Woolman, John

John Woolman (October 19, 1720 (O.S.)/October 30, 1720 (N.S.)[1]– October 7, 1772) was a North American merchant, tailor, journalist, and itinerant Quaker preacher, and an early abolitionist in the colonial era. Based in Mount Holly, New Jersey, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he traveled through frontier areas of British North America to preach Quaker beliefs, and advocate against slavery and the slave trade, cruelty to animals, economic injustices and oppression, and conscription. Beginning in 1755 with the outbreak of the French and Indian War, he urged tax resistance to deny support to the military. In 1772, Woolman traveled to England, where he urged Quakers to support abolition of slavery.



THE monthly-meeting of Philadelphia having been under a concern on account of some Friends who, this summer (1758), had bought negro slaves: the said meeting moved it to their quarterly-
meeting, to have the minute reconsidered in the yearly-meeting, which was made last on that subject; and the said quarterly-meeting appointed a committee to consider it and report to their next; which committee having once and adjourned, and I going to Philadelphia to meet a committee of the yearly-meeting, was in town the evening on which the quarterly-meeting’s committee met the second time, and finding an inclination to sit with them, was, with some others, admitted and Friends had a weighty conference on the
subject. And, soon after their next quarterly-meeting I heard that the case was coming to our yearly meeting, which brought a weighty exercise upon me, and under a sense of my own infirmities and the great danger I felt of turning aside from perfect purity, my mind was often drawn to retire alone and put up my prayers to the Lord, that he would be graciously pleased to strengthen me; that, setting aside all views of self-interest and the friendship of this world, I might stand fully resigned to his holy will.

In this yearly-meeting several weighty matters were considered; and, toward the last, that in relation to dealing with persons who purchase slaves. During the several sittings of the said meeting my mind was frequently covered with inward prayer, and I could say with David, “That tears were my meat day and night.” The case of slave-keeping lay heavy upon me, nor did I find any engagement to speak directly to any other matter before the meeting. Now, when this case was opened several faithful Friends
spake weightily thereto, with which I was comforted; and, feeling a concern to cast in my mite, I said, in substance, as follows:

“In the difficulties attending us in this life nothing is more precious than the mind of truth inwardly manifested, and it is my earnest desire that in this weighty matter we may be so truly
humbled as to be favored with a clear understanding of the mind of truth, and follow it; this would be of more advantage to the society than any medium not in the clearness of divine wisdom. The case is difficult to some who have them; but if such set aside all self-interest and come to be weaned from the desire of getting estates, or even from holding them together, when truth requires the contrary, I believe way will open that they will know how to steer through those difficulties.”

Many faithful brethren labored with great firmness, and the love of truth, in a good degree, prevailed. Several Friends who had negroes expressed their desire that a rule might be made to deal with such Friends as offenders who bought slaves in future. To this it was answered, that the root of this evil would never be effectually struck at until a thorough search was made into the circumstances of such Friends who kept negroes, with respect to the righteousness of their motives in keeping them, that impartial justice might be administered throughout. Several Friends expressed their desire that a visit might be made to such Friends who kept slaves; and many Friends said that they believed liberty was the
negroes’ right; to which, at length, no opposition was made publicly. A minute was made, more full on that subject than any heretofore, and the names of several Friends entered, who were free to join in a visit to such who kept slaves.

An Exercise Concerning Dyed Garments

FROM my early acquaintance with truth I have often felt an inward distress, occasioned by the striving of a spirit in me, against the operation of the heavenly principle; and in this
circumstance have been affected with a sense of my own wretchedness, and in a mourning condition felt earnest longing for that divine help which brings the soul into true liberty; and sometimes in this state, retiring into private places, the spirit of supplication hath been given me, and under a heavenly covering
have asked my gracious Father to give me a heart in all things resigned to the direction of his wisdom, and in uttering language like this the thoughts of my wearing hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them has made lasting impressions on me.

