John Woolman Essayshark

John Woolman
ChurchReligious Society of Friends
Personal details
BornOctober 19, 1720
Province of New Jersey
DiedOctober 7, 1772 (aged 51)
York, Kingdom of England
BuriedYork, Kingdom of England

Samuel Woolman (father)

Elizabeth Burr (mother)
SpouseSarah Ellis (née Abbott)

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 Quakerpreacher, 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.

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[edit]

John Woolman was born in 1720 into a family who were members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). His father Samuel Woolman was a farmer. Their estate lay between Burlington and Mount Holly Township in the New Jersey colony, near the Delaware River. Woolman's maternal and paternal grandparents were early Quaker settlers in Burlington County, New Jersey.[2]

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.[3]

Woolman married Sarah Ellis, a fellow Quaker, in a ceremony at the Chesterfield Friends Meeting. Sarah bore him a daughter whom they named Mary.[4] 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 another customer's will which would have bequeathed or transferred the ownership of a slave, and instead convinced the owner to set the slave free by manumission. Many Friends (fellow Quakers) 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 profit-making as distracting from his religion. He wrote that he took up the trade of tailor in order to have more free time to travel and witness to fellow Quakers about his concerns.[5]

Testimony of Simplicity[edit]

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."[6] 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[edit]

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 increasingly reflecting their condemnation of the practice. Quaker records bear witness to his and a few others' success – by the time the 1776–1783 revolution was over, almost all North American Quakers had freed their slaves, and those few Quakers who had been engaged in the trading or shipment of slaves had ceased such activities as well.

Testimony of Peace[edit]

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.[7]

Final days[edit]

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.[8]

Published works[edit]

  • 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[edit]

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. In 1790, after the American Revolutionary War, 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.[9]

  • The "fair treatment of people of all races" is today an integral part of the Friends' Testimony of Equality.
  • 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.[4]
  • 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.[4] The Memorial's parent organization also compiles an ongoing genealogical study of Woolman's descendants; notable among them are the late actor Christopher Reeve (of 'Superman' fame) and Collett Everman Woolman, a pioneer and innovator of air mail and aerial crop-dusting, and founder of Delta Airlines.[10]
  • 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.[11]
  • The Woolman Institute was established at Wilmington College during the 1980s.
  • 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.[12]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cady, Edwin H (1966). John Woolman: The Mind of the Quaker Saint. New York: Washington Square.
  • Clarkson, John (1808). The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament: In Two Volumes. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orm, 1808; vol. 1, pp. 150–164.
  • Fager, Charles (1993). John Woolman and the Slave Girl. Kimo, children's book.
  • Gross, David M (2008). American Quaker War Tax Resistance, Create Space, documentary history with compilation of primary documents
  • Heller, Mike, ed. (2003). The Tendering Presence: Essays on John Woolman. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill.
  • Plank, Geoffrey. (2012) John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2012)
  • 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. ^"Quaker Meeting Records". Retrieved 12 September 2017.  The original record quite clearly gives the date as the 19th day of Eighth Month 1720. Modern readers often take this to mean August, but before the British empire's adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, "Eighth Month" was Quaker parlance for October. See for more information.
  2. ^The Descendants of John & Elizabeth (Borton) Woolman, married 1684, of Burlington County, New Jersey, Burlington, New Jersey: The John Boorman Memorial Society, 1997
  3. ^The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, ed., Phillips P. Moulton, Friends United Press, 1989
  4. ^ abcJohn Woolman Memorial, John Woolman Memorial Association website
  5. ^Loukes, Harold (1961). Friends Face Reality. London: Bannisdale Press. p. 151. 
  6. ^Whittier 1872 edition, chapter 2
  7. ^Gross, David M. (2008). American Quaker War Tax Resistance, Create Space, pp. 65–68, 77–79, 88–89, 94–95
  8. ^Slaughter, Thomas P. (2008). The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, New York: Hill and Wang, p. 378
  9. ^Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877, Hill and Wang, 1993
  10. ^
  11. ^"John Woolman School", official website
  12. ^John Woolman CollegeArchived 2012-08-25 at the Wayback Machine., website

