Thomas P. Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Hill and Wang, 2008.
John Woolman, the Quaker “saint” who died in 1772, is certainly worthy of continued attention–as is given in this careful and thorough biography. Woolman strongly opposed slavery in a time when even many Quakers were slaveholders. He also opposed warfare and materialism. He wrote a spiritual classic, his Journal, which continues deservedly to be read widely.
I approached this book with great anticipation because while I have known of Woolman’s witness for years, I still didn’t know much about the man and his life.
Slaughter, a history professor at Rochester University in New York, writes a very close-grained account of Woolman’s life, making the most out of the fairly scarce resources we have about this exceedingly modest and spiritually rigorous Friend. So, this book makes an important contribution in giving us the details of Woolman’s outer life that shaped the inner life so powerfully expressed in the Journal.
The Woolman that Slaughter recovers for us (and I should emphasize that Slaughter seems quite sympathetic to the subject of his book–this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job) does not come across as an overly attractive person. In particular, Woolman seems fairly hateful toward fleshly human life and even his own family ties. He departed on his one trip across the Atlantic to witness to British friends well aware of his delicate health. He expected to die (as he did) while following his calling, loved ones notwithstanding.
My biggest disappointment with this book is Slaughter’s lack of attention to the broader context of Woolman’s life–both in the sense of the dynamics of the world in which Woolman lived (e.g., I wanted desperately to know more about the retreat of Pennsylvania Quakers from political life in their colony–a retreat that reached fruition during Woolman’s life and one that was, apparently strongly encouraged by his own ministry; we are only given glancing hints concerning this event by Slaughter) and in the sense of Woolman’s impact those who followed after him (e.g., one of the big issues pointed to by the book’s title is the abolitionist movement and the transformation among Quakers from tolerance toward slavery to total opposition–Woolman seems to have pioneered these changes but we are not given much of a sense of how).
So, I finished the book wishing for something quite a bit different that what I received. I recommend it only with strong qualifications. It’s pretty long, not particularly engagingly written, and too narrowly focused. We do learn a lot about the details of Woolman’s life–he’s important enough (though Slaughter doesn’t tell us enough about why) to warrant our attention. But so much more could be done with the fascinating story of John Woolman, his life and times, and his legacy.
Thanks for posting this. I just finished reading Woolman’s journal recently, and now I’m parsing through his “Plea for the Poor.”
Here are some of my gleanings:
Woolman was a puritan, and sometimes comes off as a crank. Writing about a magic show that was advertised, he treats entertainment with the same contempt and Christian scorn as slavery and cheating Indians. On St. Patrick’s Day, my wife told me St. Woolman’s Day would be a lot less fun!
On the other hand, Woolman constantly and devoutly struggles to be faithful to his own leadings. Thomas Kelley’s characterization of Woolman is piously misleading: Woolman did not discover or follow his concerns for simplicity, slavery, the poor, and moral purity without great inner turmoil. The record of his prayer life shows significant volatility, struggle, and humanness. Contrary to what you wrote above about the transatlantic voyage, the Woolman of the journal seems to constantly beg God for a sense of “resignation.” The voice is almost like Jesus’s anguish in Gethsemane, with a bitter awareness that the servant isn’t above his master.
That said, I’m not sure what weight I should give Woolman’s self-portrait. Many early Friends’ journals are unreliable. As Chuck Fager says: “They may have been ‘Friends of Truth,’ but they didn’t let that get in the way of making the stories and the facts fit their preconceptions and prejudices.”
I’d be interested in what counterpoint the Slaughter book offers.
The journal isn’t capable of addressing your unanswered questions from the book, which interest me as well. The golden age of Quaker abolitionism is such an intoxicating myth to FGC Quakers today that it’s origin among divergent Friends like Woolman seems to receive little attention.
I appreciate your thoughts, John. Slaughter certainly values and pays close attention to the Journal but he points out in numerous places where the evidence seems to go against Woolman’s version of the story.
In order to assess the contribution of John Woolman it might be helpful to read about Anthony Benezet also. Brooks, George S., Friend Anthony Benezet, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1937, 516 pp; Jackson, Maurice, Let This Voice Be Heard, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, 374 pp. To obtain an overview of 18th century Quakerism, see for example, Barbour, Hugh, and Frost, J. William, The Quakers, New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, 407 pp.