Early New Jersey Quaker John Woolman (1720-1772) was an eccentric who dressed all in white, sometimes walked rather than rode his horse, refused to drink from silver cups, and declined inoculations against smallpox, from which he eventually died. He was also a saintly man who resisted war taxes, opposed cruelty to animals (and humans), and led the fight to abolish slavery. These two sides of Woolman have a common explanation: A deeply religious person, Woolman cultivated the life of the spirit and the moral actions that flowed from it. For the same reasons, he undertook a traveling ministry that led him to leave his wife and daughter at home for long periods and journey through the colonies and to England preaching his messages. Woolman also wrote pamphlets and left his Journal (1774), which has never been out of print.
For these clear explanations of the strange and saintly Woolman, readers are indebted to historian Thomas P. Slaughter’s biography The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Slaughter’s well-performed task was doubly difficult not just because of Woolman’s complex personality but because that personality had to be reconstructed, sometimes with sparse information, for a modern audience alien to the frame of mind and to the many beliefs that moved Woolman. Slaughter’s biography is like an archaeological excavation of psychology, history, and religion.
One might think that Woolman’s Journal would have supplied most of the answers that Slaughter needed. but Journal is a spiritual autobiography, a genre much favored by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) but reaching back to antiquity. Such autobiographies focus on the inner life of the spirit, the state of the soul, and typically record outer events only as they influence the inner life. For example, Woolman does not specify the activities of his youthful friends that repulsed him, says little about his courtship of and marriage to Sarah Ellis, says nothing about their infant son who died, and seems oblivious to the beauty of the natural landscapes he traveled through. However, he does record his dream visions and his spiritual crises as a child and young adult: the time he talked back to his mother, the time he killed a mother robin and her nest of young, and the time he made out a bill of sale for a female slave.
Woolman began writing his Journal in his thirty-sixth year, so this raises questions about how well he remembered his childhood and young adulthood, what he left out, and how he interpreted what he remembered. The sparse information forces Slaughter to speculate at times, but he stays close to what can be documented from the journal and from other sources, such as meeting records. Woolman also wrote several drafts of the journal, and a Quaker committee edited the first published version (deleting all of the dream visions). Slaughter traces the changes and deletions closely to glean additional information. (The authoritative modern edition, taking the various drafts into account, is The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, published in 1971 and edited by Phillips P. Moulton.)
Most importantly, Woolman’s Journal reveals his overall frame of mind, the mind-set of a sensitive soul immersed in religious belief. Even in his own religious age, Woolman was something of a throwback: He admired the Old Testament prophets, the early Christian martyrs, and the Quaker martyrs of the seventeenth century, thousands of whom had been thrown into prison in England and persecuted with Calvinistic zeal in New England. The Religious Society of Friends recognized Woolman’s unusual spiritual gifts, appointing him a minister at the age of twenty-two, endorsing his travels, and publishing his writingseven though the moral beliefs emerging from his spirituality put him in opposition to many of the common practices of the time, including among the Quakers. Slaughter supplies the historical contexts that make Woolman’s spirituality and his preaching of reforms understandable.
The saintly Woolman was always a work in progress, so that the story of his life reads somewhat like the archetypal journey of Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Even at a young age, Woolman showed a precocious tendency to cultivate his inner life,...
(The entire section is 1784 words.)