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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

An Exercise Concerning Dyed Garments

By John Woolman (1720–1772)

[From The Works of John Woolman. 1774.]

FROM my early acquaintance with truth I have often felt an inward distress, occasioned by the striving of a spirit in me, against the operation of the heavenly principle; and in this circumstance have been affected with a sense of my own wretchedness, and in a mourning condition felt earnest longing for that divine help which brings the soul into true liberty; and sometimes in this state, retiring into private places, the spirit of supplication hath been given me, and under a heavenly covering have asked my gracious Father to give me a heart in all things resigned to the direction of his wisdom, and in uttering language like this the thoughts of my wearing hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them has made lasting impressions on me.

In visiting people of note in the society who had slaves, and laboring with them in brotherly love on that account, I have seen, and the sight has affected me, that a conformity to some customs, distinguishable from pure wisdom, has entangled many; and the desire of gain to support these customs greatly opposed the work of truth; and sometimes when the prospect of the work before me has been such that in bowedness of spirit I have been drawn into retired places and besought the Lord, with tears, that he would take me wholly under his direction and show me the way in which I ought to walk; it hath revived with strength of conviction that if I would be his faithful servant I must in all things attend to his wisdom and be teachable; and so cease from all customs contrary thereto, however used among religious people.

As he is the perfection of power, of wisdom, and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time, and that we cannot go into superfluities or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to his wisdom without having connection with some degree of oppression and with that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims.

Being thus fully convinced, and feeling an increasing desire to live in the spirit of peace; being often sorrowfully affected with the thinking on the unquiet spirit in which wars are generally carried on, and with the miseries of many of my fellow-creatures engaged therein; some suddenly destroyed; some wounded, and after much pain remain cripples; some deprived of all their outward substance and reduced to want; and some carried into captivity. Thinking often on these things, the use of hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them, and wearing more clothes in summer than are useful, grew more uneasy to me, believing them to be customs which have not their foundation in pure wisdom. The apprehension of being singular from my beloved Friends was a strait upon me, and thus I remained in the use of some things contrary to my judgment.

On the thirty-first day of the fifth month, 1761, I was taken ill of a fever, and after having it near a week, I was in great distress of body; and one day there was a cry raised in me that I might understand the cause why I was afflicted, and improve under it; and my conformity to some customs which I believed were not right were brought to my remembrance; and in the continuation of the exercise I felt all the powers in me yield themselves up into the hands of Him who gave me being, and was made thankful that he had taken hold of me by his chastisement. Seeing the necessity of further purifying, there was now no desire in me for health until the design of my correction was answered, and thus I lay in abasement and brokenness of spirit, and as I felt a sinking down into a calm resignation, so I felt, as in an instant, an inward healing in my nature, and from that time forward I grew better.

Though I was thus settled in mind in relation to hurtful dyes, I felt easy to wear my garments heretofore made, and so continued about nine months. Then I thought of getting a hat the natural color of the fur, but the apprehension of being looked upon as one affecting singularity felt uneasy to me; and here I had occasion to consider, that things, though small in themselves, being clearly enjoined by divine authority, became great things to us; and I trusted that the Lord would support me in the trials that might attend singularity, while that singularity was only for his sake. On this account I was under close exercise of mind in the time of our general spring-meeting, 1762, greatly desiring to be rightly directed; when, being deeply bowed in spirit before the Lord, I was made willing to submit to what I apprehended was required of me, and when I returned home got a hat of the natural color of the fur.

In attending meetings, this singularity was a trial upon me, and more especially at this time, white hats being used by some who were fond of following the changeable modes of dress; and as some Friends, who knew not on what motive I wore it, carried shy of me, I felt my way for a time shut up in the exercise of the ministry; and in this condition, my mind being turned toward my heavenly Father, with fervent cries that I might be preserved to walk before him in the meekness of wisdom, my heart was often tender in meetings, and I felt an inward consolation which to me was very precious under those difficulties.

I had several dyed garments fit for use, which I believed it best to wear till I had occasion of new ones; and some Friends were apprehensive that my wearing such a hat savored of an affected singularity; and such who spake with me in a friendly way I generally informed in a few words that I believed my wearing it was not in my own will. I had at times been sensible that a superficial friendship had been dangerous to me, and many Friends being now uneasy with me, I had an inclination to acquaint some with the manner of my being led into these things; yet, upon a deeper thought, I was for a time most easy to omit it, believing the present dispensation was profitable, and trusting that if I kept my place the Lord, in his own time, would open the hearts of Friends toward me; since which I have had cause to admire his goodness and loving-kindness in leading about and instructing and opening and enlarging my heart in some of our meetings.