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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Woolman (1720–1772)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Leland Hall (1883–1957)
 
“I HAVE often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth year of my age, I begin this work.” With these words John Woolman began his ‘Journal’ in 1755. He carried the work on to within a few weeks of his death, and even on his deathbed requested those about him to write down things he said, that they might be added to the record of his experiences. Yet so simple was his life, and so humble and self-effacing his spirit, that this ‘Journal,’ the record of fifty-two active years, makes no bigger book than may be read through easily in an evening. Woolman wrote other things: ‘Observations on the Keeping of Slaves,’ the first issue of which bears the imprint of Benjamin Franklin; and many essays: ‘On Labor,’ on ‘Merchandizing,’ ‘On a Sailor’s Life,’ and ‘A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich.’ It was Charles Lamb who said: “Get the writings of John Woolman by heart.”  1
  By heart, indeed. John Woolman was a Quaker preacher, whose life was one unceasing service to the needy and the oppressed, behind whose every act was love. He was born in Northampton, New Jersey, in August, 1720. He grew up in perhaps the most conservative Quaker settlement in the American Colonies; yet he could write in his ‘Journal’:—
          “I have been informed that Thomas à Kempis lived and died in the profession of the Roman Catholic religion; and in reading his writings, I have believed him to be a man of a true Christian spirit, as fully so as many who died martyrs because they could not join with some superstitions in that church. All true Christians are of the same spirit, but their gifts are diverse, Jesus Christ appointing to each one his peculiar office, agreeably to his infinite wisdom.”
  2
  Although the Quakers were as numerous at that time in the colonies as the Puritans, and as zealous to bring all mankind to their belief, there is no word of bigotry in all John Woolman’s ‘Journal.’  3
  He was taught to read and write by his parents, and even as a youth would withdraw from his companions and his play to read in his Bible. He frequently felt that the spirit of the Lord visited him. The Quaker religion rested on the belief that God is present in all creatures, that Divine revelation is not sealed, but rather from day to day enlightens all men and women who live in the way of God; and Quaker preachers were not men trained to a ministry, but men whom God moved to speak out by quickening the sense of His spirit in them. From earliest manhood John Woolman often felt himself so moved to speak. As he grew older he journeyed near and far in the colonies, following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He visited meetings of Quakers from Virginia nearly to Maine; he went among the slaves on the plantations; he braved hardship, torture, and death to carry the message of love back into the wilderness to hostile Indians. Finally in the spring of 1772 he was moved to visit the Quakers in England. He landed in London, and made his way slowly north, going through town and country on foot, that he might not add to the burden of the overworked post horses. He died at York of small-pox of October 7th, 1772.  4
  Although the ‘Journal’ is largely the record of his several travels, it is not lacking in personal and domestic details. For example:—
          “About this time, believing it good for me to settle, and thinking seriously about a companion, my heart was turned to the Lord with desires that he would give me wisdom to proceed therein agreeably to his will, and he was pleased to give me a well-inclined damsel, Sarah Ellis, to whom I was married the eighteenth of eighth month, 1749.”
  5
  He was for many years engaged in merchandising, trying always to sell only what was useful; but feeling that he should master a trade, he applied himself to the humble one of tailoring. Later:—
          “The increase of business became my burden; for though my natural inclination was toward merchandising, yet I believed truth required me to live more free from outward cumbers; and there was now a strife in my mind between the two. In this exercise my prayers were put up to the Lord; who graciously heard me, and gave me a heart resigned to his holy will. Then I lessened my outward business, and, as I had opportunity, told my customers of my intentions, that they might consider what shop to turn to; and in a while I wholly laid down merchandise, and followed my trade as a tailor, by myself, having no apprentice. I also had a nursery of apple-trees, in which I employed some of my time in hoeing, trimming, grafting and inoculating. In merchandise it is the custom where I lived to sell chiefly on credit, and poor people often get in debt; when payment is expected, not having wherewith to pay, their creditors often sue for it at law. Having frequently observed occurrences of this kind, I found it good for me to advise poor people to take such goods as were most useful, and not costly.”
  6
  There is something touching in the testimony of his fellow Quakers, given in a Monthly Meeting shortly after his death: “He was a loving husband, a tender father, and was very humane to every part of the creation under his care.”  7
  Woolman’s style is simple and direct, never ornate though often eloquent. The influence of the Bible is unmistakable, but is nothing like so marked as in the works of other lay preachers, Bunyan, for instance, or as in the sermons, essays, and records of the Puritans. He was bound to the Lord in the “covenant of Grace,” not in the “covenant of Works”; and for all his humbleness, there is personal fervor in his style. What is most affecting both in the ‘Journal’ and in the essays is the spirit in which they were written. Woolman was not a fanatic; in all his writings there is no note of threat, none of scorn. It was not his way to exhort men to prepare themselves for a terrible judgment, to threaten them with the tortures of hell, or to hold out to them the promise of a bliss in heaven. Though he lived always in an intimate communion with God, there is scarcely a concern expressed in the ‘Journal’ for the welfare of the spirit after death. He was anxious to relieve suffering and misery here and now, and thought continually upon how the state of human society might be bettered.  8
  Human slavery, for example, was an abomination to him, yet he did not call down fire and brimstone upon the heads of the slaveholders. He granted willingly that those negroes who had kind masters might be better off as slaves than as free men. But the practice appeared to him as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; “and,” he wrote, “though now many run willingly into it, yet in the future the consequence will be grievous to posterity.” As a Quaker he believed that luxury was sinful; but he cautioned men against it not so much because it was evil in the sight of God, as because the rich man’s love of luxury and wealth brought suffering to the poor. When he was about to set forth for England, certain of his friends who were part owners in the ship on which he was to sail offered him a luxurious cabin aboard her. He said he preferred to live among the sailors in the steerage. Upon his friends’ telling him that in those quarters he would be subjected to much discomfort, he reminded them that the money spent on the needless luxury of the cabin would have made the sailors’ quarters pleasant to live in; and he persisted in his determination to travel in the steerage. Drunkenness was a terrible evil; but the poor may plead that in their weariness under too hard labor they must resort to the drinking of spirituous liquors, “not only as a refreshment from past labors, but also to enable them to go on without giving sufficient time to recruit by resting.” The cruelty of the Indians was hideous to contemplate; but they had been made vengeful by the avarice of the white men. In every regard he was tender as well as thoughtful; and his love for mankind was so reasonable and steady that after a reading of his ‘Journal’ and his essays one cannot but question if the wisdom which may some day render the organization of society more just and fair have not its root and strength in such a love as his.  9
  J. G. Whittier edited the ‘Journal’ for republication in 1871, and in an introduction traced the abolitionist movement which finally overthrew human slavery on this continent back to the teachings of John Woolman. But though the negroes have been set free, and there is no longer open buying and selling of human beings, the heavy load of the rich man’s luxury still bears upon the shoulders of the poor. In ‘A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich,’ an essay written not long before he died, John Woolman uttered a prophecy that has many times since his death been fulfilled:—
          “This is like a chain in which the end of one link encloseth the end of another. The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning; this desire, being cherished, moves to action; and riches thus gotten please self; and while self has a life in them it desires to have them defended. Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as a spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout and grow and become strong until much fruit is ripened. Then cometh the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which ‘is a heap in the day of grief and desperate sorrows.’ O that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast. A day of outward distress is coming, and Divine love calls to prepare against it.”
  10
 
 
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