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 luxury, and even the desire to provide for our children more than for others' children, led to economic greed that fostered slavery and also mistreatment of Indians, mistreatment of animals, abuse of alcohol, and the misery of workers (often through overwork). In the end Woolman utterly rejected the cash economy, indeed modernity. He lived in another world, but a world that spoke profoundly and prophetically to the world his peers—and we—live in.
Outwardly Woolman lived an ordinary life, with a wife and one child, and a variety of jobs on the farms and in shops of a rural town. Woolman's upbringing was conventionally Quaker. The many Quakers who had settled and prospered near Philadelphia still drew inspiration from their origins as a miraculous, persecuted, and stubbornly nonconforming minority. They raised their children not to mix with non-Quakers, seeing themselves as the only true Christians. (Anyone who married outside the Quaker church was ousted from the fellowship.) Nevertheless Woolman believed that Quakers had fallen away from their early purity, that material prosperity had cut into their love for God and truth.
It is noteworthy that his journal records almost nothing of the people he met, the weather he encountered, the sights he saw. Even his wife and child, his work and his home, are almost entirely missing and can only be pieced together from other sources. His entire focus was on the world of the Spirit and of Truth—on what God was doing and teaching. He saw himself as only a channel, and tried his best to clear the channel.
Truth was inspired by the Bible but communicated by dreams (which he recorded) and impressions gained through silent meditation. As the years passed, Woolman became more ascetic and eccentric, preferring to walk rather than ride, carrying his message throughout America and England for months at a time, wearing all white clothing that attracted crowds. He made strenuous efforts to avoid saying anything more than what God prompted in him. "In three hundred minutes," he wrote, "are five hours, and he that improperly detains three hundred people one minute [by speaking in a meeting when he ought to remain silent], does an injury like that of imprisoning one man five hours without cause." Such words might be posted at every public meeting.
He was equally concerned not to let anger or self-righteousness interfere with love toward those he chastised. Woolman grew extreme, so much so that he would not visit a home whose furniture he regarded as luxurious, or eat at a table with silver implements, and he urged Quakers to remove themselves entirely from the cash economy. Yet Quaker meetings consistently certified him to go on his travels and to publish his writings. They regarded him as peculiar and overly scrupulous, but they loved him as a gentle, godly man devoted to truth. His loving character, as much as his message, sped the day when his concerns about slavery would be acted on.
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today and a member of the Christian History advisory board.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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