February 13, 2006
The Woolman Way: John Woolman and His Gentle Crusade Against Slavery
In his book, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, Richard J. Foster devotes a chapter to the Christian tradition of social justice. He introduces his readers to John Woolman, a man who Foster says “brought the power of ‘Divine Love’ directly into the fray of one of the most volatile social issues in human history” and “labored smack in the midst of raw humanity, demonstrating a well-nigh amazing humility, compassion, and sensitivity” (Foster 137). Woolman, a Quaker who spoke out against slavery during the 1700s, deserves to be included among those who have carried on the Christian tradition of social justice. His crusade against slavery was purely Christian in its motivations, in its arguments and in its presentation.
Woolman’s motivations in fighting slavery were not that of a social or a political revolutionary. He was not someone who longed to put radical new social theories into practice or someone who schemed for political upheaval. He was a Christian whose conscience would not let him rest, and his motivations were spiritual, not social or political. To fully understand Woolman, we must trace his spiritual development from his childhood. Woolman was born in 1720 to a devout Quaker family who came to New Jersey in 1678 to escape persecution (Reynolds 5). G. David Houston writes of Woolman, “The fear of God seized him in early boyhood,” and Woolman’s journals reveal a man whose conscience was painfully tender from an early age. In his Journals, Woolman describes himself as a child who read Revelations and was drawn to seek heaven (24), a young boy who killed a robin and was stricken with guilt for his cruelty, and a young man who began to “love wanton company” and “hastened toward destruction” (26). Woolman then says that the Word of God “broke and dissolved my rebellious heart” (Journals 26). He goes on to describe a spiritual journey marked by “deserts and lonely places,” spiritual dryness and spiritual refreshment by turns (Journals 28). John S. Lask says Woolman possessed “a conscience whose stern rebuke could not be successfully opposed by his normal desires and natural weaknesses” (31). Slavery soon made Woolman’s conscience uneasy.
Woolman directly confronted slavery in 1742, when an employer asked him to write a bill of sale for a slave (Lask 32). Woolman wrote the bill, but said later that “as often as I reflected seriously upon it I thought I should have been clearer if I had desired to be excused from it as a thing against my conscience, for such it was” (Journals 33). Lask says the incident forced Woolman to a crisis point: “This incident placed the question of the moral rightness of slavery on Woolman’s mind and helped him to come to a decision to actively crusade against the evil” (33). Woolman’s conscience grew even more “uneasy” after a journey with his friend, Isaac Andrews, to visit Quaker settlements (Journals 38). Afterwards, Woolman described slavery as “a dark gloominess hanging over the land” (Journals 38), and he began to devote most of his life to dispelling the gloom. The man who wrote the bill of sale became a man who declined to write a will for a man leaving slaves to his children, saying “I cannot write thy will without breaking my own peace” (51). Woolman could not lend slavery the slightest support without troubling his spiritual peace. He fought slavery because his conscience would not let him rest.
Woolman’s motivations in fighting against slavery were spiritual and Christian, and his arguments were purely Christian, too. His arguments are not scholarly extrapolations on the social contract and the natural rights of men. They are the sort of arguments a “poor, untutored shopkeeper” would employ to persuade a fellow Christian of his error (Houston 126). In 1754, Woolman penned a pamphlet entitled “Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes,” in which he pleaded with “Professors of Christianity of Every Denomination” to give up the practice of slaveholding. “The whole discussion,” Houston notes, “glows with the religious zeal which was so eminently characteristic of the author” (130). Woolman argued for the brotherhood of mankind based on the fact that “all nations are of one blood, that in this world we are but sojourners, that we are subject to the like … temptations, the same death, and the same judgment, and that the All-wise Being is Judge and Lord over us all” (Journals 200). “God was no respector of persons,” he reminded his brothers (Journals 201). “God’s love is universal,” he continued (Journals 202). Furthermore, keeping slaves is inconsistent with a Christian’s efforts to be unselfish and loving, to “exercise righteousness and-loving kindness … towards all men, without respect of persons” (Journals 209). He argues based on the Golden Rule, and he urges his readers repeatedly to put themselves in a slave’s place (Journals 232-233).
