The Life and Times of John Woolman (1720-1772)

The eighteenth century Quaker, John Woolman, is a personal hero of mine. He is most well known as an antislavery advocate, but his reforms go well beyond that. I did my Ph.D. research on Woolman, and have written a bit about him. One of the things I like to do is to think about Woolman’s life with others, and think together about what implications his life has for our own. This series of blog posts is based on some talks on Woolman I’ve given at Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, OR, and North Seattle Friends Church in Seattle, WA.

My goal in these posts is to explore Woolman not only as a sensitive soul, not only as a social reformer, but as a theologian who had a coherent and comprehensive conviction of God’s role in colonial American society. I hope that this series will help us to view Woolman in context, to let Woolman challenge us and make us uncomfortable. The highest honor we can give Woolman is to accept him as he was without trying to mold him into a figure who conforms to our modern sensibilities.

In this post, I want to do two things:

1) First, I want to explore the eighteenth century colonial American context, and, in particular, those pieces that concern Woolman and his vision for the British Atlantic World;

and 2) second, I want to give a brief overview of his life and how he fit into larger developments within Quakerism.

Naturally, Woolman was a part of the eighteenth century world in which he lived, and his theology, like all theology, was an attempt to address his deepest concerns and the concerns of his generation.  Theology is contextual, and in this post I want to highlight aspects of Woolman’s life, colonial Quakerism, and colonial society that will be a backdrop to the discussions of his theology in posts to come.

For a nice look at Woolman from a historical perspective, I heartily recommend Geoffrey Plank’s book, John Woolman’s Path to the Peacable Kingdom, A Quaker in the British Empire.

Early eighteenth century context

William Penn (1644-1718)

William Penn (1644-1718)

William Penn received a royal charter for the colonizing of Pennsylvania in 1681. He and his colleagues envisioned Pennsylvania as a “Holy Experiment,” a place where Quaker religious ideals could be practiced without threat of persecution. These Quaker leaders also believed that Pennsylvania would become a witness to the rest of the world and that once other nations saw the truth of the Quaker way, the world would become Quaker.

However, eighteenth century Quakerism was diverse, with many different ways to be a Quaker in good standing. Many of what modern Quakers consider “Quaker testimonies” were not yet codified. So, for example, what modern Quaker call a testimony of “simplicity” was not really conceived as such in the eighteenth century. It was, rather, a more general tendency toward “plainness.” While Quakers eventually became famous for their antislavery views, Quakers in the first part of the eighteenth century were about as involved in slavery as everybody else.

1-2 Middle ColoniesThere were, though, some general religious insights that became influential among Quakers as they debated slavery internally. In the seventeenth century, early Quaker leader, George Fox (1624-1691), for example, noted that slavery was not consistent with the “Golden Rule.” Fox did not call for the immediate emancipation of slaves, but the trajectory he started would eventually move Quakers as a group to take that stand before any other Anglo group.

Additionally, Quakers at this time did not have the “peace testimony,” they have been associated with. Rather, they held to what might be called a non-participation testimony. They generally viewed war as inevitable and even the legitimate duty of government, but they believed they were held out of it. So, Isaac Norris, Sr., who during his career was both the leader of the Pennsylvania Assembly and Clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, was consistent with most Quakers in believing that paying war taxes did not contradict Quaker principles. In 1711, during the War of Spanish Succession, Norris and the Quaker led Pennsylvania Assembly voted to raise taxes “for the Queen’s use,” though everyone knew the monies would be spent to support the war effort.[1]

John Woolman

John Woolman was born near Burlington, New Jersey, October 19, 1720. He notes in his Journal that early in his life he had a spiritual sensitivity that separated him from his peers and that led him to expect direct experiences of divine present: “…before I was seven years old I began to be acquainted with the operations of divine love.”

As a teen and young adult, Woolman experienced spiritual conflict, as he was tempted to engage in “mirth and wantonness,” all of which stemmed from “an unsubjected will.” Around 1741 he moved out of the family home and began work in a shop in Mount Holly. Sometime in his 22nd or 23rd year, Woolman experienced a conversion.  He felt that he was finally gaining traction in his spiritual life:

“While I silently ponder on that change wrought in me, I find no language equal to it nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it.”

