John Woolman

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John Woolman
File:John Woolman.jpg
Church Religious Society of Friends
Personal details
Born October 19, 1720
Province of New Jersey
Died October 7, 1772 (aged 51)
York, Kingdom of England
Buried York, Kingdom of England
Denomination Quaker
Parents Samuel Woolman (father) Elizabeth Burr (mother)
Spouse Sarah Ellis (née Abbott)
Children Mary
Occupation Trade

John Woolman (October 19, 1720 – 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. From 1755 during 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.

Woolman published numerous essays, especially against slavery. He kept a journal throughout his life; it was published posthumously, entitled The Journal of John Woolman (1774). Included in Volume I of the Harvard Classics since 1909, it is considered a prominent American spiritual work. The Journal has been continuously in print since 1774, published in numerous editions; the most recent scholarly edition was published in 1989.


Early life and education

John Woolman was born in 1720 into a family belonging to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). His father Samuel Woolman was a farmer. Their estate was between Burlington and Mount Holly Township in the New Jersey colony, near the Delaware River. John's maternal and paternal grandparents were early Quaker settlers in Burlington County, New Jersey.[1]

During his youth, he happened upon a robin's nest that held hatchlings. Woolman began throwing rocks at the mother robin to see if he could hit her. After killing the mother bird, he was filled with remorse, thinking of the baby birds who had no chance of survival without her. He got the nest down from the tree and quickly killed the hatchlings—believing it to be the most merciful thing to do. This experience weighed on his heart. He was inspired to love and protect all living things from then on.[2]

Woolman married Sarah Ellis Abbott, a fellow Quaker, in a ceremony at the Chesterfield Friends Meeting. They had a daughter Mary.[3] His choice to lead a "life of simplicity" meant sacrifices for his family, as did his frequent travels as an itinerant minister.


As a young man, Woolman began work as a clerk for a merchant. When he was 23, his employer asked him to write a bill of sale for a slave. Though he told his employer that he thought that slaveholding was inconsistent with Christianity, he wrote the bill of sale.

By the age of 26, he had become an independent and successful tradesman. He refused to write the part of a will that included disposing of a slave and, in that case, convinced the client to set the slave free by manumission. Many Friends believed that slavery was bad—even a sin. Other Friends kept slaves but considered trading in slaves to be sinful.

Woolman eventually retired from business (i.e., "merchandising") because he viewed profitmaking as distracting from his religion, although he continued his trade as a tailor.[4]

Testimony of Simplicity

Woolman was committed to the Friends' Testimony of Simplicity. While in his 20s, he decided that the retail trade demanded too much of his time. He believed he had a calling to preach "truth and light" among Friends and others. In his Journal, he said that he quit the shop as it was "attended with much outward care and cumber," that his "mind was weaned from the desire of outward greatness," and that "where the heart is set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving."[5] Woolman gave up his career as a tradesman and supported himself as a tailor; he also maintained a productive orchard.

He addressed issues of economic injustice and oppression in his Journal and other writings, and knew international trade had local effects. Despite supporting himself as a tailor, Woolman refused to use or wear dyed fabrics, because he had learned that many workers in the dye industry were poisoned by some of the noxious substances used. Concerned about treatment of animals, in later life, Woolman avoided riding in stagecoaches, for he believed operators were too often cruel and injurious to the teams of horses.

Woolman decided to minister to Friends and others in remote areas on the frontier. In 1746, he went on his first ministry trip with Isaac Andrews. They traveled about 1,500 miles round-trip in three months, going as far south as North Carolina. He preached on many topics, including slavery, during this and other such trips.

Anti-slavery activities

In 1754 Woolman published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. He continued to refuse to draw up wills that bequeathed ownership of slaves to heirs. Over time, and working on a personal level, he individually convinced many Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves. As Woolman traveled, when he accepted hospitality from a slaveholder, he insisted on paying the slaves for their work in attending him. He refused to be served with silver cups, plates, and utensils, as he believed that slaves in other regions were forced to dig such precious minerals and gems for the rich. He observed that some owners used the labor of their slaves to enjoy lives of ease, which he found to be the worst situation not only for the slaves, but for the moral and spiritual condition of the owners. He could condone those owners who treated their slaves gently, or worked alongside them.

Woolman worked within the Friends' tradition of seeking the guidance of the Spirit of Christ and patiently waiting to achieve unity in the Spirit. As he went from one Friends' meeting to another, he expressed his concern about slaveholding. Gradually various Quaker Meetings began to see the evils of slavery; their minutes reflected their condemnation of the practice.

