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.
The American Quaker John Woolman was a pioneer of conscientious tax resistance, and he has left a record of how he wrestled with his conscience over whether or not to pay taxes for the French and Indian War.
“To refuse the active payment of a Tax which our Society generally paid, was exceeding disagreeable; but to do a thing contrary to my Conscience appeared yet more dreadfull,” he wrote, but “I knew of none under the like difficulty, and in my distress I besought the Lord to enable me to give up all, that so I might follow him wheresoever he was pleased to lead me.”
Although opposition to active participation in war was a part of Quaker practice, this had not yet extended to war tax resistance. Part of the reason behind this, ironically, was that until recently, the Quakers had tended to be actively oppressed by the governments under which they lived. For this reason Quakers who had taxes stolen from them were unlikely to feel in any way complicit with a government that was so clearly against them. When governments like those in the American colonies began to practice tolerance toward the Society of Friends, and when Quakers began to take positions in colonial governments, they suddenly had to confront the possibility that they were in danger of becoming too entangled in the actions of the state.
When Woolman brought up his “scruple” about tax-paying at the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, he soon “perceived there were many Friends under [the same] Scruple.” Here’s how he tells it:
A few years past, money being made current in our province for carrying on wars, and to be sunk by Taxes laid on the inhabitants, my mind was often affected with the thoughts of paying such Taxes, and I believe it right for me to preserve a memorandum concerning it.
I was told that Friends in England frequently paid Taxes when the money was applied to such purposes. I had [conference] with several Noted Friends on the subject, who all favored the payment of such taxes, Some of whom I preferred before myself, and this made me easer for a time; yet there was in the deeps of my mind, a scruple which I never could get over; and, at certain times I was greatly distressed on that account.
I all along believed that there were some upright-hearted men who paid such taxes, but could not see that their Example was a Sufficient Reason for me to do so, while I believed that the Spirit of Truth required of me as an individual to suffer patiently the distress of goods, rather than pay actively.
As Scrupling to pay a tax on account of the application hath seldom been heard of heretofore, even amongst men of Integrity, who have Steadily born their testimony against outward wars in their time, I may here note some things which have opened on my mind, as I have been inwardly Exercised on that account.
From the Steady oposition which Faithfull Friends in early times made to wrong things then approved of, they were hated and persecuted by men living in the Spirit of this world, & Suffering with firmness, they were made a Blessing to the Church, & the work prospered. It equaly concerns men in every age to take heed to their own Spirit: & in comparing their Situation with ours, it looks to me there was less danger of their being infected with the Spirit of this world in paying their taxes, than there is of us now. They had little or no Share in Civil Government, neither Legislative nor Executive & many of them declared they were through the power of God separated from the Spirit in which wars were, and being Afflicted by the Rulers on account of their Testimony, there was less likelyhood of uniting in Spirit with them in things inconsistent with the purity of Truth. We, from the first settlement of this Land have known little or no troubles of that sort. The profession, which for a time was accounted reproachfull, at length the uprightness of our predecessors being understood by the Rulers, & their Innocent Sufferings moving them, our way of Worship was tolerated, and many of our members in these colonies became active in Civil Government. Being thus tryed with favour and prosperity, this world hath appeared inviteing; our minds have been turned to the Improvement of our Country, to Merchandize and Sciences, amongst which are many things usefull, being followed in pure wisdom, but in our present condition that a Carnal mind is gaining upon us I believe will not be denied.
Some of our members who are Officers in Civil Government are in one case or other called upon in their respective Stations to Assist in things relative to the wars, Such being in doubt whether to act or crave to be excused from their Office, Seeing their Brethren united in the payment of a Tax to carry on the said wars, might think their case [nearly like theirs, &] so quench the tender movings of the Holy Spirit in their minds, and thus by small degrees there might be an approach toward that of Fighting, till we came so near it, as that the distinction would be little else but the name of a peaceible people.
It requires great self-denial and Resignation of ourselves to God to attain that state wherein we can freely cease from fighting when wrongfully Invaded, if by our Fighting there were a probability of overcoming the invaders. Whoever rightly attains to it, does in some degree feel that Spirit in which our Redeemer gave his life for us, and, through Divine goodness many of our predecessors, and many now living, have learned this blessed lesson, but many others having their Religion chiefly by Education, & not being enough acquainted with that Cross which Crucifies to the world, do manifest a Temper distinguishable from that of an Entire trust in God.
In calmly considering these things it hath not appeared strange to me, that an exercise hath now fallen upon some, which as to the outward means of it is different from what was known to many of those who went before us.
Some time after the Yearly Meeting, the said committees met at Philadelphia, and, by adjournments, continued sitting several days. The calamities of war were now increasing; the frontier inhabitants of Pennsylvania were frequently surprised; some were slain, and many taken captive by the Indians; and while these committees sat, the corpse of one so slain was brought in a wagon, and taken through the streets of the city in his bloody garments, to alarm the people and rouse them to war.
Friends thus met were not all of one mind in relation to the tax, which, to those who scrupled it, made the way more difficult. To refuse an active payment at such a time might be construed into an act of disloyalty, and appeared likely to displease the rulers, not only here but in England; still there was a scruple so fixed on the minds of many Friends that nothing moved it. It was a conference the most weighty that ever I was at, and the hearts of many were bowed in reverence before the Most High. Some Friends of the said committees who appeared easy to pay the tax, after several adjournments, withdrew; others of them continued till the last. At length an epistle of tender love and caution to Friends in Pennsylvania was drawn up, and being read several times and corrected, was signed by such as were free to sign it, and afterward sent to the Monthly and Quarterly Meetings.
Some of this entry is taken from The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, edited by Amelia Mott Gummere (the bracketed material is Gummere’s) as found in a collection of writings on nonviolent action edited by Staughton Lynd. To this I added material found in The Harvard Classics: The Journal of John Woolman.
The two versions of Woolman’s journal differ in some ways, and I’m not exactly sure how to explain the discrepancy. The Harvard Classics edition has some material in different places and it modernizes the capitalization, spelling and punctuation. Both versions change the text somewhat to change archaicisms — for instance “conference” in the first paragraph (or “conversation” in the Harvard version) was probably “intercourse” in the original and has been changed to discourage snickering — though the Harvard version does not indicate these changes in any way while Gummere has the decency to bracket them off.
I can’t discern the motives behind some of the other changes. In short, this is the best I could do with the material I have, but as I don’t have access to the originals, I can’t be sure this grafted version is entirely accurate in essence.
Update: I’ve found another version of Woolman’s journal, published in , that differs from both of the versions I used to compile this entry. I’ve put the version of Woolman’s journal entry on-line as a separate page.