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John Woolman. (1720–1772). The Journal of John Woolman. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

JOHN WOOLMAN was born at Northampton, N. J., in 1720, and died at York, England, in 1772. He was the child of Quaker parents, and from his youth was a zealous member of the Society of Friends. His “Journal,” published posthumously in 1774, sufficiently describes his way of life and the spirit in which he did his work; but his extreme humility prevents him from making clear the importance of the part he played in the movement against slaveholding among the Quakers.   1
  During the earlier years of their settlement in America, the Friends took part in the traffic in slaves with apparently as little hesitation as their fellow colonists; but in 1671 George Fox, visiting the Barbados, was struck by the inconsistency of slave-holding with the religious principles of his Society. His protests, along with those of others, led to the growth of an agitation which spread from section to section. In 1742, Woolman, then a young clerk in the employment of a storekeeper in New Jersey, was asked to make out a bill of sale for a negro woman; and the scruples which then occurred to him were the beginning of a life-long activity against the traffic. Shortly afterward he began his laborious foot-journeys, pleading everywhere with his co-religionists, and inspiring others to take up the crusade. The result of the agitation was that the various Yearly Meetings one by one decided that emancipation was a religious duty; and within twenty years after Woolman’s death the practise of slavery had ceased in the Society of Friends. But his influence did not stop there, for no small part of the enthusiasm of the general emancipation movement is traceable to his labors.   2
  His own words in this “Journal,” of an extraordinary simplicity and charm, are the best expression of a personality which in its ardor, purity of motive, breadth of sympathy, and clear spiritual insight, gives Woolman a place among the uncanonized saints of America.   3