“I was so afflicted in my mind, that I said before my master and the Friend, that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the christian religion.”
Although the movement in favor of the abolition of slavery in the United States is typically associated with the nineteenth century, a number of individuals and groups protested the practice during the colonial and early revolutionary periods. One such individual was John Woolman, a New Jersey shopkeeper and minister whose memoir, A Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours, and Christian Experience of that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, John Woolman, details the development of his abolitionist thought. As a devout Quaker, Woolman came to believe that the institution of slavery was in conflict with Christian teachings. In his memoir, he recounts his first direct dealings with slavery and explicitly outlines his daily struggle with remaining true to Christian precepts and positing himself as an example to others.
Woolman began writing his memoir in 1756, twenty years before the birth of the United States of America and two years into the hostilities of the French and Indian War. At that time, slavery was gaining traction as an institution. In the previous century, many of the laborers brought to the colonies were indentured servants, individuals who, prior to traveling to America, contracted to work for a landowner or business owner for a set number of years in exchange for their passage. Following the end of their terms of indenture, these servants were considered free laborers and were typically granted tools or land with which to establish their own farms. Other workers who were in some form of bondage included redemptioners, who entered into contracts similar to those of indentured servants after arriving in the colonies, and convicts sentenced to terms of labor. However, as the need for labor increased, particularly on large farms and plantations, the limited terms of service of indentured workers came to be viewed as a hindrance. Landowners instead began to import an increasing number of enslaved Africans, as such individuals would not have to be freed after several years. Slavery was legalized in all thirteen English colonies in North America by 1750, and the number of slaves imported to the colonies rose dramatically over the course of the eighteenth century.
During Woolman’s lifetime, the Society of Friends had not yet developed the unified antislavery stance that later came to characterize the religious community. Some regional Quaker groups openly opposed slavery, and a number of prominent Quakers objected to slavery on religious or moral grounds. However, other Quakers owned slaves of their own. At the 1759 Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a number of Quakers recommended that the group as a whole shun the practice of slavery. By 1776, the Society of Friends began to deny membership to those who continued to own or traffic in slaves, and the Quaker community soon determined that the practice of slavery was in opposition to Christianity. Over the next nine decades, Quakers became some of the most ardent supporters of the abolitionist movement.
John Woolman was born in Northampton, New Jersey (now part of Mount Holly), in 1720. His father, Samuel, owned and operated a farm. From an early age, Woolman was intensely interested in the concept that people should be good to all living creatures. He frequently read from the Bible and other religious texts, developing a strong belief system that would shape his outlook on human rights later in life. At the age of twenty-one, Woolman obtained a job as a clerk in a shop in Mount Holly, New Jersey. It was while working in the shop that Woolman had his first recorded direct encounter with the institution of slavery, an experience that had a profound effect on him.
Believing that slavery was incompatible with Christianity, Woolman was not content merely to speak on the evils of the institution; rather, he sought to serve as an example for his fellow Quakers and others. For much of his life, he ensured that he wore no fabrics connected with enslaved labor, and he shunned both foods and objects obtained directly, or even indirectly, through the institution. While he continued to work as a shopkeeper and tailor for a time, he spent much of his later life traveling throughout the colonies and speaking to various Quaker meetings, attempting to persuade his fellow Friends to reject slavery. He also especially sought to counsel those who professed their Christian faith yet did not speak out against Christians who owned slaves, recognizing a degree of hypocrisy in such inaction.
In 1756, Woolman began to write his memoir, chronicling his early life and the development of his abolitionist beliefs as well as his efforts to religious understanding and convince others, including members of the Quaker community within the North American colonies and England, to renounce their participation in slavery. Woolman died in York, England, on October 7, 1772.
In his memoir, A Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours, and Christian Experience of that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, John Woolman, Woolman explains the role his Quaker upbringing and experiences early in life played in the development of his abolitionist thought. He begins by explaining his desire to live as much under God’s will as he was capable, and he notes that in doing so, he became further imbued with enlightenment. Woolman wished to live simply to gain a greater insight into God’s world and how he wished his creations to live together. Living the way he does, he recognizes, is not for everyone, nor will everyone understand. He writes, “My former acquaintance were left to judge of me as they would, for I found it safest for me to live in private, and keep these things sealed up in my own breast.”
With this in mind, it is easier to understand why Woolman felt as he did about such powerful issues as slavery and animal welfare. He believed that cruelty toward human beings or animals was against Christian teachings, and he felt guilt for any participation or complicity in such actions; his belief that God’s eyes were always upon him magnified this guilt. The act of keeping a journal may have also served as a constant reminder to him of particular temptations faced and resolutions made. His memoir, through its simple and heartfelt language and highly personal reflections on faith, indicates that he was honest with himself and truly sought to learn from each experience.
One such experience that had a profound effect on Woolman was his first recorded direct encounter with slavery, which occurred during his tenure as a clerk in a shop. One day, his employer requested that Woolman write a bill of sale for a female slave he had sold. Despite his reservations about the issue, Woolman did as he was asked. He explains, “I remembered that I was hired by the year, that it was my master who directed me to it, and that it was an elderly man, a member of our Society, who bought her; so through weakness, I gave way, and wrote it.” Woolman felt bound to obey these men, both of whom were in positions of authority over him, but this obedience had a moral cost. His participation in the institution of slavery was likely perceived as minimal by the individuals present; he was not a buyer or seller of slaves but a clerk documenting a transaction. In Woolman’s eyes, however, he had become actively involved in the slave trade by assisting in the sale of a person. Writing the bill of sale made him complicit in a system he believed to be un-Christian.