It is here especially that Woolman shows himself to be not simply a Christian, but a Quaker Christian as well. Lask writes, “He could not reconcile the practice of slavery with what he held to be the fundamental principles of the Quaker religion,” and his arguments reflect his belief in those principles (35). In the second part of his pamphlet, he bases many of his arguments on the need to seek the “plain, simple way of living” the Quakers embraced (Journals 226). He says those who seek luxury often keep slaves to support it (Journal 226). He stresses the pleasures of contentment, and he even goes so far as to say, “Luxury and oppression have the seeds of war and desolation in them” (228). Woolman himself purposely chose a simple way of life over a more comfortable living, giving up a thriving business to become an itinerant Quaker minister (Reynolds 10). He urges his fellow Christians to seek similar lifestyles that value honest labor and spurn worldly wealth. Woolman’s arguments eventually had their effect, at least on his fellow Quakers. The Quaker’s Yearly Meeting of 1758 “marked the real beginning of a sectarian movement against the slave trade,” Lask says (37). In 1776, just four years after Woolman’s death on October 1, 1772, the Quakers decided to refuse membership to those who continued to hold slaves (Houston 137).
Part of Woolman’s success was due to the presentation of his arguments, which was as gentle and as Christian as the arguments themselves. Woolman’s words were marked by a generosity and grace rarely seen in discussion of volatile social issues. Woolman avoided explosive, self-righteous indignation and even gave slaveholders the benefit of the doubt, saying that those who kept slaves out of charity may not be “chargeable with guilt,” even though they were wrong (Journals 211). He taught brotherly love not just through words, but through quiet example, too. Richard Foster tells of the time Woolman went to the home of Quaker Thomas Woodward for dinner. When Woolman saw the people serving him, he asked if they were slaves. When his host told them they were, Woolman quietly got up and left without a word. “The effect of this silent testimony upon Thomas Woodward was enormous,” Foster says, and the next day Woodward freed all of his slaves (139). Reginald Reynolds says that this gentleness, this “spirit of universal charity” set Woolman apart from other social reformers (55). He calls Woolman’s willingness to teach by humble example the “Woolman Way, the direct and simple, friendly approach to those who, we believe, are acting wrongly, the acceptance upon our own shoulders of the burden of guilt, the example in our own lives of what we are preaching to society” (60). It is speaking the truth in love, and it is the Christian way as well.
Woolman’s crusade was a Christian crusade in its motivations, arguments and presentation. But his crusade prompts some questions. Why did the fight against slavery originate with this Quaker? If the crusade was a Christian one, where were other Christians, the Puritans for instance, in the fight? Other Christians took tentative steps towards repudiating slavery, but failed to go all the way as Woolman did. In 1706, Cotton Mather, for instance, published a tract called “The Negro Christianized,” in which he argued for the humanity of blacks, but in which he failed to take the next step of arguing against slavery (Noll 77). Edwards wrote an essay called “The Nature of True Virtue,” which eventually became the basis for anti-slavery arguments; yet Edwards himself owned a slave (Noll 108-109). Some of Edwards’ followers eventually rejected slavery, but the Puritans as a whole never repudiated slavery as the Quakers did (Noll 108).
In analyzing why this is so, the thesis of John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” comes to mind: “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission” (American Heritage 4). It would be rash to assume that the Puritan belief in ordered hierarchy automatically led to a belief in slavery, especially since some of Edwards’ followers eventually rejected slavery. However, Winthrop’s assumption is clear: God has ordained that some men submit to others. This belief in hierarchy and authority might bolster a belief in slavery, especially when slavery was still an unchallenged, unexamined assumption. Quakers, on the other hand, held to an almost radically egalitarian theology. They were infamous for refusing to remove their hats in the presence of their superiors (Morgan 292). They rejected trained ministers, stressed the equality of the sexes, and all because they believed that any person who followed his “inner light” could be redeemed (Morgan 292). In his examination of the world of William Penn, Edmund S. Morgan says that Penn “continued to identify the Quakers with ‘the Weary and Heavy Laden, the Hungry and Thirsty, the Poor and Needy, the Mournful and Sick’” (Morgan 295). Quaker doctrine, Morgan asserts, “spelled out for [Penn] some of the egalitarian implications of Christian teaching. Quakers, as we have seen, made it a matter of principle to ignore and flatten social distinctions” (Morgan 295). The Quaker’s rejection of social distinctions and their identification with the downtrodden made it natural to reject the institution of slavery.
So Woolman lived his life as a Christian and a Quaker, responding to the promptings of his conscience and arguing for brotherly love in a loving way. “He was always a penitent sinner,” Lask writes, “who visualized his atonement in work in behalf of oppressed men --- men who were subject to evil masters and masters who were victims of their own oppression through their administration of it” (31). His participation in the Christian tradition of social justice holds lessons for us today. He challenges us to act out of a deep and personal love for our brother, to persuade our enemies with gentleness, and to hold to the Woolman Way of unswerving conviction, humility and grace.
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