John Woolman, a Gentle Role Model in the Battle Against Slavery

In the 1730’s when Quakers first settled in Loudoun County, Virginia they, like Mennonites in Pennsylvania, and Moravians in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, were a unique group within their broader community. Quakers came to Loudoun County primarily from established populations in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the 19th century, Loudoun Quakers – farmers, millers, merchants – still kept a bit apart from mainstream culture. Adhering to Quakerism gave followers little choice: tenets of their faith demanded cultural differences.

One major difference – similar to that found in the Mennonite and Moravian religion – was the Quaker “testimony” against slavery. Friends’ founder George Fox, as early as 1657, spoke out against the practice of slavery. In the early 1760’s Society of Friends began disowning members who purchased or rented enslaved workers. By the 19th century anti-slavery teachings were baked into the Quaker faith. It wasn’t discretionary: rejection of slavery was one of the faith’s “guiding principles.”

Possible portrait of John Woolman (1720-1772)

An early and influential Quaker abolitionist was New Jersey tailor, merchant and preacher John Woolman. This short biography of John Woolman conveys his wide influence on 18th century anti-slavery thought. A pacifist, he was against military conscription and even extended his non-violence to include not harming animals. He refused to pay taxes if the money went to suppression of native Americans. He went to many communities across the young nation, preaching what he practiced.

John Woolman travels took him to Goose Creek meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, on a visit through the American south in 1757.

Fairfax Meeting minutes of June 1757 refer to John Woolman’s visit to Loudoun County, Virginia, courtesy ancestry.com

In the section of John Woolman’s Journal below, he mentioned being at both Goose Creek meeting and Waterford’s Fairfax Meeting. (I’ve printed “Goose Creek” in bold to be more easily found in the journal text.) The Fairfax Meeting minutes’ page from June 1757, shown above, documents Woolman’s visit. Woolman wrote in his journal of a incident told to him by a Mennonite. The anecdote fits Woolman’s own anti-slavery teaching. It reads like a parable.
Woolman’s 1757 Journal entry: Travelling up and down of late… from whence, accompanied by William Standley before mentioned, I rode to Goose Creek, being much through the woods, and about one hundred miles. We lodged the first night at a public-house; the second in the woods; and the next day we reached a Friend’s house at Goose Creek. In the woods we were under some disadvantage, having no fire-works nor bells for our horses, but we stopped a little before night and let them feed on the wild grass, which was plentiful, in the mean time cutting with our knives a store against night. We then secured our horses, and gathering some bushes under an oak we lay down; but the mosquitoes being numerous and the ground damp I slept but little Thus lying in the wilderness, and looking at the stars…

…without any friend or father but God only I was at a meeting at Goose Creek, and next at a Monthly Meeting at Fairfax [Waterford], where His power prevailed over many hearts. 

From thence I went to Monoquacy and Pipe Creek in Maryland; I had meetings afterwards at John Everit’s in Monalen… At Monalen a Friend [Quaker] gave me some account of a religious society among the Dutch, called Mennonists, and related a passage in substance as follows: One of the Mennonists having acquaintance with a man of another society at a considerable distance, and being with his waggon on business near the house of his acquaintance and night coming on, he had thoughts of putting up with him, but passing by his fields, and observing the distressed appearance of his slaves, he kindled a fire in the woods, and lay there that night.

His acquaintance hearing where he lodged, and afterward meeting the Mennonist, told him he would have been heartily welcome at his house. The Mennonist replied, “Ever since I lodged by thy field I have wanted an opportunity to speak with thee. I had intended to come to thy house, but seeing thy slaves at their work, and observing the manner of their dress, I had no liking to come to partake with thee.” He then admonished him to use them with more humanity, and added, “As I lay by the fire that night, I thought that as I was a man of substance thou wouldst have received me freely; but if I had been as poor as one of thy slaves, and had no power to help myself, I should have received from thy hand no kinder usage than they.”

As a prominent abolitionist preacher within the Quaker faith, it is likely Woolman made use of that Mennonite’s experience when teaching against the sin of slavery. Woolman wrote many tracts and pamphlets laying out an argument against slavery. An example, “Considerations on Keeping Negroes,” can be read here.

John Woolman’s crusading 1762 anti-slavery pamphlet, published by Philadelphia printer, Benjamin Franklin

Goose Creek Meeting Quakers didn’t agree on every aspect of the fraught issue of slavery. Most kept their opinions to themselves, or within a safe circle of listeners. Some however, like young Springdale schoolteacher Francis Ray, were idealistic and outspoken. Women such as Eliza Janney or her mother in law, Elizabeth Janney, put their anti-slavery beliefs into actions. Others, such as Yardley Taylor or William Tate, were willing to take risks for their beliefs. They had a role model in 18th century Quaker abolitionist, John Woolman.

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