Eloquence Wins Over Prejudice

June 08, 2020

John Woolman

John Woolman. (1720–1772). The Journal of John Woolman.
Vol. 1, pp. 302-312 of The Harvard Classics

The plain, homely appearance of Woolman impressed unfavorably the orthodox Quakers in London whom he was sent to meet. They told him his coming was not necessary. But Woolman spoke with such simplicity and sincerity that even those most opposed became his friends.
(John Woolman arrives in London for Friends' meeting, June 8, 1772.)


Attends the Yearly Meeting in London—Then proceeds towards Yorkshire—Visits Quarterly and other Meetings in the Counties of Hertford, Warwick, Oxford, Nottingham, York, and Westmoreland—Returns to Yorkshire—Instructive Observations and Letters—Hears of the Decease of William Hunt—Some Account of him—The Author’s Last Illness and Death at York.

ON the 8th of sixth month, 1772, we landed at London, and I went straightway to the Yearly Meeting of ministers and elders, which had been gathered, I suppose, about half an hour. 1

  In this meeting my mind was humbly contrite. In the afternoon the meeting for business was opened, which by adjournments held near a week. In these meetings I often felt a living concern for the establishment of Friends in the pure life of truth. My heart was enlarged in the meetings of ministers, that for business, and in several meetings for public worship, and I felt my mind united in true love to the faithful laborers now gathered at this Yearly Meeting. On the 15th I went to a Quarterly Meeting at Hertford.

  First of seventh month.—I have been at Quarterly Meetings at Sherrington, Northampton, Banbury, and Shipton, and have had sundry meetings between. My mind hath been bowed under a sense of Divine goodness manifested among us; my heart hath been often enlarged in true love, both among ministers and elders and in public meetings, and through the Lord’s goodness I believe it hath been a fresh visitation to many, in particular to the youth.

  Seventeenth.—I was this day at Birmingham; I have been at meetings at Coventry, Warwick, in Oxfordshire, and sundry other places, and have felt the humbling hand of the Lord upon me; but through his tender mercies I find peace in the labors I have gone through.

  Twenty-sixth.—I have continued travelling northward, visiting meetings. Was this day at Nottingham; the fore-noon meeting was especially, through Divine love, a heart-tendering season. Next day I had a meeting in a Friend’s family, which, through the strengthening arm of the Lord, was a time to be thankfully remembered.

  Second of eighth month and first of the week.—I was this day at Sheffield, a large inland town. I was at sundry meetings last week, and feel inward thankfulness for that Divine support which hath been graciously extended to me. On the 9th I was at Rushworth. I have lately passed through some painful labor, but have been comforted under a sense of that Divine visitation which I feel extended towards many young people.

  Sixteenth of eighth month and the first of the week, I was at Settle. It hath of late been a time of inward poverty, under which my mind hath been preserved in a watchful, tender state, feeling for the mind of the Holy Leader, and I find peace in the labors I have passed through.

  On inquiry in many places I find the price of rye about five shillings; wheat, eight shillings per bushel; oatmeal, twelve shillings for a hundred and twenty pounds; mutton from threepence to fivepence per pound; bacon from sevenpence to ninepence; cheese from fourpence to sixpence; butter from eightpence to tenpence; house-rent for a poor man from twenty-five shillings to forty shillings per year, to be paid weekly; wood for fire very scarce and dear; coal in some places two shillings and sixpence per hundredweight; but near the pits not a quarter so much. O, may the wealthy consider the poor!

  The wages of laboring men in several counties toward London at tenpence per day in common business, the employer finds small beer and the laborer finds his own food; but in harvest and hay time wages are about one shilling per day, and the laborer hath all his diet. In some parts of the north of England poor laboring men have their food where they work, and appear in common to do rather better than nearer London. Industrious women who spin in the factories get some fourpence, some fivepence, and so on to six, seven, eight, nine, or ten pence per day, and find their own house-room and diet. Great numbers of poor people live chiefly on bread and water in the southern parts of England, as well as in the northern parts; and there are many poor children not even taught to read. May those who have abundance lay these things to heart!

  Stage-coaches frequently go upwards of one hundred miles in twenty-four hours; and I have heard Friends say in several places that it is common for horses to be killed with hard driving, and that many others are driven till they grow blind. Post-boys pursue their business, each one to his stage, all night through the winter. Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.

