A Delightful Sketch of John Woolman


G. M. Trevelyan, from Clio & Other Essays, 1913

[NOTE: G.M. Trevelyan was perhaps the most famous British historian in the first part of the 20th century.  He was celebrated for his style, and was not reluctant to include his own opinions and values visibly and wittily in his narratives. By family and personal preference, he was a British Whig and then Liberal. Wikipedia notes, that 

G. M. Trevelyan

“Whigs and Liberals believed the common people had a more positive effect on history than did royalty and that democratic government would bring about steady social progress. . . .Trevelyan’s history is engaged and partisan. Of his  famous Garibaldi trilogy, “reeking with bias”, he remarked in his essay “Bias in History”–“Without bias, I should never have written them at all. For I was moved to write them by a poetical sympathy with the passions of the Italian patriots of the period, which I retrospectively shared.”

This outlook shines through his short essay, “John Woolman, the Quaker,” published in 1913. I started to collect the most sparkling excerpts; but no. It is short enough to take in expeditiously, yet substantive enough to chew on long afterward. It follows, in full.]

There are three religious autobiographies that I think of together — the Confessions of St. Augustine and of [Jean Jacques] Rousseau and the Journal of John Woolman, the Quaker. Each of these men had soul-life abundantly, and the power of recording his experiences in that kind; and each gave the impulse to a great current in the world’s affairs — the Mediaeval Church, the French Revolution, and the Anti-Slavery Movement. But Woolman is to me the most attractive, and I am proud to think that it was he who was the Anglo-Saxon — the “woolman” of old English trader stock.

St. Augustine of Hippo, in north Africa (354-430)

There is an element of self in the finest ecstasies of St. Augustine, the spiritual parent of Johannes Agricola in Meditation as depicted by [poet] Robert Browning, and of all that hard soul-saving clan. He begins religion at the opposite end from Francis of Assisi, and they never meet.

The African Saint started Western Europe on the downward course of religious persecution proper. Before him there had, indeed, been persecution of religions for racial or political reasons, but St. Augustine was perhaps the chief of those who supplied the religious motive for religious persecution, and turned God Himself into Moloch, a feat which no one but a really “good” man could have performed. Thenceforth, until the age of the much abused Whigs and sceptics, all the best people in the world were engaged in torturing each other and making earth into hell. It was through St. Augustine rather than through Constantine that the Church drank poison. The torch was handed down from him through St. Dominic and St. Ignatius till it scorched the hand of St. John [Calvin] of Geneva by the pyre of [Michael] Servetus. They were all, at least after their conversions, unusually “good” men, but not good all through like John Woolman.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-17780

Rousseau, at any rate, was not “good.” We all ought to read his Confessions, but I fear the reason why many of us perform this duty is not always the highest. For this great spiritual reformer owns up to common weaknesses indulged to degrees that rise to an epic height.  The story of the piece of ribbon thrills us with a moment’s illusion that we are morally superior to the man who started the “religious reaction” and the love of mountains, as well as the French Revolution. And then he fulfilled the social contract by leaving his babies at the door of the foundling hospital. The imaginary story of the youth and manhood of one of those unfathered children of genius, say during the French Revolution, would be a fine theme for an historical fictionist of imagination and humour: Stevenson, for instance, would have loved to show by what strange routes through the Quartier Latin or elsewhere that deserted brood of the “old Serpent of Eternity” found their way to the Morgue — or perhaps to a bourgeois’ easy-chair. O “Savoyard Vicar,” first lover of the mountains, brother of the poor, shaker down of empires, how from such weakness as yours was born such strength? No wonder he puzzles his biographers, of whom himself was the first. No one can understand the people who do not understand themselves.

Rousseau, having puzzled himself, inevitably puzzled Lord Morley, who had caught hold of simple Voltaire and packed him neatly into one small volume (with Frederic [the Great of Prussia] thrown in to keep him company), while the insoluble problem of Rousseau trails on through two volumes — the. more interesting but the less “final” of the twin biographies. Carlyle, though he posed Rousseau for “Hero as man of letters” did not even touch the problem. But the uncouth, rebellious child of nature struck in him sympathetic chords, and evoked outbursts of grim Carlylean humour, thus: —

“He could be cooped into garrets, laughed at as a maniac, left to starve like a wild beast in his cage; — but he could not be hindered from setting the world on fire. His semi-delirious speculations on the miseries of civilised life, and suchlike, helped well to produce a whole delirium in France generally. True, you may well ask, — what could the world, the governors of the world, do with such a man? Difficult to say what the governors of the world could do with him ! What he could do with them is unhappily clear enough, — guillotine a great many of them!”