In visiting people of note in the society who had slaves, and laboring with them in brotherly love on that account, I have seen, and the sight has affected me, that a conformity to some customs, distinguishable from pure wisdom, has entangled many; and the desire of gain to support these customs greatly opposed the work of truth; and sometimes when the prospect of the work before me has
been such that in bowedness of spirit I have been drawn into retired places and besought the Lord, with tears, that he would take me wholly under his direction and show me the way in which I ought to walk; it hath revived with strength of conviction that if I would be his faithful servant I must in all things attend to his wisdom and be teachable; and so cease from all customs contrary thereto, however used among religious people.

As he is the perfection of power, of wisdom, and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time, and that we cannot go into superfluities or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to his wisdom without having connection with some degree of oppression and with
that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims.

Being thus fully convinced, and feeling an increasing desire to live in the spirit of peace; being often sorrowfully affected with the thinking on the unquiet spirit in which wars are generally carried on, and with the miseries of man of my fellow-creatures engaged therein; some suddenly destroyed; some wounded, and after much pain remain cripples; some deprived of all their outward
substance and reduced to want; and some carried into captivity. Thinking often on these things, the use of hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them, and wearing more clothes in summer than are useful, grew more uneasy to me, believing them to be customs which have not their foundation in pure wisdom. The apprehension of being singular from my beloved Friends was a strait upon me, and thus I remained in the use of some things contrary to my judgment.

On the thirty-first day of the fifth month, 1761, I was taken ill of a fever, and after having it near a week, I was in great distress of body; and one day, there was a cry raised in me that I might understand the cause why, I was afflicted, and improve under it; and my, conformity to some customs which I believed were not right were brought to my remembrance; and in the continuation of the exercise I felt all the powers in me yield themselves up into the hands of Him who gave me being, and was made thankful that he had taken hold of me by his chastisement. Seeing the necessity of further purifying, there was now no desire in me for health until the design of my correction was answered, and thus I lay in
abasement and brokenness of spirit, and as I felt a sinking down into a calm resignation, so I felt, as in an instant, an inward healing in my nature, and from that time forward I grew better.

Though I was thus settled in mind in relation to hurtful dyes, I felt easy, to wear my garments heretofore made, and so continued about nine months. Then I thought of getting a hat the natural color of the fur, but the apprehension of being looked upon as one affecting singularity felt uneasy to me; and here I had occasion to consider, that things, though small in themselves, being clearly
enjoined by divine authority, became great things to us; and I trusted that the Lord would support me in the trials that might attend singularity, while that singularity was only for his sake. On this account I was under close exercise of mind in the time of our general spring-meeting, 1762, greatly met desiring to be rightly directed; when, being deeply bowed in spirit before the Lord, I was made willing to submit to what I apprehended was required of me, and when I returned home got a hat of the natural color of the fur.

In attending meetings, this singularity was a trial upon me, and more especially at this time, white hats being used by some who were fond of following the changeable modes of dress; and as some Friends, who knew not on what motive I wore it, carried shy of me, I felt my way for a time shut up in the exercise of the ministry; and in this condition, my mind being turned toward my heavenly Father, with fervent cries that I might be preserved to walk before him in the meekness of wisdom, my heart was often tender in meetings, and I felt an inward consolation which to me was very, precious under those difficulties.

IN a time of sickness with the pleurisy, a little upward of two years and a half ago, I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull, gloomy color, between the south and the east; and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be and live; and that I was mixed in with them, and that henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being. In this state I remained several hours. I then heard a soft, melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel, who spake to the other angels. The words were: “John Woolman is dead.” I soon remembered that I once was John Woolman, and being assured that I was alive in the body, I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice, could mean.

I believed beyond doubting that it was the voice of an holy
angel; but as yet it was a mystery to me.

I was then carried in spirit to the mines, where poor,
oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called
Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which
I was grieved, for his name to me was precious.

Then I was informed that these heathen were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ; and they said amongst themselves, if Christ directed them to use us in this sort,
then Christ is a cruel tyrant.

All this time the song of the angel remained a mystery; and in the morning my dear wife and some others coming to my bedside, I asked them if they knew who I was; and they telling me I was John Woolman, thought I was light-headed, for I told them not what the angel said, nor was I disposed to talk much to any one, but was very desirous to get so deep that I might understand this mystery.

My tongue was often so dry that I could not speak till I had moved it about and gathered some moisture, and as I lay still for a time, at length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ that liveth in me; and the life I now live in the flesh is by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and
gave himself for me.”

