Roger Williams Institute
for
Religious
Liberty

Home
Biographies
 
Back
 
John Woolman: the Story of a Quaker Conscience


Edited by George Amoss
Quaker Electronic Archive


[This document is from a pamphlet printed several decades ago bythe Religious
Education Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. It was originally published
by Walter and Mildred Kahoe. I have made minor changes for clarity; material in
brackets is mine. -- George Amoss]


John Woolman was born in 1720 on the family farm on Rancocas Creek in New
Jersey. He went to school with the other Quaker children and with Indian
children in a schoolhouse twenty feet square.

John's father, Samuel Woolman, was a farmer, but John, when he had finished his
schooling and had worked for several years on the family farm, found a place
clerking in a little store in Mount Holly. He also learned the tailor's craft.
He did think of studying law but decided to remain a clerk and a tailor. Since
he was a good and careful writer, he was often asked to draw up important
documents for his employer and others.

John Woolman soon found that his conscience would not let him write a bill of
sale for a slave. On the first occasion this happened, John did write the bill
of sale, since the slave wasgoing to an elderly Friend who would treat her
kindly. He satisfied his conscience by telling the seller and Friend that he
felt they were following a practice "inconsistent with the Christian religion."
On another occasion, Woolman writes in his Journal, "a neighbor received a bad
bruise on his body and sent for me to bleed him, which having done he desired me
to write his will. I took notes, and among 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 his slave, and, carrying it to his bedside, read it to him. I 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 I charged nothing for what I had done, and desired to be excused from
doing the other part in the way he had proposed. We then had a serious
conference on the subject; he, at length, agreeing to set her free, I finished
the will."

Early in his life, John Woolman was recognized as a dedicated member of his
Meeting in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Following the custom among Friends of his
time, he made many journeys "in the ministry." He started on his first trip in
May, 1746, in the company of Isaac Andrews. The two Friends traveled as far
south as North Carolina, completing their journey of 1,500miles in a little more
than three months. Woolman spoke frequently to slave-owners about the evils of
slavery, but so gentle was his personality that he convinced without offense.
Always his hearers felt that he appealed to consciences rather than giving
blame.

Woolman resolved never to allow his tailoring to take up all his time. Even
after he opened a store which grew and was prosperous, he felt that he should
give up the store rather than the time he felt should be used to travel and to
write. He held to this resolution even after he married and had two children.
In 1756, Woolman began his famous Journal which has come to be considered a
classic of English literature.

At that time even some Quakers owned slaves, and Woolman exerted great influence
in leading the Society of Friends to a recognition of the wrongs and evils of
slavery. In 1758, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting appointed a committee to visit
those Friends who still held slaves. John Woolman was the most influential and
active of this group.

In 1759, Woolman, much troubled by the wars between the English and the French
and the continual threat of wars with the Indians, determined to make a
difficult and dangerous trip into Indian country. In his Journal, he tells the
trials and dangers of his journey of eleven days to Wehaloosing in the
north-central part of Pennsylvania, on the eastern branch of the Susquehanna
River. There he remained for four days, feeling, as he says, "the current of
love run strong." Once he forgot the interpreters who had been translating his
words for his Indian listeners and poured out his heart in prayer. When he had
finished, the Indian chief, Papunehang, put his hand on his own breast and said,
"I love to feel where the words come from."

John Woolman's last journey was to England. He set sail from Chester in the
ship, Mary and Elizabeth, "on the first day of the Fifth Month, 1772" and was 39
days at sea. Throughout the voyage, he lived with the crew rather than [in
relative luxury with] the other passengers. When Woolman presented his
certificate or Minute from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in London, he was, at
first, coldly received. However, as soon as he spoke, his spirit and devotion
were recognized, and London Yearly Meeting, for the first time in its history,
included a statement condemning slavery in its Epistle.

After London Yearly Meeting ended, Woolman proceeded toward the city of York in
northeastern England and there, in September,1772, he fell sick with smallpox.
He died on October 7, 1772. It was recorded that in his last hours his mind was
full of "the happiness, the safety, and the beauty of a life devoted to
following the Heavenly Shepherd."

John Woolman wrote, in addition to his Journal, many other works, including
letters and essays on subjects such as the ethical problems of business, the
peace testimony, and slavery. As we read these writings today, we realize how
much he helped in guiding the thoughts and the aspirations of the Religious
Society of Friends. It was difficult to disregard a man who wore conspicuous
white [unbleached] clothes rather than use dyes which had to be produced by
slave labor. John Woolman was the gentle conscience of Quakerism.



 

Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty