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 1,500 miles 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.
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