A Man For All Souls


The gaining of wealth at the expense of one’s fellow creatures was the major source of trouble to what he called the “great family” of man. “Where men give way to a desire after wealth, and to obtain their ends proceed in that wisdom which is from beneath, how often does discord arise between different branches of the great family?” The answer was: too often. Over and over again great numbers of men were torn away from useful employment, such as tilling the earth, and forced to defend what the contending parties claimed as their interest but what was actually an interest of the few. Wars, he believed, came about because some people had too much and wanted more, while some other persons had not even the decencies of life. “Feeling an increasing desire to live in the Spirit of Peace, I have often been sorrowfully affected with thinking on the unquiet Spirit in which Wars are generally carried on, and with the Miseries of many of my Fellow Creatures engaged therein; some suddenly Destroyed, some Wounded, and after much Pain remaining Cripples; some Deprived of all their outward Substance and reduced to Want; and some carried into Captivity.” Woolman was much troubled by the advent of the French and Indian War in 1754 and met with some young men in relation to the draft, counselling them that they should hold fast to their stand “that they could not bear Arms for Conscience sake; nor could they hire any to go in their Places, being resigned as to the Event.” If the only true objective was to create the one worldfamily, then it was necessary “to keep to right Means in labouring to attain a right End.”


A portion of that world-family were the original owners of the land where Woolman’s orchard stood, of the woods through which he journeyed on horseback and the streams that he forded or followed. Having for many years felt love in his heart for the Indians who dwelt far back in the wilderness, he conceived an increasing desire to make a personal demonstration of that love. “I thought,” he said, “that the Affectionate care of a good man for his only Brother in Affliction, does not exceed what I then felt for that people.” He said farewell to wife and friends in 1763 and set forth. Some years before he had seen a scalped corpse being hauled through the streets of Philadelphia, and Woolman had been repeatedly warned that the Indians were freshly stirred up and had taken to the warpath. “The Thoughts of falling into the Hands of Indian Warriours were, in Times of Weakness, afflicting to me; and being of a tender Constitution of Body, the Thoughts of Captivity amongst them were, at times grievous . . . but the Lord alone was my Keeper; and I believed, if I went into Captivity, it would for some good End.”

He had one encounter that gave him at least a moment of real uneasiness. As he approached an Indian to speak to him, the brave whipped out a concealed tomahawk. Woolman did not retreat. Speaking in a friendly fashion, he continued toward the Indian with outstretched hand. As Woolman put it, “Though his taking [his] hatchet in his hand at the instant I drew near him, had a disagreeable appearance, I believed he had no other intent than to be in readiness in case any violence was offered to him.”


Having travelled two hundred miles into the forest, he reached the Indian village of Wyalusing, which he had selected as his destination. There he remained for several days, frequently meeting and talking to the Indians. At first making use of an interpreter, he soon dispensed with translation, explaining that he believed if he prayed rightly, God would hear him and the Indians would understand. It was on this occasion that Papunchang, the great and peaceful chief of the Delawares, summed up his feelings by saying, “I Love to Feel where words come from.” It was an eloquent response to the love of mankind that inspired this strange missionary.

But if Woolman was concerned for the well-being of the red man, he was even more deeply affected by the oppression suffered by the black. Racial injustice, he was among the first to see, not only debases the victim but corrupts the victimizer as well. Over and over again, as he journeyed north or south, reasoning quietly with slaveowners, he listened to the kind of argument used even to this day to defend the system of slavery. That the system rescued the Negro from savagery. That the Good Book ordained that he should be a slave. That he was naturally lazy and needed a strong master. “Men are wont to take hold of weak Arguments,” said Woolman, “to support a Cause which is unreasonable.” The true motives for keeping slaves and trading in them, he believed, were ease and gain. “I saw in these southern Provinces so many Vices and Corruptions, increased by this Trade and this Way of Life, that it appeared to me as a Gloom over the Land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet, in future, the Consequence will be grievous to Posterity.”