The Beautiful Biography of John Woolman
The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition
by Thomas P. Slaughter
Hill and Wang (2008)
464 pages, $30
Say "abolitionist" and most people think of the evangelical politician William Wilberforce, or the anti-establishment agitator William Lloyd Garrison, or possibly the prophet-warrior John Brown. John Woolman preceded them all in anti-slavery activism and was an utterly different character: gentle, mystical, quiet. Earning his living as a small-town New Jersey tailor and schoolteacher in the decades before the Revolutionary War, Woolman challenged his fellow Quakers on slavery—they would, shortly after his death, become the only group in America to stop owning slaves—and also on Indians, rum, war taxes, luxurious living, animal welfare, childrearing, and, most fundamentally, involvement in globalization and trade. Like the Old Testament prophets, like St. Francis, like Jesus himself, Woolman took his cues from nobody but God. He was an American original.
Thomas Slaughter, a historian at Notre Dame and the University of Rochester, and himself a Quaker, has written a lovely and thoughtful biography, as sedately paced as a Quaker meeting. This is a book to read in a meditative mood. It should challenge activists with a unique model of advocacy, and inspire people of faith with its description of a Bible-drenched, ascetic, Spirit-filled, and agape-driven life.
While Woolman is best known for his crusade against slavery (and for his journal, which has never been out of print since its publication in 1774), he regarded slavery as a symptom of deeper sin. Anyone who participated in the slave economy was guilty—and everyone did, for the web of commerce connected everything. Acquisitiveness, love of ...