A Man For All Souls

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On October 19, 1720, was born one of the few saints and prophets this country has produced. John Woolman, the Quaker, of Mount Holly, New Jersey, is still relatively unknown in his own land though his Journal is extensively read in England, Germany, and France. That he lacks fame in his own land is not surprising. Too many of his ideas ran counter to those held by a majority of the population in his own time. His greatness lay in his compassionate humanity, a quality that is only rarely in fashion.

It was compassionate humanity that led Woolman to make journey after journey south through Virginia and the Carolinas and north to Providence, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to plead with slaveowners to set free the fellow humans they held captive. It was compassionate humanity that led him to journey westward to regions where he was in danger of losing his scalp: he wished to bring a message of peace and brotherhood to the Indians.

He began his adult life as a shopkeeper’s assistant, and he proved to have such a talent for business that he might well have become a colonial merchant prince. His success when he went into business for himself was so great that it alarmed him. He saw that the increasing burden of success would be more than his spirit could bear. It would be a chain, and he wanted to be free. “Truth required me to live more free from outward Cumbers,” he said. “I saw that a humble Man, with the blessing of the Lord, might live on a little; and that where the Heart was set on Greatness, Success in Business did not satisfy the craving; but that commonly, with an Increase of Wealth, the Desire of Wealth increased.”

He took up tailoring and set up a little shop along with it to sell buttons and notions, thinking that a plain man would so have more time for his inward life. He kept the little shop and his tailoring until he was thirty-six and during that time showed real concern for the welfare of his customers. He refused to deal in luxuries because they enticed people to go into debt, and he made every effort to dissuade his poorer customers from buying goods they could not afford. Despite these scruples, or possibly because of them, his trade increased year by year. The man who had rejected business success found that a partial rejection was no rejection at all. It had to be complete. “I lessened my outward Business and . . . told my Customers of my Intention, that they might consider what Shop to turn to: And in a while, wholly laid down Merchandize, following my Trade, as a Taylor myself only, having no apprentice.”

 

In addition he kept a nursery of apple trees in which he employed some of his time in “hoeing, grafting, trimming and inoculating.” He believed that man should live in harmony with nature—bird, beast, plant, and soil. “To impoverish the Earth now to support outward Greatness,” he said, “appears to be an injury to the succeeding Age.” The deforestation of Nantucket and its infertile soil distressed him, for example, as did the stench arising from the filth of the thickly settled towns he visited in England and the spoiling he saw there of good earth “where much of their die stuffs have drained away.” He believed in conservation long before that term came into use, and among the resources he wished to see preserved and nurtured was the child.

Woolman, of whom no certain likeness exists, taught school at various intervals during his life, wrote a primer that went into three editions, and developed certain ideas about education. He favored, for example, smaller classes. Individual attention produced better results. So did teachers who were not bowed down by poverty. Here, too, his feeling for his fellow humans reveals itself; but the truth is that he felt a “Tenderness . . . towards all Creatures” and thought that we should take every care “not [to] lessen that Sweetness of Life, in the animal Creation, which the great Creator intends for them under our Government.”

Woolman’s reverence for all life stemmed from a childhood experience, when he threw a stone and killed a mother robin that had been trying to distract him from molesting the little ones in her nest. Pleased at first by his exploit, he was soon overcome by horror and remorse. The mother had been so careful of her young, and now, without her to nourish them, they would perish. Rather than let them endure the suffering of slow starvation, he climbed up to the nest and killed the nestlings one by one. The cruelties he had committed weighed upon him, and he came to the conclusion that “true Religion consisted in an inward Life, wherein the Heart doth love and reverence God the Creator, and learns to exercise true Justice and Goodness, not only toward all Men, but also toward the brute Creatures.”

During his travels in England prior to his death in York from smallpox at the age of fifty-one, Woolman demonstrated that this tender concern for animal as well as human life was still with him. He refused to send letters or be conveyed himself by a post system that encouraged stagecoaches to travel a hundred miles in twenty-four hours so that, as he said, it is “common for horses to be killed with hard driving, and many others are driven till they grow blind. . . . So great is the hurry in the Spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quick, and to gain wealth, the Creation at this day doth loudly groan!”