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May 8, 2014

The Journal of John Woolman

John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman in The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, ed. Philips Moulton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 21-192

In his journal John Woolman accounts for his growing belief that slavery is wrong, his transformation into an abolitionist and his efforts to convince Quakers in both America and England to stop practicing the slave trade. His concern with slavery is that it is a moral sin and he is working to end moral sins, be they slavery or wanton behavior (see, for instance, his discussion of his rebuke of the “sleights-of-hand” performer in 1763 (138)). The journal spans 1720 to 1772 and was revised and rewritten between 1770 and 1772.

The years 1720 to 1742 constitute his childhood and early adulthood and contain Augustine like accounts of how his understanding of human nature is rooted in his own early experiences. For instance, after killing a bird and her babies and then feeling guilty about his action he writes, “he whose tender mercies are over all his works hath placed a principle in the human mind which incites to exercise goodness toward every living creature” (25). As a Quaker he believes “true religion consisted in an inward life” and his journal can be seen as an attempt to practice that religion (28).

His conversion to abolition takes place when he participates in the sale of an African American slave he knows. Shortly afterwards he stops working as a merchant and becomes a tailor observing, “I saw that a humble man with the blessing of the Lord might live on a little, and that where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving, but that in common with an increase of wealth the desire of wealth increased” (35).

The majority of the journal consists of Woolman’s account of visiting various Quaker meetings and trying to convince them to stop participating in the slave trade. He recognizes that this is a difficult task, “Deep-rooted customs, though wrong, are not easily altered, but it is the duty of everyone to be firm in that which they certainly know is right for them” (50). At the core of his organizing methodology is the conviction that, “Conduct is more convincing than language” (60).

Of Woolman’s several journeys two in particular worth mention are his visit to the Native Americans in 1763 and his trip to England, where he ultimately died, in 1772. In England he tried to convince the London Quaker meeting that slavery was wrong.

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