Woolman, John

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Woolman, John (1720-1772): American Theologian

John Woolman was a Quaker minister, a writer and worker for social justice, and the author of a personal journal that has given inspiration to generations of readers. Woolman was born on his family’s farm on Rancocas in New Jersey and went to school with other Quaker children. As a young man, he clerked in a store in Mount Holly, NJ, was often asked to write important documents, and became a tailor as well. Although successful in his trade, he resolved not to be too successful, but rather have time for writing and ministerial traveling.

His writings include The Journal of John Woolman, begun in 1756 as a testimony to the work of God’s love in his life, and a variety of letters and essays, including “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes” and “A Plea for the Poor.”

Woolman’s work for social justice was not limited to writing. He spoke to slaveowners about the practice being "inconsistent with the Christian religion"; he asked to be “excused” from writing bills of sale or wills that included the transfer slaves; when he visited homes of slaveowners, he left money to compensate the slaves for their work for him; and he adopted the odd dress of white undyed clothes, rather than those made from dyes produced by slave labor. His testimony against slavery was instrumental in moving the Religious Society of Friends to cease keeping slaves and engaging in slave trade.

In 1772 he sailed to England (living with the crew rather than indulging in the “superfluities” of the passengers cabins) and attended London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. Although he was not warmly received at first, his message prompted London Yearly Meeting to issue a statement condemning slavery. Woolman died while in England, after contracting smallpox.

Further Reading:

David Sox, John Woolman: Quintessential Quaker, 1720-1772, 1999.

Robert Russ

Elon University

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