On another occasion, it is said, at a very English dinner table, Carlyle was bored by a tribe of Philistines who were reiterating over their port our great insular doctrine that “political theories make no difference to practice.” After listening long in silence he growled out, “There was once a man called Rousseau. He printed a book of political theories, and the nobles of that land laughed. But the next edition was bound in their skins.” And so with a big Scottish peasant’s chuckle, he fell silent again amid the apologetic coughs of the discomposed dinner-party.

John Woolman was a contemporary of Voltaire and Rousseau though he scarcely knew it. And the spirit of that age, “dreaming on things to come,” spoke a new word through him also, bidding men prepare the ground for what we may call the Anglo-Saxon Revolution, the abolition of negro slavery.

Woolman’s Journal tells how this humblest and quietest of men used to travel round on foot, year after year, among those old-fashioned American Quakers, stirring their honest but sleepy consciences on this new point of his touching “the holding their fellow men as property.” A Quaker Socrates, with his searching, simple questions, he surpassed his Athenian prototype in love and patience and argumentative fairness, as much as he fell below him in intellect. And when the Friends found that they could not answer John’s questions, instead of poisoning him or locking him up as an anarchist, they let their slaves go free! Truly, a most surprising outcome for the colloquy of wealthy and settled men with a humble and solitary pedestrian. Incredible as it may seem, they asked no one for “Compensation” But then the Quakers always were an odd people.

Woolman’s religious experience, from first to last concerned his love and duty toward his fellow creatures, and not the selfish salvation of his own soul. His conversion, we may say, dated from the following incident in his childhood: —

“On going to a neighbour’s house, I saw on the way a robin sitting on her nest, and as I came near she went off ; but having young ones, she flew about and with many cries expressed her concern for them. I stood and threw stones at her, and one striking her she fell down dead. At first I was pleased with the exploit, but after a few minutes was seized with horror, at having, in a sportive way, killed an innocent creature while she was careful for her young. I beheld her lying dead, and thought those young ones, for which she was so careful, must now perish for want of their dam to nourish them. After some painful considerations on the subject, I climbed up the tree, took all the young birds and killed them, supposing that better than to leave them to pine away and die miserably. In this case I believed that Scripture proverb was fulfilled, ‘The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.’ I then went on my errand, and for some hours could think of little else but the cruelties I had committed, and was much troubled. Thus He whose tender mercies are over all His works hath placed a principle in the human mind, which incites to exercise goodness towards every living creature.”

He was so filled with the spirit of love that he became, as it were, unconscious of danger and suffering when he was about the work dictated by this impelling force.

“Twelfth of sixth month,” 1763, in time of war with the Red Indians, “being the first of the week and a rainy day, we continued in our tent, and I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them; and as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing, and when by reason of much wet weather travelling was more difficult than usual that season, I looked upon it as a more favourable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them.”

And so he went among the Indians to exchange with them what we should now call varieties of religious experience, at a time when one section of them had proclaimed war with the English, and were actually bringing back English scalps.

His objections to luxury, which he carried to the greatest lengths in his own case, were based not on any ascetic feeling, but on the belief that luxury among the well-to-do was a cause of their rapacity and therefore of their oppression of the poor.

“Expensive living,” he writes, “hath called for a large supply, and in answering this call the faces of the poor have been ground away and made thin through hard dealing.” He was himself a man of but slender means, yet on this ground he denied himself things which he regarded as luxuries, and others would call common comforts. Humanity he thought of as a whole, not as a collection of individuals each busy saving his own soul or amassing his own fortune. The rich, he held, were responsible for the miseries of the poor, and the “good” for the sins of the reprobate. “The law of Christ,” he said, “consisted in tenderness towards our fellow-creatures, and a concern so to walk that our conduct may not be the means of strengthening them in error.”

