The Journal of John Woolman

by John Woolman, 1774 (posthumously)

The Journal of John Woolman offers an introspective look into the life of a Quaker itinerant preacher, mystic, abolitionist, and lover of humankind.

In addition to providing a taste of the rich inner dialogue and vast moral, spiritual, and physical journeys of Woolman, the journal has the distinction of being the oldest book in North America that has been continuously in print since its first publication in 1774, second only to the Bible.

Instead of summarizing Woolman’s travels and life, I think it best to offer some selected passages using Woolman’s own words.

I have classified and structured these selections into five main subjects:

  1. Abolitionist reflections,
  2. Interesting anecdotes,
  3. Comments on problems caused by alcohol,
  4. Social and anti-materialist commentary, and
  5. Christian and mystic reflections.

Afterwards, I will offer some passing, concluding comments on the work, and how Woolman’s life is, in some ways, diametrically opposed to Ben Franklin’s life–his contemporary.

1. Abolitionist Reflections

  • On the nefarious effects of owning slaves (i.e. on slaveowners):

    this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labor, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity.

  • On the irrational and made-up justifications for slavery:

    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.

  • On the condition of the enslaved peoples, and why Christians should not tolerate their suffering and oppression:

    Men and women have many times scarcely clothes sufficient to hide their nakedness, and boys and girls ten and twelve years old are often quite naked amongst their master’s children. Some of our Society, and some of the society called Newlights, use some endeavors to instruct those they have in reading; but in common this is not only neglected, but disapproved. These are the people by whose labor the other inhabitants are in a great measure supported, and many of them in the luxuries of life.

    These are the people who have made no agreement to serve us, and who have not forfeited their liberty that we know of. These are the souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct towards them we must answer before Him who is no respecter of persons. They who know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, and are thus acquainted with the merciful, benevolent, gospel spirit, will therein perceive that the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty, and in beholding the great distress of so numerous a people will find cause for mourning.

  • On abstaining from products that are built with slave labor:

    The oppression of the slaves which I have seen in several journeys southward on this continent, and the report of their treatment in the West Indies, have deeply affected me, and a care to live in the spirit of peace and minister no just cause of offence to my fellow-creatures having from time to time livingly revived in my mind, I have for some years past declined to gratify my palate with those sugars.

  • (the same way King David abstained from drinking the ill-gotten water, and offered it to God instead)

    but rather that David gave way to delicacy of taste; and having reflected on the danger to which these men had been exposed, he considered this water as their blood, and his heart smote him that he could not drink it, but he poured it out to the Lord.

2. Interesting anecdotes

  • An incident that happened when he was an invited preacher in an Indian village:

    Perceiving there was a man near the door I went out; the man had a tomahawk wrapped under his match-coat out of sight. As I approached him he took it in his hand; I went forward, and, speaking to him in a friendly way, perceived he understood some English. My companion joining me, we had some talk with him concerning the nature of our visit in these parts; he then went into the house with us, and, talking with our guides, soon appeared friendly, sat down and smoked his pipe. Though taking his hatchet in his hand at the instant I drew near to him had a disagreeable appearance, I believe he had no other intent than to be in readiness in case any violence were offered to him.

  • On how some Quakers did not want to pay a tax that would be used to fund warfare:

    Friends thus met were not all of one mind in relation to the tax, which, to those who scrupled it, made the way more difficult. To refuse an active payment at such a time might be construed into an act of disloyalty, and appeared likely to displease the rulers, not only here but in England;

3. Problems caused by alcohol

  • On the social problems created by abusing alcohol

    When men take pleasure in feeling their minds elevated with strong drink, and so indulge their appetite as to disorder their understandings, neglect their duty as members of a family or civil society, and cast off all regard to religion, their case is much to be pitied.

  • On the spiritual problems created by alcohol

    Every degree of luxury hath some connection with evil; and if those who profess to be disciples of Christ, and are looked upon as leaders of the people, have that mind in them which was also in Christ, and so stand separate from every wrong way, it is a means of help to the weaker. As I have sometimes been much spent in the heat and have taken spirits to revive me, I have found by experience, that in such circumstances the mind is not so calm, nor so fitly disposed for Divine meditation, as when all such extremes are avoided.

  • On the nefarious practice of selling rum to Indians:

    I perceived that many white people often sell rum to the Indians, which I believe is a great evil. In the first place, they are thereby deprived of the use of reason, and their spirits being violently agitated, quarrels often arise which end in mischief, and the bitterness and resentment occasioned hereby are frequently of long continuance. Again, their skins and furs, gotten through much fatigue and hard travels in hunting, with which they intended to buy clothing, they often sell at a low rate for more rum, when they become intoxicated; and afterward, when they suffer for want of the necessaries of life, are angry with those who, for the sake of gain, took advantage of their weakness.

