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.