  As my journey hath been without a horse, I have had several offers of being assisted on my way in these stagecoaches, but have not been in them; nor have I had freedom to send letters by these posts in the present way of riding, the stages being so fixed, and one boy dependent on another as to time, and going at great speed, that in long cold winter nights the poor boys suffer much. I heard in America of the way of these posts, and cautioned Friends in the General Meeting of ministers and elders at Philadelphia, and in the Yearly Meeting of ministers and elders in London, not to send letters to me on any common occasion by post. And though on this account I may be likely not to hear so often from my family left behind, yet for righteousness’ sake I am, through Divine favor, made content.

  I have felt great distress of mind since I came on this island, on account of the members of our Society being mixed with the world in various sorts of traffic, carried on in impure channels. Great is the trade to Africa for slaves; and for the loading of these ships a great number of people are employed in their factories, among whom are many of our Society. Friends in early times refused on a religious principle to make or trade in superfluities, of which we have many testimonies on record; but for want of faithfulness, some, whose examples were of note in our Society, gave way, from which others took more liberty. Members of our Society worked in superfluities, and bought and sold them, and thus dimness of sight came over many; at length Friends got into the use of some superfluities in dress and in the furniture of their houses, which hath spread from less to more, till superfluity of some kinds is common among us.

  In this declining state many look at the example of others and too much neglect the pure feeling of truth. Of late years a deep exercise hath attended my mind, that Friends may dig deep, may carefully cast forth the loose matter and get down to the rock, the sure foundation, and there hearken to that Divine voice which gives a clear and certain sound; and I have felt in that which doth not receive, that if Friends who have known the truth keep in that tenderness of heart where all views of outward gain are given up, and their trust is only in the Lord, he will graciously lead some to be patterns of deep self-denial in things relating to trade and handicraft labor; and others who have plenty of the treasures of this world will be examples of a plain frugal life, and pay wages to such as they may hire more liberally than is now customary in some places.

  Twenty-third of eighth month.—I was this day at Preston Patrick, and had a comfortable meeting. I have several times been entertained at the houses of Friends, who had sundry things about them that had the appearance of outward greatness, and as I have kept inward, way hath opened for conversation with such in private, in which Divine goodness hath favored us together with heart-tendering times.

  Twenty-sixth of eighth month.—Being now at George Crosfield’s, in the county of Westmoreland, I feel a concern to commit to writing the following uncommon circumstance.

  In a time of sickness, a little more than two years and a half ago, I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull gloomy color between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be, and live, and that I was mixed with them, and that henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being. In this state I remained several hours. I then heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to the other angels; the words were, “John Woolman is dead.” I soon remembered that I was once John Woolman, and being assured that I was alive in the body, I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice could mean. I believed beyond doubting that it was the voice of an holy angel, but as yet it was a mystery to me.

  I was then carried in spirit to the mines where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. I was then informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said among themselves, “If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.”

  All this time the song of the angel remained a mystery; and in the morning, my dear wife and some others coming to my bedside, I asked them if they knew who I was, and they telling me I was John Woolman, thought I was light-headed, for I told them not what the angel said, nor was I disposed to talk much to any one, but was very desirous to get so deep that I might understand this mystery.

  My tongue was often so dry that I could not speak till I had moved it about and gathered some moisture, and as I lay still for a time I at length felt a Divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and I then said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Then the mystery was opened and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language “John Woolman is dead,” meant no more than the death of my own will.

  My natural understanding now returned as before, and I saw that people setting off their tables with silver vessels at entertainments was often stained with worldly glory, and that in the present state of things I should take heed how I fed myself out of such vessels. Going to our Monthly Meeting soon after my recovery, I dined at a Friend’s house where drink was brought in silver vessels, and not in any other. Wanting something to drink, I told him my case with weeping, and he ordered some drink for me in another vessel. I afterwards went through the same exercise in several Friends’ houses in America, as well as in England, and I have cause to acknowledge with humble reverence the loving-kindness of my Heavenly Father, who hath preserved me in such a tender frame of mind, that none, I believe, have ever been offended at what I have said on that subject.

  After this sickness I spake not in public meetings for worship for nearly one year, but my mind was very often in company with the oppressed slaves as I sat in meetings; and though under his dispensation I was shut up from speaking, yet the spring of the gospel ministry was many times livingly opened in me, and the Divine gift operated by abundance of weeping, in feeling the oppression of this people. It being so long since I passed through this dispensation, and the matter remaining fresh and lively in my mind, I believe it safest for me to commit it to writing.

