Ah, John Woolman. One of the “uncanonized saints of America,” said Charles W. Eliot. Born in 1720, died in England in 1772, a devout Quaker all his life, still known in a small circle for being fully opposed to slavery long before it was a common concern and giving every appearance of being a humble, pious and well-meaning man. Unfortunately, where the art of writing is concerned, that alone does not cut it. The Journal of John Woolman, published in 1774, is a tiresome and repetitive memoir; only 150 pages but difficult enough to read the first time, let alone twice.
Woolman’s writing style clearly shows that he never read anything other than the Bible and similar pious texts and this makes for a frustrating read. I am not remotely the ideal audience for this book, being casually agnostic and distrustful of organized religion, but the main reason I don’t recommend it to others is simply that, while there are some anecdotes and his life story does derail for an occasional meditative passage, too much of the Journal reads as a variation on this paragraph:
Of late, I found drawings in my mind to visit Friends in New England, and having an opportunity of joining in company with my beloved friend Peter Andrews, we obtained certificates from our Monthly Meeting, and set forward on the 16th of third month, 1747. We reached the Yearly Meeting at Long Island, at which were our friends, Samuel Nottingham from England, John Griffith, Jane Hoskins, and Elizabeth Hudson from Pennsylvania, and Jacob Andrews from Chesterfield, several of whom were favored in their public exercise; and, through the goodness of the Lord, we had some edifying meetings. After this my companion and I visited Friends on Long Island; and through the mercies of God we were helped in the work.
Woolman had no gift for storytelling. Every visit to Friends he made (and there were many) he documented in the same style – a mix of notes on where he went, how many miles, which friends he met and some phrase such as my heart was often tender to cap off the effect. The sheer dullness of the work impedes my ability to praise it. Saint or no saint, it is often interminably soporific.
Which is a shame, because there are interesting depths hidden within this book and few will ever locate them. Woolman was in many ways a gentle and good-hearted fellow, extending his sympathies not only to the Africans, but to the Indians, the poor, and the animals. He viewed sinners with compassion and viewed all sects as consistent with each other (espousing the same sort of tolerance as Franklin, though from a far more spiritual viewpoint). His first act of defiance towards the practice of slavery came, not with stating to others that he felt it was wrong, but with refusing to write wills or other legal documents that concerned the trade. Obviously, people could always find another man for the job and some did; others were willing to listen to him. Such was the imperative that he even brought himself to haggle with a bedridden man:
I took notes, and amongst other things he told me to which of his children he gave his young negro. I considered the pain and distress he was in, and knew not how it would end, so I wrote his will, save only that part concerning his slave, and carrying it to his bedside read it to him. I then told him in a friendly way that I could not write any instruments by which my fellow-creatures were made slaves, without bringing trouble on my own mind. I let him know that I charged nothing for what I had done, and desired to be excused from doing the other part in the way he proposed. We then had a serious conference on the subject; at length, he agreeing to set her free, I finished his will.
It takes real nerve to start a moral discussion on what could be a man’s death-bed. That is the singular quality which unites Woolman with Franklin – both stood by their principles. Such strength of character could only come from strong convictions and enormous quantities of self-discipline. Woolman offers every indication that he did not enjoy public speaking, reacting to an early instance of it (and of outlasting his audience’s welcome) in this way: Being soon sensible of my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could not take satisfaction in anything. And yet, when compelled by the inward voice of God, he would travel to Meetings across the Colonies, pleading the cause of abolition. Thus, he earns my immediate respect.
In reading the book, chapter VIII is the one that really stands out, containing one of the only proper bits of narrative in the whole work. In it, Woolman journeys through the wilderness to visit Indians on the Susquehanna River, camping in the woods and recording actual incidents in a most refreshing change of pace, if not tone. This was the first night that we lodged in the woods, and being wet with traveling in the rain, as were also our blankets, the ground, our tent, and the bushes under which we purposed to lay, all looked discouraging…. We kindled a fire, with our tent open to it, then laid some bushes next the ground, and put our blankets upon them for our bed, and, lying down, got some sleep. In the morning, feeling a little unwell, I went into the river; the water was cold, but soon after I felt fresh and well. Then on another day of the journey – Our guides’ horse strayed, though hoppled, in the night, and after searching some time for him his footsteps were discovered in the path going back, whereupon my kind companion went off in the rain, and after about seven hours returned with him.
