October 8, 2020 – John Woolman, the itinerate Quaker mystic who spread his peaceful witness throughout Colonial New Jersey in the mid 18th century, was born 300 years ago this month.
Woolman became one of my heroes when I was a student at Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern University), 1968-71. I began classes as a recently discharged veteran of the Air Force but soon began to feel the Vietnam War was a hideous mistake by America’s best and brightest politicians, and an immoral travesty by the presidents who refused to stop it.
I became active in the peace movement and spent hours exploring pacifist ideas with Professor John L. Ruth, who was also a Mennonite minister. One afternoon, John handed me his first-edition copy of John Woolman’s Journal. It was a loan, he said. “I know you’ll treat it gently.”
It was not easy reading because the pages were yellowed, the letter s was stylized f, and the ancient binding made crinkling sounds when I cradled it. But I turned each page with extreme gentleness and read the journal in one night.
No book I read at Eastern had a greater impact on me. Woolman, committed to Christ’s command to love God and neighbor, swore he would never do harm to any living creature. He adjured carriage drivers to treat both their horses and their African coachmen with kindness. He walked in friendship with indigenous peoples in New Jersey. And he was an early abolitionist.
As a notary public, he refused to notarize wills if they included slaves as property. An excerpt from his journal:
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 that I 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 concerns in the practice, and I thought he was displeased with me. In this case I had fresh confirmation that acting contrary to present outward interest, 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.
I will always wonder what it was about Woolman that people found so persuasive. I was used to the concussive debates of the sixties and seventies when we tended to shout at persons who disagreed with us, never expecting to convince them. But Woolman spoke with gentle persuasion and people generally saw he was right.
Incredibly, he could walk into a raucous New Jersey pub, preach about the evils of rum, and convince both the pub crowd and the pub owner that he was right. “When men take pleasure in feeling their minds elevated with strong drink,” he wrote in his journal, “and so indulge their appetite as to disorder their understandings, neglect their duty as members of a family or civil society, and cast off all regard to religion, their case is much to be pitied.” It’s a mystery – and perhaps a miracle – that Woolman was not simply thrown out on his head.
Woolman was eccentric in the extreme. He discovered that the harsh chemicals used to blacken men’s coats were blinding the slaves forced to do the dyeing. He couldn’t convince his fellow Quakers to stop dyeing their clothes, but he refused to do it himself. He wore white muslin clothes as traveled around Colonial New Jersey, snow time or mud time.
That is the image of Woolman I have carried in my head since I returned his journal safely to John Ruth’s keeping. He must have cut a comical figure when he arrived in meeting houses and pubs, wrinkled, yellowed, and stained with soot and sweat.
But it seems unlikely anyone laughed because most people quickly figured out that John Woolman was a prophet in their midst. He’s one of the unsung heroes of U.S. history, and I wish more people would sing about him.
Nearly two-and-a-half centuries since he passed from the American scene, I’d love to see his loving, peaceful spirit, rumpled jacket and all, returning to speak wisdom and nurture to our bitterly divided country.