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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. III. The Growth of the National Spirit: 1710–1775

John Woolman

JOHN WOOLMAN, the great Quaker preacher and social reformer, was born at Northampton, Burlington County, New Jersey, in 1720, and died of smallpox while on a visit to the English Friends, at York, October 7, 1772. His early years were passed on a farm and as clerk in a store, but he showed interest in mission work by teaching poor children, and about 1741, after some experience in preaching at Friends’ Meetings, he felt a call to visit various bodies of his sect throughout the colonies. To further this design he learned the trade of tailor, which he practiced on his itinerant journeys. These began in 1746 by a visit to Virginia, from which time his abhorrence of slavery became rooted, and the rest of his life was passed in such missions which covered much of the Atlantic region and included a visit to the Indians of the Susquehanna in 1763. His journal of his missionary travels, first published in 1775, was reëdited by the poet Whittier in 1871. He wrote also Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1753–1762), and several other works of religious or ethical purport. No more sincere revelation of the workings of a pure and benevolent spirit than is contained in his Journal can easily be found in literature. Its style is simple and has been highly praised, especially by Charles Lamb. The defects of the book are those of the man, such as over-scrupulousness of conscience, not to say morbidity, and lack of intellectual breadth as well as of æsthetic sensibility; but these are plainly the defects of his qualities, and in the presence of his altruistic piety, criticism seems impertinent.

Domestic Events and Scruples of Conscience.
[From the “Journal,” 1772, Chap. III.]

ABOUT this time, believing it good for me to settle, and thinking seriously about a companion, my heart was turned to the Lord, with desire that he would give me wisdom to proceed therein agreeably to his will; and he was pleased to give me a well-inclined damsel, Sarah Ellis; to whom I was married the 18th day of the eighth month, in the year 1749.

In the fall of the year 1750, died my father, Samuel Woolman, with a fever, aged about sixty years.

In his lifetime he manifested much care for us his children, that in our youth we might learn to fear the Lord; often endeavoring to imprint in our minds the true principles of virtue, and particularly to cherish in us a spirit of tenderness, not only towards poor people, but also towards all creatures of which we had the command.

After my return from Carolina, in the year 1746, I made some observations on keeping slaves, which some time before his decease I showed him. He perused the manuscript, proposed a few alterations, and appeared well satisfied that I found a concern on that account. In his last sickness, as I was watching with him one night, he being so far spent that there was no expectation of his recovery, but had the perfect use of his understanding, he asked me concerning the manuscript, whether I expected soon to proceed to take the advice of Friends in publishing it; and, after some conversation thereon, said, I have all along been deeply affected with the oppression of the poor negroes; and now, at last, my concern for them is as great as ever.

By his direction, I had written his will in a time of health, and that night he desired me to read it to him, which I did, and he said it was agreeable to his mind. He then made mention of his end, which he believed was now near, and signified that, though he was sensible of many imperfections in the course of his life, yet his experience of the power of truth, and of the love and goodness of God from time to time, even until now, was such that he had no doubt but that, in leaving this life, he should enter into one more happy.

The next day his sister Elizabeth came to see him, and told him of the decease of their sister Ann, who died a few days before. He said, I reckon sister Ann was free to leave this world? Elizabeth said she was. He then said, I also am free to leave it; and being in great weakness of body, said, I hope I shall shortly go to rest. He continued in a weighty frame of mind, and was sensible until near the last.

On the second day of the ninth month, in the year 1751, feeling drawings in my mind to visit friends at the Great Meadows, in the upper part of West Jersey, with the unity of our monthly meeting, I went there, and had some searching, laborious exercise amongst friends in those parts, and found inward peace therein.

In the ninth month of the year 1753, in company with my well-esteemed friend John Sykes, and with the unity of Friends, I travelled about two weeks, visiting Friends in Buck County. We, labored in the love of the gospel, according to the measure received; and, through the mercies of him who is strength to the poor who trust in him, we found satisfaction in our visit. In the next winter, way opening to visit Friends’ families within the compass of our monthly meeting, partly by the labors of two Friends from Pennsylvania, I joined in some part of the work; having had a desire for some time that it might go forward amongst us.

