“I believed that liberty was the natural right of all men equally.”
John Woolman (1720-1772) wrote these words in his Journal in 1756, recalling a conversation he had recently had with some slave-holding friends. Woolman was a Quaker and one of the earliest significant anti-slavery advocates in America.
While the concept of liberty for all men would be bandied about over the coming decades by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries, a true grasp of genuine liberty for all men (of all classes and races) lay far in the future. Nevertheless, for Woolman, a simple farmer and merchant from a small town in rural New Jersey, real liberty for all was a cause worth fighting for.
“Whoever rightly advocates the cause of some thereby promotes the good of all.”
Woolman spent his whole adult life traveling around the colonies speaking out against slavery and other injustices. In addition to his Journal, in which he shared his convictions in the form of an autobiographical example, he wrote several treatises including:
- “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes”, 1753
- “Some Considerations on Keeping Negroes, Part Second”, 1762
- “Considerations on Pure Wisdom and Human Policy, on Labor, on Schools, and on the Right Use of the Lord’s Outward Gifts”, 1768
- “Considerations on the True Harmony of Mankind, and How it is to be Maintained”, 1770
Most significantly, Woolman didn’t just write about his convictions, he lived them.
“Conduct is more convincing than language.”
As a young man, Woolman decided he would distance himself from slavery and economic injustice in all its forms. He refused to take part in any activity that had any connection, be it ever so slight, to slave labor. He wouldn’t eat from plates or drink from cups he thought might have been made by slave labor. When he was visiting slave owners, he insisted on paying their slaves for anything they did for him.
Woolman lived a decidedly simple life, striving to express his convictions as much by his actions as by his words.
“A kindness beyond expression”
John Woolman’s actions and words flowed out of a sense of who he was. He believed that for any Christian, the proper mode of interaction with the world was “a kindness beyond expression.” His kindness reached beyond his circle of friends, beyond his peers to people of all races, creeds and colors.
Woolman’s challenge of how to live and how to treat others is just as powerful today as it was over 200 years ago. Even though our society has changed, the need for people to live simply and selflessly is still very real.
His Journal has remained in print since its original (posthumous) printing in 1774. Today it can be found in several printed and electronic versions, including in the Harvard Classics Library, where it shares a volume with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude.
Woolman’s challenge to live well and with purpose is particularly poignant for me because John Woolman is my seventh great grand uncle.
I am currently reading “The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition” by Thomas P. Slaughter (2009) and I hope to read “John Woolman’s Path to the Peacable Kingdom” by Geoffrey Plank (2012) soon.