From the Archives: John Woolman

WEALTH DESIRED FOR ITS OWN SAKE obstructs the increase of virtue, and large possessions in the hands of selfish men have a bad tendency, for by their means too small a number of people are employed in useful things, and some of them are necessitated to labor too hard, while others would want business to earn their bread, were not employments invented which, having no real usefulness, serve only to please the vain mind.

The Creator of the earth is the owner of it. He gave us being thereon, and our nature requires nourishment from the produce of it. He is kind and merciful to his creatures; and while they live answerably to the design of their creation, they are so far entitled to convenient subsistence that we may not justly deprive them of it. By the agreements and contracts of our predecessors, and by our own doings, some enjoy a much greater share of this world than others; and while those possessions are faithfully improved for the good of the whole, it agrees with equity; but he who, with a view to self-exaltation, causeth some to labor immoderately, and with the profits arising therefrom employs others in the luxuries of life, acts contrary to the gracious designs of Him who is the owner of the earth; nor can any possessions, either acquired or derived from ancestors, justify such conduct. Goodness remains to be goodness, and the direction of pure wisdom is obligatory on all reasonable creatures.

. . . if our views are to lay up riches, or to live in conformity to customs which have not their foundation in the truth, and our demands are such as require from [the poor] greater toil or application to business than is consistent with pure love, we invade their rights as inhabitants of a world of which a good and gracious God is the proprietor, and under whom we are tenants.

Let us reflect on the condition of a poor innocent man, on whom the rich man, from a desire after wealth and luxuries, lays heavy burdens; when this laborer looks over the cause of his heavy toil and considers that it is laid on him to support that which hath no foundation in pure wisdom, we may well suppose that an uneasiness ariseth in his mind towards one who might without any inconvenience deal more favorably with him. When he considers that by his industry his fellow-creature is benefited and sees that this wealthy man is not satisfied with being supported in a plain way . . . we may reasonably judge that he will think himself unkindly used. When he considers that the proceedings of the wealthy are agreeable to the customs of the times, and sees no means of redress in this world, how will the sighings of this innocent person ascend to the throne of that great and good being who created all, and who hath a constant care over his creatures!

Many at this day . . . indulge themselves in ways of life which occasion more labor than Infinite Goodness intends for man, and yet compassionate the distresses of such as come directly under their observation; were these to change circumstances awhile with their laborers . . . I believe many of them would embrace a less expensive life, and would lighten the heavy burdens of some who now labor out of their sight . . . . To see their fellow-creatures under difficulties to which they are in no degree accessory tends to awaken tenderness in the minds of all reasonable people; but if we consider the condition of those who are depressed in answering our demands, who labor for us out of our sight while we pass our time in fulness, and consider that much less than we demand would supply us with things really useful, what heart will not relent, or what reasonable man can refrain from mitigating that grief of which he himself is the cause, when he may do so without inconvenience?

If by our wealth we make our children great, without a full persuasion that we could not bestow it better, and thus give them power to deal hardly with others more virtuous than they, it can after death give us no more satisfaction than if by this treasure we had raised others above our own, and had given them power to oppress them.

By John Woolman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]

A leader of the Quakers in colonial New Jersey, John Woolman (1720–1772) started as a tailor and ran a small, successful business. Leaving the retail trade, he traveled as a Quaker minister in the colonies (though he continued to practice his craft of tailoring). His experiences in the South convinced him of the utter evil of slavery; through his earnest efforts, the Quaker community first unified in opposition to slaveholding. Although he made part of his living by writing wills, he refused to write up any transactions that included slaves. These excerpts are from his essay "A Plea for the Poor," first published as "A Word of Caution and Remembrance to the Rich."
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