Woolman was traveling at a period of high tensions between Indians and Americans; nevertheless, despite his fears of meeting violence, he offered only compassion to the natives, even viewing himself as inferior in many ways, they making do with a far more rough environment and going through so many trials since the English had begun colonization.
As there are a few glimmers of genuine narrative, so are there moments of intellectual consideration, such as the dead-on-the-money observation Some of the great carry delicacy to a great height themselves, and yet real cleanliness is not generally promoted. It’s quite rare, of course – Woolman was an old-fashioned thinker, the sort who would agree that the Lisbon earthquake was God’s chastisement to sinners. Also, remember that stony-faced, annoyingly sober Bible basher who shows up in films now and then? Shakespeare in Love had one. The character is defined via his urging of people not to enter playhouses/dancehalls/puppet shows in fear for their souls and sad to say Woolman appears to have been that sort himself. On the bright side, nothing is wrong with such fervour when it can also be used to shoot down moronic arguments via nothing but Biblical minutiae and a moral compass. Observe:
…soon after, a Friend in company began to talk in support of the slave-trade, and said the negroes were understood to be the offspring of Cain, their blackness being the mark which God set upon him after he murdered Abel his brother; that it was the design of Providence they should be slaves, as a condition proper to the race of so wicked a man as Cain was. Then another spoke in support of what had been said. To all which I replied in substance as follows: that Noah and his family were all who survived the flood, according to Scripture; and as Noah was of Seth’s race, the family of Cain was wholly destroyed. One of them said that after the flood Ham went to the land of Nod and took a wife; that Nod was a land far distant, inhabited by Cain’s race, and that the flood did not reach it; and as Ham was sentenced to be a servant of servants to his brethren, these two families, being thus joined, were undoubtedly fit only for slaves. I replied, the flood was a judgment upon the world for their abominations, and it was granted that Cain’s stock was the most wicked, and therefore unreasonable to suppose that they were spared. As to Ham’s going to the land of Nod for a wife, no time being fixed, Nod might be inhabited by some of Noah’s family before Ham married a second time; moreover the text said “That all flesh died upon the earth.” (Gen. vii. 21.) I further reminded them how the prophets repeatedly declare “that the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, but every one be answerable for his own sins.” I was troubled to perceive the darkness of their imaginations, and in some pressure of spirit said, “The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable. I have no interest on either side, save only the interest which I desire to have in the truth. I believe liberty is their right, and as I see they are not only deprived of it, but treated in other respects with inhumanity in many places, I believe He who is a refuge for the oppressed will, in his own time, plead their cause, and happy will it be for such as walk in uprightness before him.” And thus our conversation ended.
While I do spot some internal inconsistencies in that argument (his taking for granted the wickedness of Cain’s race contradicts what the prophets repeatedly declare) it is still a graceful and eloquent incident and there is only one way to read The Journal of John Woolman and find it striking, and that is not on the ‘intellectual’ level.
It is when read in the spiritual frame of mind, viewed through the prism of self-surrender and mysticism, that I find Woolman’s behaviour to be most uncanny. It isn’t the easiest ingredient to locate (I think I missed it altogether the first time round) but it’s clear that the driving force in his life was God and if his writings are any indication the closest relationship he had had was with God.
On the 31st of fifth month, 1761, I was taken ill of a fever, and after it had continued near a week I was in great distress of body. One day there was a cry raised in me that I might understand the cause of my affliction, and improve under it, and my conformity to some customs which I believed were not right was brought to my remembrance. In the continuance of this 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 chastisements. Feeling the necessity of further purifying, there was now no desire in me for health until the design of my correction was answered. 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.
Such rare descriptions form a singularly passionate break in the text, sandwiched, without him seeming to notice the radical change in tone, amidst ponderously factual accounts and quietly upheld moral standards (this same era had him rejecting dyed clothes as a needless frippery).
On the face of it, John Woolman appears a caricature but when looked at closely one realizes he was quite an enigma. A gentle mystic or an insufferably respectable Quaker – which was it? His own Journal offers only elusive glimpses of his character, such that I do not feel I know who the man really was, only that, whether or not he qualifies for canonization (as saint or literature), his kind was and remains a rare breed. You probably already know if you want to get to know him or not. I didn’t but I’m glad I did.
Up next: Fruits of Solitude and More Fruits of Solitude.