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John Woolman: Son of Burlington County; Conscience of Quakerism


 Synopsis of 64th Annual John Woolman Lecture delivered on Sunday, October 10, 2010 by Joe Laufer, Burlington County Historian in Medford, NJ

The objective of this lecture was to assess the period and environment into which John Woolman was born and raised and in which he lived and worked in order to identify those people, places and things which may have contributed to the formation of his theological principles, his philosophy and his conscience and which ultimately led to the actions he took to touch the minds and hearts of the people with whom he had contact and which impacted society at large.

Woolman was born into a typical and traditional Quaker family and lived in a 2 nd generation small, rural Quaker Community in Burlington County. The setting was agricultural and pastoral along a waterway, bounded by a lightly forested area. The community was called Rancocas, after the waterway. There were still Indians living in the region. The Woolman family maintained strong familial connections with fellow practicing Quakers, thus having access to one another’s libraries, the children associating with fellow Quakers of their own age, and attending the same religious services (meetings) of the Society of Friends. The importance of education was stressed and broad-based reading was encouraged, with emphasis on religious writings. Older children read to younger children. Reading was encouraged outside of the structured school day.

Within this environment, John Woolman was exposed to different degrees of Orthodoxy. Many Quaker families owned slaves; some of his teenage friends were more frivolous than others (the “wonton company” described in his Journal). His love of solitude was enhanced by his ability to slip away to quiet forested and creek-side locations to meditate and read. Yet, through family excursions he was exposed to the growing commercial centers of Haddonfield, Burlington and Mount Holly.

Within this framework, an inner working of the Divine found a fertile receptacle for grace to purify and grow and inform a delicate conscience – “a sweetness growing in his head,” as he described it, a conscience which would not just avoid evil, but attack it outright through positive example and an operative desire for the good of others.

John’s short-distance move from an agricultural setting to commercial Mount Holly expanded his opportunities to exercise goodness. His refusal to write wills which included the transmission of slaves as a part of the personal property of an individual became an opportunity to send a message and make a difference in society. His activism escalated as he began to visit Quaker communities throughout the east to promote abolition. Next, his writings against the possession of slaves became classics. They were inspired by his first southern journey in 1746 when he experienced slavery much more intense than he was exposed to in New Jersey.

The Quaker struggle with slavery began as far back as founder George Fox’s admonitions to treat slaves humanely. But it was in John Woolman’s hands that it took on the elements of a crusade.

The speaker attributed Woolman’s transition into an instrument of the Divine to his recognition and acceptance of the grace of God growing within him. By divesting himself of worldly possessions and attractions, he made room for the Divine and then was able to exercise a very pro-active, operational Christianity. He attributes this morphing to Woolman’s early exposure to the natural environment of the Village of Rancocas that contributed to his appreciation of silence and stillness which became a catalyst for creating a bond with the Divine, and which, in turn, generated his “operative desire for the good of others.” From this, Woolman developed the innate ability to recognize injustice when he saw it and to effectively respond to it with action.

Laufer’s analysis of Woolman as a “Quaker Saint” is based on the fact that he was singled out by God to be an instrument of salvation for others; was able to motivate others because he taught by example – not simply words; was uncompromising and consistent in his practice of his faith; was able to accomplish this because of his ability to simplify his life and seek silence and solitude to let God in.

The speaker concluded by comparing John Woolman and Francis of Assisi, indicating that although they were on the world scene 550 years apart, their formation and life experiences were uncannily similar, and their impact on society, transformational. Laufer ended by reciting the popular “Prayer of St. Francis” which he indicated could easily be attributed to John Woolman.

Click here for transcript of complete lecture





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