In this conversion he felt himself to be united to God’s presence in a new way, and so he saw the world around him in a different light.   He saw that true religion had both inward and outward dimensions. Moreover, his experience was universal in that it encompassed the entire creation and all of humanity, regardless of racial and religious distinctions. This is not to say that he was a “universalist” in our modern sense of the word, because he wasn’t as I’ll explain in a later post.

However, Woolman’s conversion experience reoriented him toward the world around him in radical and comprehensive ways:

“as by [God’s] breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life, or by life derived from him, was a contradiction in itself.”

At the age of 22, Woolman wrote a bill of sale for a slave, but mentioned while doing so that slavekeeping was “inconsistent with the Christian religion.” This was an important event for Woolman and he would no longer participate in term of life slave transactions. In his early 20s Woolman was recorded as minister and began travelling as an officially recognized Quaker minister.  As an adult, Woolman would travel as far south as North Carolina, north into Massachusetts, west into the Pennsylvania frontier, and east to England where he died in York in 1772.  All in all, Woolman averaged a month per year away from home,[2] but almost 70% of the content of the Journal concerns his travels.  The high concentration of itinerant ministry material in his Journal is not unique as eighteenth century Quaker journals tended toward greater fullness during periods of travel.[3] In 1749, he married Sarah Ellis, “a well inclined damsel.” They had two children, but only their daughter, Mary, survived infancy.

Woolman and the Quaker Reformation

Woolman’s adult years coincieded with significant changes among Pennsylvania Quakers. Beginning around 1748 a group of young leaders, of which Woolman was only one, joined an existing group of devout, reform-minded Quakers to strengthen the Quaker discipline and to attempt to bring the Quaker public perception in line with stated principles. This period in the middle of the eighteenth century has been described as the Reformation of American Quakerism by Jack Marietta, and he’s written an important book by that name. While we are most familiar with the anti-war and antislavery views that emerged during this time, much of the Quaker reforms were geared toward maintaining internal purity. Thus, these reformers wanted to strictly enforce prohibitions against Quakers marrying non-Quakers, because they thought the practice was diluting their corporate purity. To some extent they were right. Some people were marrying into Quaker families and joining Quaker Meetings, but not out of a sense of conviction. Quakers were both the political and religious power holders in Pennsylvania, allying with them brought with it some economic advantages.

Anthony Benezet, Quaker school teacher and abolitionist

Anthony Benezet, Quaker school teacher and abolitionist

One of the Quaker groups that changed the most under the reformation was the Overseers of the Press. This group was in charge of approving books for publication. Any Quaker who wished to publish must go through this group. Before 1754, no antislavery document was allowed to be published through Quaker channels. However, once the committee makeup changed in the early 1750s, antislavery protests emerged and with them a new vision of Quaker faithfulness. In 1754, Woolman published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes through Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the chief Quaker organizational body in the region.1-4 Keeping of Negroes pt 1 This and the publication of Anthony Benezet’s (1713-1784) Epistle of Caution and Advice mark a definite change in official policy in regard to slavery. Neither document carried the authority to discipline or censure slavery among Quakers, that would come later, but they represent the coalescence of a centuries worth of growing antislavery sentiment and the emergence of a new Quaker openness to officially question slavery.

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) also caused introspection and change among Quakers. French and British imperial policies had their visions set on the Ohio River Valley to the west of Philadelphia, which made Pennsylvania a chief theater of their war for global supremacy. These geo-political events put the “Holy Experiment” to the test. In a series of events known as the “crisis of 1756,” pragmatic Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly decided it was politically necessary to protect the Pennsylvania frontiers from French and Amerindian forces and levied a tax for the raising of a militia and, essentially, declared war on the Delaware Indians. This was different than the passive acceptance of taxes “for the Queen’s Use,” because the Quaker led assembly was actively raising the money and spending it on military purposes. For reform-minded Quakers, this was a clear indication that the “Holy Experiment” had gone terribly wrong.  Reform minded Quakers held to a more strict pacifism, and so they were dismayed when their fellow Quaker politicians voted to raise taxes to conduct a war, and commissioned Quaker magistrates to collect taxes from the pacifist Quakers, or else confiscate their goods. As a result of these events, some Quakers withdrew from the Pennsylvania Assembly because they knew they could not stop the war bill, which did pass. Some scholars consider this the end of Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” because nearly seventy-five years of Pennsylvanian history without calling for war had come to an end, and the Quaker majority in the Assembly suffered.1-5 French and Indian War

At this time, in 1756, Woolman started writing his Journal.

