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A Man For All Souls

April 2024
8min read


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!”

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.”

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.”

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