John Woolman

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  • Topic: Slavery, Religious Society of Friends, Yearly Meeting
  • Pages : 5 (1875 words )
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  • Published : November 5, 2010
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JOHN WOOLMAN: THE STORY OF A QUAKER CONSCIENCE
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[This document is from a pamphlet printed several decades ago bythe Religious Education Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. It was originally published by Walter and Mildred Kahoe. I have made minor changes for clarity; material in brackets is mine. -- George Amoss] ________________________________________

John Woolman was born in 1720 on the family farm on Rancocas Creek in New Jersey. He went to school with the other Quaker children and with Indian children in a schoolhouse twenty feet square. John's father, Samuel Woolman, was a farmer, but John, when he had finished his schooling and had worked for several years on the family farm, found a place clerking in a little store in Mount Holly. He also learned the tailor's craft. He did think of studying law but decided to remain a clerk and a tailor. Since he was a good and careful writer, he was often asked to draw up important documents for his employer and others. John Woolman soon found that his conscience would not let him write a bill of sale for a slave. On the first occasion this happened, John did write the bill of sale, since the slave wasgoing to an elderly Friend who would treat her kindly. He satisfied his conscience by telling the seller and Friend that he felt they were following a practice "inconsistent with the Christian religion." On another occasion, Woolman writes in his Journal, "a neighbor received a bad bruise on his body and sent for me to bleed him, which having done he desired me to write his will. I took notes, and among other things he told me to which of his children he gave his young Negro. I considered the pain and distress he was in and knew not how it would end, so I wrote his will save only that part concerning his slave, and, carrying it to his bedside, read it to him. I then told him in a friendly way that I could not write any instruments by which my fellow creatures were made slaves without bringing trouble on my own mind. I let him know I charged nothing for what I had done, and desired to be excused from doing the other part in the way he had proposed. We then had a serious conference on the subject; he, at length, agreeing to set her free, I finished the will." Early in his life, John Woolman was recognized as a dedicated member of his Meeting in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Following the custom among Friends of his time, he made many journeys "in the ministry." He started on his first trip in May, 1746, in the company of Isaac Andrews. The two Friends traveled as far south as North Carolina, completing their journey of 1,500 miles in a little more than three months. Woolman spoke frequently to slave-owners about the evils of slavery, but so gentle was his personality that he convinced without offense. Always his hearers felt that he appealed to consciences rather than giving blame. Woolman resolved never to allow his tailoring to take up all his time. Even after he opened a store which grew and was prosperous, he felt that he should give up the store rather than the time he felt should be used to travel and to write. He held to this resolution even after he married and had two children. In 1756, Woolman began his famous Journal which has come to be considered a classic of English literature. At that time even some Quakers owned slaves, and Woolman exerted great influence in leading the Society of Friends to a recognition of the wrongs and evils of slavery. In 1758, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting appointed a committee to visit those Friends who still held slaves. John Woolman was the most influential and active of this group. In 1759, Woolman, much troubled by the wars between the English and the French and the continual threat of wars with the Indians, determined to make a difficult and dangerous trip into Indian country. In his Journal, he tells the trials and dangers of his journey of eleven days to Wehaloosing in the north-central part of...
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