Testimony of Peace

He lived out the Friends' Peace Testimony by protesting the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the North American front of the Seven Years' War between Great Britain and France. In 1755, he decided to oppose paying those colonial taxes that supported the war and urged tax resistance among fellow Quakers in the Philadelphia Meeting, even at a time when settlers on the frontier were being attacked by French and allied Native Americans. Some Quakers joined him in his protest, and the Meeting sent a letter on this issue to other groups. In one of his prophetic dreams, recorded in his Journal, Woolman negotiated between two heads of state in an effort to prevent a war.[6]

Final days

Woolman's final journey was to England in 1772. During the voyage he stayed in steerage and spent time with the crew, rather than in the better accommodations enjoyed by some passengers. He attended the British London Yearly Meeting. The Friends resolved to include an anti-slavery statement in their Epistle (a type of letter sent to Quakers in other places). Woolman traveled to York, but he had contracted smallpox and died there. He was buried in York on October 9, 1772.[7]

Published works

  • Essays
    • "Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes", 1753
    • "Some Considerations on Keeping Negroes, Part Second", 1762
    • "Considerations on Pure Wisdom and Human Policy, on Labor, on Schools, and on the Right Use of the Lord's Outward Gifts", 1768
    • "Considerations on the True Harmony of Mankind, and How it is to be Maintained", 1770
  • Books
    • The Journal of John Woolman, published posthumously in 1774 by Joseph Crukshank, a Philadelphia Quaker printer. Several subsequent editions are available, including the respected Whittier edition of 1871. The modern standard scholarly edition is The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, ed., Phillips P. Moulton, Friends United Press, 1989.
    • Serious Considerations on Various Subjects of Importance by John Woolman, of Mount-Holly, New-Jersey, with some of his dying expressions, published posthumously in 1805 by Collins, Perkins and Co., New York.
    • Gummere, Amelia Mott (1922). The Journal and Essays of John Woolman. New York: The Macmillan Company.
    • Proud, James, ed. (2010). John Woolman and the Affairs of Truth: the Journalist's Essays, Epistles, and Ephemera. San Francisco, CA: Inner Light Books

Legacy and honors

In his lifetime, Woolman did not succeed in eradicating slavery even within the Society of Friends in colonial America. However, his personal efforts helped change Quaker viewpoints during the period of the Great Awakening. After the American Revolutionary War and independence, in 1790 the Pennsylvania Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress for the abolition of slavery. While unsuccessful at the national level, Quakers contributed to Pennsylvania's abolition of slavery. In addition, in the first two decades after the war, they were active together with Methodist and Baptist preachers in the Upper South in persuading many slaveholders to manumit their slaves. The percentage of free people of color rose markedly during those decades, for instance, from less than one to nearly ten percent in Virginia.[8]

  • The "fair treatment of people of all races" is today an integral part of the Friends' Testimony of Equality.
File:John Woolman House 1.jpg
The John Woolman Memorial, 99 Branch St., Mount Holly, New Jersey
  • The Journal of John Woolman has been included since the first year of publication in 1909 in Volume I of The Harvard Classics, together with Benjamin Franklin's His Autobiography and William Penn's Fruits of Solitude. This was published by P.F. Collier and Sons of New York. It is considered a prominent American spiritual work and is the longest-published book in the history of North America other than the Bible, having been continuously in print since 1774.
  • The John Woolman Memorial Association was formed in Mount Holly to promote his teachings. It sponsors an annual lecture and has published a volume of Woolman genealogy, with additional volumes planned.[3]
  • The John Woolman Memorial in Mount Holly, New Jersey is located near one of his former orchards. A brick house built between 1771–1783, reportedly for one of Woolman's daughters and her husband, it is operated as a house museum and memorial.[3]
  • 1963, the John Woolman School was founded in his honor in Nevada City, California as a college-preparatory boarding school, serving students in grades 10–12.[9]
  • 2003, a group of scholars of peace and justice studies founded the John Woolman College of Active Peace, which seeks to 'mainstream' many Quaker (and other) concepts of peace and peacemaking into higher education.[10]

Further reading

  • Reynolds, Reginald (1948). The Wisdom of John Woolman / With a Selection from His Writings as a Guide to the Seekers of Today.
  • Quaker Home Service (1973, 1980). Some Stories about John Woolman, 1720–1772.
  • Slaughter, Thomas P. (2008). The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Swayne, Amelia. (1942). John Woolman. Friends General Conference Committee on Education.
  • The Descendants of John & Elizabeth (Borton) Woolman, married 1684, of Burlington County, New Jersey, Burlington, New Jersey: John Woolman Memorial Association, 1997


  1. The Descendants of John & Elizabeth (Borton) Woolman, married 1684, of Burlington County, New Jersey, Burlington, New Jersey: The John Boorman Memorial Society, 1997
  2. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, ed., Phillips P. Moulton, Friends United Press, 1989
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 John Woolman Memorial, John Woolman Memorial Association website
  4. Loukes, Harold (1961). Friends Face Reality. London: Bannisdale Press. p. 151.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Whittier 1872 edition, chapter 2
  6. Gross, David M. (2008). American Quaker War Tax Resistance, Create Space, pp. 65–68, 77–79, 88–89, 94–95
  7. Slaughter, Thomas P. (2008). The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, New York: Hill and Wang, p. 378
  8. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877, Hill and Wang, 1993
  9. "John Woolman School", official website
  10. John Woolman College, website

External links