Re-reading Woolman after 20 years | slacktivist
The Quakers, as everyone knows, were abolitionists, staunch foes of slavery and advocates of emancipation with pay. From the founding of America up through the Civil War, the Friends were almost synonymous with opposition to slavery.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Go back further, into the earlier half of the 1700s, and you wouldn’t have found this antislavery sentiment as a primary characteristic of Quakers in the colonies. What you would have found, instead, were a great many Friends who owned slaves. Not just in the South, either, but in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York — places that we don’t think of as slave states, but which were once colonies where slavery was legal and commonly practiced.
So what brought about this huge transformation among the Friends? What happened to them to change their minds and their attitudes, their practices, their lives, their religion and their world?
John Woolman happened to them.
John Woolman believed slavery was unjust — that it was cruel for those in bondage and corrosive for the bondsman. So he wrote an essay explaining why (“Some considerations on the keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the professors of Christianity of every denomination”). And then, since he was sure that his condemnation of slavery was true, and that the truth of it was compelling, he set out to talk to those who disagreed.
One by one, meetinghouse by meetinghouse, home by home. He would speak to gatherings of Friends, or would arrive for dinner at the home of Quaker slaveowners, and he would talk to them about his “considerations” and concerns with this practice. After the meal, he would pay wages to those slaves who had attended him. And he would invite the slaveowners to liberate their slaves, paying them back wages for their years of service.
Crazy. But even crazier: This worked. Conversation, liberation, transformation. That was Woolman’s method and he continued it, unchanged, throughout his life.
Well, almost unchanged. He eventually switched to traveling on foot out of consideration that the stagecoaches he had been riding in were cruel to the horses.
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