Beautiful Soul of John Woolman

Paul Harvey

Thomas Slaughter, author of The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, is interviewed here about his new book, just out with Hill and Wang. A brief excerpt:

What does Woolman's life say about modes of radical activism in the 18th century? Can we consider him a "prophetic" leader?

Woolman is not an example of Enlightenment reform but of Old Testament prophetic reform. He was no liberal. On the contrary, he was unusually focused on the Old Testament over the New and uncompromising on the Truth. The Enlightenment and Liberalism is all about compromise, about improving the world by increments. Woolman believed that there is no compromise on the Truth.

Here's a description and brief review of the book.

Not many today know about the New Jersey Quaker, mystic and social activist John Woolman (1720–1772). But William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, characterized Woolman as a saint. John Greenleaf Whittier called him the founding father of the abolitionist movement. As Slaughter (The Whiskey Rebellion) shows in this superb narrative, it may be argued that the pious, simple-living Woolman—by rejecting not only slavery but also the accumulation of wealth, economic exploitation of all kinds and all forms of violence—created the prototype for every pacifist and nonconformist to come after. Woolman always dressed simply in clothes he stitched himself, white clothes meant to mark him as a man of God. He advocated his causes in lectures and sermons across the eastern United States and England (where he died of smallpox) and through extensive writings. He made a point of owning nothing he did not need and giving away every and anything he could not use. In our own age of conspicuous consumption, the complex soul Slaughter so ably and beautifully resurrects is full of contemporary relevance as an example of principled living.

And a brief note in the New Yorker:

The journal of the Quaker mystic and abolitionist John Woolman has never been out of print since 1774, when it was first published. Along with Woolman’s pamphlets and speeches, the journal was instrumental in persuading the Society of Friends to give up owning slaves. In this meditative biography, Slaughter provides sensitive readings of Woolman’s writings in order to draw a picture of a “prophetic Old Testament radical” who practiced a patient and methodical mode of activism. Woolman balanced a workman’s life in New Jersey with visits to Indian tribes and to Friends’ meetings in other states, preaching a doctrine of asceticism and human perfectibility. His staunchest acts of protest, which he performed politely, were refusing to pay war taxes during the French and Indian War and compensating other Quakers’ slaves for their work.

I'll try to put up a more extensive review of the work sometime in the future, as the figure of Woolman has long fascinated me but I've never really read up sufficiently on him; I'm looking forward to doing so now.


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