About this time, a person at some distance lying sick, his brother came to me to write his will. I knew he had slaves; and asking his brother, was told he intended to leave them as slaves to his children. As writing is a profitable employ, and as offending sober people was disagreeable to my inclination, I was straitened in my mind; but as I looked to the Lord, he inclined my heart to his testimony. I told the man that I believed the practice of continuing slavery to this people was not right, and had a scruple in my mind against doing writings of that kind; that, though many in our Society kept them as slaves, still I was not easy to be concerned in it, and desired to be excused from going to write the will. I spake to him in the fear of the Lord; and he made no reply to what I said, but went away: he also had some concern in the practice, and I thought he was displeased with me. In this case, I had a fresh confirmation that acting contrary to present outward interests, from a motive of divine love, and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentments of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver, and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men.

The manuscript before mentioned having laid by me several years, the publication of it rested weightily upon me; and this year I offered it to the revisal of Friends, who, having examined and made some small alterations in it, directed a number of copies thereof to be published and dispersed amongst Friends.

Conversations and Thoughts on Slavery.
[From the Same, Chap. IV.]

FEELING the exercise in relation to a visit to the Southern Provinces to increase upon me, I acquainted our Monthly Meeting therewith, and obtained their certificate. Expecting to go alone, one of my brothers who lived in Philadelphia, having some business in North Carolina, proposed going with me part of the way; but as he had a view of some outward affairs, to accept of him as a companion was some difficulty with me, whereupon I had conversation with him at sundry times. At length feeling easy in my mind, I had conversation with several elderly Friends of Philadelphia on the subject, and he obtaining a certificate suitable to the occasion, we set off in the fifth month, 1757. Coming to Nottingham week-day meeting, we lodged at John Churchman’s, where I met with our friend, Benjamin Buffington, from New England, who was returning from a visit to the Southern Provinces. Thence we crossed the river Susquehanna, and lodged at William Cox’s in Maryland; and soon after I entered this province a deep and painful exercise came upon me, which I often had some feeling of, since my mind was drawn toward these parts, and with which I had acquainted my brother before we agreed to join as companions.

As the people in this and the Southern Provinces live much on the labor of slaves, many of whom are used hardly, my concern was that I might attend with singleness of heart to the voice of the true Shepherd, and be supported as to remain unmoved at the faces of men.

As it is common for Friends on such a visit to have entertainment free of cost, a difficulty arose in my mind with respect to saving my money by kindness received from what appeared to me to be the gain of oppression.

Receiving a gift, considered as a gift, brings the receiver under obligations to the benefactor, and has a natural tendency to draw the obliged into a party with the giver. To prevent difficulties of this kind, and to preserve the minds of judges from any bias, was that Divine prohibition: “Thou shalt not receive any gift; for a gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous.” (Exod. xxiii. 8.) As the disciples were sent forth without any provision for their journey, and our Lord said the workman is worthy of his meat, their labor in the gospel was considered as a reward for their entertainment, and therefore not received as a gift; yet, in regard to my present journey, I could not see my way clear in that respect. The difference appeared thus: the entertainment the disciples met with was from them whose hearts God had opened to receive them, from a love to them and the truth they published; but we, considered as members of the same religious society, look upon it as a piece of civility to receive each other in such visits; and such reception, at times, is partly in regard to reputation, and not from an inward unity of heart and spirit. Conduct is more convincing than language, and where people, by their actions, manifest that the slave-trade is not so disagreeable to their principles but that it may be encouraged, there is not a sound uniting with some Friends who visit them.

The prospect of so weighty a work, and of being so distinguished from many whom I esteemed before myself, brought me very low, and such were the conflicts of my soul that I had a near sympathy with the Prophet, in the time of his weakness, when he said: “If thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, if I have found favor in thy sight.” (Num. xi. 15.) But I soon saw that this proceeded from the want of a full resignation to the Divine will. Many were the afflictions which attended me, and in great abasement, with many tears, my cries were to the Almighty for his gracious and fatherly assistance, and after a time of deep trial I was favored to understand the state mentioned by the Psalmist more clearly than ever I had done before; to wit: “My soul is even as a weaned child.” (Psalm cxxxi. 2.) Being thus helped to sink down into resignation, I felt a deliverance from that tempest in which I had been sorely exercised, and in calmness of mind went forward, trusting that the Lord Jesus Christ, as I faithfully attended to him, would be a counsellor to me in all difficulties, and that by his strength I should be enabled even to leave money with the members of society where I had entertainment, when I found that omitting it would obstruct that work to which I believed he had called me. As I copy this after my return, I may here add, that oftentimes I did so under a sense of duty. The way in which I did it was thus: when I expected soon to leave a Friend’s house where I had entertainment, if I believed that I should not keep clear from the gain of oppression without leaving money, I spoke to one of the heads of the family privately, and desired them to accept of those pieces of silver, and give them to such of their negroes as they believed would make the best use of them; and at other times I gave them to the negroes myself, as the way looked clearest to me. Before I came out, I had provided a large number of small pieces for this purpose and thus offering them to some who appeared to be wealthy people was a trial both to me and them. But the fear of the Lord so covered me at times that my way was made easier than I expected; and few, if any, manifested any resentment at the offer, and most of them, after some conversation, accepted of them….