  Thirtieth of eighth month.—This morning I wrote a letter in substance as follows:—
  BELOVED FRIEND,—My mind is often affected as I pass along under a sense of the state of many poor people who sit under that sort of ministry which requires much outward labor to support it; and the loving-kindness of our Heavenly Father in opening a pure gospel ministry in this nation hath often raised thankfulness in my heart to him. I often remember the conflicts of the faithful under persecution, and now look at the free exercise of the pure gift uninterrupted by outward laws, as a trust committed to us, which requires our deepest gratitude and most careful attention. I feel a tender concern that the work of reformation so prosperously carried on in this land within a few ages past may go forward and spread among the nations, and may not go backward through dust gathering on our garments, who have been called to a work so great and so precious.

  Last evening during thy absence I had a little opportunity with some of thy family, in which I rejoiced, and feeling a sweetness on my mind towards thee, I now endeavor to open a little of the feeling I had there.

  I have heard that you in these parts have at certain seasons Meetings of Conference in relation to Friends living up to our principles, in which several meetings unite in one. With this I feel unity, having in some measure felt truth lead that way among Friends in America, and I have found, my dear friend, that in these labors all superfluities in our own living are against us. I feel that pure love towards thee in which there is freedom.

  I look at that precious gift bestowed on thee with awfulness before Him who gave it, and feel a desire that we may be so separated to the gospel of Christ, that those things which proceed from the spirit of this world may have no place among us.
Thy friend,

  I rested a few days in body and mind with our friend, Jane Crosfield, who was once in America. On the sixth day of the week I was at Kendal, in Westmoreland, and at Greyrig Meeting the 30th day of the month, and first of the week. I have known poverty of late, and have been graciously supported to keep in the patience, and am thankful under a sense of the goodness of the Lord towards those who are of a contrite spirit.

  Sixth of ninth month and first of the week.—I was this day at Counterside, a large meeting-house, and very full. Through the opening of pure love, it was a strengthening time to me, and I believe to many more.

  Thirteenth of ninth month.—This day I was at Leyburn, a small meeting; but, the towns-people coming in, the house was crowded. It was a time of heavy labor, and I believe was a profitable meeting. At this place I heard that my kinsman, William Hunt, from North Carolina, who was on a religious visit to Friends in England, departed this life on the 9th of this month, of the small-pox, at Newcastle. He appeared in the ministry when a youth, and his labors therein were of good savor. He travelled much in that work in America. I once heard him say in public testimony, that his concern in that visit was to be devoted to the service of Christ so fully that he might not spend one minute in pleasing himself, which words, joined with his example, was a means of stirring up the pure mind in me.

  Having of late often travelled in wet weather through narrow streets in towns and villages, where dirtiness under foot and the scent arising from that filth which more or less infects the air of all thickly settled towns were disagreeable; and, being but weakly, I have felt distress both in body and mind with that which is impure. In these journeys I have been where much cloth hath been dyed, and have, at sundry times, walked over ground where much of their dye-stuffs has drained away. This hath produced a longing in my mind that people might come into cleanness of spirit, cleanness of person, and cleanness about their houses and garments.

  Some of the great carry delicacy to a great height themselves, and yet real cleanliness is not generally promoted. Dyes being invented partly to please the eye and partly to hide dirt, I have felt in this weak state, when travelling in dirtiness, and affected with unwholesome scents, a strong desire that the nature of dyeing cloth to hide dirt may be more fully considered.

  Washing our garments to keep them sweet is cleanly, but it is the opposite to real cleanliness to hide dirt in them. Through giving way to hiding dirt in our garments a spirit which would conceal that which is disagreeable is strengthened. Real cleanliness becometh a holy people; but hiding that which is not clean by coloring our garments seems contrary to the sweetness of sincerity. Through some sorts of dyes cloth is rendered less useful. And if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.

  On this visit to England I have felt some instructions sealed on my mind, which I am concerned to leave in writing for the use of such as are called to the station of a minister of Christ.

  Christ being the Prince of Peace, and we being no more than ministers, it is necessary for us not only to feel a concern in our first going forth, but to experience the renewing thereof in the appointment of meetings. I felt a concern in America to prepare for this voyage, and being through the mercy of God brought safe hither, my heart was like a vessel that wanted vent. For several weeks after my arrival, when my mouth was opened in meetings, it was like the raising of a gate in a water-course when a weight of water lay upon it. In these labors there was a fresh visitation to many, especially to the youth; but sometimes I felt poor and empty, and yet there appeared a necessity to appoint meetings. In this I was exercised to abide in the pure life of truth, and in all my labors to watch diligently against the motions of self in my own mind.

  I have frequently found a necessity to stand up when the spring of the ministry was low, and to speak from the necessity in that which subjecteth the will of the creature; and herein I was united with the suffering seed, and found inward sweetness in these mortifying labors. As I have been preserved in a watchful attention to the divine Leader, under these dispensations enlargement at times hath followed, and the power of truth hath risen higher in some meetings than I ever knew it before through me. Thus I have been more and more instructed as to the necessity of depending, not upon a concern which I felt in America to come on a visit to England, but upon the daily instructions of Christ, the Prince of Peace.