Then the mystery, was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that that language-“John Woolman is dead”-meant no more than the death of my own will.

Soon after this I coughed and raised much bloody matter, which I had not done during this vision, and now my, natural understanding returned as before. Here I saw that people getting silver vessels to set off their tables at entertainments were often stained with worldly glory, and that in the present state of things I should take heed how I fed myself from out of silver vessels.

Soon after my recovery, I, going to our monthly-meeting, dined at a Friend’s house where drink was brought in silver vessels, and not in any other; and I, wanting some drink, told him my case with weeping, and he ordered some drink for me in another vessel.

The like I afterward went through in several Friends’ houses in America, and have also in England, since I came here; and have cause, with humble reverence, to acknowledge the loving kindness of my heavenly Father who hath preserved me in such a tender frame of mind that none, I believe, have ever been offended at what I have said on that occasion.

After this sickness, I spake not in public meetings for worship for near one year, but my mind was very often in company with the oppressed slaves as I sat in meetings, and though under
this dispensation I was shut up from speaking, yet the spring of the gospel ministry was many times livingly opened in me, and the divine gift operated by abundance of weeping in feeling the oppression of this people. It being so long since I passed through this dispensation, and the matter remaining fresh and livingly in my mind, I believe it safest for me to commit it to writing.

On Keeping of Slaves

IF we seriously consider that liberty is the right of innocent men; that the mighty God is a refuge for the oppressed; that in reality we are indebted to them; that they being set free are still liable to the penalties of our laws, and as likely to have punishment for their crimes as other people; this may answer all our objections. And to retain them in perpetual servitude, without
just cause for it, will produce effects, in the event, more grievous than setting them free would do, when a real love to truth and equity was the motive to it.

Our authority over them stands originally in a purchase made from those who, as to the general, obtained theirs by unrighteousness. Whenever we have recourse to such authority it tends more or less to obstruct the channels through which the perfect plant in us receives nourishment.

There is a principle which is pure placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren, in the best sense of the expression. Using ourselves to take ways which appear most easy to us, when inconsistent with that purity which is without beginning, we thereby set up a government of our own, and deny obedience to Him whose service is true liberty.

He that hath a servant, made so wrongfully, and knows it to be so, when he treats him otherwise than a free man, when he reaps the benefit of his labor without paying him such wages as are
reasonably due to free men for the like service, clothes excepted, these things though done in calmness, without any show of disorder, do yet deprave the mind in like manner and with as great certainty as prevailing cold congeals water. These steps taken by masters, and their conduct striking the minds of their children whilst young, leave less room for that which is good to work upon them. The customs of their parents, their neighbors, and the people with whom they converse, working upon their minds, and they, from thence, conceiving ideas of things and modes of conduct, the entrance into their hearts becomes, in a great measure, shut up against the gentle movings of uncreated purity.

From one age to another the gloom grows thicker and darker, till error gets established by general opinion, that whoever attends to perfect goodness and remains under the melting influence of it finds a path unknown to many, and sees the necessity to lean upon the arm of divine strength, and dwell alone, or with a few, in the right committing their cause to Him who is a refuge for his people in all their troubles.

Where, through the agreement of a multitude, some channels of justice are stopped, and men may support their characters as just men by being just to a party, there is great danger of contracting an alliance with that spirit which stands in opposition to the God of love, and spreads discord, trouble, and vexation among such who give up to the influence of it.

Negroes are our fellow-creatures, and their present condition amongst us requires our serious consideration. We know not the time when those scales in which mountains are weighed may turn. The
Parent of mankind is gracious, his care is over his smallest creatures, and a multitude of men escape not his notice. And though many of them are trodden down and despised, yet he remembers them; he seeth their affliction, and looketh upon the spreading increasing exaltation of the oppressor. He turns the channels of power, humbles the most haughty people, and gives deliverance to the oppressed at such periods as are consistent with his infinite justice and goodness. . And wherever gain is preferred to equity, and wrong things publicly encouraged to that degree that wickedness takes root and spreads wide amongst the inhabitants of a country, there is real cause for sorrow to all such whose love to mankind stands on a true principle and who wisely consider the end and event of things.