Plaque: Littlegarth, Marygate Lane, York YO30 7BJ
Quaker minister and anti-slavery campaigner
John Woolman was born in Rancocas Creek, Burlington County, New Jersey, 18 miles from Philadelphia, America in 1720. He was one of 13 children of Samuel Woolman and his wife, Elizabeth, whose forbears had settled in the Quaker colony of West Jersey in 1678. Woolman’s formal education was at a Quaker school but he had access to the large libraries of the Philadelphia Friends which widened his knowledge beyond the expected Quaker classics.
Crusade against slavery
When he was 21 years old, Woolman moved to Mount Holly, not far from his home, and kept books for a shopkeeper. An experience at the shop set the future course of his life. His employer asked him to write a bill of sale for a female black slave. He was compelled to tell his employer that he thought slave-keeping was ‘a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion’ (Journal and Major Essays, 33). The next time Woolman was asked to write a bill of sale he refused. Thus began his crusade against slavery; a slow but steady pricking of consciences within the Society of Friends that would eventually spark further moves for abolition in America.
Woolman’s efforts were largely accomplished by religious journeys, the first in 1743 taking him to points in New Jersey. By the end of the decade he had travelled 4,000 miles often on foot. From Pennsylvania he travelled to New England then south to Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. He was recorded as a minister by Burlington Monthly Meeting at the age of 22. For 17 years he was Clerk of Meeting, a representative to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. For 16 years he was also a member of the Overseers of the Press for Yearly Meeting.
On 18 October 1749 Woolman married Sarah Ellis by whom he had two children, Mary and John, but John only lived for a short time. Three years before he married, Woolman was working independently as a tailor and had developed a retail trade at Mount Holly. But, because of his calling to speak against slavery, he felt the ‘cumber’ of business was beginning to stand in the way of what he demanded from himself.
The simple life
Throughout his life Woolman made a plea for the simple life: ‘I had seen the happiness of humility and there was an earnest desire in me to enter deep into it’ (Journal and Major Essays, 35). Coupled with his concern over slavery was his regard for the poor whom he encountered. Next to his journal, Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor has become his best-known work and was for many years used by the Fabian Society as one of its tracts. However, in his own day, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754) proved the more influential. Drake writes: ‘No other antislavery document had hitherto received such extensive circulation in any language anywhere. It opened the way and set the pattern for pamphlets by Anthony Benezet on Africa and the slave trade, for pamphleting by John Wesley, Granville Clark and Thomas Clarkson in England and for antislavery pronouncements by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’.
It was at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on 26 August 1758 that Woolman made an impassioned appeal for Friends to abolish the practice of holding slaves: ‘In infinite Love and goodness He hath opened our understanding … concerning our duty toward this people; and it is not a time for delay’ (Journal and Major Essays, 93). On that day the Quakers began the process by which they freed their slaves – the first large body to do so in America.
Native American champion
Woolman continued his journeys, turning his attention again to the south and to New England, where at Newport in 1760 he met with several economically powerful Quaker slaveholders who, in time. would follow the example of their Philadelphia brethren. He also championed the Native Americans and in 1763 made an extraordinary journey to Wyalusing in Pennsylvania to be among them and to ‘feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in; if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them’ (Journal and Major Essays, 127). Unlike others of his time Woolman saw that the Indians’ plight was similar to the state of black slavery.
By 1761 Woolman had given up his successful retail merchandising business and had come to rely on tailoring and orchard tending as his gainful occupations. Like a few other Quakers, notably Benjamin Lay and Joshua Evans he refused to use slave-grown products, including indigo dye. Eliminating dyed clothing presented a ‘singularity’ which created a stir among some Friends. Woolman’s attire was an all-White apparition: ‘white hat, coarse raw linen shirt, coat without cuffs, white yarn stockings, and shoes of uncured leather’ (Sox, 100-01).
Across the Atlantic
In May 1772, following his recovery from pleurisy, Woolman embarked on what would be his last journey. He decided to travel in steerage across the Atlantic to England rather than in cabin accommodation, remembering how his ‘fellow creatures’ – the black slaves – had made their passage from Africa. For a long time Woolman had desired to take his concern over slavery to England. He arrived in London in time for Yearly Meeting and, at first, his appearance caused him to be regarded as ‘some itinerant enthusiast’. But once he spoke ‘all obstruction was removed’ and he made a powerful impression upon Friends (Cadbury, 45-6).
From London Woolman travelled north on foot as far as Westmorland and Yorkshire. Another concern of his was man’s treatment of animals so he refused to take coaches because of the ill treatment of horses. He walked, drinking only herb tea with no sugar. He was asked at Thirsk where he would go after York and he replied, ‘I don’t know. York looks like home to me.’ He would die in York three weeks later. On foot he arrived in York in 1772 unaware that he was suffering from smallpox. The Tukes gave him hospitality at their home in Castlegate for him to attend all but one of the sessions of the York Quarterly Meeting, one of the largest in the country lasting three days, 22-24 September. But he was so ill he was removed from the busy, noisy centre of town to the quieter home of Thomas and Sarah Priestman in Marygate Lane where they nursed him until his death on 7 October 1772. Tuke wrote that he complained little and ‘departed without struggle, sigh or groan’ (Journal and Essays, 148-9). He is buried in the simple Quaker burial ground at Bishophill.
Civil rights pioneer
Oddly, Woolman has been celebrated more in England than in America. Writing in the heat of the 1960s’ civil-rights debate in America, Edwin Cady noted, ‘for all the obvious intellectual culture of both, neither (Martin Luther) King nor (James) Baldwin seems aware of the existence of Woolman’. (Cady, 164). Writing in the early nineteenth century, Charles Lamb said that Woolman’s Journal was ‘the only American book’ he had read twice and Samuel Taylor Coleridge despaired of the man ‘who could peruse the life of John Woolman without an amelioration of the heart’ (Sox, 2). G.M. Trevelyan wrote, ‘we should be doing better than we are in the solutions of problems of our own day. Our modern conscience-prickers often are either too ‘clever’ or too violent [than Woolman] (Trevelyan, 48). For A.N. Whitehead the honour of making the first modern formulation of an explicit purpose to procure the abolition of slavery ‘belongs to the Quakers, and in particular to that Apostle of Human Freedom, John Woolman’ (Whitehead, 29).=
Next to Francis of Assisi, Woolman has become probably the most quoted religious spokesperson for animal concern and, in recent times, he has attracted the interest of environmentalists.
David Sox, ‘John Woolman’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, date), 278-80
David Sox, John Woolman, Quintessential Quaker (York, 1999)
P.P. Moulton (ed.), 1989, The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman (1989)
Thomas Clarkson, A Portraiture of the Christian Profession and Practice of the Society of Friends (Glasgow, 1847)
T.E. Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (1950)
H.J. Cadbury, John Woolman in England: a documentary supplement (1971)
E.H. Cady, John Woolman (1965)
A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of ideas (1933)
G.M. Trevelyan, Clio, a muse, and other essays (1913)
© Pat Hill