  Of late I have sometimes felt a stop in the appointment of meetings, not wholly, but in part: and I do not feel liberty to appoint them so quickly, one after another, as I have done heretofore. The work of the ministry being a work of Divine love, I feel that the openings thereof are to be waited for in all our appointments. O, how deep is Divine wisdom! Christ puts forth his ministers and goeth before them; and O, how great is the danger of departing from the pure feeling of that which leadeth safely! Christ knoweth the state of the people, and in the pure feeling of the gospel ministry their states are opened to his servants. Christ knoweth when the fruit-bearing branches themselves have need of purging. O that these lessons may be remembered by me! and that all who appoint meetings may proceed in the pure feeling of duty!

  I have sometimes felt a necessity to stand up, but that spirit which is of the world hath so much prevailed in many, and the pure life of truth hath been so pressed down, that I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place in which are stones here and there safe to step on, but so situated that one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next. Now I find that in a state of pure obedience the mind learns contentment in appearing weak and foolish to that wisdom which is of the world; and in these lowly labors, they who stand in a low place and are rightly exercised under the cross will find nourishment. The gift is pure; and while the eye is single in attending thereto the understanding is preserved clear; self is kept out. We rejoice in filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ for his body’s sake, which is the church.

  The natural man loveth eloquence, and many love to hear eloquent orations, and if there be not a careful attention to the gift, men who have once labored in the pure gospel ministry, growing weary of suffering, and ashamed of appearing weak, may kindle a fire, compass themselves about with sparks, and walk in the light, not of Christ, who is under suffering, but of that fire which they in departing from the gift have kindled, in order that those hearers who have left the meek, suffering state for worldly wisdom may be warmed with this fire and speak highly of their labors. That which is of God gathers to God, and that which is of the world is owned by the world.

  In this journey a labor hath attended my mind, that the ministers among us may be preserved in the meek, feeling life of truth, where we may have no desire but to follow Christ and to be with him, that when he is under suffering, we may suffer with him, and never desire to rise up in dominion, but as he, by the virtue of his own spirit, may raise us.

Note 1. There is a story told of his first appearance in England which I have from my friend, William J. Allinson, editor of the Friends’ Review, and which he assures me is well authenticated. The vessel reached London on the morning of the fifth day of the week, and John Woolman, knowing that the meeting was then in session, lost no time in reaching it. Coming in late and unannounced, his peculiar dress and manner excited attention and apprehension that he was an itinerant enthusiast. He presented his certificate from Friends in America, but the dissatisfaction still remained, and some one remarked that perhaps the stranger Friend might feel that his dedication of himself to this apprehended service was accepted, without further labor, and that he might now feel free to return to his home. John Woolman sat silent for a space, seeking the unerring counsel of Divine Wisdom. He was profoundly affected by the unfavorable reception he met with, and his tears flowed freely. In the love of Christ and his fellow-men he had, at a painful sacrifice, taken his life in his hands, and left behind the peace and endearments of home. That love still flowed out toward the people of England; must it henceforth be pent up in his own heart? He rose at last, and stated that he could not feel himself released from his prospect of labor in England. Yet he could not travel in the ministry without the unity of Friends; and while that was withheld he could not feel easy to be of any cost to them. He could not go back as had been suggested; but he was acquainted with a mechanical trade, and while the impediment to his services continued he hoped Friends would be kindly willing to employ him in such business as he was capable of, that he might not be chargeable to any.

  A deep silence prevailed over the assembly, many of whom were touched by the wise simplicity of the stranger’s words and manner. After a season of waiting, John Woolman felt that words were given him to utter as a minister of Christ. The spirit of his Master bore witness to them in the hearts of his hearers. When he closed, the Friend who had advised against his further service rose up and humbly confessed his error, and avowed his full unity with the stranger. All doubt was removed; there was a general expression of unity and sympathy, and John Woolman, owned by his brethren, passed on to his work.

  There is no portrait of John Woolman; and had photography been known in his day it is not at all probable that the sun-artist would have been permitted to delineate his features. That, while eschewing all superfluity and expensive luxury, he was scrupulously neat in his dress and person may be inferred from his general character and from the fact that one of his serious objections to dyed clothing was that it served to conceal uncleanness, and was, therefore, detrimental to real purity. It is, however, quite probable that his outer man, on the occasion referred to, was suggestive of a hasty toilet in the crowded steerage.—Note from the edition published by Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

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