After completing the task, Woolman writes that he “was so afflicted in [his] mind” that he admitted to his employer and the man purchasing the slave that he that he “believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the christian religion.” For a man in Woolman’s position, it would have been all too easy to write up the bill of sale without comment. However, he took it upon himself to do so while marking his stance very clearly before his employer and an elder within his Quaker community. Given his strong beliefs within his religious faith, there is no doubt that he wished to be seen avowing the truth of his convictions while completing an act of which he so heartily disapproved. Making this statement, Woolman writes, somewhat “abated [his] uneasiness”; however, he later determined that he should have asked to be excused from the task altogether, as it was “a thing against [his] conscience.”
Woolman’s central argument against slavery was that it flew in the face of Christianity. Woolman, as a Christian, believed that God had created humankind. For one human to hold another in bondage was therefore against the laws of nature as dictated by the creator. The placement of animals below human beings gave credence to humanity’s superiority, but God’s laws did not substantiate the placement of one human over another.
Pained as he was about the situation of humans owning other humans, Woolman was even more pained by the fact that members of his own religious community participated in the institution. Woolman notes that after his first experience with slavery, he refused to become any more complicit, even when the person requesting his assistance was a member of the Society of Friends. He records that he was approached by another Quaker who asked Woolman to “write a conveyance of a slave to him.” Woolman writes, “I told him I was not easy to write it; for, though many of our meeting and in other places kept slaves, I still believed the practice was not right; and desired to be excused from the writing.” Woolman then spoke with the man on the topic, and he disclosed to Woolman that he himself felt “that keeping slaves was not altogether agreeable to his mind,” but he was doing so out of a social obligation.
In speaking with the man requesting his help in the transaction, Woolman presented himself as sort of a counselor, seeking to call the man’s attention to his complicity in human trafficking. He desired not only to see the end of the practice but also to teach other residents of the colonies how to rid themselves of such evils. His actions were not merely those of one wishing to cleanse his own soul. In the years following his early encounters with slavery, Woolman embarked on a mission to educate people throughout the colonies about slavery’s incompatibility with Christianity. However, he went beyond simple education, seeking to serve, in his day-to-day life, as an example of a person deliberately rejecting slavery and its products. For a man who once was rendered “afflicted” by his employer’s request that he “write a bill of sale” for a slave, Woolman made large strides in his lifetime. His memoir, chronicling his personal devotion to Christ and his brothers and sisters in slavery, is a testimony to the strength of his faith and his will to help those around him—especially those participating in acts of which he disapproved. Where others could have looked away, dismissing slavery as a problem to be dealt with by other people at some point in the future, Woolman faced these issues straight on, becoming one of the earliest individuals to do so. He lived his life according to his interpretation of Christian principles and, in so doing, helped others develop their own ways of understanding the relationship between religion and human rights. In A Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours, and Christian Experience of that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, John Woolman, he writes, “I felt a tender compassion for the youth who remained entangled in snares like those which had entangled me. This love and tenderness increased; and my mind was strongly engaged for the good of my fellow-creatures.” Formally working as a minister, his true purpose was that of a guide, seeking to lead slaveholders out of the darkness and the slaves themselves to the light of freedom.
A central theme of A Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours, and Christian Experience of that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, John Woolman, as well as the accompanying historiography—a subject’s history of documentation by historians—is that of self-denial. Self-denial features in a number of facets of Woolman’s life, most notably in his rejection of products of slavery such as rum and certain fabrics. He was also known for his respect for animals, believing that all creatures had been created by God and should therefore be treated well. Just as with his brethren held in bondage, Woolman felt a sense of responsibility for even the animals God placed below humans. Humankind’s placement did not, in his eyes, give humans free reign to abuse such a position. Even animals were deserving of “universal love.” With this firmly in mind, Woolman made the decision, much like those in his indirect dealings with slavery, to make changes to his life to ensure that his actions did not benefit or encourage industries that mistreated animals. Thus, he refused to ride in horse-drawn carriages or accept any mail carried by such vehicles, even if such a refusal meant disrupting his own communication with his family back in the colonies during his time in England
This theme of self-denial, which in some cases could be better described as the desire to live simply and deliberately, became a prominent one in literature of the following century, particularly in abolitionist writings. Scholars have made an enlightening connection between Woolman and nineteenth-century abolitionist and transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. Transcendentalists believed that human beings are inherently good and stressed the importance of nature, ideas with which Woolman would have likely agreed. A prolific writer, Thoreau chose to live as simply as possible for a time, retreating to a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He chronicled his experiences in his 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In his essay “The Economy of an Inward Life: John Woolman and Henry Thoreau,” scholar William Jolliff links the two men, citing Woolman as a profound influence on Thoreau. He states that “Thoreau’s thinking on the economics of everyday life is an extension of a significant if little-known stream of eighteenth-century Quakerism.” Jolliff states further that both men strove “to direct the economy of their day-to-day, outward lives in ways that would most fully allow them to nurture their inward lives.” Although he admits throughout the article that there is no evidence that definitively proves the influence of Woolman upon Thoreau, there persists two lives lived comparably, with similar aspirations for themselves and community at large.
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