In the crucial Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sessions of 1758, an annual gathering where Quakers considered their policies, they took the next step against slavery. When the Yearly Meeting was about ready to table the issues of slavery for another year, Woolman stood up in the meeting and stated that “…it is not a time for delay,” and that God had opened Quaker eyes to God’swill and so to reject that would bring judgment against them. Woolman said, “…it may be that by terrible things in righteousness God may answer us in this matter.” Woolman’s witness was influential and the Yearly Meeting adopted a minute cautioning its members from participation in slavery, and appointing a committee to visit slave owners in their homes in order to convince them to manumit their slaves.

With the end of the Holy Experiment, reform minded Quakers sought a new vision of Quaker witness through corporate purity, benevolence, antislavery, and the extension of Quaker testimonies into new areas like anti-war. This new vision was a reaction to the apathy they saw in their more prosperous peers and to the perception that Quaker were no better at wielding wealth and influence than anyone else and so had better leave it off if they were to remain faithful.

The Atlantic Triangular Trade

The Atlantic Triangular Trade

An important part of their concerns related to the growing trans-Atlantic imperial economy, which provided the economic drive that supported slavery, greed, wealth accumulation and the growing divide between economic classes. During the course of the eighteenth century, colonists became more and more intertwined in a globalized marketplace of goods. Farmers paid increasing attention to foreign markets, and sometimes shipped their goods across the sea. After 1750, the variety of goods available in the colonies increased dramatically. Colonial port city shops carried the latest fashions from London and Paris. The most obvious increase in goods came in those sectors that displayed social and political status: calicoes, mahogany furniture and carriages. Colonial resources were shipped to European ports, they then either returned to the colonies with luxury good from Europe, or went down the African coast to pick up slaves before heading back to the colonies. During Woolman’s life, homes among the wealthy grew in size, ornation and in the number of rooms. Woolman noticed all these developments, and warned of the spiritual danger the increased devotion to materialism posed. In fact, the social criticism that runs through Woolman’s writing more than any other is his condemnation of luxury and material consumption, which he viewed as causing the evils of colonial society including slavery.  The burgeoning trans-Atlantic economy sets the background for Woolman’s theology and social criticisms.

Woolman’s Asceticism and Death

In the 1760s Woolman became more and more radical.  His writings take on a more dramatic apocalypticism and become increasingly virulent. He was always accepted within Quakerism, as shown by the important positions he held in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting through the 1750s and 1760s, but his comportment became more intense. For example, in 1761 he began to wear undyed clothes, because he thought the dye covered over true dirtiness and signified a person who wanted to pretend to be clean when they were in fact not. In 1763 he journeyed into the Pennsylvania wilderness to visit the American Indian town of Wyalusing at a time when the French and Indian War was raging and his life was in danger. In the mid-1760s he begins to walk on his travels, so as to be an example of lowliness to slaveholders and to spend more time in reflection between destinations. He also had several visions during these later years. One of which is absolutely remarkable.  In 1772 he recounted a vision he had during a pleurisy attack a couple years earlier. In this vision he viewed himself as mixed in with human beings in as much suffering as possible to still be alive. He said he heard the words, “John Woolman is dead.”  At first, he didn’t know what the words meant, but then he knew that he was once John Woolman and that he was no longer living in the same way but had joined with the sufferings of others. He talked about this vision as a literal death and resurrection. The old John Woolman was dead, the resurrected John Woolman could see all things from the perspective of eternity and divine perfection.

In 1772 Woolman sailed to England in the cargo hold of a ship.  He landed in London, and from London he walked north to York.  Along the way, he took in many meetings and drew a crowd because of his peculiar undyed garb.  He also wrote several essays during his journey.  He died of the Small Pox in York.

For further reading, here are some of Woolman’s writings available online:

The Journal of John Woolman

A Plea for the Poor

The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, forwarded to Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, Part II

Background on Woolman and antislavery

[1] Frederick Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House: The Quaker Merchants of Colonial Philadelphia, 1682-1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948), 19.

[2] Woolman, “Journal,”  5.

[3]  Henry Cadbury. John Woolman in England: a Documentary Supplement.  ([London]: Friends Historical Society, 1971) 1.

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