If the world could take example in religion and politics instead of St. Augustine and Rousseau, we should be doing better than we are in the solution of the problems of our own day. Our modern conscience -prickers often are either too clever or too violent. What they have said in one play or novel, they must contradict in the next for fear of appearing simple. Or if they are frankly simple, they will set fire to your house to make you listen to their argument. “Get the writings of John Woolman by heart,” said Charles Lamb — sound advice not only for lovers of good books but for would-be reformers.

They say John Brown in the ghost went marching along in front of the Northern armies. Then I guess John Woolman was bringing up the ambulance behind. He may have lent a spiritual hand to Walt Whitman in the flesh, bandaging up those poor fellows. As to John Brown, to use a Balkan expression, he was a coinitadji undaunted, true and brave. He could knock up families at night and lead out the fathers and husbands to instant execution, or be hung himself, with an equal sense of duty done, all in the name of the Lord, who he reckoned was antagonistic to negro slavery.

And then came the war, those slaughterings by scores of thousands of the finest youthful manhood in the world, the grinding up of the seed-corn of Anglo-Saxon America, from which racially she can never wholly recover. And all because the majority of slave-owners, not being Quakers, had refused to listen to John Woolman. Close your ears to John Woolman one century, and you will get John Brown the next, with Grant to follow.

The slave-owners in the British Empire were not Quakers, but fortunately for us they were a feeble folk, few enough to be bought out quietly. One of England’s characteristic inventions is Revolution by purchase. It saves much trouble, but it is a luxury that only rich societies can afford. It was lucky for England that George III did not keep the Southern colonies when he lost us New England. It very nearly happened so, and if it had, then would Old England have been wedded to slavery. As it is she became John Woolman’s best pupil.

The Anti-Slavery movement was quite as important as the French Revolution. For if the industrial revolution had been fully developed, all the world over, while men still thought it right to treat black men as machines, the exploitation of the tropics by the modern Company promoter on Congo lines would have become the rule instead of the exception. Central America, Africa, perhaps India and ultimately China, would be one hell, and Europe would be corrupted as surely as old Rome when she used the conquered world as a stud-farm to breed slaves for her latifundia. The Anti-Slavery movement came in the nick of time, just before machinery could universalise the slave system. Slavery on the scale of our modern industries, binding all the continents together in one wicked system of exploitation, would have been too big an interest for reformers to tackle.

Even as it was, America was very nearly strangled by cotton in the Southern States, a more evil and a far more formidable thing than the old eighteenth-century domestic slavery in the same region. But [William] Wilberforce [parliamentary leader of the drive to end slavery in Britain and its territories, achieved in 1830] had by that time set the main current of the world’s opinion the other way. So it was too late. But even now Congo and Putumayo and the Portuguese Colonies remind us how narrow was the world’s escape and how incomplete is the victory. We still need men like Mr. Morel and Sir Roger Casement [an early human rights investigator] to cut the bandages from our eyes, or we stand blindfold holding the clothes to the never-ending wickedness of Mammon. How then would it have gone with the world if that poor Quaker clerk had kept to himself those first queer questionings of his about “holding fellow-men as property”?

Woolman was not a bigwig in his own day, and he will never be a bigwig in history. But if there be a “perfect witness of all-judging Love,” he may expect his meed of much fame in heaven. And if there be no such witness, we need not concern ourselves. He was not working for “fame” either here or there.

5 thoughts on “A Delightful Sketch of John Woolman”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I knew John Woolman, was distantly related so I went searching. His 2nd great grandfather was my 7th great grandfather. His anti-slavery position must have influenced my Borton ancestors in Burlington County, NJ. My 2nd Great Grandfather was supposedly a conductor on the Underground Railway near Alliance, Ohio. The legend was that he carried two peal handled pistols while conducting, but since he was a Quaker they weren’t loaded. Not sure how smart that was!

  2. My goodness: it has been a half century or more since I encountered Trevelyan. What a fascinating read! Thank you for posting this.

    1. Thanks, Allan. I like his writing. Have moved on to his 1913 bio of John Bright, one of the Victorian parliamentary greats & a fascinating Friend. It’s much longer, but maybe I can string together some excerpts to post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.