When receiving hospitality from slave owners, he would leave them some money to be distributed among the slaves from whose services Woolman benefitted. Woolman was deeply distressed about the oppression of slaves. He also thought slavery was spiritually damaging to the slave owners, and genuine love and concern marked his laboring with them to give up slaveholding.

While there were indications of unease among Friends about slavery from the earliest days, Quakers nevertheless did not have a clear testimony against slavery in Woolman's early years. Woolman spent much of his life seeking to persuade Quakers to give up slaveholding, and bodies of Quakers to make this a matter of discipline. His efforts, along with those of other similarly concerned Friends, bore much fruit during his own lifetime and the Religious Society of Friends everywhere accepted this discipline well before the abolition movement in the wider society gained much strength.

Doing It the Quaker Way

Woolman's efforts to rid the Society of Friends of the sin of slavery were not those of a rabblerouser on the fringes of the Society. Woolman was a recorded minister of the gospel, and held significant leadership positions in the Society. He always accepted accountability to the faith community. All his travels on the slavery issue were subject to the discernment of Friends, and Friends minuted their approval of them. The travels were frequently in the company of other Friends, and Woolman served on a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting committee to visit slaveholders. He labored gently and lovingly with fellow Quakers who held slaves, and spoke as someone sent by a body of Friends not as an isolated individual. Woolman's example of bringing his concern under the discipline of his faith community is frequently cited by Friends even today.

Living Simply

Simplicity is one of the classic Quaker testimonies. It arises not from an aversion to things, but from the desire to live one's life centered on God. Woolman is generally viewed as an excellent example of living out this concern. When his business steadily increased, instead of rejoicing he "felt a stop in my mind." He felt his business grew too cumbersome, interfering with his faithfulness to the callings of God upon his life. So he withdrew from retail trade, and decided to rely solely on tailoring and orchard-tending to earn his livelihood.

Other Aspects of Faithfulness

The aspects of his life outlined above are probably those for which Woolman is best known. However, his faithfulness to God manifested itself in many ways, and I would like to briefly touch on a few more of them:

  • His concern over oppression extended beyond slavery to others of humble circumstance. For example, on his voyage to England for what proved his final journey, he felt led to travel in steerage with the sailors rather than to have a cabin. He explained, "I was now desirous to embrace every opportunity of being inwardly acquainted with the hardship and difficulties of my fellow creatures..."
  • He also had a concern for native Americans, and was moved to take a difficult and dangerous journey among them. He explained, "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."
  • He felt the Quaker peace testimony deeply. During the French and Indian War, he argued against any compromise with the warmakers. He signed an epistle with 13 others presenting the case for refusing to pay taxes levied to support the war.
  • His compassion extended beyond humans to other living creatures. He was deeply concerned about overworking of oxen and horses. In his final travels in England, he walked rather than use "those coaches which run so fast as oft to oppress the horses."
  • While Friends in their earliest days wrote and spoke harshly about other groups of Christians, Woolman felt a stop about that. As a teenager, he "found no narrowness respecting sects..." As an adult he believed "All true Christians are of the same spirit but their gifts are diverse." He cited both the Dutch Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis and the Protestant martyr John Huss as "of a true Christian spirit."

The Book

I feel Sox has done a good job of communicating the exemplary life of this humble Christian, and placing it in context. The biography is easy to read, and extensively referenced. It is well worth reading.

However, I do see some indications of weaknesses in knowledge about Quakerism. I found one glaring error that somehow escaped the editors at the two Quaker presses which cooperated in producing the book. On page 13, Sox states, "During Woolman's time it was customary to record those with vocal gifts as 'Ministers'; subsequently the name was changed to elders." There was no such change. Ministers and elders are groups both traditionally recorded by Friends for different gifts.

Writings by Woolman Online

About Woolman Online

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

© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.

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