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman, in Vol. I, The Harvard Classics, New York: P.F. Collier and Sons, 1909 edition, online e-text (1994) at University of Virginia Library
  • "John Woolman, Quintessential Quaker", review, Quaker Info website
  • "John Woolman", bio
  • Woolman Central, John Woolman Memorial Association official website
  • John Woolman College of Active Peace, educational consortium dedicated to teaching Woolman's Theory of Active Peace
  • "Excerpts from 'The Journal of John Woolman'", 1872 edition, The Picket Line: tax resistance website, primary documents and excerpts
  • Claus Bernet (2002). "John Woolman". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 20. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 1560–1574. ISBN 3-88309-091-3. 
  • Works by John Woolman at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about John Woolman at Internet Archive
  • Works by John Woolman at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • A Clear Leading, a one-man play written and performed by Rich Swingle

John Woolman

1720  –  1772

Thought by many to be the central figure of 18th Century Quaker faith and social reform, he was an abolitionist, reformer, writer and minister.  He was very influential in the anti-slavery movement in America.

Born into the farming family of Quaker Samuel Woolman near Mount Holly in New Jersey, John spent a lot of time helping on the farm and attended school in the local schoolhouse.  Later he became a clerk in the local village store and learnt tailoring.  As he was an efficient writer he was asked to prepare important documents.  One of these was a bill of sale for a slave.  He decided that as the slave was being sold to a woman who would treat her well, he could write the bill.  He told the seller and the new owner that they were following a practice “inconsistent with the Christian religion”.  Later he was required to prepare a will in which he was asked to write the name of the person to whom the Negro slave was to be given after her master’s death.  John wrote the will but did not include this instruction.  He then read the will to the slave owner and after some discussion it was agreed that the slave should be set free.

Abolition became one of his main interests.  In 1746 he and a fellow Quaker Isaac Andrews travelled in the ministry and covered over 1500 miles in about three months.  They travelled through Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina observing slavery at first hand.  Woolman was a gentle man who spoke persuasively to slave owners about the evils of slave ownership and was often able to convince them, without causing offence, to release their slaves.  At this time he also wrote two essays “On Keeping Negroes”.  They were later published in 1754 and 1762 respectively.  Although he had become a prosperous shopkeeper and tailor he decided to give up his business activities to allow him more time for his abolition work.  Philadelphia Yearly Meeting with which Woolman was closely associated published their own anti-slavery paper “Epistle of Caution and Advice” and urged against the buying and keeping of slaves.  Philadelphia Yearly Meeting appointed a committee to visit those Friends who still held slaves. John Woolman was the most influential and active member of this group. By 1758 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banned buying and selling of slaves and required members who bought slaves to be removed from positions of authority.

John Woolman kept a Journal which tells the story of his struggles to follow the leading of the Inward Light that he referred to as “The Truth”.  In it he describes his abhorrence of slavery and how he tried to lead by example.  He would not willingly lodge in a house where there were slaves or if he was obliged to do so he would insist on paying for his board and lodging.  As early as 1762 Woolman and others refused to purchase goods produced by slave labour.  He also refused to wear clothes made from material that had been dyed as the dyes were produced by slave labour.  The Journal has become one of the world’s greatest spiritual autobiographies.

He was very disturbed by the plight of the poor and wrote an essay entitled “Plea for the Poor” that was published posthumously in 1774.   Woolman was also concerned about the rights of the Native Americans.  In 1761 he visited Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania to meet with them during the French and Indian War.  He met many bands in peace and often forgot to use interpreters.  Papunehang a chief of the Native American people, who knew very little English, is said to have listened to Woolman’s prayers and then said “I love to hear where words come from”.

In 1772 Woolman journeyed to England.  He chose to travel in the crew’s quarters in keeping with the Quaker testimony to equality.  The London Quakers looked askance at him with his strange undyed clothing  and unkempt appearance but accepted him after they had heard him preach. For the first time London Yearly Meeting included a statement condeming slavery in the Epistle. He set off to York but refused to travel by stagecoach as he felt that the coachmen drove the horses too hard and overworked the horseboys.  It took him six weeks to travel over 400 miles during which he spent time preaching.  Soon after reaching York he succumbed to smallpox and died on 7 October 1772 and is buried in the Quaker Burial Ground at Bishophill in York.

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