A Man For All Souls


These observations came to him in 1746. Some few years later he published two essays entitled Considerations on Keeping Negroes , in the second of which he said, “Placing on Men the ignominious Title SLAVE , dressing them in uncomely Garments, keeping them to servile Labour, in which they are often dirty, tends gradually to fix a Notion in the Mind, that they are a Sort of People below us in Nature, and leads us to consider them as such in all our Conclusions about them.” It needs but little change to give that statement application more than two centuries later. “If we bring this Matter home, and asjob proposed to his Friends, Put our Soul in their Souls’ stead . If we consider ourselves and our Children as exposed to the Hardships which these People lie under in supporting an imaginary Greatness. Did we in such Case behold an Increase of Luxury and Superfluity amongst our Oppressors, and therewith felt an Increase of the Weight of our Burdens, and expected our Posterity to groan under oppression after us. Under all this Misery, had we none to plead our Cause, nor any Hope of Relief from Man, how would our Cries ascend to the God of the Spirits of all Flesh who judgeth the World in Righteousness, and in his own Time is a Refuge for the Oppressed!”

To “put our soul in their souls’ stead.” This is what John Woolman was always able to do, whether it was for the soldier drafted into war, the Indian encouraged to trade whiskey for the furs that would have purchased food, the slave whipped by the overseer, or, by some Saint Francis-like reach of the imagination, the animal or the bird or even the very earth that man despoiled for his own enrichment. The little boy who had felt such remorse when he killed the mother robin became the man moved to love and identify with all mankind and all creation. Put your soul in their souls’ stead, he said, but only a few listened, a very few. As the historian George Macaulay Trevelyan said, “Close your ears to John Woolman one century and you will get John Brown the next, with Grant to follow.”