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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise John Woolman (1720-1772)

[6746] Nathaniel Delivan, Bill of Sale for Slaves, New York (1700), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections, Printed Ephemera Collection.

John Woolman was born into a Quaker family in West Jersey (later New Jersey) in 1720. From an early age, he manifested a deep sensitivity toward spiritual matters that would become the basis for his lifelong commitment to Quaker precepts and devotion to what he called “the inward life.” Woolman attended a local Quaker school, but, like many Quakers of the early eighteenth century, had no further formal education. Instead, he served an apprenticeship to a tailor and eventually established a business of his own: tailoring, dealing in retail goods, managing a farm, and writing legal documents. The success of his commercial ventures eventually gave Woolman cause for concern; he worried that the time and energy he devoted to his business was interfering with his faithfulness to the callings of God. True to his conscience, he deliberately scaled back his operations and found that “a humble man with the blessing of the Lord might live on a little.”

At the age of twenty-three, Woolman felt called to the Quaker ministry, a vocation that involved speaking at meetings and traveling as an itinerant preacher. As a result of this spiritual commitment, he undertook many difficult missionary journeys, traveling to the southern colonies, into New York, through Native American lands in northern Pennsylvania, and to England. Woolman dedicated his ministry to fighting social injustice and spoke frequently against war, materialism, the exploitation of Indians, and the inhumane treatment of the poor. The cause that would become his passion and the focus of most of his energies, however, was the abolition of slavery. Convinced that slaveholding was inconsistent with Christian principles, Woolman preached, wrote, and confronted individual slaveholders in his quest to put an end to “this dark gloominess hanging over the land.” In 1754 and 1762, he published the two parts of his treatise, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, a carefully argued, powerful plea for abolition. Woolman’s convictions also moved him to renounce sugar and clothing colored with dyes since these commodities were produced by slave labor. While his activities did not lead to the abolition of slavery as an institution in his own time, Woolman did succeed in converting individuals and in persuading the organized Quaker church in Pennsylvania to officially adopt abolitionist resolutions. His writings and his example were also important in laying the groundwork for the abolitionist movement that would flourish in the nineteenth century.

Woolman died in 1772 after contracting smallpox while traveling through England on a preaching tour. He left behind a Journal, a kind of spiritual autobiography, which was published by the Society of Friends in 1774 and is the piece for which Woolman is best remembered. Written both as a personal exercise in self-examination and as a spiritual guide for others to consult, the Journal has remained popular for over two hundred years: it has never gone out of print since its first publication and has gone through over forty editions. Notable for its clear, plain writing style and its moving articulation of religious conviction, the Journal influenced such later American writers as John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry David Thoreau, and Theodore Dreiser. Woolman’s commitment to social justice and his concern with issues that continue to haunt American culture (problems such as bigotry, violence, materialism, and poverty) have given his work a lasting relevance.

Teaching Tips

  • Woolman participates in a long tradition of Quaker journal-keeping begun by George Fox, the founder of the sect. Pious Quakers routinely composed spiritual autobiographies to be published after their deaths as examples and guides for those who read them. It seems clear, then, that Woolman carefully crafted and revised his Journal in anticipation of its eventual publication. Given this information, ask students to consider how Woolman’s sense of audience and literary conventions might have influenced the composition and shaped the meaning of the Journal.
  • Woolman frequently explains his religious motivations in terms of “openings,” or “drawings” sent to him by God. Ask students what they think he means by these terms. What rhetorical purpose do they serve? How do they work to justify Woolman’s actions? Ask students to reflect on the potential problems this passive ideal of acting only when moved by God might pose for someone like Woolman. In explicating the tensions between activity and passivity in the Journal, you might point out Woolman’s consistent use of the passive voice in his description of religious experiences.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What rhetorical strategies and appeals does Woolman use to argue against slavery in Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes? Which are most persuasive? Which do you think would have been most effective in persuading other eighteenth-century Americans to abolish slavery?
  2. Context: Woolman’s Journal has been celebrated as a particularly beautiful and effective example of “plain style.” How does his use of this style compare to that of other plain stylists discussed in this unit (Bradford, Bradstreet, and Penn, for example)? What kinds of values and beliefs might Woolman’s style reflect? Are they the same or different from the values held by Puritan plain stylists?
  3. Exploration: How do Woolman’s concerns prefigure later social movements in America (abolitionism, civil rights issues, the development of welfare programs, for example)? Can you trace his influence in any contemporary discussions of social justice issues? What might Woolman think of contemporary American society? How would he feel about the ongoing problems of racism, bigotry, poverty, violence, and materialism?

Selected Archive Items

[1107] David H. Burr, Map of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Exhibiting the Post Offices, Post Roads, Canals, Railroad (1839),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-96653].
This map provides a geographical context for Woolman’s travels in Pennsylvania.

[1575] To Be Sold, on Board the Ship Bance Island… Negroes, Just Arrived from Windward & Rice Coast (ca. 1780),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-10293].
A newspaper advertisement for the sale of slaves at Ashley Ferry outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Plantation owners paid higher prices for slaves from the “Windward” or “Rice Coast,” the rice-growing regions of West Africa that ranged from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

[2793] The Quaker Meeting,
courtesy of George Fox University.
Quaker churches like this one are “plain-style” buildings defined by their linear design, exposed structural supports, and open lighting. These unpretentious interiors have no altars or pulpits, creating unadorned spaces that allow congregants to concentrate on their individual relationships with God. Illustration from Sydney George Fisher, The True William Penn (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1899).

[2909] Thomas Fairland, George Fox (1914),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-49456].
Facsimile of portrait drawn on stone. George Fox (1624-1691) founded the Society of Friends, or Quakers, based on the principle of the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the portrait Fox wears what would become known as a “Quaker hat.”

[6746] Nathaniel Delivan, Bill of Sale for Slaves, New York (1700),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections, Printed Ephemera.
Early opponents of slavery like John Woolman addressed the institution’s existence in all of the British colonies. Hudson Valley wheat plantations used slaves, while merchants and ships from ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia brought slaves to those towns along with southern and Caribbean colonies.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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