    Their chiefs have often complained of this in their treaties with the English. Where cunning people pass counterfeits and impose on others that which is good for nothing, it is considered as wickedness; but for the sake of gain to sell that which we know does people harm, and which often works their ruin, manifests a hardened and corrupt heart, and is an evil which demands the care of all true lovers of virtue to suppress.

  • But why this practice (of selling rum to Indians) is itself caused by another underlying evil:

    While my mind this evening was thus employed, I also remembered that the people on the frontiers, among whom this evil is too common, are often poor; and that they venture to the outside of a colony in order to live more independently of the wealthy, who often set high rents on their land.

    I was renewedly confirmed in a belief, that if all our inhabitants lived according to sound wisdom, laboring to promote universal love and righteousness, and ceased from every inordinate desire after wealth, and from all customs which are tinctured with luxury, the way would be easy for our inhabitants, though they might be much more numerous than at present, to live comfortably on honest employments, without the temptation they are so often under of being drawn into schemes to make settlements on lands which have not been purchased of the Indians, or of applying to that wicked practice of selling rum to them.

4. Social and Anti-materialist Commentary

  • On the deleterious and detrimental effects of pursuing worldy riches, compared to the more sustainable and pleasant effects of focusing on following Christ’s example and spreading God’s love:

    Where people let loose their minds after the love of outward things, and are more engaged in pursuing the profits and seeking the friendships of this world than to be inwardly acquainted with the way of true peace, they walk in a vain shadow, while the true comfort of life is wanting. Their examples are often hurtful to others; and their treasures thus collected do many times prove dangerous snares to their children.

    But where people are sincerely devoted to follow Christ, and dwell under the influence of his Holy Spirit, their stability and firmness, through a Divine blessing, is at times like dew on the tender plants round about them, and the weightiness of their spirits secretly works on the minds of others. In this condition, through the spreading influence of Divine love, they feel a care over the flock, and way is opened for maintaining good order in the Society.

  • On how living a humble life dedicated to one’s trade leads to more true happiness than pursuing riches merely for show:

    where people were truly humble, used themselves to business, and were content with a plain way of life, they had ever had more true peace and calmness of mind than they who, aspiring to greatness and outward show, have grasped hard for an income to support themselves therein.

  • If wealthy people did not require excessive rents and interests from their assets, and were content with living a more humble life, the entire society would similarly be able to better focus on trades and activities that are actually practical and beneficial:

    a belief was gradually settled in my mind, that if such as had great estates generally lived in that humility and plainness which belong to a Christian life, and laid much easier rents and interests on their lands and moneys, and thus led the way to a right use of things, so great a number of people might be employed in things useful, that labor both for men and other creatures would need to be no more than an agreeable employ, and divers branches of business, which serve chiefly to please the natural inclinations of our minds, and which at present seem necessary to circulate that wealth which some gather, might, in this way of pure wisdom, be discontinued.

  • On the calamities that will happen as a result of the profound inequalities between the English on the one hand, and the Africans and Indians on the other, and why the English have a responsibility to correct this injustice:

    I had a prospect of the English along the coast for upwards of nine hundred miles, where I travelled, and their favorable situation and the difficulties attending the natives as well as the negroes in many places were open before me.

    A weighty and heavenly care came over my mind, and love filled my heart towards all mankind, in which I felt a strong engagement that we might be obedient to the Lord while in tender mercy he is yet calling to us, and that we might so attend to pure universal righteousness as to give no just cause of offence to the gentiles, who do not profess Christianity, whether they be the blacks from Africa, or the native inhabitants of this continent.

    Here I was led into a close and laborious inquiry whether I, as an individual, kept clear from all things which tended to stir up or were connected with wars, either in this land or in Africa; my heart was deeply concerned that in future I might in all things keep steadily to the pure truth, and live and walk in the plainness and simplicity of a sincere follower of Christ.

    In this lonely journey I did greatly bewail the spreading of a wrong spirit, believing that the prosperous, convenient situation of the English would require a constant attention in us to Divine love and wisdom, in order to their being guided and supported in a way answerable to the will of that good, gracious, and Almighty Being, who hath an equal regard to all mankind.

    And here luxury and covetousness, with the numerous oppressions and other evils attending them, appeared very afflicting to me, and I felt in that which is immutable that the seeds of great calamity and desolation are sown and growing fast on this continent. Nor have I words sufficient to set forth the longing I then felt, that we who are placed along the coast, and have tasted the love and goodness of God, might arise in the strength thereof, and like faithful messengers labor to check the growth of these seeds, that they may not ripen to the ruin of our posterity.

