John Woolman was a man of God whose theological vision of love pushes the boundaries of social justice even by today’s standards. He was concerned about animal rights and the sanctity of all of God’s creations long before even slavery was on the radar of American religious thought. While some modern people may boycott certain products because of their love for their brother; or make their own clothing to avoid the costly oppression of vanity; or live out a life of simplicity in a culture of materialism and be considered a “radical:” John Woolman did this centuries ago, even before our country was born!
His exposure to the clothing industry and its exploitation of slaves quickened his conscious, and his silent testimony of undyed clothing bore witness to the Truth he had found that equality and loved can change every aspect of our lives with Christ’s redeeming love. His relationship with Christ produced fruitful testimonies in areas of simplicity, equality, integrity, and peace, as well as a loving stewardship of all God’s creatures. His example is truly challenging. Many of the problems he faced in his generation are greater still in ours. As we try to meet these challenges today, we would do well to learn from the transformational testimony of John Woolman.
Life and Theology
John was born October 19th, 1720 in Rancocas, Burlington county, new Jersey during the an inward focused period of Quaker history heavily influenced by “Quietism” and the struggling with materialism as the industrious Quakers grew in prosperity. From an early age, John Woolman was sensitive to spiritual matters and discerning of conscious. He was born in to a larger agrarian family and was no stranger to hard work. He knew and felt the pain of sin, and though deeply religious, at times a seemed a little unstable. [i]Woolman was shaped by painful lessons from an early age, and these experiences with his falleness pointed him to a deep sense of compassion and justice. Once, after striking a mother bird dead, he recalls his initial gloating before the weight of what he had done fully sank into his heart. He wept bitterly and climbed a tree to kill the young chicks so they would not die slowly from starvation due to his mistake. The theme of the sanctity of all life, including animal life, would shape his theology throughout his adult life and lead him to walk most places he went to curb animal exploitation on his behalf.
He wrestled through many spiritual conflicts that formed him, and strengthened his religious convictions and deep sense of calling.[ii] D. Elton Trueblood says that to tell the truth about John Woolman it is important to understand two very important things. The first is that Woolman is not characteristic of the other Quakers of his time but is far superior in his integrity and moral sensitivity. The second is that Woolman was standing on the shoulders of Fox and Penn, and that without their previous contributions it would be unthinkable for Woolman to have achieved as much as he did.[iii]
Woolman later moved to Mount Holly, New Jersey to keep books for a shopkeeper and later became a tailor’s apprentice. Woolman’s keen sensitivity and theology of equality was tested when at 23 his employer decided to sell his Negro slave and commanded Woolman to write the bill of sale. Woolman felt his heart breaking under the weight of his convictions. He eventually signed the bill under audible protest that slavery was wrong, but this regret haunted him and became a crucible that tempered his passion to see the slavery abolished and true human equality in Christ restored among Friends.[iv]
While in Mount Holly, Woolman began expressing his call to public ministry and often spoke as the spirit moved in Friends Meetings.[v] Like Fox before him, Woolman had “openings” from the Lord that guided his thoughts, actions and conscience.[vi] He was strongly convicted that what he spoke at the meetings must come from God and God alone, and felt a great burden of guilt if he felt he spoke more than the Lord had directed. In 1743, he undertook his first itinerant tour in the span of two weeks of parts on New Jersey. Later he would launch his own independent business as a tailor, and branch out into retail. He boycotted products made by slaves: removing sugar from his diet and wearing undyed clothing so as not to profit from the misery of people Christ died for.
Woolman made many travels urging grassroots action among Friends to end the slavery in their midst. Many of these travels were perilous and lengthy, but he found bravery in Christ and traveled unarmed and without the intent of injuring anyone— from Native American to highwayman. As John went house to house advocating for equality between slave owner and slave, he found himself in many situations where he walked a fine line between respecting his hosts and benefiting from the system he preached eloquently against. He would often pay slaves for any service rendered to him, so as to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved until their master’s consciences came around. This monetary expression of respect and love long foreshadowed the fair trade movement of our day, and challenges us still to look at the seeds we sow with our spending habits. John Woolman is a great example of how “love your neighbor as yourself”(Mt. 22:39) can affect even the smallest decisions we make when we think about the human element behind our often mindless consumption. His actions and words lined up with the message he preached. His sermons were taken to heart because they were lived out in a visible testimony to simplicity.
