|John Woolman Memorial House
John Woolman. (1720–1772). The Journal of John Woolman.
Vol. 1, pp. 283-288 of The Harvard Classics
John Woolman was the foremost leader of the early Quakers and contributed much to the spiritual life of the American Colonies. He was a pioneer in the crusade against slavery.
(John Woolman died Oct. 7, 1772.)
Bodily Indisposition—Exercise of his Mind for the Good of the People in the West Indies—Communicates to Friends his Concern to visit some of those Islands—Preparations to embark—Considerations on the Trade to the West Indies—Release from his Concern and return Home—Religious Engagements—Sickness, and Exercise of his Mind therein.
TWELFTH of third month, 1769.—Having for some years past dieted myself on account of illness and weakness of body, and not having ability to travel by land as heretofore, I was at times favored to look with awfulness towards the Lord, before whom are all my ways, who alone hath the power of life and death, and to feel thankfulness raised in me for this fatherly chastisement, believing that if I was truly humbled under it all would work for good. While under this bodily weakness, my mind was at times exercised for my fellow-creatures in the West Indies, and I grew jealous over myself lest the disagreeableness of the prospect should hinder me from obediently attending thereto; for, though I knew not that the Lord required me to go there, yet I believed that resignation was now called for in that respect. Feeling a danger of not being wholly devoted to him, I was frequently engaged to watch unto prayer that I might be preserved; and upwards of a year having passed, as I one day walked in a solitary wood, my mind being covered with awfulness, cries were raised in me to my merciful Father, that he would graciously keep me in faithfulness; and it then settled on my mind, as a duty, to open my condition to Friends at our Monthly Meeting, which I did soon after, as follows:—
“An exercise hath attended me for some time past, and of late hath been more weighty upon me, which is, that I believe it is required of me to be resigned to go on a visit to some parts of the West Indies.” In the Quarterly and General Spring Meetings I found no clearness to express anything further than that I believed resignation herein was required of me. Having obtained certificates from all the said meetings, I felt like a sojourner at my outward habitation, and kept free from worldly encumbrances, and I was often bowed in spirit before the Lord, with inward breathings to him that I might be rightly directed. I may here note that the circumstance before related of my having, when young, joined with another executor in selling a negro lad till he might attain the age of thirty years, was now the cause of much sorrow to me; and, after having settled matters relating to this youth, I provided a sea-store and bed, and things for the voyage. Hearing of a vessel likely to sail from Philadelphia for Barbadoes, I spake with one of the owners at Burlington, and soon after went to Philadelphia on purpose to speak to him again. He told me there was a Friend in town who was part owner of the said vessel. I felt no inclination to speak with the latter, but returned home. Awhile after I took leave of my family, and, going to Philadelphia, had some weighty conversation with the first-mentioned owner, and showed him a writing, as follows:—
“On the 25th of eleventh month, 1769, as an exercise with respect to a visit to Barbadoes hath been weighty on my mind, I may express some of the trials which have attended me, under which I have at times rejoiced that I have felt my own self-will subjected.
“Some years ago I retailed rum, sugar, and molasses, the fruits of the labor of slaves, but had not then much concern about them save only that the rum might be used in moderation; nor was this concern so weightily attended to as I now believe it ought to have been. Having of late years been further informed respecting the oppressions too generally exercised in these islands, and thinking often on the dangers there are in connections of interest and fellowship with the works of darkness (Eph. v. 11), I have felt an increasing concern to be wholly given up to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and it hath seemed right that my small gain from this branch of trade should be applied in promoting righteousness on the earth. This was the first motion towards a visit to Barbadoes. I believed also that part of my outward substance should be applied in paying my passage, if I went, and providing things in a lowly way for my subsistence; but when the time drew near in which I believed it required of me to be in readiness, a difficulty arose which hath been a continual trial for some months past, under which I have, with abasement of mind from day to day, sought the Lord for instruction, having often had a feeling of the condition of one formerly, who bewailed himself because the Lord hid his face from him. During these exercises my heart hath often been contrite, and I have had a tender feeling of the temptations of my fellow-creatures, laboring under expensive customs not agreeable to the simplicity that ‘there is in Christ’ (2 Cor. ii. 3), and sometimes in the renewings of gospel love I have been helped to minister to others.
“That which hath so closely engaged my mind, in seeking to the Lord for instruction, is, whether, after the full information I have had of the oppression which the slaves lie under who raise the West India produce, which I have gained by reading a caution and warning to Great Britain and her colonies, written by Anthony Benezet, it is right for me to take passage in a vessel employed in the West India trade.
“To trade freely with oppressors without laboring to dissuade them from such unkind treatment, and to seek for gain by such traffic, tends, I believe, to make them more easy respecting their conduct than they would be if the cause of universal righteousness was humbly and firmly attended to by those in general with whom they have commerce; and that complaint of the Lord by his prophet, “They have strengthened the hands of the wicked,” hath very often revived in my mind. I may here add some circumstances which occurred to me before I had any prospect of a visit there. David longed for some water in a well beyond an army of Philistines who were at war with Israel, and some of his men, to please him, ventured their lives in passing through this army, and brought that water.
“It doth not appear that the Israelites were then scarce of water, 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. 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.