We pursued our journey without appointing meetings, being pressed in my mind to be at the Yearly Meeting in Virginia. In my travelling on the road, I often felt a cry rise from the centre of my mind, thus: “O Lord, I am a stranger on the earth, hide not thy face from me.” On the 11th, we crossed the rivers Patowmack and Rapahannock, and lodged at Port Royal. On the way we had the company of a colonel of the militia, who appeared to be a thoughtful man. I took occasion to remark on the difference in general betwixt a people used to labor moderately for their living, training up their children in frugality and business, and those who live on the labor of slaves; the former, in my view, being the most happy life. He concurred in the remark, and mentioned the trouble arising from the untoward, slothful disposition of the negroes, adding that one of our laborers would do as much in a day as two of their slaves. I replied, that free men whose minds were properly on their business, found a satisfaction in improving, cultivating, and providing for their families; but negroes, laboring to support others who claim them as their property, and expecting nothing but slavery during life, had not the like inducement to be industrious.

After some further conversation I said, that men having power too often misapplied it; that though we made slaves of the negroes, and the Turks made slaves of the Christians, I believed that liberty was the natural right of all men equally. This he did not deny, but said the lives of the negroes were so wretched in their own country that many of them lived better here than there. I replied, “There is great odds in regard to us on what principle we act;” and so the conversation on that subject ended. I may here add that another person, some time afterwards, mentioned the wretchedness of the negroes, occasioned by their intestine wars, as an argument in favor of our fetching them away for slaves. To which I replied, if compassion for the Africans, on account of their domestic troubles, was the real motive of our purchasing them, that spirit of tenderness being attended to, would incite us to use them kindly, that, as strangers brought out of affliction, their lives might be happy among us. And as they are human creatures, whose souls are as precious as ours, and who may receive the same help and comfort from the Holy Scriptures as we do, we could not omit suitable endeavors to instruct them therein; but that while we manifest by our conduct that our views in purchasing them are to advance ourselves, and while our buying captives taken in war animates those parties to push on the war, and increase desolation amongst them, to say they live unhappily in Africa is far from being an argument in our favor….

As I was riding along [in Virginia] in the morning, my mind was deeply affected in a sense I had of the need of Divine aid to support me in the various difficulties which attended me, and in uncommon distress of mind I cried in secret to the Most High, “O Lord be merciful, I beseech thee, to thy poor afflicted creature!” After some time, I felt inward relief, and, soon after, a Friend in company began to talk in support of the slave-trade, and said the negroes were understood to be the offspring of Cain, their blackness being the mark which God set upon him after he murdered Abel his brother; that it was the design of Providence they should be slaves, as a condition proper to the race of so wicked a man as Cain was. Then another spake in support of what had been said. To all which I replied in substance as follows: that Noah and his family were all who survived the flood, according to Scripture; and as Noah was of Seth’s race, the family of Cain was wholly destroyed. One of them said that after the flood Ham went to the land of Nod and took a wife; that Nod was a land far distant, inhabited by Cain’s race, and that the flood did not reach it; and as Ham was sentenced to be a servant of servants to his brethren, these two families, being thus joined, were undoubtedly fit only for slaves. I replied, the flood was a judgment upon the world for their abominations, and it was granted that Cain’s stock was the most wicked, and therefore unreasonable to suppose that they were spared. As to Ham’s going to the land of Nod for a wife, no time being fixed, Nod might be inhabited by some of Noah’s family before Ham married a second time; moreover the text saith “That all flesh died that moved upon the earth.” (Gen. vii. 21.) I further reminded them how the prophets repeatedly declare “that the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, but every one be answerable for his own sins.” I was troubled to perceive the darkness of their imaginations, and in some pressure of spirit said, “The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable. I have no interest on either side, save only the interest which I desire to have in the truth. I believe liberty is their right, and as I see they are not only deprived of it, but treated in other respects with inhumanity in many places, I believe He who is a refuge for the oppressed will, in his own time, plead their cause, and happy will it be for such as walk in uprightness before him.” And thus our conversation ended….

