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John Woolman Walked out on a Slave Owner

Woolman gradually gained resolution against slavery.

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?JOHN WOOLMAN’S FIRST CRISIS of conscience over slavery came when he was about nineteen. He had taught himself enough law to write wills and bills of sale. He was asked to prepare a bill of sale for a black woman. A tender-hearted and imaginative youth, this threw him into such agitation that he protested the act. That incident set him on a track of life-long opposition to slavery. 

Born in 1720 to Quaker parents in New Jersey, he began speaking in Quaker religious meetings in 1739. Every Quaker was allowed to express any matter God laid on his or her heart. In 1743, Woolman went on a two-week mission trip with an older man through areas which had no Quaker meeting houses, and he spoke at a few, with “much care that I might speak only what Truth opened.” From the start, his message focused on love toward God and people. 

To support himself and have the means to marry, he became a cloth-maker. He would continue to make cloth, manage a shop (which he gave up as too time-consuming), farm, undertake surveys, and perform legal work throughout his marriage. 

In 1746, during a speaking tour in the South, he observed the lives of rich, slave-owning Quakers, who drank hard, hunted, and enjoyed luxuries at the expense of unpaid labor. He warned them against their behavior. In his journal he predicted “the consequences will be grievous to posterity.” On his return, he wrote an essay against slavery. But for some reason he did not publish it until eight years later. 

Over time, his convictions became more pronounced. On this day, 18 November 1758, he spoke forcefully against slavery at a large meeting of Quakers at London Grove, Pennsylvania. Afterward, he went to eat at the home of Thomas Woodward. Seeing some black servants, Woolman inquired about them and learned they were slaves. Without saying a word, he left the house and did not return. Woodward’s conscience was so stung by Woolman’s silent rebuke that he freed all his slaves the next morning. He became a spokesman to other Quaker slave owners, urging them to end the practice.

In 1772, Woolman sailed to England to visit fellow Quakers. His scrupulous behavior was remarked upon there. For example, he refused to travel by post horses (who carried the mail). “I have heard Friends [Quakers] say in several places that it is common for horses to be killed with hard driving, and that many others are driven till they grow blind. Post-boys pursue their business, each one to his stage, all night through the winter. Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly, and to gain wealth, the creation at this day doth loudly groan.” 

He died that year in England of smallpox. Eight years later, Pennsylvania passed an act of gradual emancipation, thanks in part to Quaker agitation.

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