“I do not censure my brethren in these things, but I believe the Father of Mercies, to whom all mankind by creation are equally related, hath heard the groans of this oppressed people and that he is preparing some to have a tender feeling of their condition. Trading in or the frequent use of any produce known to be raised by the labor of those who are under such lamentable oppression hath appeared to be a subject which may hereafter require the more serious consideration of the humble followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace.
“After long and mournful exercise I am now free to mention how things have opened in my mind, with desires that if it may please the Lord further to open his will to any of his children in this matter they may faithfully follow him in such further manifestation.
“The number of those who decline the use of West India produce, on account of the hard usage of the slaves who raise it, appears small, even among people truly pious; and the labors in Christian love on that subject of those who do are not very extensive. Were the trade from this continent to the West Indies to be stopped at once, I believe many there would suffer for want of bread. Did we on this continent and the inhabitants of the West Indies generally dwell in pure righteousness, I believe a small trade between us might be right. Under these considerations, when the thoughts of wholly declining the use of trading-vessels and of trying to hire a vessel to go under ballast have arisen in my mind, I have believed that the labors in gospel love hitherto bestowed in the cause of universal righteousness have not reached that height. If the trade to the West Indies were no more than was consistent with pure wisdom, I believe the passage-money would for good reasons be higher than it is now; and therefore, under deep exercise of mind, I have believed that I should not take advantage of this great trade and small passage-money, but, as a testimony in favor of less trading, should pay more than is common for others to pay if I go at this time.”
The first-mentioned owner, having read the paper, went with me to the other owner, who also read over the paper, and we had some solid conversation, under which I felt myself bowed in reverence before the Most High. At length one of them asked me if I would go and see the vessel. But not having clearness in my mind to go, I went to my lodging and retired in private under great exercise of mind; and my tears were poured out before the Lord with inward cries that he would graciously help me under these trials. I believe my mind was resigned, but I did not feel clearness to proceed; and my own weakness and the necessity of Divine instruction were impressed upon me.
I was for a time as one who knew not what to do and was tossed as in a tempest; under which affliction the doctrine of Christ, “Take no thought for the morrow,” arose livingly before me, and I was favored to get into a good degree of stillness. Having been near two days in town, I believed my obedience to my Heavenly Father consisted in returning homeward; I therefore went over among Friends on the Jersey shore and tarried till the morning on which the vessel was appointed to sail. As I lay in bed the latter part of that night my mind was comforted, and I felt what I esteemed a fresh confirmation that it was the Lord’s will that I should pass through some further exercises near home; so I went thither, and still felt like a sojourner with my family. In the fresh spring of pure love I had some labors in a private way among Friends on a subject relating to truth’s testimony, under which I had frequently been exercised in heart for some years. I remember, as I walked on the road under this exercise, that passage in Ezekiel came fresh upon me, “Whithersoever their faces were turned thither they went.” And I was graciously helped to discharge my duty in the fear and dread of the Almighty.
In the course of a few weeks it pleased the Lord to visit me with a pleurisy; and after I had lain a few days and felt the disorder very grievous, I was thoughtful how it might end. I had of late, through various exercises, been much weaned from the pleasant things of this life; and I now thought if it were the Lord’s will to put an end to my labors and graciously to receive me into the arms of his mercy, death would be acceptable to me; but if it were his will further to refine me under affliction, and to make me in any degree useful in his church, I desired not to die. I may with thankfulness say that in this case I felt resignedness wrought in me and had no inclination to send for a doctor, believing, if it were the Lord’s will through outward means to raise me up, some sympathizing Friends would be sent to minister to me; which accordingly was the case. But though I was carefully attended, yet the disorder was at times so heavy that I had no expectation of recovery. One night in particular my bodily distress was great; my feet grew cold, and the cold increased up my legs towards my body; at that time I had no inclination to ask my nurse to apply anything warm to my feet, expecting my end was near. After I had lain near ten hours in this condition, I closed my eyes, thinking whether I might now be delivered out of the body; but in these awful moments my mind was livingly opened to behold the church; and strong engagements were begotten in me for the everlasting well-being of my fellow-creatures. I felt in the spring of pure love that I might remain some time longer in the body, to fill up according to my measure that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, and to labor for the good of the church; after which I requested my nurse to apply warmth to my feet, and I revived. The next night, feeling a weighty exercise of spirit and having a solid friend sitting up with me, I requested him to write what I said, which he did as follows:—
“Fourth day of the first month, 1770, about five in the morning.—I have seen in the Light of the Lord that the day is approaching when the man that is most wise in human policy shall be the greatest fool; and the arm that is mighty to support injustice shall be broken to pieces; the enemies of righteousness shall make a terrible rattle, and shall mightily torment one another; for He that is omnipotent is rising up to judgment, and will plead the cause of the oppressed; and He commanded me to open the vision.”
Near a week after this, feeling my mind livingly opened, I sent for a neighbor, who, at my request, wrote as follows:—
“The place of prayer is a precious habitation; for I now saw that the prayers of the saints were precious incense; and a trumpet was given to me that I might sound forth this language; that the children might hear it and be invited together to this precious habitation, where the prayers of the saints, as sweet incense, arise before the throne of God and the Lamb. I saw this habitation to be safe,—to be inwardly quiet when there were great stirrings and commotions in the world.
“Prayer, at this day, in pure resignation, is a precious place: the trumpet is sounded; the call goes forth to the church that she gather to the place of pure inward prayer; and her habitation is safe.”