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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

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•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William
- Anne
- Sarah Kemble
- Thomas Morton
- Samson Occom
- William Penn
- Mary
- Edward Taylor
- John Winthrop
- John Woolman
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Authors: 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 Activities
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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 es-tablished 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 slave holding was inconsistent with Christian principles, Woolman preached, wrote, and confronted individual slave holders 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.

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