The prospect of a road lying open to the same degeneracy, in some parts of this newly settled land of America, in respect to our conduct towards the negroes, hath deeply bowed my mind in this journey, and though briefly to relate how these people are treated is no agreeable work, yet, after often reading over the notes I made as I travelled, I find my mind engaged to preserve them. Many of the white people in those provinces take little or no care of negro marriages; and when negroes marry after their own way, some make so little account of those marriages that with views of outward interest they often part men from their wives by selling them far asunder, which is common when estates are sold by executors at vendue. Many whose labor is heavy being followed at their business in the field by a man with a whip, hired for that purpose, have in common little else allowed but one peck of Indian corn and some salt, for one week, with a few potatoes; the potatoes they commonly raise by their labor on the first day of the week.

The correction ensuing on their disobedience to overseers, or slothfulness in business, is often very severe, and sometimes desperate.

Men and women have many times scarcely clothes sufficient to hide their nakedness, and boys and girls ten and twelve years old are often quite naked amongst their master’s children. Some of our Society, and some of the society called Newlights, use some endeavors to instruct those they have in reading; but in common this is not only neglected, but disapproved. These are the people by whose labor the other inhabitants are in a great measure supported, and many of them in the luxuries of life. These are the people who have made no agreement to serve us, and who have not forfeited their liberty that we know of. These are the souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct towards them we must answer before Him who is no respecter of persons. They who know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, and are thus acquainted with the merciful, benevolent, gospel spirit, will therein perceive that the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty, and in beholding the great distress of so numerous a people will find cause for mourning.

Objections to Dyed Garments.
[From the Same, Chap. VIII.]

FROM my early acquaintance with truth I have often felt an inward distress, occasioned by the striving of a spirit in me, against the operation of the heavenly principle; and in this circumstance have been affected with a sense of my own wretchedness, and in a mourning condition felt earnest longing for that divine help which brings the soul into true liberty; and sometimes in this state, retiring into private places, the spirit of supplication hath been given me, and under a heavenly covering have asked my gracious Father to give me a heart in all things resigned to the direction of his wisdom, and in uttering language like this the thoughts of my wearing hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them has made lasting impressions on me.

In visiting people of note in the society who had slaves, and laboring with them in brotherly love on that account, I have seen, and the sight has affected me, that a conformity to some customs, distinguishable from pure wisdom, has entangled many; and the desire of gain to support these customs greatly opposed the work of truth; and sometimes when the prospect of the work before me has been such that in bowedness of spirit I have been drawn into retired places and besought the Lord, with tears, that he would take me wholly under his direction and show me the way in which I ought to walk; it hath revived with strength of conviction that if I would be his faithful servant I must in all things attend to his wisdom and be teachable; and so cease from all customs contrary thereto, however used among religious people.

As he is the perfection of power, of wisdom, and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time, and that we cannot go into superfluities or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to his wisdom without having connection with some degree of oppression and with that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims.

Being thus fully convinced, and feeling an increasing desire to live in the spirit of peace; being often sorrowfully affected with the 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 remain cripples; some deprived of all their outward substance and reduced to want; and some carried into captivity. Thinking often on these things, the use of hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them, and wearing more clothes in summer than are useful, grew more uneasy to me, believing them to be customs which have not their foundation in pure wisdom. The apprehension of being singular from my beloved Friends was a strait upon me, and thus I remained in the use of some things contrary to my judgment.

