John Woolman’s "Journal and other writings."Photo: Photo: Public domain image via the Gutenberg Project
Today, many Quakers take inspiration for activism from their forebears in the faith. Some look to the earliest generation of Friends, who, in the 17th century, boldly shook the English countryside with their call to a life lived in radical attentiveness to the Light. Others find support from powerful figures such as Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880), whose work in the United States embraced nearly all the social reform movements of her day, including the abolition of slavery, women’s equality, the rights of Native Americans, peace, prison reform, religious freedom, and temperance. The life of John Woolman (1720–1772), a tailor, traveling minister, and social reformer from colonial New Jersey, is another source of strength and encouragement for many.
Ahead of most others in his time, John Woolman took courageous ethical positions as an advocate for justice for the poor, the enslaved, and the oppressed native peoples of North America. To Quaker activists today, his writings offer a way to stand strong in one’s convictions yet work gently with others to persuade them to change.
John Woolman’s “Journal,” published in 1774, both records profound spiritual experiences and tells the story of his outward activism. His honest self-examination gently invites readers into reflection on their own lives and beckons them to a spiritual openness and vitality.
An integrated life
Religious communities often experience a tension between members whose primary focus is the inward life of contemplation and prayer and those who are chiefly social activists.
John Woolman wrote that a religious life can be a seamless fabric of inward and outward work. He wrote “that true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness,” not only toward all people but also toward the animal world, such as the horses that provided transportation and pulled plows in that pre-mechanical era.
He noted that the mind was inwardly moved “to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being” but also to love God in all God’s manifestations in the visible world.
A simple life
John Woolman simplified his life to attend to what mattered most. He had been a shopkeeper, with increasing sales every year; he said, “The road to large business appeared open,” but that he felt “a stop in my mind.”
He chose the humbler lot of a tailor upon serious consideration that “Truth did not require me to engage in much cumbrous affairs.” Liberated from greed and the desire for wealth, he found time to pursue his calling, which for him meant promoting justice for those marginalized in his day, including the enslaved, the poor, and Native Americans.
Rooting out oppression
In his “Journal,” John Woolman described his visits to slaveholders to persuade them of the evils of slavery. In a manner that reaches back to the actions of biblical prophets and foreshadows recent tactics for social protest, he would not simply talk, but also enact his concerns.
At times, he chose to travel on foot to visit slaveholders, in order to better understand the life of the enslaved, who would have no horse. He wore undyed clothing and would not eat or drink from silver vessels—silver being mined by enslaved people. He refrained from sugar, another product of unpaid labor. When visiting slaveholders, he left money to pay for the services of the enslaved people whose labor supported his visit. The point of all these actions was not to maintain his own personal purity or innocence, but rather to “appeal to the pure witness” within others who could recognize the truth of his words and actions.
For John Woolman, the same greed that expressed itself in slavery also led to ill-treatment of Native Americans and to oppression of the poor among English colonists.
His essay, “A Plea for the Poor,” called for a voluntary material simplification of life and a more just redistribution of goods. The essay gently questions the very notion of property rights when they violate human rights. Unusual for his day, John Woolman developed a theology of labor, in which he maintains that God intended moderate labor for all, including domesticated animals. “Under the guidance of Pure Wisdom, our otherwise unbridled desires for wealth are bounded, and we are motivated by love rather than selfishness,” he wrote. When we want more than is consistent with universal righteousness, we either labor too hard ourselves, or we find a way to get others to do the work instead. This is the root of oppression.
Greed lies at the roots of war and social injustice. John Woolman warned his readers of the dangers of injustice cloaked in respectability:
Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and here oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soil; and as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seed of war swells and sprouts and grows and becomes strong.
He challenged his readers to test “whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions.” When influenced by divine love rather than greed, we “feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation.”
Along with other Quakers in his day, John Woolman was a pioneer in war tax refusal, and he has been an inspiration to war tax resisters to the present.
Openness to the truth of others
In an era when most English colonists held Native Americans in low esteem, John Woolman described his motivation to spend time among a Lenni Lenape settlement with words that show his openness to a genuine meeting of minds and souls:
Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might 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.
He undertook a treacherous journey through a war zone to visit the Lenni Lenape in Wyalusing, and after witnessing their struggles, felt a deep empathy for them. Never content merely to blame others for the ills of this world, he held up his own life for examination:
And here I was led into a close, laborious inquiry whether I, as an individual, kept clear from all things which tended to stir up or were connected with wars, either in this land or Africa, and my heart was deeply concerned that in future I might in all things keep steadily to the pure Truth and live and walk in the plainness and simplicity of a sincere follower of Christ.
Openness to new leadings
John Woolman’s writings do try to persuade his readers of the truths that he has seen, but he did not hold himself forth as final revelation. Instead, he pointed to the source of truth that reveals itself anew in every generation. People in every age should “take heed to their own spirit” because truth continues to unfold. His era could not be concerned about climate change, but ours must be.
John Woolman’s influence extended beyond his life and beyond the Religious Society of Friends. He inspired later abolitionists, proponents of simple living and ecologically based values, advocates of war-tax resistance, and champions of social justice. A multitude of readers continues to be moved by the gentleness and striking degree of self-honesty and integrity in his “Journal.”
Michael Birkel is Professor of Religion at Earlham College. Inspired by John Woolman, he has been active in promoting interfaith understanding. His new book on North American Muslims and how they understand their sacred text, “Qur’an in Conversation,” will be published in 2014.