Convicted by the exploitation of slavery, Woolman traveled south on a 3 month, 1500 mile journey through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina on a grassroots campaign to awaken Friends to the evil nature of slavery. Later, He returned to New Jersey with similar aims, and then undertook a four-month, 1,650-mile trek through Friends Meetings in Long Island and New England, and later a 550-mile journey through New Jersey and Maryland, compelling Friends to purify themselves and repent of keeping slaves.[vii] A long list of his journeys would include 12 more extended trips, many on foot, with audiences ranging from slave owners to Native Americans, and even the skeptical Quakers of England among whom he was eventually laid to rest.[viii] He never returned from his final mission: his death—as his life, was spent bringing his heartfelt message to the church!
John Woolman would go on to challenge Quakers in Philadelphia to abolish the slavery in their midst. His voice rang true in times of uncertainty, with clarity and direction. In 1758, at Philadelphia yearly meeting, Friends met to discern their place regarding slavery—largely because John Woolman had brought the matter to the forefront of American Quaker discussion and thought. Woolman powerfully bore testimony to the truth and was used by God to unite American Friends to draw a clear line against the sinful practice of slavery. Near the close of the meeting he stood and spoke these powerful words:
“My mind is led to consider the purity of the divine Being, and the justice of His judgments; and herein my soul is covered with awfulness. I cannot forbear to hint of some cases where people have not been treated with the purity of justice, and the event has been most lamentable. Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries have entered into the ears of the Most High. Such are the purity and certainty of His judgments, that He cannot be partial in our favour. In infinite love and goodness He hath opened our understandings from one time to another, concerning our duty towards this people; and it is not a time for delay. Should we now be sensible of what He requires of us, and, through a respect to the private interests of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand upon an immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in firmness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, God may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this matter.[ix]
These words swayed even those who held slaves, and moved Quakers to rally behind a common answer on the matter of slavery, eventually adopting the position that for Quakers to truly live out Christ’s command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Lk 6:31) demanded nothing less than setting slaves free.[x] A formal letter composed largely by Woolman that was sent out from the meeting, and eventually all Friends in America freed their slaves.
Woolman’s lasting legacy would be the birthing of the Abolition movement that eventually won the freedom of every slave in America. His timely words, grassroots efforts, perilous travels, and unwavering commitment to the equality of all people created in God’s image awakened a new sensitivity and loving response to injustice. His approach and his passion would serve us well in our day, where human trafficking and the globalization of the clothing industry make exploitation a lucrative business. Our choices as rich western consumers echo through our world, with reckless oppression or reckless love. We, like Woolman before us, must choose which seeds to sow in our world. We also face decisions between simplicity and vanity. It is time to bear testimony as Woolman did, not with our words only, but with our deeds. The clothing we wear and products we buy need not define us, but present us the opportunity to redefine our world by letting “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39) pursue its global ramifications. The great power of our wealth and limitless access to information leave us little excuse to let the footprint of our vanity trample about so blindly.
[i] Walter R. Williams, The Rich Heritage of Quakerism, (Newberg, OR: The
Barclay Press, 2006) 131.
[ii] Ibid 133
[iii] D. Elton Trueblood, The People Called Quakers (Richmond, IN: Friends United
[iv] D. Elton Trueblood, The People Called, 154-55.
[v] Moulton Phillips (Ed.), The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman.
(Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2001) 17.
[vi] D. Elton Trueblood, The People Called, 154
[vii] Moulton Phillips, The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, 17.
[ix] Moulton Phillips, The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, 8.
Cooper, Wilmer. A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker
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Phillips, Moulton. (Ed.). The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman.
Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2001.
Trueblood, D. Elton. The People Called Quakers. Richmond, IN: Friends United
Williams, Walter R. The Rich Heritage of Quakerism. Newberg, OR: The
Barclay Press, 2006.