On the thirty-first day of the fifth month, 1761, I was taken ill of a fever, and after having it near a week, I was in great distress of body; and one day there was a cry raised in me that I might understand the cause why I was afflicted, and improve under it; and my conformity to some customs which I believed were not right were brought to my remembrance; and in the continuation of the exercise I felt all the powers in me yield themselves up into the hands of Him who gave me being, and was made thankful that he had taken hold of me by his chastisement. Seeing the necessity of further purifying, there was now no desire in me for health until the design of my correction was answered, and thus I lay in abasement and brokenness of spirit, and as I felt a sinking down into a calm resignation, so I felt, as in an instant, an inward healing in my nature, and from that time forward I grew better.

Though I was thus settled in mind in relation to hurtful dyes, I felt easy to wear my garments heretofore made, and so continued about nine months. Then I thought of getting a hat the natural color of the fur, but the apprehension of being looked upon as one affecting singularity felt uneasy to me; and here I had occasion to consider, that things, though small in themselves, being clearly enjoined by divine authority, became great things to us; and I trusted that the Lord would support me in the trials that might attend singularity, while that singularity was only for his sake. On this account I was under close exercise of mind in the time of our general spring-meeting, 1762, greatly desiring to be rightly directed; when, being deeply bowed in spirit before the Lord, I was made willing to submit to what I apprehended was required of me, and when I returned home got a hat of the natural color of the fur.

In attending meetings, this singularity was a trial upon me, and more especially at this time, white hats being used by some who were fond of following the changeable modes of dress; and as some Friends, who knew not on what motive I wore it, carried shy of me, I felt my way for a time shut up in the exercise of the ministry; and in this condition, my mind being turned toward my heavenly Father, with fervent cries that I might be preserved to walk before him in the meekness of wisdom, my heart was often tender in meetings, and I felt an inward consolation which to me was very precious under those difficulties.

I had several dyed garments fit for use, which I believed it best to wear till I had occasion of new ones; and some Friends were apprehensive that my wearing such a hat savored of an affected singularity; and such who spake with me in a friendly way I generally informed in a few words that I believed my wearing it was not in my own will. I had at times been sensible that a superficial friendship had been dangerous to me, and many Friends being now uneasy with me, I had an inclination to acquaint some with the manner of my being led into these things; yet, upon a deeper thought, I was for a time most easy to omit it, believing the present dispensation was profitable, and trusting that if I kept my place the Lord, in his own time, would open the hearts of Friends toward me; since which I have had cause to admire his goodness and loving-kindness in leading about and instructing and opening and enlarging my heart in some of our meetings.

A Vision.
[From the Same, Chap. XII.]

IN a time of sickness with the pleurisy, a little upward of two years and a half ago, I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull, gloomy color, between the south and the east; and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be and live; and that I was mixed in with them, and that henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being. In this state I remained several hours. I then heard a soft, melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel, who spake to the other angels. The words were: “John Woolman is dead.” I soon remembered that I once was John Woolman, and being assured that I was alive in the body, I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice could mean.

I believed beyond doubting that it was the voice of an holy angel; but as yet it was a mystery to me.

I was then carried in spirit to the mines, where poor, oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious.

Then I was informed that these heathen were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ; and they said amongst themselves, if Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.

All this time the song of the angel remained a mystery; and in the morning my dear wife and some others coming to my bedside, I asked them if they knew who I was; and they telling me I was John Woolman, thought I was light-headed, for I told them not what the angel said, nor was I disposed to talk much to any one, but was very desirous to get so deep that I might understand this mystery.

My tongue was often so dry that I could not speak till I had moved it about and gathered some moisture, and as I lay still for a time, at length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ that liveth in me; and the life I now live in the flesh is by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that that language—“John Woolman is dead”—meant no more than the death of my own will.

Soon after this I coughed and raised much bloody matter, which I had not done during this vision, and now my natural understanding returned as before. Here I saw that people getting silver vessels to set off their tables at entertainments were often stained with worldly glory, and that in the present state of things I should take heed how I fed myself from out of silver vessels.

Soon after my recovery, I, going to our monthly-meeting, dined at a Friend’s house where drink was brought in silver vessels, and not in any other; and I, wanting some drink, told him my case with weeping, and he ordered some drink for me in another vessel.

The like I afterward went through in several Friend’s houses in America, and have also in England, since I came here; and have cause, with humble reverence, to acknowledge the loving-kindness of my heavenly Father who hath preserved me in such a tender frame of mind that none, I believe, have ever been offended at what I have said on that occasion.