5. Christian and mystic reflections

  • On why true friends are not hypocritical, but are quick to forgive each other’s failings:

    To see the failings of our friends, and think hard of them without opening that which we ought to open, and still carry a face of friendship, tends to undermine the foundation of true unity. The office of a minister of Christ is weighty. And they who now go forth as watchmen have need to be steadily on their guard against the snares of prosperity and an outside friendship.

  • On letting the Divine will take precedence over our natural will:

    The natural mind is active about the things of this life, and in this natural activity business is proposed and a will is formed in us to go forward in it. And so long as this natural will remains unsubjected, so long there remains an obstruction to the clearness of Divine light operating in us; but when we love God with all our heart and with all our strength, in this love we love our neighbor as ourselves; and a tenderness of heart is felt towards all people for whom Christ died, even those who, as to outward circumstances, may be to us as the Jews were to the Samaritans. “Who is my neighbor?” See this question answered by our Saviour, Luke x. 30. In this love we can say that Jesus is the Lord; and in this reformation in our souls, manifested in a full reformation of our lives, wherein all things are new, and all things are of God (2 Cor. v. 18), the desire of gain is subjected.

  • Concluding and summarizing remarks towards the end of his life:

    That which is of God gathers to God, and that which is of the world is owned by the world.

Concluding Comments

One of the questions I always ask myself after every book I conclude in the Harvard Classics series is, “Why did Dr. Eliot include this book?”

Here, a corollary to that is, “Why did Dr. Eliot include this book right after the Autobiography of Ben Franklin, who was Woolman’s contemporary?”

Of course, finding the correct answer is less important than the process of thinking and discussing some possibilities–because the truth is that I don’t know what his criteria and process were. I can only speculate.

Perhaps, then, the better question is, “If I were Dr. Eliot, why would I want to include this book, and do so right after Ben Franklin’s autobiography?"

First of all, there’s the moral issue which Woolman championed as an abolitionist. Eliot himself was an abolitionist, so it makes sense that he would showcase one of the best and earliest works advocating against slavery.

Then there’s the rich inner dialogue, reflections of a critical and active mind that Woolman and Franklin both had in common. From a pedagogical standpoint, it makes sense to foster and inculcate such a mind in young students by offering them several role models and examples.

Both Franklin and Woolman also valued work, and were imbued with that sense that through our work can we find salvation, identity, and purpose. This is partly why Woolman thought slavery was detrimental, not only because of the injustice and cruelty to the slaves, but also because it created an entire class of white people who no longer had to work and therefore were, ironically, depriving themselves of an important and necessary component of being human–an occupation or trade.

Finally, Franklin and Woolman were also similar in that they had an international outlook and were not provincial. They were well traveled, both within the continental United States itself and also outside of it–at a time when traveling was difficult, dangerous, and time consuming. They both have vivid tales of traveling by ship, including not just along the Eastern coast but also across the Atlantic ocean.

Although it’s true that Franklin ultimately chose his country over his son when his son embraced the loyalist cause, earlier in his life he displayed an openness to remaining and opening a swimming school in England that suggests a practicality that took precedence over dogmatic or blind patriotism.

Woolman, of course, was profoundly all-embracing in his view that all humankind, regardless of nationality and ethnicity, were the equal children of God.

Yet I would argue that probably another salient reason for including the Journal has to do with the very different inclinations that Franklin and Woolman had.

Franklin was mostly irreligious, and a prototypical capitalist who concerned himself with figuring out how to create practical solutions that might render him more useful to others, and thereby earn himself more profit or political favor.

As such, Franklin saw life as something one ought to enjoy and achieve personal triumphs in. Although he was more refined in the types of enjoyments he sought, thereby allowing him to achieve delayed gratification, his goal nevertheless seems to have been to maximize the enjoyment of a pleasant, productive life. We might therefore characterize his values as epicurean in nature.

Woolman, however, was a Christian who saw himself as an insignificant and miniscule part of God’s divine plan for humankind. His most fervent wish was to play his role in that grand narrative, and encourage his countrymen and fellow Christians to do the same, especially lest they incur God’s wrath.

Although he found commercial success as a merchant, Woolman decided to change profession and become a tailor so that he could have more time to spend on spreading the Gospel. He therefore willingly turned away from personal riches in order to focus on what he felt was a more important calling, following the example of Jesus Christ.

While Franklin offers us a model for finding success in a personal and material sense, Woolman offers us a model where success can only be collectively achieved, and where one’s own personal success matters far less than the good of the whole–and he defined the whole in the most encompassing way possible, embracing all of humankind, Jew, gentile, white, African, and Indian alike.

Vahid Dejwakh
Vahid Dejwakh
Software Engineer at Microsoft;
Co-Creator of the Fjord Framework

Vahid writes about interesting ideas at the intersection of software, system design, data, philosophy, psychology, policy, and business. He enjoys coffee and has a palate for spicy and diverse foods.

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