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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Woolman

John Woolman, sometimes referred to as the “Quaker Saint,” was born near the Rancocas River in Burlington County, New Jersey (then West Jersey). His family on both sides had strong roots in the Quaker colony they had helped to settle and then to shape. One of thirteen children, Woolman grew up surrounded by a large and supportive family, and he early displayed a sensitivity for spiritual matters and a love for nature and Quaker traditions. Like many eighteenth-century Quakers, Woolman had a limited formal education, but he nonetheless valued learning, and evidence suggests that his reading extended far beyond the list of books normally prescribed to members of the Society of Friends, as Quakers are officially called.

In 1749, Woolman married Sarah Ellis, from neighboring Chesterfield. Little is known about Ellis other than Woolman’s famous description of her in his Journal as “a well inclined damsel.” Nevertheless, there is no information to suggest that their marriage was anything but an extremely felicitous one. The couple had two children, but only one, a daughter, survived into adulthood. Prior to his marriage, Woolman assisted a local tailor, and his success led him to establish a business of his own in Mount Holly, New Jersey, where he also managed a large farm and occasionally wrote legal documents and taught. Because of his well-deserved reputation for honesty and industry, Woolman’s business expanded and became more prosperous. Fearing that inordinate wealth and excessive involvement in business endangered his soul by drawing his attention toward worldly matters, Woolman decided early in his marriage to curtail his business activities, limiting them to what was essential for supporting his family. Eventually Woolman gave up mercantile trade altogether and devoted his energies almost exclusively to his family, his farm, and his work as a Quaker spokesperson.

Woolman’s deliberate withdrawal from the world of commerce is consistent with Quaker beliefs that life should be conducted in a simple and direct manner and that the internal spiritual world should always take precedence over the external material world. Above all, Quakers believe that all individuals harbor within themselves an innate sense of right and wrong, which they term the “Inner Light.” It is the responsibility of the individual, Quakers believe, to cultivate the workings of the “Inner Light” by removing oneself from all unnecessary distractions and encumbrances. In line with this reasoning, Quakers of Woolman’s day, like Quakers of today, attempted to practice a simple lifestyle based on hard work, frugality, and contemplation. When politics or business entanglements encroach on their quest for inner harmony, Quakers are simply encouraged to withdraw from the source of conflict. Even Quaker worship is designed to minimize external distractions. Unlike their Puritan, Presbyterian, and Anglican neighbors to the north and south, the Quakers of the Middle Colonies shunned traditional rituals. The typical Quaker meeting consisted simply of a quiet gathering, with men and boys seated on one side of the room and women and girls on the other. If during the meeting a member of the group felt an inner urging or “prompting” to address the assembly, that person would stand and speak. Sometimes, however, Quaker meetings passed in total silence. According to Quaker practice, an individual, whether male or female, who has spoken frequently and wisely on behalf of the spirit is accorded local recognition as a minister but is not required to undergo ordination or any formalized process of theological instruction.

While in his early twenties, Woolman showed signs of a special ministerial calling and was acknowledged a minister by his community. In the years to follow, he pursued his calling wherever his “Inner Light” led him, traveling thousands of miles, often on foot, throughout the colonies and eventually to England. The main focus of his ministry was the abolition of slavery, which he denounced as a “dark gloominess hanging over the land” and an unspeakable injustice.

Woolman’s abhorrence of slavery began early in life when the man to whom he was apprenticed asked him to write a bill of sale for a slave belonging to a senior member of the Quakers. His dislike of slavery continued to grow, especially after he had labored in the South and seen firsthand the degradation that slavery brought to both slave and slaveholder. Always quiet and persistent in his determination to convince the world that slavery and Christianity were totally incompatible, Woolman illustrated through his own conduct the principles of compassion and goodwill that formed the central message of his itinerant ministry. He refused, for example, to use sugar products or dyes because these items were obtained largely through reliance on slave labor, and during his travels he insisted on paying a remuneration to any slaves who worked in homes where he lodged. Such behavior was his way of drawing attention to his convictions, and it was apparently not without effect, for he records in the Journal instances when he successfully altered the hearts of slaveholders.

In addition to his work on behalf of abolition, Woolman championed the rights of Indians and the poor. On the eve of Pontiac’s war with the colonies, Woolman journeyed on a mission of peace to the Wyalusing Indians of western Pennsylvania. He was never in good health, and throughout this trip he was frequently endangered by both the hostilities surrounding him and the primitive living conditions he of necessity endured. Nonetheless, he persisted in his mission and was well received by the Indians. After observing the situation of the Indians and listening to their grievances, Woolman returned home with a severe indictment of frontier traders, on whose greed in selling rum to the Indians he blamed the war then taking place. Eventually Woolman’s compassion for the downtrodden led him to England, where he died of smallpox on October 7, 1772, a few months after his arrival.

As a writer, Woolman is best remembered today for the Journal that he kept intermittently between 1756 and his death. Published posthumously by the Society of Friends in 1774, Woolman’s Journal is but one of many first-person accounts of the lives of pious eighteenth-century American Quakers; indeed, it participates in a tradition of journal-writing begun by George Fox himself that continues to the present. It is generally acknowledged, however, that Woolman’s Journal stands out among others in the genre for its remarkable sense of clarity and conviction; for this reason alone, popular interest in the Journal has never slackened.

James A. Levernier
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Wendy Martin
Claremont Graduate University

In the Heath Anthology
from Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754)
from The Journal of John Woolman (1774)

Other Works
A Place for the Poor (1793)

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Biographical Information
Concise site offering a biography and a list Woolman's writings.

Journal of John Woolman
The complete text of Woolman's Journal, provided by UVA's Electronic Text Center.

The Story of a Quaker Conscience
A fairly extensive biography.

Woolman's Letters
A collection of seven letters written by Woolman.

Secondary Sources